Category Archives: Novella

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (8 August) | 160p | Review copy | Buy the book

To Be Taught if Fortunate by Becky ChambersIt is the 22nd century and Ariadne O’Neill is flight engineer aboard the spacecraft Merian. She and her three crew mates have travelled, as part of the Lawki Program, to explore four habitable worlds in a solar system several light years from Earth. Each of these worlds challenges, delights, frightens and astounds the crew members as they come into contact with other life forms and reflect upon the role of humanity among the stars. Messages from home, which take fourteen years to reach them, are rare and vital, until the day they stop.

Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer novels are such a joy to read, full of the wonder of space exploration, yet feeling so real due to their stunning depiction of characters, both human and not, and the beautiful, witty writing. There was no way I wasn’t going to read To Be Taught, If Fortunate (another curious title from this fabulous author). The difference this time, apart from the pretty big fact that it isn’t part of the Wayfarer series but stands alone, is that To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a self-contained novella, of about 140 pages.

The story is told by Ariadne, as a message or a report that will be sent home to Earth and sections cover each of the four worlds, from the moment when she and the others awake from years of ‘torpor’, their sleeping state in which they travelled to this far destination. Everything is described in mesmerising detail and, once more, Becky Chambers displays her knowledge and depth of research. There is plenty of science to marvel at and, in my case, occasionally be baffled by, as we approach hard science fiction territory, and it is pleasingly fascinating.

Each of the environments they land on is distinct and the descriptions of what they find there are marvellous as the crew settle to their task of cataloguing life forms, not all of which are easy to fathom. But there is more more to these pages than that. This is also a philosophical tale about the role of humanity in the universe, its insignificance, its danger to life around it, its need for society, its need of purpose.

So much is packed into these few pages and, as is usual with me with a good novella (and the reason why I read so few of them), I wanted much, much more. I needed more time to consider its conclusions and so its ending did leave me a little dissatisfied. Nevertheless, To Be Taught, If Fortunate is excellent. It’s clever, feels real, is full of awe, and yet tells the story of four very human, very normal men and women, whose genetics have been temporarily modified to enable years of life in space, but whose minds and hearts remain fallibly human.

I look forward to reading every word that Beck Chambers publishes and I love the enormous boost to science fiction that her original, clever, heartfelt, witty stories contribute.

Other reviews
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
A Closed and Common Orbit

Record of a Spaceborn Few

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Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds

Tor | 2019 (19 March) | 176p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Permafrost by Alastair ReynoldsThe year is 2080. The Earth is not as we know it. The Scouring has changed it beyond all recognition. This recent environmental disaster has removed every last hope for the future of life on Earth. Except for one. Scientists have discovered a means to travel back in time. Their aim is to go back to the 2020s, before the Scouring, to search for seeds which, it is hoped, will be able to save the planet. Gathered in the Arctic circle, this community of potential time travellers needs just one new member to help bring their experiment to success – 71-year-old teacher Valentina Lidova, the daughter of a genius in the paradox of time travel.

Alastair Reynolds is such a favourite author of mine and I was thrilled to learn of Permafrost, a novella which tackles two irresistible themes – time travel and an apocalyptic environmental disaster. Add to that a Russian feel and Arctic setting and I couldn’t wait to read it. As a novella of under 200 pages, it wasn’t a long read but it was packed full. As is almost always the case with a novella, though, it left me wanting more.

I’m not going to go into the plot of Permafrost any further because it is densely crammed into the pages, resulting in a compelling and multi-layered read. What it did give me are moments that made my stomach lurch. Those moments when you realise that something has happened that is so extraordinary that it takes the breath away. When characters have made a connection that resonates with so much emotion and you sit and wonder at what you’ve just read. Alastair Reynolds is a master of jaw-dropping moments and it’s not a surprise to find one or two here.

I really enjoyed having the older protagonist, Valentina. It isn’t often that you read a science fiction novel, or any novel, with a main character such as this. And she isn’t made to feel old and decrepit either, thankfully. The focus is on her experience, wisdom and empathy, not to mention her courage and resilience. It was good to spend time with her.

I’m not the biggest reader of novellas, although I do make exceptions for science fiction, because I’m such a reader of brickbooks! I like to spend time immersed in these worlds. Nevertheless, as with Alastair Reynolds’ ingenious short stories, Permafrost is an excellent read, full of big ideas as well as thrills and action. I can’t help wishing it were longer but what we have is thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking and full of surprises.

Other reviews
Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children 1)
On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children 2)
Poseidon’s Wake (Poseidon’s Children 3)
Revelation Space
Redemption Ark
Absolution Gap
Pushing Ice
Slow Bullets
With Stephen Baxter – The Medusa Chronicles
Beyond the Aquila Rift
Revenger
Elysium Fire

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Granta Books | 2018 (20 September) | 160p | Review copy | Buy the book

Ghost Wall by Sarah MossSilvie’s father Bill is obsessed by the lives of our Iron Age ancestors. He is a bus driver, not an academic, but he believes himself in tune with the prehistoric past and considers himself an expert in that kind of subsistence living. And so when he has the chance to re-enact the past in a reconstructed Iron Age settlement in a remote part of Northumberland, he leaps at the chance. He is determined that his wife and daughter will immerse themselves every bit as much. There will be a professor and his small group of students with them, but Bill will not permit them to distract him from his obsession, although he may be able to share with the professor some of his firsthand knowledge of survival.

For Silvie, named after a Celtic goddess, there is no peace to be found in this re-enacted life. With a mother who is emotionally distant and shut down and, more to the point, an abusive controlling father watching her every move, Silvie becomes haunted by those who really did live like this over two thousand years ago and who made the ultimate sacrifice in the ancient bogs, killed by the people they knew. But, although Silvie looks back to the past, she must first survive the present.

Ghost Wall is such a beautiful written, melancholic and mesmerising novella. At about 160 pages, not a word is wasted in evoking this strange world as it exists in the minds of the father, Bill, and in his bullied daughter. Their relationship, so central to the story, is placed in such a fascinating setting – this reconstructed prehistoric settlement – and the past really does infuse the present, even while some of the students do their best to break the rules. The novella begins back in the Iron Age with the sacrifice of young girl and this sets the mood so effectively for what is to come. We spend most of the time deep within Silvie’s thoughts as she tries to carry out the role expected of her while she makes friends with the students whose lives are so very different from her own.

It’s such a tragic story and I think that there is more than enough material here for a novel much longer in length. And that would be my only ‘complaint’. I would have loved more time spent on this archaeological experiment. My background in archaeology really enjoyed this element of the story and I’d have liked much more of it. Also the story comes to a rather hurried finish and, although I found the ending very good, I thought more could have been made of it. But having said all that, Ghost Wall is such an immersive read that you’ll probably finish in one sitting, as I did. It’s haunting and elegant while also depicting something of the harshness of the Iron Age and the unforgiving nature of its spiritual beliefs. This was a time when life could be a daily struggle, lived in debt to the gods, but for Silvie modern life is hardly easier. Sarah Moss mingles so perfectly, and disturbingly, the distant past and present and the result is spellbinding.

Vesuvius by Night by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 | c.80p | Bought copy | Buy the ebook

Vesuvius by Night by Lindsey DavisYears ago, Larius, nephew of Marcus Didius Falco, the most famous of Rome’s private investigators, ran off to set up shop as a fresco painter in Pompeii, located in the Bay of Neapolis where many of Rome’s rich and powerful have their holiday homes, all with walls in need of painting, especially since that dreadful earthquake a double of decades ago. There’s more than enough work to keep Larius busy. And to keep his mind off his troubled marriage. His wife now lives with their children in Herculaneum, although he’s so pleased that his daughter is currently keeping him company in Pompeii. Women aren’t supposed to have careers but she is a dab hand with a paintbrush. Larius shares his room with Nonius whose mind is on far murkier subjects than art – unless it’s a work of art he can steal and sell. Nonius is the type of rogue who thrives on disaster – he’s in the right place then.

In Vesuvius by Night, a novella (of about 80 pages), Lindsey Davis lets us know what happened to Larius after he left Rome. As the year is AD 79 and the setting is Pompeii and Herculaneum, it’s no spoiler to reveal that a volcanic eruption of catastrophic proportions might be involved. And so we’re given one interpretation of events as experienced by Larius and his family and by Nonius.

The story isn’t really long enough to immerse us fully in events and also we’re kept detached from characters by the third-person narrative. Nevertheless, this is a gripping account of a truly terrifying disaster. And what makes it particularly painful to read at times is that Lindsey Davis draws on the evidence of archaeological remains – much of which is actually human – to put flesh on the bones of people whose final positions are known from their plaster casts and skeletons. People are included here who actually lived and who died during these awful moments of hell on earth. I found it impossible not to be moved.

These people that we meet are for me the more significant aspects of Vesuvius by Night and outdo the stories of Larius and Nonius. Maybe that’s because fiction can’t compete with the reality of what actually happened when the evidence of it is now so familiar and evocative. There’s also something about the story of Nonius, that I can’t mention as it would be a spoiler, that caused me pain.

Lindsey Davis knows her history and archaeology – this novella is packed full of the kind of details of which I can’t get enough and she uses them to great effect. Therefore, if you focus on the setting, the building of the tension, the power of our hindsight, the devastation of the eruptions, then you will be drawn right back to this terrifying time, so vividly described by one of our finest writers of historical fiction.

Other reviews
Enemies at Home
Deadly Election
The Graveyard of the Hesperides
The Third Nero
Pandora’s Boy