Intelligence: Undercover and Underwater

A great deal of confusion and mutual lack of understanding emerges, dripping wet.

Issue #43: Sunday 30 April, 2023

This issue is running very late, for a variety of reasons. I hope to get back to my usual publishing schedule next month.

Bookish News

NOTE: I’m not sure that I’ll keep this section in future. I’m not trying to compete with Locus magazine or similar newsletters of various genres, which do a much better job than I can ever do. For the time being, I’ll just put in the odd news item or a particular new book release which catches my eye.

Awards

Locus Awards Short Lists

The top 10 finalists in each category have been announced. Good to see Babel and Sea of Tranquility on the lists, though I am surprised that The Mountain in the Sea didn’t make it.

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Stella Prize

The winner of this year’s Stella Prize for a book written by an Australian woman is a book of poetry, The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt.

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Women’s Prize

The Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist 2023 has been announced. Here’s the list of nominees:

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My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson

This is a stand-alone addition to Hutchinson’s “Fractured Europe” series, which I read and enjoyed a few years ago. The series comprises four books, in this order: Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight, Europe in Winter and Europe at Dawn, and they share two very interesting premises.

Firstly, the idea that in a few decades from now, following a deadly pandemic which shattered institutions, a largely united Europe has broken up, not only into individual nations, but further into smaller and smaller provinces and regions splitting away from their parent countries and declaring independence. From a Europe with no internal borders to one with hundreds of borders.

While perhaps improbable, you can certainly imagine this scenario playing out in some form in the future. Interestingly, the earlier books in the series came out well before both Brexit and COVID happened.

In such a scenario, being able to discreetly move valuable items and sometimes people from one place to another becomes a sought-after skill, and this gives rise to an organisation called Les Coureurs des Bois which means “The Runners of the Woods”. What they do isn’t necessarily illegal—but that depends on where you are standing. There’s a definite flavour of the spy thriller in these books.

So that’s the first premise, this fractured Europe.

The second premise, however, is an utterly fantastic one, and that’s the idea that back in the early 1800s a family of map-makers started to draw highly detailed maps of an imaginary English county they called Ernshire and it came into being as a kind of pocket universe alongside our own. It’s wacky, but I love a wacky idea if the author can carry it off well, which I think Hutchinson does.

The family weren’t content to have created their own English county, but moved on to draw their magical maps of Europe, and by the time “our” version of Europe has splintered, there is a huge secret region lying beneath it or alongside it, ruled by descendants of the map-making family, still largely English and semi-rural. They call themselves “the Community”.

By the time this novel, Cold Water opens, however, the existence of the Community is no longer secret and indeed some degree of trade goes on between the countries of “our” Europe and the Community, though the latter strictly controls access to its territory. There are only a few known crossing points.

Cold Water has a number of point of view characters, all of them female. We start with Carey Tews, a woman in her late 50s. She was once one of the Courers des Bois but left the organisation years ago. Now she’s contacted and asked to investigate the death of a man called Maksim in a car accident in Eastern Poland. Long ago, Maksim recruited Carey into the Courers and also became her lover. The death seems straightforward: Maksim was driving at very high speed in a rural area, slammed into a tractor and was killed instantly. But of course there’s more to it than that. Carey assembles a team of young people to help her investigate .

We are also introduced to Krista, who is a police inspector in Tailinn in Estonia, who is suspended from duty after being told that her father, who was also a senior police officer, has recently been accused of having covered up crimes and committed murders. Her father is now dead, and Krista cannot believe these accusations. Though forbidden from interfering in the investigation, she starts to make her own inquiries.

We also have Lenna, an out-of-work journalist who is recruited to help promote the cause of a Russian man who, it is claimed, was killed decades ago by police in Tailinn—among them Krista’s father. Her publicity campaign causes great problems for the local authorities.

All of these stories are connected, of course, and eventually come together to a satisfying conclusion.

I quite enjoyed the book, but I do have a big criticism, and that’s that it’s often not clear which of these three women’s stories we are following at a particular point in the book. Throw in the fact that we have quite a lot of flashbacks into Carey’s life, and the fact that (as we discover much later) Krista and Lenna’s timelines are set a decade or so earlier than Carey’s main story, and there’s too much scope for confusion (for this aging reader, anyway!). I’m sure that I would appreciate the book much more on a second read, but I’m not prepared to do that for quite a while. I am, however, now tempted to re-read the earlier books in the series.1

Dead Lions by Mick Herron

This is the second in a series of, I guess, spy thrillers by Mick Herron, based around the MI5 department where failed spies are sent in the hope that they will eventually get so bored and pissed off that they resign. It’s loosely called “Slough House” and the people who work there are dubbed “slow horses”. Slough House is run by the idiosyncratic, acerbic, foul-mouthed and generally disgusting Jackson Lamb, who is in his 60s.

The books are in the process of being turned into a very successful television series on Apple TV+, with Gary Oldman doing a brilliant job in the role of Jackson Lamb. There have been two seasons released so far, and the second season is based on this book, Dead Lions. But, as I found after reading the book, the TV show is only very loosely based on the book, and includes some what I thought were very confusing elements which aren’t there in the book. I’m wondering if they brought forward some material from the third or later books in the series. Why they did this I can’t understand, because as I wrote at the time, I found the plot of the second season of the TV version quite difficult to follow. Matters are much simpler and easier to understand in the book. Which is not to say that the plot of the book is simple, only that it makes more sense than what I watched on the TV.

Anyway, let’s get to the plot. Perry has already discussed the book previously in the podcast, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of what he’s already said.

The triggering incident is the death of a long-since retired spy called Richard Bough, jokingly known to all as “Dickie Bow” (a British slang term for a bow tie). Dickie is found dead on a bus on the way to Oxford. Jackson Lamb thinks there’s something suspicious about this and sets out to investigate. His staff, puzzled about what he’s doing, get involved. Dickie, it seems, may be a link to a Russian spymaster from the Cold War era, a spymaster who may or may not have actually existed. This spymaster was reputed to have set up several “sleeper agents” in Britain, who have spent years pretending to be ordinary British citizens, waiting to be triggered.

A second thread (which of course eventually comes together with the first) is to do with two of Lamb’s staff being seconded by an ambitious character called James Webb from Regent’s Park, the main MI5 headquarters. They are to facilitate a meeting with a Russian oligarch called Arkady Pashkin, ostensibly to talk about an oil deal but really because Webb thinks he can recruit him as an agent. The job sounds straightforward, but of course things go badly wrong

A really interesting and to me quite unexpected plot develops through the book. Nothing is quite as it seems.

Look, I really enjoyed reading this, considerably more than I did watching the TV show, because as I’ve said, the story in the book just seems to make a lot more sense all round. I think I’ll be reading the other books in the series without waiting for them to arrive as episodes of the TV series.

The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler

This is an impressive debut novel from this author.

It’s a first contact novel, but with a definite twist. What if the alien species with which we need to communicate is already here, on Earth? Or rather, in the Ocean?That’s the core premise of this book.

The novel begins some decades into the future, and much of it is set in the archipelago of Con Dao off the shore of Vietnam. The area was meant to be an oceanographic wildlife reserve, but because of local poverty and the corruption of officials has continued to be fished and exploited. Until it’s taken over by a huge corporation called DIANIMA, established by Dr. Arnkatla Minervudóttir-Chan, who has dedicated her life to trying to create artificial minds. DIANIMA evacuates all of the local population from Con Dao and takes extraordinary measures to keep out those who wish to exploit the ocean around it. And establishes a research station there.

The book’s main point-of-view character is Dr. Ha Nguyen, a scientist in her forties. The novel contains many quotes from Ha’s book How Oceans Think, but we’re introduced to her as a character when she’s recruited by DIANIMA and airlifted to the research station on Con Dao. Here she meets two other characters who play a large role in the story: in fact much of the story is about the personal dynamics between these three women. The first person Ha meets is Altantsetseg, the station’s Mongolian security officer: she is a powerful figure, who has fought in several wars and has the scars to prove it. The other character in the drama on the island is Evrim. Evrim is Minervudóttir-Chan’s greatest creation, a genderless android with apparently completely human consciousness and even greater intelligence. But such is the fear this raised in the popular mind that many countries forbade Evrim to enter their borders and passed laws against further such creations.

Ha’s attempts to understand Evrim’s thoughts and feelings are a key part of the book. There’s a nice passage I’d like to quote:

In the lobby, Evrim sat alone, face lit by the glow of a terminal, surrounded by all the gear and tech Altantsetseg was constantly tinkering with. And Ha had a clear image of Pinocchio on the shelf, ranged among the inanimate dolls that were its ancestors, suspended between the worlds of the living and the inanimate, subject and object, struggling to become real.

Ha soon finds out why she has been recruited and taken to Con Dao: just offshore from the research station, deep in murky water, is the sunken wreck of a large ship, now completely taken over by sea life. Including a group of octopuses which are demonstrating unexpected behaviour, perhaps, just perhaps, intelligent behaviour. Ha is excited by the possibilities of communicating with a species utterly unlike ourselves. She and Evrim work together to try to make sense of what they are seeing, while Altantsetseg operates lethal firepower to destroy fishing vessels attempting to enter the protected zone.

There are dark forces at work, however. One of these recruits a Russian hacker to try to find a way into a complex network in order to take it over. We eventually learn that this “complex network” is in fact Evrim’s mind.

We also follow the story of Eiko, who has been press-ganged to work as a slave on an AI-controlled fishing vessel named the Sea Wolf.2 The intelligence controlling the vessel is locked behind steel plates. The human slaves have replaced the robots previously on board the vessel, simply because they are cheaper to replace if they die. The profit motive rules all.

Dr. Ha Nguyen knows that it is going to be almost impossible in the long run to protect the octopuses on Con Dao from the exploitation of such fishing vessels, even if she can prove that the octopuses have reached a level where they are building their own culture.

The story comes to a head when Dr. Minervudóttir-Chan herself arrives on the island and tells them that a hostile take-over of her company, DIANIMA, is under way, and she doesn’t know if it can be stopped. Without DIANIMA’s protection, it’s all too likely that Con Dao will quickly be exploited and stripped bare, intelligent octopuses and all.

At the end, there’s a nicely unexpected twist.

I liked this a lot. The relationships between the main characters are full of interest, and it’s one of those books which really make you think about several related themes:

Definitely recommended. I nominated it for this year’s Best Novel Hugo, along with Babel and Sea of Tranquility.

My co-host Perry Middlemiss and I spent some time discussing this novel on our podcast, if you are interested.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Remarkably, this is the first time I’ve read this Austen novel, though I’ve read and enjoyed all her other novels. Though it was published after her death, it was apparently one of her earliest pieces, and that does show a little. There are some tortuous sentences. Still, it’s quite amusing and entertaining, even if the heroine is no Lizzy Bennett.

Currently Reading

Waiting on the Shelf

A couple of books about the writing process

My Other Stuff

This is my Linktree address, which points you to just about everything I do online. Please have a look!

And that’s your lot for this issue. See you next time!


Footnotes
1

Amusingly, now that I look back at my review of the earlier Fractured Europe books, I see that I read the first three again as soon as I finished them because I was so confused about what had been going on!

2

Complete with a jokey sign on the AI’s compartment reading “Wolf Larsen, Captain”. This is a reference to a novel by Jack London. In London’s novel, Larsen is an overbearing cruel master who treats his crew as though they were his slaves.

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