31 August 2015

What I Did In My Holidays

Well, it looks like Summer's just about over - Son got his GCSEs the other week, our few days being rained on in Dorset have come to an end and it's a rainy Bank Holiday Monday. I start back at the Circumlocution Office tomorrow (boo!) so I thought I'd look back to sunnier days in July when I took a week off and went digging. 

I'd spotted that, fairly near us, there was an actual archaeological dig going on: at Dorchester-onThames aimed at understanding what happened there at the end of the Roman period. This is a period that interests me, and and they were encouraging local volunteers to join in so I bought myself a trowel and went all Time Team.

I've been interested in archaeology for ages, but done very little. When I was 15 or 16 I did a teeny bit at Norton Priory near where I grew up, but that's about all. And that was 30ish (very ish) years ago. So I was a little apprehensive. Bring waterproofs, they said, sunscreen, stout boots, gloves, a sunhat, a water bottle and - most importantly, of course - the trowel. So I collected all that and turned up at 8.30 on the Sunday morning. There was a very mixed collection of people on the dig - apart from the supervisors and the director and assistant director, the team included know-nothings like me, more skilled amateurs (of varying ages) who were doing extra-mural courses, and archaeology undergrads.

After a safety briefing - where to walk and not walk, avoiding dehydration (it was very hot and dusty), proper use of tools, precautions in the wet when the ramp into the trench would become slippery - we were assigned to different groups and allocated areas. Within an hour I was actually digging.
The picture on the right shows how the site looked while I was there. Our area was the left hand corner at the far end, just in front of the spoil heap. (When the wheelbarrow was full, it had to be run up out of the trench and tipped on top of that heap). North is to the left, as is modern Dorchester. The Roman road from Silchester to Alcester (near Bicester) crosses the far end of the site.

I was allocated an area to clear - the aim was to remove darker, post Roman material overlying a lighter, sandier level which was believed to be the top of the Roman levels. This is my area in progress (after a couple of days) with some of the darker material gone. You can see my finds tray, containing - mostly - bits of animal bone and pottery. Not having dug before, I was amazed by the quantity of this. At the top of the picture is a ditch, which was slowly being excavated by one member of the team a proper archaeology undergrad, who was working in more and more cramped conditions as he dug down - I hadn't appreciated the contortions required by archaeology: as it was it's taken several weeks for my knees to recover (I think they've recovered...) and I was working in fairly simple areas.

As I said above, it was very hot and dusty in the trench, so I was relieved when, mid-morning, the digging stopped for tea. I soon learned that archeaelogy works on tea: there were morning and afternoon breaks and tea was also supplied at lunchtime.

As well as digging, we were given lectures/ talks by the experts running the dig as well as others who came in specifically to talk to us: we heard about the Roman pottery of Oxfordshire, basic archaeological surveying, identifying bones, the sequence of sites in the Thames valley, the history of landscapes and about use of photography in archaeology. It's years since I attended any kind of non work-related lecture and I found all this simply fascinating.

What was also interesting was seeing the struggles that go on to identify the various layers and levels as you dig - with numbers attached to each and debates over whether this layer of greeny sand was the same as that, I was often left looking on in amazement as the supervisors settled an issue. Basically I was waiting to be told what to do: also actually quite nice when I spend the rest of my work life having to decide what the answer is (of course I make it up as I go along but don't tell anyone).

The picture above shows my bit a couple of days on and records a pause during one of those debates - the difference in levels was because the darker, later material had been deeper on the left and once removed it left a ridge which eventually had to be surveyed and mapped. I actually took the picture because I'd found a nail (you can see the white tag where it was) and was quite impressed with myself for that. (I was even more impressed that I'd managed not to prick myself on it: it was sharp end up - be warned!)

This picture shows most of one day's finds (and my bike) just so you can see the amounts of stuff that was there. This is pottery and bone, which was just collected up in trays - metal bits like coins and nails had their location recorded more accurately (hence the white labels).

It was an incredible week which I really enjoyed - meeting new people, learning stuff and being outdoors. While it got sweltering in the trench and was very dusty, we were carefully looked after and there were all those teabreaks.

Then on the last day we had torrential rain and, basically, the work stopped in mid morning. The site was too slippy, there was a danger of trampling things down, and pushing the barrows up the ramp became too risky. I was pretty pleased with myself though because, almost at the last moment, i found my final coin, right in that far corner - it seemed like an excellent and to a great week.
A few days later, and everything was covered over again, as you can see below. I hope, though, to be back next year, if they'll have me.

25 August 2015

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory
Elizabeth Bear
Tor, February 2015 (US edition)
HB, 346pp

I bought my copy of this book.

Karen Memory is an enjoyable romp of a book.  Set in the mid 19th century, while it has steampunk pretensions - mind control gloves, airships, medical robots and steam-powered sewing machines - on which the plot depends, to a degree, it avoids the trap that so much steampunk falls into of glorifying that time.

There's plenty wrong with the Rapid City in which Karen (surname Memery in the book) finds herself  working in Madame Damnable's brothel, amidst the anarchy of a strike-it-rich gold rush in the US northwest. In particular, there's Peter Bantle and the ghastly cells in which he keeps women trafficked from India and China. Madame's establishment is far removed from these, even if the two serve the same appetites. The book doesn't shy from such realities, any more than it ignores the fact that Karen can't vote because she is a woman, or that the US Marshall Reeves is illiterate because he's a black ex-slave or that he and his postman, Native American Tamoatooah, need to tread carefully since those they are pursuing may be villains but also have the privilege of being white, male and "respectable".

Bear blends all this, and more, to create a seat-of-your-pants adventure full of scrapes, jeopardy and derring-do. The action barely lets up throughout the book. Karen's a confident hero, happy to take the fight to the villains when she needs to defend those she loves, especially Priya, one of Bantle's girls who has escaped a life in his "cribs", and reckless of the danger she places herself in.  But there is more to her than kick-assery and fighting spirit. We learn how she came to be at Madame's, and what she wants from life. Both aspects - her courage and her history - make her a deeply sympathetic protagonist, this was only slightly undermined for me by the dialect Bear employs which comes over a bit Tom Sawyer. (But then, a standard steampunk set in Victorian London cam come over a bit sub Sam Weller, so at least it's a change!)

A fun book, essentially steampunk-with-a-twist (and sensibly not going all out for the brass-goggles-and-corsets thing).  Definitely recommended.

19 August 2015

Blogtour Review: Murder in Malmö

Murder in Malmö
Torquil MacLeod
McNidder & Grace Crime, 2015
PB, 316pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review as part of the Murder in Malmö blog tour - for details of which see below.

I was especially intrigued by the book as it seemed to me to represent a crossover - Scandi crime written by a "foreign" author.  Macleod was born in Edinburgh and brought up in Durham - although he notes that his family originated from the Isle of Skye, where his Viking ancestors settled "after one of their many raids.  Hence the name Torquil, which is Scandinavian."

So perhaps not that foreign - but still, how would it work? I think one of the big attractions of these books for the UK reader has been getting an insider's view of what we tend to regard as perhaps not idyllic, but well behaved, orderly, socially contended nations close at hand. And generally in a crime novel that insider's view will show up the side the Tourist Board doesn't want to dwell on, so the clash of viewpoints should bring an interesting tension.

It's one thing, though, to skewer your own country like this: another perhaps when writing about another. So I was also slightly anxious.

This is the second novel about Inspector Anita Sundström, following from Meet Me In Malmö and I should warm you immediately to read the earlier book first because while Murder in Malmö is self-contained - you don't need to read anything else to enjoy it - it does give away pretty much the entire plot of the other book including some surprised elements.  That's because it directly follows earlier events: Sundström appears here in the aftermath of some pretty traumatic stuff, she's on shaky ground with her detective team (one of whom in particular has been making trouble and profiting from the earlier events) and a character from Meet Me In Malmö appears with whom she has continuing dealings. 

I thought that character development worked very well: with Sundström's self-belief and standning undermined, she has to work pretty hard to reestablish herself and it's not helped by the fact that her relations with her student son are strained, or by being given a "baby" policeman, Hakim, to oversee (and he's an immigrant to Sweden (as some would see it - having come from Iraq as a child he sees himself as a Swede). She is fearful of Westermark, a monstrous sexist and indeed the office sex pest (see how that picture of egalitarian, progressive Sweden crumbles?) and of her boss, Moberg who she needs to protect her from the fallout of events in the earlier book. So she's got little scope to go out on a limb when the simple art theft to which she's been assigned seems linked to the high-profile murder of a businessman the rest of the team are working on.

At the same time, a gunman begins to target Malmö's immigrant population.  As the body counts from the different crimes rise, and more paintings go missing, the team seem stretched to the limit - and will they, undermined by internal squabbles and recrimination, be able to put all the pieces together?

This is a fine mystery and a compelling read. MacLeod brings together the threads very deftly and the book concludes in a nail-biting chase which is done very well indeed.  Sundström herself is a great creation: pig-headed and far from likeable, and with personal problems (but NOT the cliched burned out detective) while very much the conscience of her squad.

And - to answer the question I raised above - Macleod really brings off the trick of writing a novel about another country that does delve into the dark side, without coming across as being critical or (even worse) gleeful that all isn't perfect. 

 So - if you like what you hear, go back and read Meet Me In Malmö but get this book at the same time: you'll want to read them together in short order. 

12 August 2015

Review: The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns, with Shelly Davies

The Settling Earth
Rebecca Burns, with Shelly Davies
Odyssey Books, 2014

I'm grateful to the publisher and author for letting me have an e-copy of this book via Netgalley.

Not far from where I work in London, at the Trafalgar Square end of Whitehall, is a plaque
commemorating a meeting held in 1848 which led to the founding of Canterbury Province, New Zealand.  I've often been past and pictured the Victorian worthies - probably male worthies - gathered solemnly. Clearly somebody saw great significance in that event and ensured it  would be recorded on what is - for London - a fairly colourful and eye-catching monument.

But it doesn't tell you anything abut what happened next.

This book does.

Billed as a collection of short stories, The Settling Earth is perhaps more of a story cycle, exploring the reality of settler life (and with some perspective from the original Maori people) through the lives of a number of, mostly, women. The stories are loosely linked, featuring many of the same characters and with later stories filling out aspects of the earlier ones. Burns is good, especially, at capturing the lives of her characters through telling details: a baby's rattle delivered in a parcel, a woman yearning for pickled eggs, a treasured memento brought on that three month voyage from Britain.

In the first story, A Pickled Egg, Sarah waits alone in her house on a remote farm for her husband to return from town. She's been getting forgetful lately. Perhaps it's the weather? In the next story, Mr William Sanderson Strikes for Home, we learn what the husband has been doing all the while in a "boarding house" and then in Miss Swainson's Girl, we meet one of the women who works in that house, to support her child, passed on to live with a stranger. There is a sense of desperation in Phoebe's life, with all the hopes and dreams of a new life on the other side of the world betrayed.  Later we will meet Miss Swainson and her son, in Port and Oranges.

With Dottie, the focus shifts to a woman doing "The Lord's Work" caring for orphans: but "it was harder to convince herself of the Lord's grace at night". This is a story full of guilt and self-deception, beautifully paced and with a shattering conclusion, introducing Mrs Ellis who, amidst ghastly events discovers "small moments of tenderness". Like most of the characters in these stories, she has her own sadness, a background hinted at but never stated as she walks among graves, reading inscriptions to a child, a husband.  "The tramping of Auckland's streets stretched the cord of remembrance. Small wooden crosses, resting silently under a dappled oak tree. A paced kitchen floor and an empty cradle."

Mrs Ellis is, seemingly, a widow: the main character in the next story, Dressed for the Funeral, is a newly married woman, married to an older man and regretting it: and she learns some home truths from an unlikely source before discovering a shattering piece of news and being faced with a choice.

The final two stories, Ink and Red Lace, The Beast and Balance, return to the farm where Sarah is waiting. Her husband returns accompanies by a Maori man, Haimona, but all is not well with the family of Hans, the farm manager. It's Haimona in the final story - written by Shelly Davies, a native New Zealander - who brings some perspective, some balance, to the whole cycle and it closes where it began.

These are wonderful stories, describing the lives of women coming to terms - in different ways - with a radical break to their previous lives. They are women who relive the desperate circumstances that led them to emigrate even as they face new problems and see the dream of a new life fade. They are all strong characters and one senses that the Victorian conventions which came with them on the emigrant ships won't last long in the New Zealand climate.

This is simply an excellent, absorbing collection of of stories and an excellent, absorbing story overall.

4 August 2015

Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

Crashing Heaven
Al Roberstons
Gollancz, 2015
HB, 359 pp

I'm grateful to Gollancz for sending me a copy of the book to review.

At first sight, grimy, jaded detective noir and far future, virtual-this, AI-that, seemed to me unlikely as common elements in a novel. However Robertson pulls off the combination with great aplomb, building a fascinating and rich world along the way (a world I want to read more about, too).

Jack Forster is home from the war, with his "puppet". Hugo Fist is a weapon, a militarised piece of software designed to unravel and kill the rogue AIs of the Totality. He is hosted on hardware fused to Jack's nervous system - but Jack's licence to Hugo is running out and when it does, Hugo will be entitled to seize control of Jack's body, killing him for ever. There won't even be anything of Jack stored on the Coffin Servers...

This a world of fantastic imagination, a truly chilling society. There are sentient corporations, which call themselves gods as they "guide" and "protect" a dependent humanity. There is the all pervasive virtual reality of the Weave, masking the plastic reality of Station, an orbital habitat where the remnants of humanity live. It's a world where everything is bought and sold: kids in a school have to stop playing their game because it can't afford the licence fees for more than a few minutes a day. Food loses its savour when the terms of the contract say it will. The dead - or AI simulacra of them - are brought back for the comfort of the living, before being despatched again to the Coffin Servers.

Amidst all this, Jack, who just wants a bit of peace before he dies, and Hugo, who just wants Jack's body left intact, are drawn back into an investigation he dropped seven years before, when his god fell and he, a cyber accountant and unlikely soldier, was shipped out to fight the Totality.

Robertson has fun with the usual tropes of the hard boiled PI: rain lashed streets, deadly dames, sleazy nightspots - and it's a mark of how utterly convincing his writing is that all of this makes sense and works, despite being set on a space station orbiting a ravaged and war stricken Earth (We never hear what happened on Earth - I hope Robertson follows this up with more books that tell us about that war, about the "gods", about the original of the Totality). The characters are perhaps less arresting, with Jack as the man-who-is-not-himself-mean, walking those streets, and the others either helpers or foes (though it's hard to tell which is which for most of the book).

An exception though is Hugo Fist, who is a magnificent creation, visually a wooden mannequin, ontologically a raging, foul mouthed swine whose mission is to destroy, programmed for hatred and revenge. His relationship with Jack is at the heart of the story: the two of them bicker and rage their way along, bound together, marching towards Jack's final doom, with Hugo gradually coming to realise how much he depends on his host.

I think that besides having more to tell us about this world, there must be more to learn about Hugo. In "Crashing heaven" we see him step in and control Jack when the latter is unconscious - Hugo's baby steps, literally learning to steer Jack's body and "be" him, are both funny and touching and I'd like to see him grow more.

Excellent SF, highly recommended.

2 August 2015

Review: All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

All That Outer Space Allows
Ian Sales
Whippleshield Books, 2015

I'm grateful to the author for sending me a preview e-book copy of this.  I ordered the hardback from his website as soon as it was available - from which you'll not be surprised to hear that I really, really enjoyed it.

This is the fourth part of the Apollo quartet, which draws on the real US space programme to explore alternate realities and counterfactuals. The books have become increasing wide ranging. The first saw a group of astronauts in a prolonged Apollo programme stranded on the Moon, while the second reached out to Mars and beyond with the neatest and most logical solution to the Fermi paradox I've ever seem.  The third part returned to Earth and branched out to look as deep sea exploration, a comparable endeavour to landing humans on the Moon, but also at the 1960s US female astronaut programme, a little known part of the space effort that wasn't allowed to get far in the face of all that Right-Stuff 50s and 60s testosterone.

In a sense, the final book continues this theme. It focuses on Ginny, the wife of a (fictional) astronaut who Sales slots into a real mission, Apollo 15. It is a very clever book, grappling both with 60s gender expectations (Ginny is expected to do everything to be a perfect helpmeet to her husband: it's hinted that his chance of getting on a mission will be reduced if she doesn't) and also with the development and history of the SF community.  It is, therefore, very much a part of the current argument over diversity in SF and illustrates precisely how a book whose immediate preoccupation is not with spaceships, alien planets and derring-do can nevertheless reflect humanity's place and future in the universe.

I realise that saying a book is "clever" may be seen as damning it but I'm not doing that! It is well written and has a subtle, layered structure following Ginny's life as both astronaut's wife and SF writer.  Because in this version of the 1960s, science fiction is mainly written by, and read by, women (and consequently despised, plus ca change...) to the extent that male authors may need to adopt a female writing name.  So Ginny's cramped, controlled life contrasts with the leaps of her imagination and we seen her both plotting stories (some of which will have familiar echoes) and engaging in communication with the wider SF community.  We even have one of her stories. (In pre-Internet days, this is done by post of course).

At the same time there is some commentary on Ginny's writing via inserted material but this is from yet another reality, in which, as in our world, SF is assumed a largely male preserve.  I'd argue that despite the apparent absence of overt SF features, these layers - and there is also an authorial commentary which makes no bones about the fictional nature of the story, and even discusses the choices behind the plot (Ginny's husband was previously stationed in Germany, so she's unaware of certain things such as the Mercury female astronauts, for example).

There is a lot more than this to the book, indeed there is a remarkable amount in its 158 pages. It is in many respects a monument to the achievement of women as part of the science fiction community, and a rebuke to those who are pushing back against diversity in the genre today. But it's also beautifully written and closes off the arc of the Quartet stories in a truly satisfying way.

1 August 2015

Review: The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

The Annihilation Score
Charles Stross
Orbit, 2 July 2015
HB, 400pp

Bought from Transreal Fiction, Edinburgh

To a degree it seems silly for me to be reviewing this. It's the nth in a series. Hardcore readers will know more or less what they're getting. Newbies are best advised to start at the beginning because SPOILERS. And I generally love Stross's books so I'm probably biased.

But there are some points of particular interest here. First, the book adopts a different viewpojnt - Bob, who we've followed from a wet-behind-the-ears IT support person to... something a bit more powerful and scary... is elsewhere, clearing up after the events of The Rhesus Chart. (Or so he says...) The book is told from the perspective of Mo, his wife, and picks up right where Rhesus Chart left. So, a new viewpoint character, but one who knows Bob and has been involved in some of the earlier and who can therefore give slightly different insights.

Secondly, there is CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. This has been dangled in from of us through the series as the prelude to the Apocalypse, a time when unmentionable horrors would break through to feast on our souls. As such, it seemed rather a daunting backdrop, but Stross makes it clear that we are (and have for some time) been living through the early part of CNG. That actually gives him a pretext to bring in pretty much any fantasy or SF trope he wants to play with, justified as a side effect of the thinning walls between the different realities. So here we get superheroes (and villains) while in Rhesus Chart it was vampires. Mo has been ordered to devise a plan for dealing with said heroes/ villains - and of course a plan in the British Civil Service involves loads of bureaucracy: I thought the shenanigans with Ministers and other bits of the Whitehall machine were rather well done and accurate (and I have literally been there: wonder who's been blabbing to Stross?)

This is all fast paced and compelling, although now that the books are taking their cue from a "monster of the week" there isn't, to my mind, quite the same depth or the same ramified quality to them as in the earlier ones, which each drew on a different classic writer of spy thrillers. It is pretty clear what the problem to be tackled is and how it will turn out (indeed, Mo tells us where we're going quite early) - the suspense is more in how, and who will get it in the neck. (Rhesus Chart showed that Stross has no compunction at killing off his puppets).

The different point of view adds interest to the book although I wasn't sure how well the book did at making Mo seem different from Bob. She has a similar knowing, medium-boiled tone which is perhaps understandable (they've been married 12 years) but I'm not sure - if the names were filed off - whether I'd be able to tell Mo's narration from Bob's. On the other hand there is possibly more emotional depth since Mo is more open about Recent Events in their marriage and about what's been going on with her professionally than Bob would ever be - this adds an extra dimension to the story.

So, at one level, interesting and different and an absolute essential if you're following this series, possibly slightly better than Rhesus Chart, although maybe it doesn't quite all that it set out to. And I was slightly irked by the American localisation: Charter schools, long explanations of what the Last Night of the Proms is from a British character supposedly writing a word diary for, presumably, British characters, copious use of "gotten", a police superhero named "Officer Friendly" (should be PC Friendly surely?) I assume the same version of the text has been used for UK and US editions, and as the US marked it much bigger, I can't quarrel with that. But I think it's a shame.

Finally: beyond the superhero theme this books also draws on another fantasy vein that I don't think the Laundry Files have visited before, one I've seen used VERY clunkily by others recently. And I have to say that Stross handles it adroitly, making the best use of it I've seen, and adding an extra edge of weird to his already pretty much weirded out universe.