Promised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice

promised_landPromised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice (1998)
Review by Jack Deighton

After her mother’s death Delanna Milleflores returns to Keramos, the backwater planet of her birth (from where she was sent years ago to get a decent education) to resolve complications over the inheritance. She wishes to sell up but local laws are strict and do not allow this unless the seller has been in occupation for ten years. In addition her pet scarab Cleo falls foul of the quarantine regulations and she finds that a marriage arranged by her long-dead father between Delanna and Tarleton Tanner (known as Sonny,) the man from the neighbouring farm (on Keramos these are called lanzye) who has been running Milleflores lanzye all these years, became legal. At the space-port she encountered local Lothario, Jay Madog, whose attentions she is plagued by from then on.

The apparent urgency with which her Keramos lawyer, Maggie, says she must take up residence in Milleflores in order to comply with the planet’s inheritance laws, necessitating catching the morning train, is somewhat vitiated by the fact that the terminus is still five thousand miles from Milleflores and it takes weeks to get there. The length of the journey would have disqualified her. The delay of course gives the authors plenty of opportunity to describe Delanna’s lack of knowledge of local customs and conditions and her adaptations to them.

From the start, though, we know where this is going. Delanna’s journey from worldly-wise offworlder (or been-to as they are known on Keramos) to falling in love with her childhood home again – and with Sonny – her accommodations to the idiosyncracies of life on Keramos (including a world-wide radio news and gossiping network where her inadequacies are exposed and everybody’s business discussed mercilessly) has an obvious arc which the authors do not eschew. The traffic is not all one way. She is able to contribute some of her expensively learned been-to computer skills to finding the best routes through dangerous salt-flats.

Promised Land is a very Willis kind of story in which her signature narrative technique of delay by interruption, of not getting to the nub of a situation, which so marred To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear, is to the fore. At first I thought her co-author Felice had muted this trait but it becomes increasingly irritating as the book progresses. Another quirk is that the main structural building material on Keramos is tile. (Keramos, you see.). Add in a sub-plot about an over-officious vet, Doc Lyle, and his obsession with protecting the wild-life and livestock of Keramos from contamination, particularly the very rare birds called Royal Mandarins, an obsession which threatens to endanger Cleo, and the indigenous animals known as Fire Monkeys (fascinated by Delanna’s red hair) and the elements are present for all the ends to be tied up.

This review originially appearedon A Son of the Rock.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis (1998)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

I have come to the conclusion that Connie Willis is an Englishman.

Well, maybe she was one in a previous life. Certainly she has done a fine job, not only of writing a book set primarily in Victorian England, but also writing it from the viewpoint of a male character. I’d not read any of Connie’s work prior to To Say Nothing of the Dog, but I had seen her perform at various conventions so I had some idea of what to expect. Even so I was quite bowled over. Haven’t laughed so much since reading Kim Newman’s Back in the USSA.

Briefly, the plot is something like this. Lady Schrappnel, a ghastly American woman who happened to marry into the aristocracy and is filthy rich, is determined to build an exact replica of Coventry Cathedral (the original, not the awful modern thing). She has managed to commander the whole of Oxford University’s History Department, and their time travel machine, to research this project. The poor historians are being worked like slaves and are starting to suffer serious time lag effects such as Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds and Tendency Towards Maudlin Sentimentality.

The worst affected researcher, Ned Henry, has been detailed to get a full description of the Bishop’s Bird Stump, a truly awful piece of Victorian “art” that was supposedly lost in the Nazi air raid that destroyed the cathedral. Ned has been trying to get to the site just before or after the raid, but the space time continuum has been ‘slipping’ destinations around that period, a sure sign that something of great historical significance happened then/there.

Ned is badly in need of rest, so his boss sends him somewhere peaceful, quiet, and perfect for someone suffering from Tendency Towards Maudlin Sentimentality. Also it is somewhere where Lady Schrappnel is unlikely to find him: Victorian England, for a boating holiday on the Thames.

Not that the location was picked entirely with Ned’s benefit in mind. The time lab urgently needed to return something to that era. Something that should never have come forward in time and may cause a space-time incongruity that will lead to the collapse of the entire continuum. If only Ned could remember what it was. He was having Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds at the time and all of his instructions went in one ear and out the other.

Did I say briefly? Oh dear, it gets far more complicated than that. I haven’t even got to Terrence St.Trewes and his undying love for Tossie Merring. Not to mention Tossie’s mother who has a passion for spiritualism, Tossie’s father and Professor Peddick who have a passion for fish, Cyril the bulldog who lists to port, and Princess Arjumand the cat, who has an entirely different type of passion for fish.

The book is at times serious SF, a country house mystery and a complex farce that even Jeeves would have trouble sorting out, especially with the entire fabric of space-time at stake. By the end, Ned will not only have saved the universe, but will also have discovered what happened to the Bishop’s Bird Stump during the air raid, and why seeing it made such an impression on Lady Schrappnel’s great great great great grandmother. Quod Erat Demonstrandum, old bean.

I’d like to go on for pages about the various complications of the plot, but that would spoil the whole thing for you. Instead I’ll just point out a few of the nice touches that I appreciated whilst reading the book. For example:

  • The argument between Professor Peddick and his rival, Professor Overforce, which appears at first to be a joke, turns out to be central to the philosophical problems that Ned is facing;
  • The wonderful way in which Connie conveys the disorienting effects of time lag on the characters;
  • Connie’s obvious love of history, an absolute boon to any time travel story;
  • The delightful characterisation (OK, they are a bit stereotyped, but the book is a farce), even down to minor roles like Miss Sharpe and the ARP man; and
  • That despite having lived most of my life in England I was only able to spot three errors in the background.

What were they? Well, I hate nit-picking, and I’m sure someone will want to pick the science in the book to pieces, but in the interests of educating rebellious colonials, here goes.

The first mistake is very minor. When Ned is running the treasure hunt at Mrs Merring’s jumble sale the price is 2d for one go or 5d for three. Delphinium Chattisbourne pays 5d for three goes, uses two and then asks for 2d in return. Ned gets out of this by claiming that he has no change. But this is l.s.d. currency we are dealing with (pounds, shillings and pence). There are twelve pence to the shilling. The available coin denominations are 1d, 3d and 6d. If Delphinium gave Ned 5d he must have had 2d in change.

Number two is a little more obscure, but is more obvious in the book. Connie describes how the tube (that is the London Underground Railway) has been extended to Oxford and mentions a fuss about building the new station. She seems to think that the tube is some flash new sort of train, like BART perhaps, that needs special lines. Not really. The tube is an electric system requiring a third, powered rail alongside the regular track. Other than that it is a perfectly normal railway. For example, the Metropolitan line runs all the way out to Amersham. From about Harrow onwards the tube trains share the track with Chiltern Line’s normal, overground trains.

Hammersmith line trains currently run through Paddington station and it would probably be easy to route them onto the track for Oxford. What is more likely, assuming the tunnels are big enough, is that Thames Trains would run their normal, diesel-powered commuter service from Oxford over onto the tube lines and take it through Baker Street and Kings Cross. This sort of cross-London running has become quite popular since deregulation.

The only reason I can think of for needing to extend the tube to Oxford is a desire to route the line underground. I know we’ve done a tunnel under the Channel, but it cost an absolute fortune. No one is going to do that just to preserve the countryside when a perfectly good line already exists.

And the third mistake? Kedgeree is absolutely delicious.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis (1992)
Review by Adam Roberts

This Hugo-winning time-travel novel is much better than Connie Willis’s 2011 Hugo-winning time-travel novel, Blackout/All Clear; and much much better than her 1998 Hugo-winning time-travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog; Or, How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last. I read it because it’s being reissued in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, and I’ve been tasked with writing an introduction; but although, like those other titles, it is lengthy and quite slow (especially in the first half), and like those other novels the mid 21st-century Oxford Time Travel Institute scenes are less plausible than Jedward’s hair, somehow this novel works in a way that those ones don’t. If nothing else, it helps explain why so many Worldcon fans keep voting Willis Hugos for mediocre novels: they’re still basking in the glory of this one – the medieval world feels real, the characters’ deaths (of the Plague) earned and actually moving. There’s real emotional heft here.

Still: there’s no getting away from the question of the anachronisms and historical howlers. Now, I’m not saying these matter terribly much; which is to say, I’m not sure they do matter, especially. Shakespeare’s historical plays are full of anachronisms – chiming clocks in Julius Caesar’s Rome, a character actually called ‘Pistol’ during the strictly arrows-and-crossbows warfare of Henry V – and those don’t matter. Or we can be more precise, and say: they matter only to pedants. Pedantry is not the best frame of mind in which to enjoy a novel like Doomsday Book; because, like Shakespeare, Willis’s skill is in capturing the mood of a time, the feel of medieval England, and this she does with impressive vividness. Nonetheless, there is a tiny pedant living in my head, and it could not help itself as I read through Doomsday Book. Viz.:

  • The 13th century was ravaged “by not only the Black Death and cholera, but also the Hundred Years War” (p 8). Cholera? Not such a big killer in the 14th-century.
  • And here we are in a modern-day NHS hospital: “the waiting room was in an entirely different wing from the Casualties Ward. It had the same spine-destroying chairs as the waiting room in Casualties.” (p 63). A British person would say ‘Casualty’, not ‘Casualties’ and never ‘the Casualties ward’.
  • When the epidemic breaks out in 2054, the UK police instruct people to “contact the National Health for instructions” (p 71). No British person would say this. “Oh lordy, I appear to have broken my arm. I must immediately hurry along to The National Health.” No. Really. No.
  • Kivrin falls sick when she arrives in the 14th-century and is put to bed in a manor house as an act of charity. “There’s a rat under my bed,” she notes (p 164). Under? Unlikely: tester beds do make their first appearance in the 14th-century, but only for the very richest and highest-born. Most people slept on mattresses laid on the floor, or on bolts of cloth or on straw.
  • Kivrin uses a chamber pot on p 173. “Chamber pots may have been in use at palaces by the late Middle Ages, although there is little evidence for this practice” [Paul B Newman, Daily Life in the Middle Ages (McFarland 2001), p 142]. These pots become common later on; if you need a wee in the middle of the mid-medieval night, go piss outside.
  • “It really is 1320. The hearth in the middle of the room glowed dull red with the banked coals” (p 189). This should be a wood fire. ‘Seacoal’ was much too expensive to be burned in domestic fires; it was used in industrial processes that required high heat, ironsmiths and lime burners in particular (It was called ‘Seacoal’ because it was shipped by sea; the wharf where the material arrived in London was known as Seacoal Lane, so identified in a charter of King Henry III granted in 1253. Underground mining of coal was in its infancy in the 14th-century).
  • “‘Rosamund is a churl,’ Agnes said” (p 283). I doubt she did: churl means low-born peasant, but more importantly it means ‘man’.
  • Would a British person of 2054 really say “I’m afraid I’ve an important trunk call coming in” (p 300)? Would a British person of 2012, or 1992, say it? No. No they would not. Not unless they had time-travelled directly from the 1930s.
  • “Inituim sancti Evangelii secundum Luke” Father Roche said … (p 364) The ‘inituim’ should be ‘initium’, though I’m prepared to chalk that up to a typo. But ‘Luke’ should be ‘Lucam’ – that’s just sloppy Latin.
  • Kivrin meets “a clerk” wearing “a shift and no breeches … the shift was yellow silk.” (p 425). Silk? Such a shirt would cost more than a clerk made in a lifetime. The first serous attempt to establish silk production in England was not made until James I, who purchased and planted 100,000 mulberry trees adjacent to Hampton Court Palace (these trees were of a species unsuited to the silk worms, and the attempt failed). Actual silk production in the UK was not successfully begun until the 1730s). Prior to that, the only silk in Britain would have been imported from Lucca or Genoa (Lucca began manufacturing silk only in the late 13th-century; Genoa even later), and it would have cost significantly more, weight for weight, than gold.
  • “The Steward came in, carrying his spade … His cap and shoulders were covered with snow and the blade of the spade was wet with it. He has been digging another grave, Kivrin thought.” (p 561). Not in frozen ground, he hasn’t; not unless he has Hulk-like strength. To dig a grave in frozen ground you need first to build a fire to soften the soil, and if he’s done that he wouldn’t have snow on his spade.
  • “‘Mwaa,’ the cow said from the anteroom.” (p 605). This isn’t an historical error. I just like the idea of an air-kissing cow.
  • After heavy snowfall, two more time travellers arrive in 14th-century Oxfordshire. “A rolling plain lay below them, covered in snow almost too bright to look at. The bare trees and the roads stood out darkly against it, like markings on a map. The Oxford-Bath road was a straight black line, bisecting the snowy plain”(p 615). This is lucky for them, since the Oxford-Bath road is the arranged meeting point. But although it looks anachronistic, it isn’t, see? There’s nothing anachronistic about tarmac-covered roads that have been swept clear of snow by big snow ploughs. Not even in the height of the Black Death when roads were mud, snow ploughs have not been invented and more than 80% of the population are dead or dying. See?

This review originally appeared on Punkadiddle.

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