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Fiction

Adventures in the Ghost Trade

Detective Inspector Chen brushed aside the chaos on his desk and carefully lit a single stick of crimson incense. Smoke spiralled up into the air, contributing to the brown smear that marked the ceiling like a bloodstain immediately above Chen’s desk. Chen bent his head in a brief prayer, then picked up the photograph and held it over the stream of smoke. The girl’s face appeared by degrees, manifesting out of a dark background. She was standing in the doorway of a go-down, gazing fearfully over her shoulder. Her hair was still scraped back into its funeral braids, and her white face gleamed out of the shadows like the ghost she was. Studying the photo, and the expression on the girl’s face, Chen was aware of the sudden hot glow of rage in his chest. How many more young women had gone the same way after their deaths, unnoticed and unmourned? But whoever was behind all this had made a mistake this time, choosing the daughter of Singapore Three’s premier industrialist rather than some nameless prostitute. Chen held the photograph out to the woman sitting on the other side of the desk and said gently,

“Do you think this might be your daughter?”

Mrs. Tang’s grip tightened around the handle of her Miucci handbag as she studied the photograph. In a little whispery voice she said, “Yes. Yes, that’s Pearl.”

“Now, you say someone sent this to you?”

“Yesterday. I didn’t go out of the apartment, and no one came in. But when I walked into the living room, the photo was sitting on the bureau. In a red envelope. I didn’t know what it was at first. There was a note, telling me what to do.” She gestured towards the spiralling incense. “You can see her face for a little while, but then it fades again.”

“And did you notice anything — strange? Apart from the envelope?”

Mrs. Tang moistened dry lips. “There was some ash. I had to wipe it off the bureau before the maids or someone saw it.”

“All right. Mrs. Tang, I know how hard this is for you, but at least we have a lead. You must try and be hopeful.”

“You will find her, won’t you?”

“Don’t worry. We’ll find your daughter, and we’ll make absolutely sure that this time she completes her journey.” Chen did his best to sound reassuring.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Tang murmured. She pushed her expensive sunglasses to the top of her head and rubbed her eyes; they were rimmed with redness. “I’d better go. I told Hsuen I was going shopping.”

Chen sighed. This was an added complication, but hardly an unfamiliar one. “Is there anything you can do to change your husband’s mind?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve tried talking to Hsuen, but he won’t listen.” Mrs. Tang gave a brittle, bitter smile. “He says it doesn’t make any difference; Pearl’s dead and that’s that. You see, he and Pearl were never very close. He wanted a son, and after I had her, I couldn’t have any more children. So he blamed her, you see. And she was always a — well, she was a lovely, lovely girl, but she could be a little bit difficult. Wilful. She was fifteen, and I used to say to him ‘what do you expect, these days?’ They all go out with boys, and Pearl was very popular, he used to get so angry . . . And I think the eating problem started about then . . .”

Patiently, Chen listened as she talked on, building up a picture of the dead girl. At last Mrs. Tang said, uncertainly, “You’ve been very kind, Detective Inspector. I know you’ll do your best in finding Pearl. I really should go now.”

Chen saw her to the door of the precinct, then made his way slowly to the drinks machine. Sergeant Ma was bending over it, thumping the side.

“Damn machine’s not working again. I — oh.” He stood hastily back as he saw who it was.

“Take your time,” Chen said, politely.

“No no no no no. It’s quite all right. It’s all yours,” Ma said hastily, and made a rapid exit in the direction of the canteen. With a resigned sigh, Chen managed to extract a paper cup of green tea from the machine, and carried it back to his desk. As he turned the corner, he saw that Sergeant Ma had come back and was surreptitiously waving a blessing paper over the machine. Chen was used to this, but some days his colleagues’ aversion to him got him down. He sipped his tasteless tea and contemplated the photograph for a few moments longer, then collected his jacket from the back of his chair and left the precinct.

It was only the beginning of summer, but already the heat had built to oppressive levels. Stepping out onto Jiang Mi Road was like diving into a warm bath. Chen glanced at the pollution meter on the wall of the precinct, but the results were too depressing to take seriously. He walked slowly down towards the harbour, lost in thought. By the time he reached the edge of the typhoon shelter, the weather had grown a little cooler. There was a storm building out over the South China Sea, and the air tasted of lightning and rain. Chen smiled, picturing Inari resting her elbows on the windowsill of the houseboat, avidly waiting for the thunder to break. His wife loved storms. They reminded her of home, she said. The ferry terminal lay a short distance along the quay, and Chen sat down on the bench to wait. Someone had left a newspaper, and he picked it up, beginning idly to read. Singapore was opening yet another franchise, this time along the Myanmar coast. Chen could remember a time when Singapore Three was the last in the franchise line; this new development would be the sixth city. Chen read on, learning that the city would be developed along the same lines as all the others, and he smiled, momentarily imagining another DI Chen sitting on an identical ferry terminal bench, several thousand miles to the south. A distant humming interrupted his thoughts and he looked up to see the wallowing shape of the ferry as it approached the terminal. Fifteen minutes later, Chen stepped off at the opposite dock and into the labyrinth of streets that constituted Zhen Shu Island.

This was a rough area, and Chen walked warily, but no one bothered him. He supposed that he was anonymous enough; a middle aged man with an unremarkable face, wearing unfashionable indigo clothes. But occasionally he would see someone start and shy away, and realise that he, or at least his profession, had been recognised. No one liked policemen, and cops who were in league with Hell were doubly unwelcome. So Chen walked unmolested through the narrow streets of Zhen Shu until he found himself standing in front of Su Lo Ling’s Funeral Parlour.

Unlike the neighbouring shops, the funeral parlour was a magnificent building. The black, faux-marble façade boasted gilded columns on either side of the door, and red lanterns hung from the gable in a gaudy, tasteless display. This was not, Chen reflected, inappropriate, given the number of citizens who met their end in a similar manner. A narrow alleyway ran down one side, leading further into the labyrinth of Zhen Shu. The sign on the door proclaimed that the funeral parlour was shut. Undeterred, Chen kept his finger on the bell until blinds twitched from the shops on either side. Over the insistent jangling of the doorbell, he could hear footsteps hastening down the hall. The door was flung open to reveal a short, stout gentleman in a long red robe.

“What do you want? This is a place of rest, not some kind of — oh.” His eyes widened. Chen never knew how people could tell; it must be something behind his eyes, some inner darkness that revealed his close association with the world beyond the world. When younger, though not usually vain, he had spent hours peering into the mirror, trying to detect what it was that made people so afraid.

“I’m sorry,” the stout man said, in more conciliatory tones. “I didn’t realise.”

Chen displayed his badge. “Franchise police department. Precinct Thirteen. Detective Inspector Chen. Do you mind if I come in? I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

With many protestations of the honour done to the establishment, the stout man ushered Chen inside. The interior of the funeral parlour was as ostentatious as the façade. Chen was shown into a long, mirrored room with a scarlet rug. Carp floated in a wall-length tank at the far end of the room, their reflections drifting to infinity in the multiple mirrors. The stout man clapped his hands, twice, thus summoning a small, wan maid.

“Tea? Green or black?”

“Green. Thank you.”

“Now, Detective Inspector.” The stout man settled himself into a nearby armchair. “I am Su Lo Ling, the proprietor of this establishment. What can we do to help?”

“I understand you handled the funeral arrangements for a ceremony a week ago, for a girl named Pearl Tang. The daughter of someone who needs no introduction from me.”

“Indeed, indeed. So very sad. Such a young woman. Anorexia is a most tragic condition. It just goes to show,” and here Mr Ling shook his head philosophically, “that not even the materially blessed among us may attain true happiness.”

“How very wise. Forgive me for asking such a delicate question, but were there any — difficulties — with the funeral?”

“None whatsoever. You must understand, Detective Inspector, that we are a very old firm. The Lings have been in the funeral business since the seventeenth century, in Guangzhou before my father moved here. Our connections with the relevant authorities are ancient. There are never any irregularities with the paperwork.” A small pause. “Might I ask why you pose such a question?”

“Your establishment does indeed possess a most honourable reputation,” Chen said. “However, I fear that an irregularity — doubtless nothing to do with the manner in which the funeral was handled — has nonetheless occurred.”

“Oh?” There was the faintest flicker of unease in Ling’s face, which Chen noted.

“You see, it appears that the young lady in question did not in fact reach the Celestial Shores. A ghost-photograph of her has been taken, revealing her current whereabouts to be somewhere in the port area of Hell.”

Ling’s mouth sagged open in shock.

“In Hell? But the payments were made, the sacrifices impeccably ordered . . . I don’t understand.”

“Neither does her mother.”

“The poor woman must be distraught.”

“She is naturally concerned that the spirit of her only child is not now reclining among the peach orchards of Heaven, but currently appears to be wandering around a region best described as dubious.”

“I’ll show you the paperwork. I’ll go and get it now.”

Together, Ling and Chen pored over the documents. To Chen’s experienced eyes, everything seemed to be in order: the immigration visa with the Celestial authorities, the docking fees of the ghost-boat, the license of passage across Night. He was intuitively convinced that the explanation for Pearl’s manifestation in the infernal realms could be traced back to Ling, but the parlour owner’s round face was a paradigm of bland concern.

“Well,” Chen said at last. “This is indeed a tragedy, but I can see nothing here that is at all irregular. I realise that you operate a policy of strict confidentiality, but if you should happen to hear anything —”

“Your august ears will be the first to know,” Ling assured him, and with innumerable expressions of mutual gratitude, Chen departed.

He was halfway down the street when the rain began, a torrent of water that hammered the dust of the pavements into mud and plastered Chen’s hair flat against his head in the first minute of its descent. Hastily, he ducked into a doorway to wait out the storm, but he had no sooner taken refuge on the step of a go-down when the door was flung open. Chen turned. A long ebony spine whipped out and wrapped itself tightly around his ankle. Chen was thrown flat on his back and dragged through the doorway. Something tall and dark loomed over him; the hem of a stiff silk coat brushed his face like a gigantic moth. He groped frantically in his inner pocket for his rosary; finding it, he struck out with it like a flail. It connected with a bony carapace, producing a trail of sparks and the odour of scorched silk. There was a hissing curse and his ankle was abruptly released. Struggling to his feet, Chen began to tell the rosary, speaking the Fourteen Unnameable Pronouncements in a swift, urgent voice. His assailant sprang to the far end of the room, and Chen caught the glow of a string of hot coals as the demon produced a rosary of its own. Chen had a head start, but the demon spoke in several voices at once, Pronouncements clicking and snapping from its flexible throat. Chen speeded up and beat the demon by a single syllable. There was a blast of furnace light as a crack opened up and the demon was catapulted back to Hell, leaving a noxious wisp of smoke behind it. Wheezing, Chen stepped clear and the smoke crystallised into dust motes and fell to the floor, where it turned into a swarm of tiny red locusts that raced down the cracks in the floorboards. Chen leaned back against the wall. The rosary was red hot, but he didn’t dare let go. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he limped back through the door of the go-down and out into the street, where the rosary hissed cold in the pelting rain. His ankle was swelling to alarming proportions. Cursing, Chen located his mobile and summoned transport back to the docks and the mainland.

• • • •

Next morning, Chen’s ankle had diminished to its normal state, although it still ached. It was lined with a ring of puncture marks; fortunately, his inoculations were up to date and minimised the effects of whatever diabolical poison the assassin had managed to inject. Despite the pain in his leg, Chen was conscious of a quiet elation. He was on the right track. Things were getting personal. He went to the precinct early and spent some time cross-checking the franchise death register. Eight young women had died in the last four months, all of them from anorexia, all from families in the city’s industrial elite. Chen printed out the list and took it downstairs.

Jian was, as usual, hunched over the computer terminal with his eyes obscured by goggles. In the dim green light of the computer room, the technician looked rather like a large, misshapen carp. Chen tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hello, Chen,” Jian said, without looking up. He was the most imperturbable individual that Chen had ever met; nothing seemed to faze him, not even Chen’s infernal allegiances. They weren’t exactly friends, but if it hadn’t been for the technician, Chen would have been obliged to eat lunch on his own, every day.

“Have you got a moment? I need some help.”

Jian turned. Behind the goggles, his eyes reflected strings of characters from the retinal display.

“Sure. I’m just running some stuff through the mainframe, nothing crucial. What did you want done?”

“Basically, I need to cross-reference some names with the records of a funeral parlour. I need to find out how many match.”

“Okay, that shouldn’t be a problem,” Jian said. What he was about to do was strictly illegal, but Chen knew that the technician wouldn’t be inclined to ask any questions. He gave Jian the name and address of the establishment, and waited for a few minutes while Jian made his way around the byzantine intricacies of the web.

“Got it. Surprisingly well protected, though . . . Do you want these printed off?”

“Thanks.”

Chen pored over the lists, and found an immediate match of some six names. Thanking Jian, and lost in thought, he made his way back to his desk.

It was never easy, placing calls beyond the living realms. Chen waited patiently as the line hissed and crackled, and he held the receiver a short distance from his ear to avoid occasional sparks. Finally the connection came through and a small, suspicious voice said, “Yes?”

“This is Li Chen. Am I speaking to the august personage of Number Seven Hundred and One, Ruin Street?”

“Forgive, forgive,” the voice said, loudly. “You have the wrong number. Goodbye.”

This told Chen that his contact had company. He waited patiently for a further five minutes, when the phone rang.

“You’re still there?” the voice said. “Sorry I took so long.”

“No, no, only a few moments.” Sometimes the time differential between Earth and the infernal regions worked to one’s advantage, Chen reflected. “Listen. I need some help. With a strayed spirit.”

“Oh?” the distant voice was wary. “Who might that be?”

“Her name was Pearl Tang; she died about twelve days ago. She was supposed to enter Heaven, but she went missing en route and now there’s a very strong possibility that she’s in your neighbourhood.”

“Hell’s a big place,” the voice remarked.

“I think she’s somewhere in the port area. I have a photograph.” Chen turned it between his fingers as he spoke. “She’s standing in a doorway of somewhere that looks like a go-down. There’s a sign on a building nearby that reads ‘Miu’s.’ I wondered if you recognised it.”

“Miu’s,” the voice repeated. “Now let me see. No, it’s not remotely familiar. Never heard of it.”

“Ghon Shang, you are the worst liar I have ever met,” Chen said, annoyed. The voice gave a hiss of pain.

“Don’t use my name like that.”

“Well, then, don’t lie to me.”

“Oh, very well. There is a place called Miu’s in the port area. It’s a demon lounge. It’s well known among a certain clientele, but Madam Miu is apparently very discreet. I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of it; it only opened a year or so ago.”

“A certain clientele. What does that mean?”

“People who want — specialised services.”

“What sort of people? And what sort of services?”

“Your kind of people,” Ghon Shang said, with a sniff. “The living. And demons too, sometimes. As for the services — well. Sexual ones, obviously.”

“Are you referring to the ghost trade?” Chen said. A thin shiver of anticipatory distaste ran down his spine.

“What else?”

Chen thought fast. The pieces of this particular puzzle — the straying spirits of a number of well-connected young women, the funeral parlour, the ghost-trade — were adding up to an unpleasantly obvious conclusion. He said, “If Miu’s place specialises in the ghost-trade, then it must have a correlate here. Do you know of such a place? And what’s the address of Miu’s?”

“It’s on Lo Tzu Street. As for its correlate in your city, I do not know. I have not walked in the living lands for a hundred years. And I have no plans to start now,” Ghon Shang said, thinly.

“Try and find out,” Chen said, and hung up. Then he took a fifty-dollar note of Hell money from his wallet and scribbled Ghon Shang’s address on it. Taking his cigarette lighter from his pocket, he set fire to the note, dropping it the ash tray when the sea-green flame burned too close to his fingers. The ash drifted down in a fleeting spiral, winking out into nothingness as the note presumably remanifested into his informant’s greedy claws. Chen took the map transparencies from the desk drawer, shoved aside the clutter of incense coils, papers, and charms from the surface of the desk, and overlaid the two maps on top of one another. Hell changed its configurations rather more often than Earth did, but there were still close correlates between the two worlds: Singapore Three on Earth, and Rhu Zhi Shur in Hell. As he had suspected, the port area of Hell overlapped with the typhoon shelters and canals of northern Fu Lung, including Zhen Shu Island. When he matched the maps carefully together, the location of Miu’s connected with the funeral parlour. Chen picked up the phone.

Finding volunteers for the stakeout was not easy. Law enforcement between the worlds was not a high priority, policy being that since the citizens involved were usually already dead, there was little reason to expend manpower. To Chen’s secret amusement, the only officer available was Sergeant Ma. When informed of the superintendent’s decision, Ma’s round face became blank with dismay.

“Demons? The ghost-trade? No. I won’t do it.”

“Look,” Chen said, trying to be sympathetic. “You won’t be on your own. I’ll be there.”

“With respect, Detective Inspector,” stammered Ma, “that’s part of the problem.”

Eventually, via the promise of massive overtime, Ma was induced to agree. Dressed in shabby clothes, he and Chen made their way to Zhen Shu Island. Obliged to sit next to Chen on the ferry, Ma was already pale when they arrived.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to show up,” Ma said hopefully, three hours later. Chen gave a thin smile.

“It’s early yet. Another hour till midnight.”

They were sitting in a teahouse opposite the funeral parlour, nursing bowls of dragon oolong. The lanterns of the funeral parlour glowed through the dusk.

“Why would anyone want to come to a place like that?” Sergeant Ma wondered out loud.

“A funeral parlour?”

“No. You know. A demon lounge,” Ma whispered.

“Don’t ask me. Some people like breaking taboos.”

“But such taboos . . .”

“They say the clients of the ghost-trade are the connoisseurs,” Chen murmured. “It’s supposed to involve a rather subtle set of perversions.”

Sergeant Ma blanched.

“Who’d want to sleep with a ghost? Or a demon, even worse.”

“Not all demons want suffering and pain,” Chen said, trying to keep his annoyance at Ma’s prejudice out of his voice. “Some of them are almost human. They have the same needs and desires, the same capacity to love —” he broke off, abruptly. “Something’s happening.”

A car was pulling up outside the funeral parlour: a smart black Toyota with mirrored windows.

“Come on,” Chen said.

Together, he and Ma stepped out of the teahouse. As they did so, Chen stumbled heavily, throwing an arm around Ma’s shoulders, and leading him in a weaving line along the street. Beneath his arm, Ma’s muscles were bunched into a tight knot of tension, but he went along with the drunken act nonetheless, and Chen’s respect for him rose. Two men were helping a frail, elderly gentleman out of the car. No one paid any attention to Ma and himself. Chen led the sergeant down an alleyway that ran along the side of the funeral parlour and stopped.

“What’s going on?” hissed Ma.

“He’s going in. Come on. We have to find a way in.”

“What? Why would we want to do that?”

“Because I know who that old man is. Hsuen Tang. Pearl’s father.”

Hastily, he and Ma ran down the alleyway and found themselves at the back of the building. A high wall, topped with razor wire, separated the alley from what was apparently a courtyard. At their feet lay the cover of a drain. Chen looked at Ma.

“Give me a hand.”

Ten distasteful minutes later, they were standing in the courtyard at the back of the building. The rear end of the funeral parlour was considerably less imposing than its façade. A narrow window faced the courtyard. Chen held up his palm.

“It’s guarded. Never mind —” Gritting his teeth, he took a sheathed scalpel from his pocket. Before Sergeant Ma’s horrified gaze, he slashed a character across his palm, then held his bleeding hand up towards the window. The guarding spell hissed into dark steam and nothingness. Sergeant Ma’s eyes were as round as tea bowls. Hoisting himself through the window, Chen landed in a narrow hallway. Checking to see that Ma was still behind him, he slipped down the corridor until they reached the door of a room which Chen estimated to be the main parlour. Muffled voices came from within.

“Wait here,” Chen said. He went swiftly up the stairs and found himself before a row of doors. Each of them flickered with a quiet light and Chen felt the rosary begin to grow hot in his pocket. His skin flushed cold. Each of those doorways was an entrance into Hell. Taking the photograph of Pearl Tang from his pocket, Chen blew on it, then glazed it with a thin smear of his own blood. Balancing the photo on the palm of his hand, he placed a feng shui compass on top of it. The needle swung wildly for a moment, before settling in the direction of one of the doors. Pearl’s spirit was here.

Cautiously, Chen held out his palm to display the still-bleeding wound and released his second spell of the night. Soundlessly, the door swung open. With the rosary wrapped tightly around his knuckles, Chen stepped forward. Even with the protection afforded by the rosary, his skin began to prickle and burn: a sure sign that the room was no longer entirely in the realm of the living. Across the room, a girl lay upon a divan. Her eyes were closed, and she was curled around herself like a cat. Her skin was as white as ash.

“Pearl?” Chen whispered.

She did not stir. As Chen reached the divan, a demon leaped through the door. It was one of the more humanoid of its kind: a pale mantis face and slick black hair, wearing a long silk coat. The coat was marred with an ugly burn, Chen noticed. They had met before. The demon’s taloned fingers grasped a bloody katana. It came forward in a sudden rush, the sword raised above its head. Chen spun down, hitting the floor beneath the arc of the katana and sweeping the demon’s feet from under it. He whipped the rosary across the demon’s wrist, making it howl. Its curiously jointed fingers flew open, releasing the katana. Seizing the sword, Chen drew back for the final blow. But as he did so, a shadow fell across his shoulder.

“Look out!” Ma’s panicky voice came from the doorway. Chen turned in time to see the ghost of Pearl Tang, a skinning knife in her hand, crouched to spring. Her pale gaze was locked on his own throat. He brought the demon’s katana down upon her, splitting the spirit from head to crotch and spilling her essence out across the floor in flakes of fragrant ash. And then he turned in the direction of the demon. The being was sitting on the floor, nursing its wounded wrist, but as Chen stepped in for the kill, it hastily snatched something from an inner pocket of its silk coat. A black badge. The demon said mildly, “Seneschal Zhu Irzh. Vice Division, Fourth District, Hell. Can I have my sword back? When you’re ready, of course.”

• • • •

“Cigarette?” asked the demon, languidly.

“No, thank you. I don’t smoke.” Chen was methodically winding a bandage around his injured hand. The azure lights of the police car outside spun in endless refraction from the mirrored parlour. Inside the car, Ma was still questioning Su Lo Ling.

“Too bad. Helps you relax, you know. How about you?” Courteously, the demon offered the packet of thin black cigarettes to Hsuen Tang, who still sat, head bowed in shame. “No? I’m assuming you don’t smoke, either,” he said to the prisoner, who favoured him with a furious glare from an eye somewhere around the level of her waist. Zhu Irzh lit the cigarette with a touch of his taloned thumb.

“She was Su Lo Ling’s accomplice,” the demon said, nodding in the direction of the prisoner. “In fact, Ling claims that the pimping was her idea. She used her access to her father’s pharmaceutical products to dispatch her friends, knowing that most of them would be brought here for burial — it is the most respected establishment of its kind, after all. Then Su Lo falsified the visa documents so that virtuous girls bound for the Celestial Shores would end up — elsewhere. Working as ghosts in Miu’s brothel, of which the parlour is a counterpart. Human customers would come here to visit the ghost girls under the guise of enquiring at the funeral parlour; people from Hell would come directly. But her dad found out, and poisoned Pearl to protect the family honour. Except that she must have found business to be twice as lucrative from the other side.” He glanced across to where the prisoner was sulkily weaving herself back together again.

“So who sent the ghost photograph to her mother?”

“Some rival operative, maybe. Hell’s a jealous place.” The demon yawned, displaying sharp gilded teeth. “Sorry about assaulting you, by the way. I mistook you for one of Ling’s clients; I was hoping for information. My department’s billing yours for the damage to my coat.”

“So what’s your interest in this?” Chen asked. “Surely not the quest for law and order?”

The demon stubbed the cigarette carefully into the palm of its hand.

“Imperial Majesty, no. I’m sure you know that the Seneschal forces of Hell don’t work in quite the same way as the police force in your world. No, our only concern was that Pearl Tang was operating without a license, so she wasn’t paying any tax. And taxes,” said the demon, with a beguiling smile, “are the only certainty in this life or out of it. Since not even death’s reliable any more.”

Liz Williams

Liz WilliamsLiz Williams is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Glastonbury, England, where she is co-director of a witchcraft supply business. She has published over a dozen novels and two short story collections, from publishers such as Bantam Spectra (US), Tor Macmillan (UK), and Night Shade Press, and appears regularly in Asimov’s and other magazines. She is the secretary of the Milford SF Writers’ Workshop, and also teaches creative writing.

Her novel Banner of Souls has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Memorial Award, along with 3 previous novels, and the Arthur C Clarke Award.