This is a very, very strange book. It's strange in the spacefaring future it describes, but it's probably even stranger linguistically.

I used to read John Clute’s book reviews in Interzone, years ago, when he reviewed there regularly,1 so linguistic strangeness was exactly what I expected when I picked this up.

What I mean by linguistic strangeness is this: you used to have to read his reviews with a good dictionary to hand, and if you were diligent you might learn three new words in even the shortest review. His erudition was legendary, and he liked to display it. At first that used to annoy me, because it seemed that he chose willfully obscure words: he appeared to be doing no more than displaying his vocabulary for its own sake. Showing off, in other words.

But as time went on I grew to appreciate the way he made us stretch, and I moved towards the conclusion that, yes, he had an unfeasibly large vocabulary – or was unreasonably quick to reach for the thesaurus – but he did it in order to achieve precision in meaning: why use a word that is nearly right, when there is one that is exactly right? Plus, it was part of his style, his reviewer’s voice, if you will.

So to his first SF novel, then. It is strange. It is very, very strange. It’s a space opera set in our galaxy a few hundred years in the future. There are humans and a range of aliens, plus various sentient AIs. Much is made of the fact that humans smell: they have to keep away from other species, and avoid getting emotional when they do meet others, to keep their pheromone production under control. No other sentient species suffers from this problem, it seems. Furthermore, when humans meet each other, it is very unusual – extremely rude, even – to make eye contact.

I don’t know if Clute is trying to tell us something about our own society, here, but it seems to me that, with the state of technology on display, something would have been done about the smell, if it was really that much of a problem. The eye-contact thing is just bizarre. Maybe (since they exist in a state of close integrations with their computers, intelligent and not) it’s a reference to the lack of direct personal contact that we get from our present interactions on the net.

Those are relatively minor matters, though: what of the story?

Our hero is Freer, who is a free trader, with his own ship, the Tile Dance. It is staffed solely by him and run by a sentient pair of artificial Minds: KathKirt. All AIs are bipartite; they manifest through Masks, which are said to ‘face’ ‘Jack’ or ‘Flyte’. I still don’t understand what these are supposed to mean. Did I mention that it’s a strange book?

The galaxy is in danger from something called plaque, which appears to be a kind of plague causing a dementia-like effect in artificial Minds (and maybe in biological ones, too; that wasn’t clear). As things develop, it turns out that a passenger that Freer Has taken aboard knows the route to a legendary planet which is the source of ‘Lenses’, the only thing that can cure the data plague.

They have to run from the forces of the Insort Geront, who want to stop them getting the Lenses. These are spacefaring luddites, in the form of multi-bodied (or at least multi-headed) quadrupeds (possibly) who are constantly eating live prey, including the younger members of their own families.

On the way they dock at an artificial moon, which turns out to be a legendary lost world. Or something.

There’s an awful lot going on in this book, and I can’t honestly say that I understood all of it. But it’s a fascinating read in many ways, and is worth the effort. Recommended.

  1. He may do so again: I’ve allowed my subscription to lapse in recent years, but in the latter years that I did subscribe, he had stopped reviewing there almost completely. ↩︎