The Best of Ian McDonald

Second paragraph of third story:

If he likes the tilt of your hat or the colour of your luggage, if the smell of the cologne you’ve splashed on in the washroom reminds him of all those Oldsmobile days hung up with his jacket on the peg by the door, Sam My Man will solicit you with his magic never-ending cup of coffee. He’s a dealer in biography, paid for by the minute, the hour, however long it takes until the driver calls you on into the night. Sam My Man has whole lifetimes racked away under the bar where he keeps the empty bottles. He can tell a good vintage just by looking: given the choice between the kid in tractor hat, knee-high tubes, and cut-off T-shirt, the bus-lagged pair of English Camp-Americas propping their eyelids open with their backpacks and coffee the strength of bromine, and the old man with the old precise half-inch of white beard and the leather bag like no one’s carried since the tornado whisked Professor Marvel off to the Emerald City, Kelly By the Window knows which one he’ll solicit with his little fill-‘er-ups of complimentary coffee.

I got this at the Eastercon where Ian McDonald was a Guest of Honour in 2015, and he kindly signed it for me; though looking at it now, I realised that I cannot read what he had written, and when I sent this picture to him, he said he he couldn’t read it either!

This is a great collection of great stories by a great writer, taking in the first 25 years of his career from 1988 to 2013. A lot of them I already knew, some of them are set in the same world as some of his novels, some were completely new to me. I guess from the earlier stories, the one that stood out for me was “After Kerry”, a tale of dysphoria and dysfunctional families; of the later ones it was the Belfast-set “Tonight We Fly”. Ian McDonald doesn’t set all that many of his stories in either part of Ireland, but that’s still more than most writers. All written in that lush, enviable prose. I’ll come back to this, I think. You can get it here.

This was (shamefully) the SF book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Creation Machine, by my former cohabitee Andrew Bannister.

The Carhullan Army, by Sarah Hall; Brasyl, by Ian McDonald; Black Man aka Thirteen, by Richard Morgan

Next in my sequence of books that have won the Clarke, Tiptree/Otherwise and BSFA Best Novel Awards. I had read two out of these three before.

The second paragraph of the third chapter (“File Three”) of The Carhullan Army is:

I did not know how I had kicked away the iron walls and freed up enough space to straighten my legs and uncurl my back. My thoughts were slow to arrive and difficult to arrange. If the door of the dog box was open I could escape. If the pen was like a puzzle, somehow I had decoded it, made one sprung move, one solving turn, and the sides of the cage had released. I could sleep. The stool was gone and I was lying in the dirt. And yet it was smooth and there was the fragrance of soap.

When I first read The Carhullan Army in 2008, I wrote:

I thought it was a very good book. The setting is a near-future Britain, underpopulated and oppressed due to climate change and war; the narrator, a woman known only as “Sister”, flees her native town to join a community of women in the Lake District, and they spend the rest of the book preparing for their struggle with Authority (ie the government). This is the kind of story that is often done embarrassingly badly (see, for instance, Sherri S Tepper on occasion, or The Rising of the Moon) but Hall does it well; Carhullan is emphatically not a utopia, nor is it destined to be a permanent answer to an unjust society, and the leader Jackie and her colleagues are memorable figures. Some readers will be reminded of The Dispossessed, or The Handmaid’s Tale, and I guess it’s fair to say that if you didn’t like either of those books The Carhullan Army will leave you cold. But actually I felt it was also perhaps a response to John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, where the protagonists are engaged in essentially a selfish struggle to get through their post-apocalyptic landscape to (if I remember rightly) the Lake District; the Carhullan Army have a more altruistic and redeeming purpose.

Rereading, I still enjoyed it. The feminist community is not a utopia; it’s a very flawed society, which is still better than the alternative. The theme of eco-catastrophe is all the more relevant in 2022. The characterisation is desperate and convincing. Well worth returning to. You can get it here.

The Carhullan Army won the James Tiptree Jr Memorial Award for 2008. The shortlist included six novels, of which I have read two (Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce and Glasshouse by Charles Stross), a short story, an anthology, and a comic series of which I have read the last volume. It was also on the shortlist for the Clarke Award. From what I’ve read, the jurors made the best choice.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Brasyl (“Our Lady of Trash”) is:

“I know a hundred World Cup Stories.” Raimundo Soares watched his weight drop into the glowing water. He claimed to be the last professional carioca; sometime journalist, sometime writer with a good book about the new bossa nova, a better book about Ronaldo Fenômeno, and a so-so guide to how to be a professional carioca on his backlist. A little fishing early with the brothers, a little cafezinho when the heat got up, a few hundred words on the laptop, the rest of the afternoon he’d spend in a cafe, watching ass on its way to the beach, or strolling around his city, remembering it, memorizing it. In the evening, receptions, parties, openings, his many lovers: a late sleep and up again at fish-jump. He claimed to have worn nothing but surf-Ts and Bermuda shorts for twenty years, even to his own mother’s funeral. He was the loafer, the malandro who doesn’t have to try too hard, carioca of cariocas: they should make him a Living Treasure. “This is true. David Beckham comes to Rio; he’s going to play at the Maracanã for a benefit for Pelé. He’s the guest of the CBF, so he’s got the wife, the kids; everything. They put him up at the Copa Palace, nothing’s too much trouble for Senhor Becks; presidential suite, private limo, the lot. Anyway, one evening he goes out for a little kick-about on the beach and these hoods jump him. Guns and everything, one two three, into the car and he’s gone. Lifted. Right under his guards’ noses. So there’s Beckham in the back with these malandros with the gold-plated guns thinking, Oh sweet Jesus, I am dead. Posh is a widow and Brooklyn and Romeo will grow up never knowing their father. Anyway, they take him up into Rocinha, up the Estrada da Gávea, and then from that on to a smaller road, and from that onto an even smaller road until it’s so steep and narrow the car can’t go any farther. So they bundle him out and take him up the ladeira at gunpoint and anytime anyone sticks so much as a nostril out of their house, the hoods pull an Uzi on them; up and up and up, right up to the top of the favela, and they take him into this tiny little concrete room right under the tree line and there’s Bem- Te-Vi, the big drug lord. This was back before they shot him. And he stands there, and he looks at Beckham this way, and he looks at Beckham that way; he looks at Beckham every way, like he’s looking at a car, and then he makes a sign and in comes this guy with a big sack. Beckham thinks, Jesus and Mary, what’s going on here? Then Bem-Te-Vi stands beside him and they pull out the World Cup, the original Jules Rimet, solid gold and everything, right Out of the sack. Bem-Te-Vi takes one side, Beckham takes the other, and this guy gets out a digital camera, says, ‘Smile, Mr. Beckham.’ Click! Flash! And then Bem-Te-Vi tutns to Becks and shakes his hand and says, ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Beckham, it’s been a real honor… Oh, by the way… if anyone ever finds out about this…’’’

When I first read it in 2008, I wrote:

Ian McDonald’s latest. The setting of Brazil fits his lush, dense writing style so well that it is remarkable that he’s never set a novel in real South America before (his two books set on Mars portray a rather Patagonian version of the planet, but it’s not quite the same). We have three interleaving narratives, from the mid-18th century, the present day, and the near future (2030); we have peculiar variations of reality; and we have the jungle, both urban and literal, with its various hostile inhabitants. In some ways it’s deliberately less ambitious than River of Gods, which juggled ten different viewpoint characters against the background of India forty years hence, but the intermeshing of the different characters from their different time periods in the end comes across rather pleasingly.

I wasn’t quite as blown away on re-reading. The three different timeline settings are superbly realised, but I was not as convinced about the link between them. Still very enjoyable. You can get it here.

Brasyl won the BSFA Award for Best Novel. I’ve read all but one of the other finalists: Alice in Sunderland, Black Man aka Thirteen (see below), The Execution Channel, and Hugo and Nebula winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the other being The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds. I didn’t vote that year, but I’d probably have gone along with the majority. Alice in Sunderland is a great book, but it’s only tenuously sf. Brasyl was also on the final ballot for both Hugo and Nebula, unlike The Carhullan Army or Black Man / Thirteen.

I had not previously read Black Man, published as Thirteen in the USA. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The siren hit, upward-winding like the threat of a gigantic dentist’s drill.

I’ve read a couple of other books by Richard Morgan, and this seemed to me in character with them and perhaps a little more under control. The viewpoint character is a genetically engineered “Thirteen” in a near-future (early 22nd century) world where people like him are regarded with suspicion by society and mostly exiled to Mars. There is a murder mystery with explosive political ramifications, some nasty violence (this is the bit of Morgan’s expertise that I don’t especially appreciate), some desperate sex and a very well-written death scene. Like all murder mysteries, the point is to get the reader from A to B while admiring the scenery and wondering how the route will twist next, and it certainly succeeds very well in that. You can get it here.

Black Man won the Arthur C. Clarke Award under that title. The other finalists included two books that I have read and already referred to above, The Carhullan Army and The Execution Channel, and three that I haven’t: The H-Bomb Girl, by Stephen Baxter; The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall; and The Red Men, by Matthew de Abaitua. I think if I had been a Clarke judge that year, I’d probably have argued strongly for The Carhullan Army.

Next up are the 2010 winners for books published in 2009: Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod (Clarke winner), Filter House by Nisi Shawl (joint Tiptree winner), The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod (BSFA winner) and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (joint Tiptree winner).