- Atlas of the Galilean Satellites by Paul Schenk (The Map Room)
- A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
- Triggers by Robert J. Sawyer
- Planesrunner by Ian McDonald
- Arctic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell
- Above by Leah Bobet
- Quiet by Susan Cain
- The Islanders by Christopher Priest
- Masters of the Planet by Ian Tattersall
- Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
- Map of a Nation by Rachel Hewitt (The Map Room)
- The Life and Death of Planet Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee
- Embassytown by China Miéville
- The High Crusade by Poul Anderson
- Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
- At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson
- The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan
- Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy
- Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey
- Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
- Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
- Princes of Sandastre by Antony Swithin
A Door into Ocean
A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski is an important work of science fition that won the 1987 Campbell award. It’s an impressive work of biological sf and a feminist, pacifist novel of interplanetary conflict in which the all-female inhabitants of the water world, Shora, who call themselves the Sharers, engage in acts of nonviolent resistance that would be very familiar to those who’ve read their Gene Sharp, as Slonczewski herself has. It’s also explicitly a response, the author says, to works like Herbert’s Dune and Le Guin’s Word for World Is Forest: a water world instead of a desert, non-violence instead of violence, pacifists remaining pacifists, and prevailing.
The Sharers are “lifeshapers”—masters of bioscience and genetic engineering. This draws the attention of the rulers of the nearby planet, Valedon, who move to exploit their planet and resources. Meanwhile, Sharers from the water world, Shora, visit the nearby world Valedon and take a young male, Spinel, back to learn their ways. Spinel becomes our window into the Sharers’ world, but he is by no means the only viewpoint character. If anything, A Door into Ocean, while vast in scope, is at the same time too limited; the story is a bit too pregnant for all its possibilities. There are multivolume series with less ambition.
Robert J. Sawyer’s latest novel, Triggers, comes out next month, but I’ve been reading it in installments during its serialization in Analog. It’s familiar territory if you’ve read previous Sawyer novels, but it nevertheless provided at least one major surprise. It begins in the guise of a fast-paced near-future techno-thriller: a freak incident during a terrorist attack has left a small group of people able to read the memories of one another; since one of the people is the U.S. president, this poses some security risks. After some tension in which the Secret Service tries to figure out who has access to the president’s memories while everyone involved tries to cope with the situation, near the end the scope suddenly broadens and the book veers from spy thriller to Clarkean sense-of-wonder, and assumes the ethical and philosophical mantle that characterizes so much of Sawyer’s work. In hindsight, the book’s concern with empathy for one’s fellow human beings looms large throughout, despite the sometimes workmanlike prose and thriller pace.
Ian McDonald has been writing serious works of adult science fiction for many years; the first book of his I read was The Dervish House, and I mean to hunt down his earlier work. But now he’s gone and written a young-adult novel, Planesrunner. It’s the first in the Everness series, which may run seven books, and McDonald has gotten things off to a roaring start.
After British teenager Everett Singh’s physicist father is kidnapped in front of him, he comes into possession of a map of parallel universes, which those who did the kidnapping very much want to retrieve. There are a number of parallel Earths in contact with one another, and ours has just made contact with the rest. To evade capture and rescue his father, Everett jumps into another universe, one filled with coal and airships but not computers like Everett’s tablet. Adventures ensue.
Exciting and tautly paced, with excellent characters (Everett in particular is a wonderful protagonist) and packed with brilliant concepts, Planesrunner reads like a particularly vigorous hybrid of Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Westerfeld’s Leviathan (only it’s not derivative of either in the slightest). A fantastic book.
Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising is a rollicking, fast-paced thriller set in a near future where the polar ice caps are all but gone, and a scramble for resources is taking place in the rapidly developing Arctic north. UN airship pilot Anika Duncan is shot down while investigating a suspicious tanker that appears to be carrying radioactive materials; the investigation sets off a chain of events that very quickly put the resourceful Anika on the run, forcing her to rely on a series of colourful characters.
This is not Kim Stanley Robinson’s global warming thriller: chapters end with guns pointed at people. Little space is given to introspective reflection: things just move too fast. Nor does the setting play as strong a role as it might. In fact, for a book that is set almost entirely within Canada, there are hardly any Canadians among the very global cast; but for the climate it could have occurred in any archipelago on the planet, which I found a little disappointing. Still: fun read.
Leah Bobet’s Above is so strong that I have a hard time believing it’s a first novel. Aimed at readers 12 and up, this book is nevertheless mature and subtle in its handling of its theme. It focuses on a group of outcasts—misfits and mutants, superpowered and disabled—who survive in Safe, a community hidden beneath the streets and sewers of Toronto. When that community is invaded, its leader killed and its inhabitants scattered, the young Teller, Matthew, must find a way to survive in the dangerous Above. Bobet’s use of language is impressive. The novel’s voice is authentic, the emotions very real. The hardscrabble, marginal existence of the characters feels utterly and uncomfortably convincing. A beautiful book, but also an unsettling one.
Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking isn’t a full-throated stop-this-nonsense polemic defence of introverts, but neither is it a guide for introverts on how to play by extroverted rules. What the book does, though, is quietly and thoroughly explore the differences between the introverted and extroverted ways of doing things—not just how we respond in social and workplace situations. It argues that proceeding from extroverted assumptions, assuming that the extroverted way of thinking and doing things is normal (everything from group work in classrooms to open-concept cubicle farms) not only does considerable harm to the one-third to one-half of the population that is introverted, but also to society. What introverts can contribute to society, through our tendency to retreat and reflect (and think) and our preference for caution, is, Cain argues, being systematically repressed when introverts are forced to conform to an extrovert ideal.
All this makes Quiet an interesting, though somewhat dry, book. I have not read the many other books about introversion out there, largely because their descriptions didn’t grab me: I had no interest in finding out whether I was an introvert, because I already knew; I had no interest in learning how to pass as extroverted, because I thought that was bullshit. I would have personally liked to have seen more bite here, but Cain’s arguing that introverts and extroverts are complementary—yin and yang, Wozniak and Jobs—not that extroverts are full of shit and need to back off. Which is also true, but, you know: flies and vinegar. A former corporate lawyer, Cain has built her case in order to sell it, and sell it she does. (Here she is selling it at the TED conference.)
Christopher Priest’s screed about the Clarke Awards reminded me that I’d been meaning for some time to read his most recent novel, The Islanders, about which I’d heard the sort of good things that made me think, yeah, baby, this sort of thing is my bag (for one thing, maps play a role).
The Islanders reads as a travel guide, with entries on various islands in the Dream Archipelago, the setting of two of Priest’s previous books (though he says you don’t have to have read them). The Archipelago is a massive collection of thousands of inhabited islands on another world, positioned between two great continents, one north and one south. The mainland nations of the north pass through the Archipelago to the southern continent, the battlefield of their constant wars. The Archipelago is neutral territory, mostly, its inhabitants preoccupied by artistic pursuits.
But it is by no means a straightforward location. The winds have a curious effect on the psyche. Some islands have profoundly lethal insects. But most of all, both time and space seem … fluid. Temporal distortions, as they are called, make satellite mapping and air travel complicated. Maps and navigation are quite unreliable: you can pass over the same terrain and arrive at a different location. The Archipelago as a whole remains unmapped.
A strict chronology may not work either: an incident from an earlier section is a century in the past in another. The fictional author who introduces the book is discovered to have died two thirds of the way through. Artists appear throughout the narrative, and I’m not sure their appearance in the timeline is consistent. I’m afraid to check. The narrative is, in other words, not trustworthy.
Several intertwining narratives nevertheless emerge over the entries, some of which are brief, others more involved, departing from the form of a travel guide to form a story about the island in question. It’s a style of fiction that has a great deal of appeal to me; also, there’s quite a bit about maps and geography. It contains, however, less whiz-bang strangeness than some readers may be comfortable with: Priest seems to work in the interstitial and slipstream end of the speculative fiction pool. But it turns out that I like the water there.
Masters of the Planet
Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins can be read as a primer in human paleoanthropology, and is in fact useful on that level, especially for someone like me whose reading in the subject is several decades out of date. But it’s also a book-length argument that explores the question of why Homo sapiens, and not some other or predecessor hominid species, went on to take over the planet.
What’s the dividing line between bipedal ape and human? There is evidence of tool use, meat consumption and large social groups even among australopithecines; evidence of controlled fire and cooking goes back hundreds of thousands of years. Neanderthals had larger brains than we do. But none of these species dominated the planet in as short a time as we did. None of these species wiped out all other hominid competition; we did.
Tattersall argues that the development of symbolic thinking among a small group of Homo sapiens made the difference. Other hominid species, including Neanderthals, lacked the ability for abstract thinking, art, language or long-term planning and were cognitively limited, he argues, but so were early Homo sapiens. The development of symbolic thinking was a major cognitive development that allowed that group to spread very rapidly across the globe and displace every other hominid—other Homo sapiens in Africa, Homo neanderthalensis in Europe, and the remaining Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis in Asia.
This was quite readable and persuasively argued; I never once lost the plot. Tattersall has apparently published a number of popular science books on human evolution, but this is the first one I’ve encountered. I may have to track down the others.
Review copy received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Just finished Theodore Rex, the second volume in Edmund Morris’s three-book biography of Theodore Roosevelt. It covers Roosevelt’s presidency from the moment he was informed that his predecessor, William McKinley, had died to the point where his successor, William Howard Taft, was sworn in. Between those two points Roosevelt was his usual blur of activity and energy, though there are ominous signs of his impending physical burnout. Morris captures a good deal of the political intrigue, maneuvering and cajoling during Roosevelt’s tenure, along with the international statesmanship, from the Panama Canal to the Portsmouth Conference, from trustbusting to conservation. But I get the impression, throughout the bluster and bellicosity, that Roosevelt was essentially cautious, even timid, on many subjects. His position on race was problematic and constrained by public opinion—you get the impression he’d have gone farther if he thought he could get away with it—and then, inexplicably, came the Brownsville Affair. In the end, though, Roosevelt had a lot of fun being president, and it showed.
The Life and Death of Planet Earth
This book makes me feel very small.
The key takeaway of The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How Science Can Predict the Ultimate Fate Our World, Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee’s follow-up to their earlier book, Rare Earth, is that complex life has been—and will be—on this planet for only a short period of time: a billion years out of the planet’s 12-billion-year estimated lifespan, and we’re already past the halfway point. The end of multicellular life is only a few hundred million years away, when so much carbon dioxide is sequestered away that plants suffocate. Of course, at that point the increasing output of the sun will render the planet too hot to inhabit in any event: the future, they argue, strongly resembles Earth’s Archean past, where the temperatures are hot, the atmosphere is toxic, and nothing more complex than bacteria can survive.
This is a really big-picture look at our planet, one that makes our presence upon it look very tenuous indeed. Everything on our planet is in flux, not static, every change we make to our world insignificant in terms of the big picture. The Earth of a few hundred million years ago was warmer, more biodiverse and had more CO2 in the air; our “normal” is the result of hundreds of million years of carbon sequestration by plants that has led to cooler temperatures, low CO2 levels—and ice ages. We are creatures of the interglacial period. Indeed, they point out while global warming is a problem in the immediate near term (and by immediate I mean the next few centuries), the glaciers are coming back; global warming may delay them, but the carbon cycle is inexorable.
In astrobiological terms—the search for life on other planets—the authors point out that the Drake equation needs another variable: the “habitable life span” of planet, the time during which a planet can sustain multicellular life. In Earth’s case, that’s one-twelfth of its existence.
Embassytown, which is one of five books up for the Hugo (and was also on the Nebula ballot), is the first novel I’ve read by China Miéville. Based on how good this book is, I’m going to have to track down the rest of his work with alacrity—and I get the impression that this may not be considered his best work.
At its heart, Embassytown is a science fiction novel about language, and I’m going to have to call upon my friends and colleagues with linguistics backgrounds who’ve read this book to comment on this post (I’m looking at you in particular, Gilbert). In the process, Miéville gives us some of the most alien aliens I’ve ever seen, with thought processes completely orthogonal to those of humans.
The relationship these aliens, the Ariekei, have with language is, to say the least, interesting: they cannot lie; they cannot even make analogies without embodying them in real people (such as the narrator, Avice, whom they make into a living simile). They are constrained by language, become addicted to language, and end up being liberated by language. (Or, in story terms, Language with a capital L.)
As the story begins, the Ariekei are seen as enigmatic Hosts through the eyes of the young Alice: they are incapable of understanding human speech. As we become aware of how they communicate, how they are taken up with their own language, and the great lengths to which humans go in order to communicate with them: the Ariekei, it turns out, speak with two voices at once; to be understood by them, humans need to speak with two voices and one mind, leading to the creation of the Ambassadors.
It’s mind-popping, heady stuff. And then things go all to hell, after a human experiment in communicating goes horribly wrong and the Ariekei begin to tear themselves (and Embassytown, where the humans live on their world) apart. There is violence, and war, and destruction; but in the end the solution is cognitive: the aliens themselves must learn and change and grow; the humans are involved and implicated and sometimes culpable, but the aliens have real agency, and their development is on their—utterly alien—terms.
I’m rather impressed by this book. It worked for me; did it work for you?
The High Crusade
The High Crusade is a classic science fiction novel by Poul Anderson that was first published in 1960.
An alien spacecraft lands on Earth in 1345 near an English village; the crew land and try to intimidate the locals. The local baron, Sir Roger, will have none of this, and slaughters the surprised invaders, leaving one survivor. He intends to use the spaceship to assist his king in the Hundred Years’ War, but the survivor tricks him and the whole village ends up on an alien planet. Adventure and battles ensue, and the English, improbably, end up conquering the planet from the invaders, who are completely unprepared for warfare of any sort.
Sir Roger goes on to establish an interstellar empire that is both English and Catholic; a thousand years later, contact is reestablished with Earth by a Terran space captain, who has been reading this story as a medieval manuscript written by Brother Parvus, Sir Roger’s amanuensis.
It is bloody good fun, readable and entertaining, the sort of novel old-time science fiction readers might refer to when they complain that they don’t write that sort of thing any more, working the sort of vein John Scalzi mines nowadays.
So of course I have a couple of problems with it.
The first is because nine years of study has locked my brain into historian mode: I have a hard time swallowing the historically implausible. And while I’m no medieval scholar, I know just enough to wonder whether Sir Roger, Brother Parvus et al. would be able to grasp the concepts of alien races, space travel and a non-geocentric universe as quickly as they did. I’m not sure the medieval mind, which was profoundly religiously encapsulated, was capable of working that way: consider the intellectual contortions that took place less than two centuries later when Europe discovered the Americas.
The second is that it seems obvious that, in order to have his (and our) bit of fun, Anderson has one thumb firmly on the scale. He has his desired endpoint—the mad juxtaposition of an English medieval interstellar empire—and fixes the game to achieve it. Of course the entire village comes along for the ride, or there’d be no human colony in space; and of course the alien Wersgorix somehow have to be defeatable by fourteenth-century warcraft. It’s nukes versus longbows, and the longbows win.
But what’s credulity when you’re having fun?
Also on this year’s Hugo ballot is Leviathan Wakes, the first volume of a space opera trilogy by James S. A. Corey. The fact that Corey is a pen name for the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck isn’t even an open secret; it’s even on the author blurb. Both Abraham and Franck were at Readercon (they participated in the “Om Nom Nom de Plume” panel, about the use of pseudonyms), and copies of Leviathan Wakes and its just-out sequel, Caliban’s War, disappeared mighty quickly from the dealer’s room. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why the copies got snapped up, and why it made the ballot.
In many ways it’s quite conventional: there’s an awkward level of infodump in the early chapters in order to get us up to speed with the setting (a human-colonized solar system) and political situation (Mars vs. Earth vs. colonies in the asteroid belt). The narrative alternates between the Ceres cop Miller and the ice miner Holden: Miller is obsessed with finding a missing woman; Holden and his surviving shipmates try to stay alive after they have their ship shot out from under them. As the story unfolds, it emerges that they’re dealing with the same problem, and it’s a biggy. It’s a hell of a read that comes fast and furious, a gritty take on old-style space opera adventure, with violence and large-scale death and intrigue. Sound like your kind of thing?
At the Mouth of the River of Bees
Kij Johnson’s short fiction has been making waves lately: she’s won the Nebula three years in a row (“Spar” in 2009, “Ponies” in 2010, and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” a magnificent novella, earlier this year). These stories are included, among a sample from across her career of more than 20 years, in her new collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees, out soon from Small Beer Press (it was scheduled to come out later this month but has apparently been delayed to September due to a production error).
What can I say about these stories? They’re unquestionably good: jewels of elegant writing and imagination, works of craft in which every word seems to have been carefully chosen. There are recurrent motifs, to be sure; animals show up again and again. We have stories from ancient Japan where foxes strive to become human and cats tell themselves stories; modern-day uplifted dogs on the cusp of creating a storytelling culture; monkeys who appear out of nowhere; horse thieves on another world. Some of her stories feature absurdly fantastical elements that are not explained, but accepted: the river of bees in the title story are as inexplicable as the mist being bridged, but the story is really about loss, and hits you out of nowhere. That’s the other thing about Johnson’s stories: they pack an emotional punch, and she doesn’t always warn you: oh look, a cute talking animal—pow, right in the gut.
Electronic review copy received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories
Andy Duncan is a force and a treasure. I’d heard that about him, of course, but I got to see it up front and personal at Readercon last month, when I heard him read for the first time. Now that was an experience. He read excerpts from a novelette called “Close Encounters,” about a UFO abductee in the twilight of his life. It was pitch-perfect in delivery and humour and voice and language, a delight to listen to. Now “Close Encounters” will appear in the next issue of F&SF, but it was published for the first time in his second collection, The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories, which came out earlier this year from PS Publishing. (So you have two ways to learn the truth about the Space Brother Bob Solomon and Buck Nelson’s Venusian space dog, Bo.)
The Pottawatomie Giant collects most of Duncan’s short fiction published since his first collection, Beluthahatchie and Other Stories (Golden Gryphon, 2000). (More recent stuff is already starting to appear, like “Slow as a Bullet” in Eclipse Four and “On 20468 Petercook” at Tor.com.) Duncan’s stories lie at the intersection of history, humour and the culture and folklore of the U.S. South. There are dragons and wizards, but his are unique (and Appalachian); there are appearances by Zora Neale Hurston and Harry Houdini. Here we have “Senator Bilbo,” a powerful punch of a story I first saw in Starlight 3 that combines real-life racist senator Theodore Bilbo with his halfling counterpart. We have “The Night Cache,” a creepy ghost story that features geocaching (oh, that one goes on the list). We have “The Great Designer,” a story about the Soviet space program (a subject dear to my heart).
This book is not easy to lay hands on. While Amazon.co.uk has it in stock,
it’s not available at North American online bookstores. You could try AbeBooks, but your best bet, unless you can find it at a specialty store or a dealer’s table, is to order it directly from the publisher (signed edition).
Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy
The first book, Feed (Orbit, 2010), I read for the “Good Read” panel at Farthing Party; the second, Deadline (Orbit, 2011), was on this year’s Hugo ballot, and I read it as a Hugo voter. There wasn’t anything pushing me to read the third book other than what I read in the first two, which is to say that I didn’t have to finish the trilogy.
Except that, actually, I did kind of have to: McGuire (as Grant) spins a hell of a tale that is both gripping and breathless. Here’s the sitch: we’re a couple of decades after a zombie uprising that was triggered by an interaction between a cure for the common cold and a cure for cancer. Nobody gets colds or cancer any more; they just turn into zombies when they die. Decades after the fact, the U.S. has barricaded itself behind quarantines and testing procedures.
In this context we have Georgia and Shaun Mason, adopted siblings and bloggers, selected in Feed to cover the 2040 presidential campaign. (Blogging is a big deal by this point: Georgia’s a newsblogger, Shaun is an “Irwin”—a zombie-taunter.) Events ensue, as they usually do, and the Masons and their team discover that (naturally) there’s more going on under the surface. The first book ends in tragedy (I’m not tellin’); the following two books twist and turn their way through to revelations, reversals, the usual thing. These are thrillers, and they move.
The devil is in the details, which McGuire just nails: the testing and decontamination protocols, and how people’s lives are distorted and diminished by them. The books say quite a bit about fear and security theatre that is certainly applicable to contemporary events, but McGuire isn’t beating you about the head with an agenda here. The books’ focus is first and foremost on the characters, their cares and their wants, and McGuire imbues them with life and affection, and she makes you care about them.
Where the books are less convincing for me is in their villains, who I felt were a little too malevolent to be completely convincing, and in their portrayal of U.S. electoral politics. Granted, a zombie uprising has a way of changing the rules somewhat, but national election campaigns are huge operations, and my suspension of disbelief was strained by the small scale of the presidential campaign in Feed and the easy access to the candidate the bloggers had. But that’s me having too much politics in my background.
That said, the books are tremendous fun and impossible to put down. If you’re not put off by things zombie, that is. You’re not, are you?
It picks up a year after the events of the first book: an incident on Ganymede brings Earth and Mars to the brink of war; a botanist searches for his missing daughter; and our heroes from book one very soon are sent into the midst of things to find out what’s going on. Meanwhile, strange things are ominously occurring on Venus, where the alien protomolecule was crashed at the end of book one, and that too may be related.
While still adventuresome and a solid delivery vehicle for the Good Old Stuff, Caliban’s War suffers from a bit of middle-book-of-a-trilogy: it wasn’t nearly as much of a page turner as book one was, which made the faults of the series—the plain-bordering-on-awkward prose and near-stock characterization—stand out all the more.
Be My Enemy
Ian McDonald’s fantastic YA science fiction novel, Planesrunner (see my review) chronicles the adventures of 14-year-old Everett Singh as he is chased across alternate universes because he possesses a tablet containing the Infundibulum—a map to all the universes. Its sequel, Be My Enemy, picks up where Planesrunner left off: aboard the Everness, the airship into whose crew Everett has been adopted, lost on a frozen alternate Earth. That problem is solved quickly enough, and adventures follow, but at the end Everett isn’t much closer to finding his father than he was at the end of book one. But the situation is now marvellously complicated: an “alter” of Everett from another universe has been recruited to both hunt him and replace him, in classic doppelgänger style, and the crew of the Everness learns the terrible secret of E1, the parallel Earth now under quarantine. The resolution to these developments is left for later volumes; there’s not much closer this time around. But, given how gripping a read this book is, there’s not much doubt that we’ll be back for more.
Colonel Roosevelt, the concluding volume of Edmund Morris’s three-book biography of Theodore Roosevelt, covers Roosevelt’s post-presidential life. It says something about that rather short period—Roosevelt died only a decade after leaving office, at the age of sixty—that Morris was able to write 766 pages about it. Roosevelt’s African safari, post-presidential European tour, third-party presidential campaign (and assassination attempt) and expedition down the River of Doubt were all during that time. Roosevelt was clearly raging against the dying of the light, pushing himself forward despite failing health and increasing bodily decrepitude—back into politics, unsucessfully; trying to see action in the First World War, where he hoped to die an honourable death. In the end, the strenuous life finally caught up with him.
Thirty-one years separate the publication of Morris’s first volume of Roosevelt biography and this third volume. Taken as a whole, they are overwhelmingly impressive: Morris rarely comes across as hagiographical (which is to say that he calls Teddy on his bullshit), and he never fails at being interesting to read. Granted, Roosevelt was never dull. Still.
Princes of Sandastre
Antony Swithin’s Rockall is another one of those imagined places whose creators have spent decades of their lives imagining. In this case, Swithin, the pen name of the late University of Saskatchewan geology professor William Sarjeant (1935-2002), placed his imagined Rockall, a large island the size of Iberia, where the real Rockall, a 20-metre rock northwest of the British Isles, and its surrounding oceanic plateau, are found.
When I was a child, Rockall was not claimed by any nation, nor could I discover anything about it. This lack of information fired my youthful imagination, so that soon I had worked out the geography of Rockall, its animal and plant life, and even its history and present-day politics; I had decided on its sports and its heraldry, and I made quite detailed maps of my imaginary island. After neglecting my island for more than 25 years, I returned to it in my 40s and made large scale, detailed maps of its physical features, geology, botany and ethnology, its present geography and even its political constituencies. […] Eventually, upon urging from my wife, I began actually to write my long-planned novels.Antony Swithin, “Tolkien—and Swithin—Beneath the North Atlantic Ocean,” reprinted in Beyond Bree, Apr 2001.
Swithin published four novels in the early 1990s, in a series called The Perilous Quest for Lyonesse: Princes of Sandastre (1990), The Lords of the Stoney Mountains (1991), The Winds of the Wastelands (1992), and The Nine Gods of Safaddné (1992). They’re all out of print; search for them at AbeBooks. You can read the first part of Princes of Sandastre online, but I was able to get the entire first book through interlibrary loan.
Princes of Sandastre is set in the early 14th century, where young Simon Braithwaite, whose family fought on the losing side of the Battle of Shrewsbury, is forced to flee England for his safety. Following his father and brother, he makes his way to Bristol, where he lucks into passage to the mysterious Rockall. Most of the novel from this point on involves Simon learning more about his adoptive home, with much exposition about the island’s languages, flora and fauna, and politics. Simon is largely there to absorb it; otherwise he’s the sort of John Carter hero who, ordinary in his native land, becomes tremendously useful and welcome in the new strange land.
Rockall emerges as just the sort of place that develops from a young imagination. Zoologically speaking it’s a lost world, filled with extinct Cenozoic megafauna that communicate telepathically with Rockall’s inhabitants. Politically it’s utopian. It’s immediately clear how much fun the author had in creating this place; the infodumps are written with joy and enthusiasm, as though the characters, though isolationists, can’t wait to tell you all about it. You can read all about it too, or at least a little bit of it, on the Rockall website.
At this point it’s worth mentioning Sarjeant/Swithin’s maps, which are unlike any other maps seen in a fantasy series, and no doubt result from Sarjeant’s background as a geology professor. The map of southern Rockall that accompanies Princes of Sandastre is a hypsometric elevation map, not the usual sort with shaded mountains and drawn-in forests. It shows the location of the various family clans, rather than the usual information on a fantasy map. Moreover, it uses a sans serif font! The Rockall website has many similar maps: elevation maps of the island, ocean currents, geology (see right), vegetation, even electoral districts. (Sarjeant/Swithin has extended Rockall’s history into the present day. I can’t imagine how much unpublished material he must have produced.)
The imagined Rockall has leaked into the real world as well. Real subocean features in the Rockall Plateau have been named after locations in Swithin’s books, as though Swithin’s Rockall, which deliberately draws on the Atlantis myths, has merely sunk beneath the waves. Further to the southweast, and you’ll find seamounts named after locations from The Lord of the Rings: Edoras Bank, Gondor Seamount, Gandalf’s Spur. “To be coupled with Tolkien, even in so indirect a fashion,” Sarjeant/Swithin wrote, “is indeed high honour for any writer of fantasy novels.”