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Author Archives: fantasiesofpossibility

When a planet falls in love…The Planet Dweller by Jane Palmer (1985)

This  was Jane Palmer’s first novel,  published  in  the  pioneering  Women’s  Press  science fiction series.  It   begins, probably uniquely in the realm of science fiction writing, with a woman discussing her menopause with a male doctor. Diana is asking about Hormone Replacement   Therapy, but he  advises her  against this.  “I’ve heard of of women  losing their fingernails and others being stuck with headaches for weeks – and do you really want to go on having periods until you are past seventy?’

Diana riposts tartly:

‘I’ve already  worn my finger-nails away by climbing up the wall and give my daughter regular headaches by screaming at every animate and  inanimate a thing that gets in my way… And will not live to be seventy if I carry on at this rate.’

Diana is a single mother, has a seven (and a half) year old daughter,  and works in an open air museum of architecture where she take parties of  bored school  children on tours of their iron-age huts.  At night she hears (or thinks she hears) a voice which says, “Moosevan”… “Moosevan”….

She has  an  elderly Russian neighbour, Yuri,  who  spends his time drinking gin  to excess, observing the asteroids,  and making arcane  calculations about their orbits.  Then there is Diana’s  friend Eva, a scientist who work at a huge radio telescope right  next door to the open-air museum,  (I love this juxtapostion  of ancient  and modern). Eva calls Diana  “Mog” , by the way.We never find out why.

Yuri becomes convinced that someone is moving some asteroids to different positions,  which if completed,  will  turn into a new planet and destroy the Earth. Nobody is  paying  him any attention, but he’s right,  of course. It’s part of a plan by  a planet dweller, Moosevan,  to create a new home for herself, unaware that the Earth is inhabited.  Moosevan is being threatened by a thoroughly nasty alien The Mott (we know he is nasty because he has big ears and big teeth),  who wants to evict Moosevan  and colonise her planet. Mott is being aided by renegage Olmuke genius Kulp and his two hapless sidekicks,  Jannu and Tolt.

It had been difficult  for the Mott to accept that the rest of of the galaxy did not love their empirebuilding species, especially as they hasd bestowed  such benefits as advice and bombs in exchange  for their freedom…

Opposing the Mott are two ancient beings who have taken  temporary forms  as Torrans (complete with tails) and temporary names,  Dax and Reniola.

Back on earth  Yuri enters a dazzling portal which  has popped up in the middle of a fairy ring,   and finds himself on Moosevan’s planet.  She tells him:

‘I am old…’ Moosevan tried to rationalise. ‘I am. ..Your touch pleases me…’ she added as that was the most dominant thought in her mind.

  ‘How old?’

‘I must be half as old as this galaxy’.

Yuri looked up again at the sky scattered with the debris of so many stars. Normally he would not have have sniffed  at a show of affection coming from a mature woman, but one ninety thousand million years was in his opinion taking things to far.

I won’t go any further into the details of the plot,  except to say that by the end of the book everything is resolved satisfactorily.

The shadow  of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe surely  looms large over this attempt by Jane  to write a comic science  fiction novel.  Adams succeeded brilliantly,  so much so that Hitchhikers,  like the Goon Show,  is now part of  the mental furniture of anyone interested in surreal comedy. Adams was a genius  and made his writing  look easy, but it’s not, of course.   For me this  novel only partly works, but I still enjoyed it.

The wonderful front cover illustration of the novel  is by Jane herself. She has written  a number  of other science fiction novels,  including The Watcher (1986)  and Moving Moosevan (1990), both also published by Women’s Press, Babel’s Basement (2010) and Duckbill’s Soup (2011), another in the Moosevan series.

“What dreams may come…”:The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)

In a previous post I looked at  Ursula’s Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. In this post I  want to look at  her novel The Lathe of Heaven (1971).

Falling into “a dreamless sleep” is a cliche beloved of romantic novelists as they depict the travails of their heroine/hero as she/he slumps exhausted onto their four posted  feather bed. In fact,  we all dream every night,   as our unconscious churns over our day, our fears and desires,  and much else besides.  And when we awake our dreams usually vanish, like early  morning mist under the  rays of the  rising sun. Usually.

George Orr dreams. George is an ordinary man, who does an ordinary job, lives in an ordinary shabby flat in an ordinary city (Portland) in an America some decades ahead of  when the novel was published  (which  in a time paradox means it is now  in our past as readers). There is  just one extraordinary thing you need to know about George: when he dreams the dreams can  come true.

Doctor William  Haber dreams. He dreams of  a more prestigious job, of  a more impressive set of   offices, of a better world for humanity. Don’t we all?  George is sent to Haber, a sleep specialist, after the authorities discover  he  has been illegally obtaining drugs to suppress his dreams. George reluctantly reveals to Haber  that when he was 17 he dreamt that his aunt Ethel, who had been making unwanted sexual advances to him,  had been killed:

“I had this dream. A very vivid one. I could recall it completely when I woke up. I dreamed that Ethel had been killed in a car crash in Los Angeles, and the telegram hadcome. My mother was crying while she was trying to cook dinner, and I felt sorry for her, and kept wishing I could do something for her, but I didn’t know what to do. That was all. … Only when I got up, I went into the living room. No Ethel on the couch. There wasn’t anybody else in the apartment, just my parents and me. She wasn’t there. She never had been there. I didn’t have to ask. I remembered. I knew that Aunt Ethel had been killed in a crash on a Los Angeles freeway six weeks ago, coming home after seeing a lawyer about getting a divorce. We had got the news by telegram. The whole dream was just sort of reliving something like what had actually happened. Only it hadn’t happened. Until the dream. I mean, I also knew that she’d been living with us, sleeping on the couch in the living room, until last night.”

Of course Haber doesn’t  believe  George,  but is  eventually convinced when he witnesses the changes  for himself. Using hypnotism and  an electronic device called the Accelerator (a dream machine, if you like) he takes control of George’s dreaming, ordering  him what to dream. And the dreams come true. At first Haber makes   small changes in the world around them –  a new flat for George, a research institute for himself  – but then he he grows more ambitious, instructing  George to make  drastic  changes in the wider world . But the Law of Unintended Consequences makes itself known,   and the results are not what Haber envisaged.

Distressed, George  seeks help  from a lawyer, the steely Heather Lelache. She  accompanies him  to a dream session at which  Haber instructs George : “You’re going to have a dream in which you feel uncrowded, unsqueezed. You’ll dream about all the elbow room there is in the world, all the freedom you have to move around.”

Heather feels the change at the moment it happens:

“The woman felt it too. She looked frightened. Holding the heavy brass necklace up close to her throat like a talisman, she was staring in dismay, shock, terror, out the window at the view. He had not expected that. He had thought that only he could be aware of the
change. But she had heard him tell Orr what to dream; she had stood beside the dreamer; she was there at the center, like him. And like him had turned to look out the window at the vanishing towers fade like a dream, leave not a wrack behind, the
insubstantial miles of suburb dissolving like smoke on the wind, the city of Portland, which had had a population of a million people before the Plague Years but had only about a hundred thousand these days of the Recovery, a mess and jumble like all American cities, but unified by its hills and its misty, seven-bridged river, the old forty-story First National Bank building dominating the downtown
skyline, and far beyond, above it all, the serene and pale mountains.”

George  has dreamt of a Plague which has  killed billions of people.  He is appalled,  but unable to stop Haber from  misusing his dreams. Still, Haber is not a power-hungry monster, as George admits to himself:

…he’s not a mad scientist, Orr thought dully, he’s a pretty sane one, or he was. It’s the chance of power that my dreams give him that twists him around. He keeps acting a part, and this gives him such an awfully big part to play. So that now he’s using even his science as a means, not an end. . . . But his ends are good, aren’t they? He wants to improve life for humanity. Is that wrong?
Finally Haber himself enters the dream world,  and George,  faced with the loss  of Heather (now his wife) and his whole world , is forced to act.
The theme of novel  is that the best of intentions can lead to  the worst of outcomes. I am reminded of one of  those tales of Arabia in whch someone is granted three wishes by a djinn,  but things don’t go well.  I very much enjoyed this novel and  thoroughly recommend it.
The Lathe of Heaven was made into a television movie in 1980 by WNET. The film starred   Bruce Davison as  George Orr,   Kevin Conway as Dr Haber, and Margaret Avery  as Heather Lelache. You can watch the film here. The two photographs ab0ve are taken fron this production.
You can watch  an interview here  with Ursula in which she discusses the film and the novel.  and  you can read the novel online here.

Finally,   Ursula took the title of the novel  from from the writings of Chuang Tzu,

“To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the  lathe  of heaven.”

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Fallen Angel…? Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan (2016)

Occupy Me is  a dazzling intellectual  tour de force science  fiction novel  which   keeps you reading , even when (as I   often was ) you are not entirely sure what is going.   So what it’s about?  Well,  there is a suitcase which  is not really a suitcase;   an organisation called the Resistance which  may or may not exist ; a stewardess called Pearl who is not  really  a stewardess, nor is her name really Pearl; a doctor from Nigeria  called Kisi  Sorle who  is  sometimes himself and sometimes someone else; a millionaire about to die called Austen Stevens; a  pterosaur, a Quetxcoatlus ;  a  double fridge; some eggs, a giant frog (dead); two big dogs (alive),  and  a vet called Alison who is  indeed called Alison  and is indeed a vet.   The action takes  place in the USA,   on an airplane, in mid-air, in Edinburgh, in Paris, in Scandinavia, in a scrapyard,  in   a  Cretaceous era rainforest and in a library, to name a few. To know  the rest you will simply have to read it.  Highly recommended and I am look forward to reading her other novels.

A god of death is born …The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (1972)

Ursula Le Guin is one of the most important science  fiction writers of the twentieth century, whose works such  The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossesed   continue to be very influential.  Ursula  was an activist in the USA in the campaign against the Vietnam War,  and The Word for World Is Forest clearly emerged from that experience. Much of the  war was fought in forests between the Americans,  who had vast  military techonology, and the guerilla army of the  Vietcong, who had no such weaponry, but  were armed instead  with an  unrelenting desire to be free.

The novel  is set on Athshe, a planet  entirely covered by forests  in which live the Athsheans, a  small,  peaceful,  highly intelligent,  humanoid  race whose bodies are  covered  with green fur.  The planet is colonised by  several thousand Earthmen –   who rename  it New Tahiti   –  and begin cutting down the forests and shipping  the wood  back to Earth. They make virtual slaves of the Athsheans,  using them as labourers or  for sexual  gratification as there  few  Earth women.

The  three  main characters are the Earthman Davidson,  the Earthman Lyubov,  and the Athshean  Selver. Davidson is a military man who regards the Athseans  (or “creechies” as the colonists call  them) with contempt: “the creechies are lazy, they’re dumb, they’re treacherous, and they don’t feel pain”. He personifies the masculine mindset,  reflecting  to himself: “the fact is the only time a man  is really and entirely  a man is when he’s just had a woman or killed another man”.  Lyubov,  by contrast,   tries to underestand the Athsheans, their culture of singing , their  symbiotic relationship with  the forest, and the fact that the Athsheans dream when  they are awake as well as when they are asleep.

Davidson rapes Selver’s wife who dies.  Selver now  realises that the Earthmen  intend to destroy the forest,  and therefore his people,  unless they are stopped  – and  begins to dream of a way of achieving this. He tells his people:

If we wait  a lifetime or two they will breed, their numbers will double or redouble. They kill men and women, they do not spare those who ask life. They cannot sing in contests. They have left their roots behind them, perhaps, in this  other forest  from which they come, this forest with no trees. So they take poison  to let loose the dreams in them, but it only makes them drunk or sick. No one can say whether they ‘re men or or not men , whether they’re sane or insane, but that does not matter. They must be made to leave the forest. If they will not go they must be burned out of the Lands, as nests of stinging-ants must be burned out of of the groves of the city…Tell any people who dream of a city burning to come after me..

Selver co-ordinates attacks from  thousands of Athsheans on the Earth settlements , killing many men and women,  and setting fire to the buildings.  His friend Lyubov dies in one of the attacks. Selver  pens the survivors into a compound and negotiates a truce. This is broken by Davidson who  organises attacks on the Athshean cities in the forest. Finally,   Selver captures him alive, and tells him:

Look Captain Davidson..we’re both gods, you and I. You’re an insane one and  I’m  not sure whether I’m sane  or not, But we are gods…We bring each such gifts as gods bring.  You gave me a gift, the gift of killing of one’s  kind, murder. Now, as well as I can, I give you the my people’s gift which is not killing. I think we each find each other’s gift heavy to carry. 

Davidson is not killed,  but put  on a treeless island, to live alone. Emissaries from Earth and other planets  arrive who prepare to evacuate all  the surviving  Earth colonists.  One of the envoys asks Selver whether Athsheans are  now killing Athsheans. Selver replies sombrely :

Sometimes a god comes…He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He bring this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretences. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending  now, that we do not know how to kill one another. 

As well as the background of the Vietnam War, there are clear resonances in the novel of the way that  native Americans were treated by European  colonists who raped and killed them and took their land; and  the similar  experience of the Aborigine peoples of Australia, who also talk of a “dream-time”.

While  Selver and Lyubov  have some complexity as  characters,  with Selver  feeling that what he has unleashed is dreadful   but also feeling that he has not other  choice, Davidson is  one dimensional,  a man in thrall to  his own needs and desires –   and with no empathy for others.   Reflecting some years later Ursula acknowledged this flaw  in the novel. “….he is purely evil – and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions. It looked into itself and produced, from itself, Captain Davidson. I do not disclaim him“.

Whether she intended or not, Ursula’s novel is very much a feminist riposte to  Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959)  – written against the backdrop of the Cold War  –  which  imagined  a  future society in which you can only become a citizen by serving in the military. It is in fact a paean to the alleged virtues of the military “code of honour” , a code unpicked  by Ursula in this novel to reveal its true reality: racism and murder.

The Word for World Is Forest had some influence  on “Kinda”,  a 1982 Doctor Who serial  written by Christopher Bailey,  his   first script for Doctor Who.  Like Ursula’s novel “Kinda ” is   set in a forest with a people  confonting colonists and is  a psychological, rather than an action serial, with layers of meaning and  a number  of spiritual  reference.  Bailey says  that he tried to write it without any people being killed, and  that he  name the main  characters after Buddhist terms, including the Mara (“temptation”),  Panna (“wisdom”),  and Anatta (“without self”).    Incidentally Panna was played by the wonderful  Mary Morris who,  among many other roles,  appeared in the BBC science fiction series  A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough as the scientist Madeline Dawnay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choose Life or Death? We Who Are About To…by Joanna Russ (1977)

Joanna Russ (1937-2011) was  one of the most influential science  fiction writers of the second half  of the  twentieth century. This novel –  which  takes its title from a phrase quoted by  Roman historian Suetonius and   allegedly  uttered by prisoners in the fighting arena  “Caesar,  we who  about to die salute you, ”  – was first published in the UK  in the  Women’s  Press groundbreaking  science fiction series. (You can find a full list of the novels in the series here).

So you might  expect a novel appearing in a science  fiction  series to be, well, a science fiction novel. Yet  the science  fiction element  starts and stops on the first  two pages in which a  group of  eight passengers – travelling to another planet  by some kind of  manipulation of the fabric of space  – end up on an unknown planet which  might not even be in our own galaxy. So far, so Lost in Space.  However,  this isn’t a cheery tale  of plucky humans bonding together to survive in challenging conditions. Far from it.

In the  first half of the book the majority of the  survivors, who have no survival skills and are relying on  strictly limited supples of food and water, decide that they must carry on and build a “civilisation.”  The book’s  female   narrator, a musicologist and a Quaker,  (who records the ensuing events on a voice recorder, perhaps for posterity, perhaps not)   responds that “Civilisation is doing fine…We just don’t happen to be where it is.”  She believes that the others  are deluding themselves and that  they should prepare to accept their inevitable  death.  She  sums up their situation to herself:

Goodbye ship, goodbye crew, goodbye books, goodbye freight, goodbye baggage, goodbye computers that could have sent back an instantaneous  distress call along the coordinates we came through (provided it had them which I doubt), goodbye plodding laser signal, no faster than other light, that might have reached somewhere, sometime, this time, next time, never. You’ll get around to us in a couple of thousand years. 

We’re a handful of persons in a metal bungalow: five women, three men, bedding, chemical toilet, simple tools, an even simpler pocket laboratory, freeze-dried food for six months, and a water -distiller with its own sealed powerpack, good for six months (and cast as a unit, unsuitable for anything else).

At dawn I held hands  with the other passengers…although I hate them.

O God, I miss my music.

She  also objects to the  proposal that the younger  women  must become pregnant as soon as possible, whether they want  to or not and whether they like the man or not.  The survivors have reverted to male control, sometimes by violence,  with the women  sidelined, other than as future mothers.  The narrator  quickly becomes ostracised and decides to leave the others to their own devices. Or so she hopes.

Joanna Russ

In the second half of the book the narrator,  now on her own,  slides into a hallucinatory state as she thinks back to her former  radical  political activity as a Communist  in the  “twenties riots” and starts to see people from her distant and more recent past. The end is perhaps predictable from the start.

This is  an intelligent, extremely well written   novel exploring issues around male and female roles in society and how we  should die in a good way,  but the science  fiction element is  a merely  a mcguffin to launch the narrative, and having served its need, is swiftly dispensed with.  The events could just as  easily  have taken place on a deserted island after a shipwreck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Reader I…” “Unwillingly to Earth” by Pauline Ashwell (1992)

Pauline Ashwell was the pseudonym of Pauline Whitby (1928-2015), who  wrote a number of science fiction short stories  and just  two science fiction  novels,  Unwillingly to Earth (1992)  and Project Farcry (1995), both published by Tor.  So far as I know neither has  been reprinted since , which is a great pity.

Unwillingly to Earth brings together  four  of Pauline’s short stories:  “Unwillingly to School”, published by John Campbell  in the  January 1958 issue of Astounding  Science Fiction ;  “Rats in the Moon” published  in the November 1982 issue of Analog; “Fatal Statistics” published in the  July 1988  issue of  Analog;  and finally “The Lost Kafoozalum” published  in the October 1960 issue of Analog Science Fact & Fiction. Despite written decades apart they work perfectly  as a sequence.

The stories all centre on  Lysistrata “Lizzie” Lee,  who recounts her various adventures to us  in gauche, breathless prose replete with  Capital Letters to make sure we get the Point. She’s usually the smartest person in the room, it’s just that the other people don’t know it yet.  I would hazard that her spiritual  ancestors  are Huckleberry  Finn and Tom Sawyer.

The first story “Unwillingly to School” introduces us to Lizzie, the daughter of  a former miner who made a  lot of a money from mining,   and  is now a farmer. They live on a small,  distant  planet Excenus 23 (population 3, 320, 99% men), whose main industry is mining Areopagite. (For some reason I imagine the miners sound like Australians).

Left to her own devices after her father has an accident  and has to go to hospital,  Lizzie gets into a number of scrapes which means she has to leave the planet for a time. With the help of  Dr D J M’Clare, and against  her better judgement, she is shipped off to  Earth to  study  Cultural Engineering at the  Russet Interplanetary College  of Humanities. Cultural  Engineering isn’t just a theoretical discipline involving  the study of  different planetary cultures, it also involves practical fieldwork, as we shall discover.

In the second story “Rats in the Moon” Lizzie goes to the Moon on holiday to visit a friend  and gets caught up in a series of events including  an explosion, being a suspect in a  case of attempted murder, intervening in  interplanetary diplomacy, and taking a court case  in the Piepowder Court.

In the third Story “Fatal Statistics”  Lizzie is sent to do some field work on an obscure planet called Figueroa,  but on landing discovers  that the planet’s society has collapsed and much of the population has left. Those that are still there  – and some visitors  – are in dispute over resources. Lizzie   has to figure how  bring about a peaceful resolution and  also get her and her fellow students off the planet in one piece. At  one point she is chased by a Cybercrane:

..there is a rending Crash as the roof is knocked sideways and I am left crouched in a corner  Staring up at the thing, oh Damn this is a  stupid way to die-

The head suddenly jerks back and I hear the sound which means it is Readjusting  its legs, I suppose this where I should Review my past  life but all I can think of is, I can’t  help closing my eyes but I am not going to Scream. …

Then there is a Flare that burns dazzling white  even through my eyelids and a most godawful Bang! and then nothing happens and goes on happening until I realise I am not Dead after all.

Just the same it is quite difficult to get my Eyes open; when I do, all I can see past the broken edges of the roof is the Sky.

In the final story “The Lost Kafoozalum” Lizzie, her room-mate and  best friend B Laydon (we never discover what the B stands for),  and  some of her fellow students are brought together by Dr M’Clare to solve a problem on a  planet called incognita which has recently been rediscovered. Ingognita was colonised  some centuries by humans who are divided into two sides:

The ship  that  spotted the planet as inhabited did not land, but reported to Central  Governmnet who shipped Observers out to take look….The Observers are not named but stated to be graduates of the Cultural Enginering Class.They put in a few month’s work and sent home unanimous Crash Priority Reports the situation is bad, getting worse, and the prognosis is War.

Brother.

In a group discussion Lizzie comes up with a solution that might  stop the war and plays major role in its implementation. However its execution  goes wrong and  Lizzie has to use every resource at her disposal to put things right, including doing the Dance of the Little Robot. She also comes to a crossroads in her personal life.

This  is a lovely  book which  you should all read  – and soon. I do hope it gets back into reprint along with her other work.

 

The Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest

The Clockwork Century is a series of  interconnected novels set in the 1870s  in an alternative United States of America. In this USA  the Civil War is still raging on, with the Confederacy slowly losing but not yet defeated, while  Texas is an independent Republic. In this world  technology is more advanced  and  (as in all the best steam-punk novels ),   there are airships whose crew and captains  play a key role in  several of the novels. There are also zombies, a genre I usually avoid like the plague so to speak, but in these  novels I can put up with them as they are not the main storyline.

It isn’t the steampubnk technology or even the alternative history that makes this such an enjoyable  series to read,  but the  ingenious storylines  and the engaging array of characters. Many of the lead characters are  women,   while others are black,  Chinese and Native American. The novels are not direct sequels  but are set in the same world and  characters from one novel often appear in another.

boneshakerThe first novel is Boneshaker (2009), set in Seattle –  not the hip  city afloat on coffee that we know from Frasier –  but a small, barely  known city  in the wilds of Washington Territories which suffered a devasting catastrophe when a mechanical  underground digging machine  – the “Boneshaker” of the title – created  by Leviticus Blue  undermined the foundations of the city, releasing a yellow  posion gas  known as ” the blight”. This not only kills  but also creates zombies  (or “rotters” as the inhabitants  call them) who prowl the deserted streets looking for victims. The gas can also be turned into a drug called “sap”. The whole city has been isolated by a huge wall to keep the gas from spreading ; the few inhabitants still  left  live underground  with supplies brought in by airship, while fresh air is supplied by pumps run by the Chinese.  We meet an array of characters including a young man Zeke Wilkes (Blue’s son),  who enters the city in search of the truth about his father;  his mother Briar Wikes, who goes in pursuit of him and knows the secret of  the gas outbreak;  Captain Andan Cly, an air pirate;  and Princess  Angelina, a Native American.  . The book ends with a dramatic battle for control of the city, and  revelations about the “Boneshaker”.

The second novel is Clementine (2010)  which introduces as to Belle Boyd, a real historical character who was a spy for the Confederacy. In this alternative world she is in exile in the North, widowed and broke,  and goes to work for the Pinkerton detective agency in Chicago. She is sent on a mission on behlaf of  the Union  army to protect their one of the airships – the Clementine of the title – which is being  pursued by air pirate and escaped slave Croggon Hainey (one of the joys of the novels is the names Cherie gives her characters).  But as is often  the way of such  things  Belle’s mission takes an unexpected direction…

Dreadnought (2010) is the third novel. We meet Mercy Lynch, a nurse working  in a hospital  in the South where among the wounded she finds an increasing number affected by “sap”. Learning finally that her husband is dead  and  that her father has been wounded in Seattle she sets off an epic journey  across the frontline eof the war  to see him. The “Dreadnought” of the title is an armoured Union train  on which  she travels for  part of her journey and which has  a mysterious cargo whose true nature she is desperate to learn.   On the way Mercy and her fellow  passengers are faced with a life and death struggle when they run into a posse of “rotters”.

The fourth  novel is  Ganymede (2011), which is set  in New Orleans. Josephine Early,  a black woman, runs a brothel  but is also an agent for the North.  Her task is to somehow move an experimental submarine, Ganymede,  (which really existed, by the way), hidden in Lake Ponchartrain  out of its lair and out to sea.  To do she calls upon a former lover, Andan Cly (whom we first met in Seattle), to  pilot the submarine. There are of course people desperate to find the submarine and stop it getting into the hands of the North…

fiddleheadThe Inexplicables (2012)  is the fifth novel which  takes us back to the gas-blighted city of Seattle, which comes under attack from a gang which wants to seize control of the supply of “sap”. At the same time the inhabitants of the Underground are disturbed by the appearance of a mysterious creature on the streets.

The final novel in the series  is Fiddlehead (2013), which  begins in Danville, capital of the South before taking   us to Washington DC, the capital of the  North. Here the ex-slave and brilliant engineer  Gideon Bardsley  has built an advanced calculating machine – nicknamed “Fiddlehead – financed by the former President  Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln  is in a wheelchair after  surviving an assasination attempt. Fiddlehead predicts that the greatest threat to the country is not the war,  but the “rotters”. Belle Boyd is sent to protect  Lincoln and Bardsley and is caught up in desperate race against time against an enemy who will stop at nothing to keep the war going.

 

Thoroughly recommended.