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Books Sci-fi reviews with MAT COWARD: June 11, 2024

Steampunk Victoriana, time travel and Martian nativism

HIGH VAULTAGE by Chris and Jen Sugden (Gollancz, £22) is set in a steampunk version of 1887, where the Victorian mania for innovation has got somewhat out of control. London covers the whole of southern England, and is so dynamic that seeing an overview of it triggers a recognised medical condition. Queen Victoria herself is a monstrous figure, having been rebuilt after every successful assassination. 

Another beneficiary of revitalisation is Archibald Fleet of Scotland Yard. Sadly, the paperwork doesn’t yet exist to deal with an officer who has been dead but isn’t any more. While he waits for the authorities to reinstate him, he runs the capital’s first ever private investigation agency with Clara, a young lady of high breeding and boundless pluck who yearns for a life of adventure.

Science fiction comedy is a very tricky thing to pull off, but this is constantly funny and inventive, and at times hilarious. 

A young civil servant whose background makes her “not entirely an Englishwoman” seems ideally suited for her top secret new assignment, in The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley (Sceptre, £16.99). She’s the live-in guide to a refugee from the 1840s as he acclimatises to computers, motorbikes, and not being allowed to smoke indoors. But what does the Ministry really intend for him? And for her, come to that?

Having time travel controlled by a bureaucracy is not a new idea in science fiction, but this debut novel is published as literary fiction, where any concept which wasn’t commonplace in the 18th century tends to be treated as startlingly groundbreaking. I don’t think SF fans will greet Ministry of Time with superior sniffs, though. Bradley is sufficiently faithful to the conventions of time travel plotting to give real pleasure to its enthusiasts. 

Nor should those from outside the fellowship be put off: this is a charming love story, an effective spy thriller, a droll comedy of manners and a polite but pointed meditation on class and race.

When climate change finally and dramatically makes London uninhabitable, ballet dancer January is one of many left without home or job in The Mars House by Natasha Pulley (Gollancz, £20). His least worst option is to become a refugee on Mars. Due to the difference in gravity, newcomers to the colony are far stronger than those raised locally and are therefore restricted by laws and hated by xenophobes. January just tries to get by, until an embarrassing encounter with a nativist politician upends both their lives.

“Question everything” the philosophers tell us, and this author does exactly that, forcing her characters to see each others’ points of view, and struggle with the disorientating conflict between simple certainties and material reality. 

Extraordinarily creative, humorous in a way that wouldn’t have shamed Douglas Adams, The Mars House could be read as SF, romantic fiction, topical satire, whodunnit or political thriller. Whichever shelf you put it on, I think you’ll find it one of the most entertaining and rewarding novels of 2024.

 

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