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Mappa Mundi, Justina Robson

29 Mar

Cover of Mappa Mundi

Mappa Mundi
Justina Robson
Macmillan, 2001
ISBN 0-333-75438-7

Review by Paul Kincaid

To chart a way through this novel we must begin with the title: Mappa Mundi, the map of the world. The Mappa Mundi is a thirteenth-century map on display at Hereford Cathedral in which Jerusalem is seen to be the centre of the world. It is also a term that seems to have become suddenly fashionable. John Clute used it in Appleseed; now it is Justina Robson’s title and principal McGuffin, and despite the fact that the two novels are set eons and light years apart, both authors are using the term in essentially the same way: the egocentric world view, the world is what we perceive it to be.

Before we move away from base camp, note also that the publisher has chosen to decorate the cover with only one puff, from Zadie Smith, current new young literary darling and co-winner with Robson of a recent writing grant. Smith is not known for writing science fiction, or even, for all we might be aware, for reading it. We can read into this the suggestion that the book is aimed less at the hardened science fiction audience than at the hip mainstream. Should this alter the route we might choose to take through the work?

So, clutching our world map but perhaps uncertain as to our destination, we begin the journey. (On the right you will see the “Thanks”: “I have taken some liberties and made some imaginative leaps with the facts in order to make the scientific element of this story fit the drama”. To our left we are passing the epigraph from Charles Darwin: “Free will is an illusion caused by our inability to analyse our own motives.”) We come first to the Legends, and pause because here, surely, is the key we will need to read the rest of the map.

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The Rapture, Liz Jensen

27 Mar

The Rapture cover

The Rapture
Liz Jensen
Bloomsbury, 2009
ISBN 978-1-4088-0110-9

Review by Paul Kincaid

What would you do if someone, who had accurately predicted the dates of a series of natural disasters, told you the date of “the big one”?

What if that person were a psychotic teenager who had murdered her mother and whose predictions came as a side effect of Electro-Convulsive Therapy?

And what if you were psychically damaged yourself, confined to a wheelchair as a result of a road accident that killed your lover and your unborn baby?

The situation presented in Liz Jensen’s latest novel situates it squarely in classic thriller territory. But what she does with the novel elevates it far above the conventional, while sacrificing none of the convolutions and dramas we might expect of the form. And it manages to be, along the way, one of the finest novels of global warming I’ve encountered so far.

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Girl Reading by Katie Ward

26 Feb
girl reading

Girl Reading paperback cover

Girl Reading
Katie Ward
Virago Press, 2011
ISBN 978-1-84408-738-9

Review by Ian Sales

Girl Reading is not one of those novels which defy summary, but a description of its plot – or plots – does not really give the true flavour of the book. It is constructed from seven sections, set in, respectively, Siena in 1333, Amsterdam in 1668, an English country house in 1775, London in 1864, another English country house in 1916, London in 2008, and an unnamed European city in 2060. The sections are not linked, except by mention of the previous section’s subject – ie, a picture of a girl reading. (The exact pictures which inspired the novel are given in ‘A Note’ at the end of the book; some are reproduced in this review).

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Heliotrope by Justina Robson

22 Feb

Heliotrope front cover

Justina Robson
Ticonderoga Publications, 2011
ISBN 0-9807813-3-7

Review by Ian Sales

UK sf author Justina Robson managed a remarkable achievement at the beginning of her career: her first two novels were both shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Unfortunately, she has yet to be nominated again – though both Natural History (2003) and Living Next-Door to the God of Love (2005) deserved to be. Robson has also been shortlisted three times for the BSFA Award, twice for the John W Campbell Memorial Award, and three times for the Philip K Dick Award. And yet, the only collection of her short fiction available was published in Australia.

Heliotrope was published to celebrate Robson’s appearance as international guest of honour at Swancon 36 in Perth, Australia, in 2011. It contains sixteen short stories, including the title story which is original to the collection. An introduction is provided by Adam Roberts. The stories stretch from Robson’s first in 1994, ‘Trésor’, to ‘Cracklegrackle’, which appeared in 2009’s The New Space Opera 2 anthology. This inclusiveness is both a strength and a weakness. Each story has both an introduction and an afterword by Robson herself.

By any metric, Heliotrope is a respectable collection, showcasing a breadth of genres and subgenres and themes – from the earthy fantasy of the title story to the hard science fiction of ‘Cracklegrackle’ (set in the same universe as Natural History and Living Next-Door to the God of Love). ‘Body of Evidence’ is near-future sf, based on the effects on people and society of a single small device – but it’s a resolutely personal look at those effects. ‘The Adventurers’ League’ is another story set in the Natural History‘s universe, but this one has a more steampunk-ish flavour as the Forged all present identities that harken back to late nineteenth century scientific romances.

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The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones

12 May

The Universe of Things cover

The Universe of Things
Gwyneth Jones
Aqueduct Press, 2011
ISBN 978-1-933500-44-7

Review by Ian Sales

Gwyneth Jones does not write many short stories – forty-one in thirty-seven years – but when she does, by God they’re worth reading. As a result, throughout her career Jones has published remarkably few collections: five, in fact; and three of those are chapbooks. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of overlap between these collections, but if I were to choose one as the best, with the best choice of stories, and the most representative, with the widest selection of stories… it would be Aqueduct Press’ The Universe of Things. It contains fifteen stories, ranging from 1988 to 2009. Most are from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most are science fiction, but not all. Some cover a page or two, others are novelette-length.

This is one of the strongest collections of genre short stories I have ever read. There is not a bad story in it – even the single-page ‘One of Sandy’s Dreams’, originally written for The Drabble Project in 1988, manages to do more in 100 words than China Miéville’s BSFA Award nominated short story ‘Covehithe’ did in several thousand.

Some of the stories are set in the universes of Jones’ novels. The title story takes place in the world of the Aleutian trilogy – White Queen, North Wind, Phoenix Café and Spirit – and is deceptively simple. An Aleutian takes its car along to a mechanic to have it serviced before selling it. The mechanic realises it is something more than just a car, it is a car that has been driven by an alien. He determines to do more work than asked, so he can then make an offer on the car, and so sell it profitably because of its provenance. But while effecting repairs, his thoughts are drawn to the Aleutian customer, and he briefly experiences how they view the world around them. His desire for the Other drives this epiphany, but to glimpse heaven is to recognise the cost of admission. Continue reading


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