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From the Legend of Biel, Mary Staton

December 18, 2014

legendofbielFrom the Legend of Biel, Mary Staton (1975)
Review by Ian Sales

In 1975, Ace decided to relaunch its series of Science Fiction Specials, a series which had been very successful during the late 1960s and early 1970s. That first series had published the likes of Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K Le Guin, Joanna Russ and John Brunner, but the new series featured less well-known authors, such as Felix C Gotshalk, William Barton and Walt Richmond, as well as the likes of Marion Zimmer Bradley, Stanisław Lem and Thomas Burnett Swann. Mary Staton’s From the Legend of Biel was the first book of this relaunched series – which would manage only eleven books before ending – and one of three women to be included. (Although book 2 of the series, Red Tide, was by DD Chapman and Deloris Lehman Tarzan and it seems likely one or both were women, but I can find no biographical information on them.) From the Legend of Biel proved to be Staton’s only published science fiction – until the appearance of a novel in 2007 from Imaginal Fiction Press, Wilderness of the Heart – Seven Gates.

The cover art of From the Legend of Biel suggests the novel is heartland science fiction, perhaps even hard sf. And while it is certainly the former, it makes a stab at the latter but doesn’t quite pull it off. The book opens aboard PROBE IV, a somewhat unimaginatively-named spaceship sent by Earth to study “the planet MC6, which has architectural evidence of some kind of advanced life”. After three days there, the spaceship will head for the “dark space-cloud Vectus-Nurus 48″ before a “sleep-freeze hop to the edge of the galaxy to probe a newly discovered solar system for signs of life”. Aboard PROBE IV are four crew and a survey team of four scientists, the latter led by Howard Scott. Staton introduces the survey team in a briefing in a conference room aboard the starship, which features Scott dwelling on each of the members and recounting their background and personality to himself. It’s a disappointingly clumsy technique. The PROBE IV narrative is presented in italics and comprises the bulk of the novel’s first seventy pages.

The “architectural evidence” discovered on MC6 by a previous mission from Earth are a series of complexes scattered about the planet’s surface. Each complex contains a number of geometric forms of unknown material and purpose, arranged to no discernible pattern about a very large dome – pretty much as the cover depicts. While exploring one of the complexes, the survey team finds an entrance into the dome, but can make no sense of its purpose or its workings. The interior is comprised of featureless white rooms connected by corridors, with openings which appear as if by magic, an elevator which seems to travel laterally as well as vertically, and a huge hemispherical chamber at the apex of the dome whose walls are entirely transparent from the inside. The team have only 72 hours to solve the mystery of the complexes, and it isn’t long enough. So they decide to take matters into their own hands and delay departure, against the wishes of the captain and crew. Hours before they were supposed to depart, they stumble across a chamber filled with hexagonal niches containing glass cards. Scott quickly figures out that the cards can be read by inserting them into a slot in a one-metre-high pillar in the centre of the chamber. The pillar then proceeds to transmit the history of the complexes to the scientists telepathically.

The domes were built by the Federation, a near-utopian human civilisation managed and held together by the Thoacdien, which appears to be some sort of super-computer or AI. Each of the Thoacdien worlds are numbered, and the story told by the glass card takes place on Thoacdien V. The drug Binol, which is later revealed to be “liquid information”, is fed to one hundred foetuses prior to birth as an experiment – it is normally not given to children until they are a year or two old. Some of the foetuses die, and the experiment is terminated by flushing Binol from the others. But one remains affected, and subsequently suffers from seizures. The Thoacdien reproduce artificially, and are then cared for by machines called “gladdins”. Each new birth is also attended by a mentor, who will then teach the child as they grow. The baby who has seizures barely survives, but after reaching the age at which she is no longer cared by a gladdin, she flees the dome. Her mentor, Mikkran, follows her to see that she comes to no harm and to teach her should she finally agree to it. The two wander for weeks, then cross a desert – nearly dying in the process – and eventually arrive at the mesa where the Higgittes live.

The Higgittes are also human, and were the original inhabitants of Thoacdien V. Most of them joined the Federation, but some chose not to. These relicts consider the people of the Thoacdien to be weak and “women”, while they are manly warriors. The Higgittes capture the child – now using the name Biel – and Mikkran, as well as another mentor and child from the Thoacdien who had come to the rescue them. The four are drugged and sentenced to death, but the drug doesn’t work on Biel, and she engineers an escape with the help of the Higgitte first warrior, who has fallen in love with Mikkran (it is not reciprocated). Unfortunately, Mikkran is killed in the attempt. Biel and the others make their way to the Meadows, where Biel is introduced to a community of artists who appear have rejected Thoacdien and live entirely under its radar. One of the villagers explains to Biel that the early introduction of Binol has resulted in her becoming entangled in time with another person – Howard Scott. Thoacdien then talks directly to Scott and tells him that MC6 is Thoacdien 75, and offers an invitation for Earth to join its Federation. Unfortunately, being telepathically told Biel’s story has killed Scott and left the rest of his team in a coma. So the PROBE IV crew blow MC6 to bits.

It’s difficult to describe From the Legend of Biel. Some of it is written as stream of consciousness, there are occasional pages filled with typographical tricks, and, of course, at least a third of the book is presented in italics. The prose is also mostly overdone:

All wait for the Thoacdien magicians to arrive and make their move. In the stillness, offended black cats of ideas and dreams have returned to Higgitte brains, have turned around dusting their places, have lowered themselves like camels, to stay. (p 248)

It’s a bit like reading an exercise by an overactive creative writing student with poor impulse control. While the plot seems relatively straightforward – and, to be honest, the secret to the mysterious complexes proves to be somewhat dull – the language used throughout the novel obscures as often as it informs. The level of invention on display also seems a little recycled. Thoacdien itself, for example, drpos communiqués into the narrative at numerous points, and they are  presented like print-outs from some sort of 1970s-style command-line chat:

DATE: 187.351
TIME: 1.9.063
MEADOWS: NO RESPONSE…………………………………………..
(p 220 – 221)

And then there’s the plot… Which is basically Biel’s story, which is itself kickstarted by a framing narrative provided by the PROBE IV mission. But neither narrative actually resolves itself. The scientists do not figure out the mystery of the complexes – the answer is fed to them when they are telepathically told the story of Biel. And Biel’s story too is a consequence of Scott’s discovery in the dome on MC6, which makes the whole thing a paradox, and means the story doesn’t actually go anywhere. Biel’s story ends when the link between her and Scott is broken. This prompts Thoacdien’s invitation, but that’s meaningless because Scott is dead. More than that, the whole point of the novel is rendered moot when the PROBE IV crew destroy the planet.

It’s not hard to understand why From the Legend of Biel is obscure. True, there were worse sf novels published in 1975. But there were also some very good ones, such as Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Samuel R Delany’s Dhalgren. And, to be honest, From the Legend of Biel doesn’t really offer enough to make it stand out from the crowd. The prose seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction to the unadorned and bland prose so beloved of the majority of sf writers of the time, without actually managing the depth or felicity of New Wave writers. The near-hard sf opening also sets expectations the story later fails to meet, and the ending suggests the writer had no real idea how to resolve the plot. Disappointing.

Rocannon’s World, Ursula K Le Guin

December 16, 2014

rocannonsworldRocannon’s World, Ursula K Le Guin (1966)
Review by admiral ironbombs

They were a boastful race, the Angyar: vengeful, overweening, obstinate, illiterate, and lacking any first-person forms for the verb ‘to be unable.’ There were no gods in their legends, only heroes.

I was surprised to find out that Ursula K Le Guin’s first published novel was an Ace Double, paired with Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign. Much like Davidson’s half, Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World is more science fantasy than science fiction, a sword-and-planet romp that includes many of the tropes we now associate with high fantasy literature. Yet it still fits into her Hainish Cycle, a body of works that includes her award winners The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. It sprung from ‘Semley’s Necklace’, a short in a 1964 issue of Amazing that became the prologue to Rocannon’s World. It’s a good introduction because, reading it, you dive into the exotic yet familiar world of Le Guin’s creation where “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (to quote Clarke).

An ethnologist working for the League of All Worlds, Rocannon’s survey mission to the planet Fomalhaut II went smoothly… until an unknown adversary destroyed his spaceship from orbit, killing his companions. Stranded on this primitive alien planet, Rocannon sets out to track down the base of this enemy somewhere on the other side of the planet, in hopes that he can get to their ‘ansible’ – a device which can send communications at FTL speeds – so he can warn the League. Coming with him is the local feudal lord Mogien and his men-at-arms; riding cat-horse hybrids called windsteeds, the small group must travel through perilous, unmapped continents to reach the enemy encampment. And once there, what good are Bronze Age-level weapons against lasers and attack helicopters? These are near-insurmountable odds, but Rocannon will not let his companions’ deaths go unpunished; he may lose that which he values most, but Rocannon will stop these aggressors…

Rocannon’s World falls into the sub-genre of sword-and-planet that Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett, among others, carved out in the pulps: an Earthman of the future finds himself stranded on a primitive (Bronze/Iron Age) planet, forced to trek in search of some goal on the other side of the world, finding strange creatures and customs – and plenty of adventure – along the way. As such, it has a lot of the tropes of a fantasy novel: swordfights and magic (psychic) powers and strange beasts, with a science fiction twist. For example, the “dwarf” equivalents recieved cultural advancement in the form of Industrial Age technology from the League of All Worlds, until Rocannon’s recommendations put a stop to it. Purists may be dissatisfied by the lack of hard science or traditional science fiction themes; all others will probably be too distracted by the adventure and rich-world building to care.

Said worldbuilding and alien cultures are where the book feels most like Le Guin. The daughter of an anthropologist, Le Guin’s works are less focused on the “hard” sciences and more on the “soft” ones – anthropology, sociology, and psychology in particular. There’s an array of species living on Fomalhaut II, each with their own distinct culture and society painted in broad strokes – the strange caste system between the humanoid species, the half-sized humanoids with latent telepathy, the strange race of insectoid builders both blind and deaf. The prose also felt like pure Le Guin; a bit rough perhaps, but it has her cleverness and flow. See this segment about Rocannon, going under the name Olhor (“wanderer”), with cryptic references to the novel’s elements:

The little Name-Eaters, the Kiemhrir, these are in old songs we sing from mind to mind, but not the Winged Ones. The friends, but not the enemies. The sunlight, not the dark. And I am companion of Olhor who goes southward into the legends, bearing no sword. I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness. I am only a half-person. I cannot go farther than the hills. I cannot go into the high places with you, Olhor!

Le Guin’s writing evokes the fantastic and the wonder of this world; romanticized but not cloying or sappy, flowing like a rich tapestry yet never over-wrought or over-written. It bounds along full of energy, a fast-paced novel that kept me invigorated until its stunning conclusion. The finale is a series of wicked twists, defying my expectations and adding emotional weight to the story. “And I wish never to again be where I might hear the voices of my enemies…” becomes a powerful conclusion, a reference not to what has been lost but what he gained during his journey.

And a few comments on ‘Semley’s Jewel’, the short story turned prologue, in which princess Semley sets out to get a family heirloom back. To do so, she needs help from the subterranean, dwarf-like Gdemiar, whose technology was advanced to the Industrial Age… and who were gifted a small starship which can visit the interstellar museum where the necklace was donated. It’s science fiction seen through the lens of fantasy, and in a twist on the Rip-van-Winkle magical sleep theme, Semley’s trip across the black seas of night involves near-lightspeed time dilation, and she returns home to find years have passed. Rocannon collects the necklace during his survey trip, and while it’s referenced several times during his journey it failed to turn out to be some magical macguffin as I expected. Props to Le Guin for side-stepping that trope, though there are two more books in my omnibus version, and for all I know the necklace may be back.

Le Guin’s inauspicious début is a pretty good novel; it doesn’t stand out as a masterwork like so many of her later books, but it treads the planetary romance/sword-and-planet path without devolving into a hackneyed pastiche. The book does exactly what it says on the tin: flying cats, swords and blasters, adventure and mystery, its finale an unexpected surprise, delivered in Le Guin’s top-notch prose. In terms of planetary romance, Le Guin was no Leigh Brackett – then again, as her later novels prove, she was capable of writing far greater books than many SF writers can dream of. While it has some rough edges, Rocannon’s World does two things well: it foreshadows Le Guin’s later greatness, and tells a pretty decent SF adventure story. If you’re like me and enjoy a good planetary romance, you’ll probably love it. Otherwise, I’ll point you at the rest of Le Guin’s oeuvre and let you run wild.

This review originally appeared on Tattered, Battered, Yellowed & Creased.

Black Sun Rising, CS Friedman

December 11, 2014

blacksunrisingBlack Sun Rising, CS Friedman (1991)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Twelve hundred years ago, a sleeper ship from Earth deposited several thousand colonists on the wild, untamed world of Erna. Seismically active Erna is a harsh planet to survive on, made worse by the presence of the Fae, a source of energy that permeates the elements and can be harnessed by certain humans to further their own ends. Unfortunately, the Fae can also be manipulated subconciously, resulting in the people’s fears and nightmares taking on solid form.

With all high technology lost in the birth of a new religion, the colonists of Erna have descended to a Renaissance level of technology, although retaining certain advanced medical, astronomical and scientific knowledge. Damien Kilcannon Vryce, a warrior-priest of the Church and one of the few churchmen able to wield the Fae, arrives in the city of Jaggonath to adopt a new and difficult role in the Church hierarchy. However, when a local Fae-wielder is brutally attacked and her ability to wield the Fae is neutralised, Damien is drawn into a lengthy quest that will lead into the dangerous rakhlands to confront a powerful sorcerer. Along the way Damien is forced into a most uneasy alliance with the cold and arrogant Gerald Tarrant, a powerful wielder of the Fae who has secrets of his own…

Black Sun Rising is the first novel in Celia Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy. This SF-epic fantasy hybrid was very highly regarded upon its initial release in the United States, but oddly it wasn’t until fifteen years later that Orbit finally published the first UK edition.

The novel is a mixture of the familiar and the use of more original tropes, although the familiar does win out in the end. This is a quest story, with an interesting band of ‘heroes’ setting out to right a great wrong and travel across a vast chunk of countryside in the process. The world of Erna has some interesting facets to it but the travelling makes for the more tedious part of the book, especially the endless mucking around in caves. Page after page of description of rocks and tunnels does not make for entertaining reading.

Fortunately, Friedman’s characters are an interesting, if largely unlikeable bunch. She isn’t afraid to kill off major characters and paints them in convincing detail. Less impressive is that secondary characters are not very well developed at all. The rakhs’ motivations in particular could have been fleshed out more and one key character who hangs around for a good 150-200 or so pages doesn’t even get a name.

The plot-line is intriguing and there’s no denying that the world-building is quite well-thought-out. The cliffhanger ending comes out of nowhere and the enforced humour at the end of the book doesn’t really work as well as intended. That said, the book was enjoyable enough to make me look forward to picking up the second volume, When True Night Falls.

Black Sun Rising was surprisingly disappointing for such a widely-acclaimed novel. The author is a good writer but needs to lighten up a bit. The world is unrelentingly grim but Friedman isn’t in the same calibre as Scott Bakker, who can make such a world come alive and become compelling.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Bold As Love, Gwyneth Jones

December 9, 2014

boldasloveBold As Love, Gwyneth Jones (2001)
Review by Martin Wisse

For a long time I wondered whether I had made a mistake selecting Bold as Love to read, picking it up and putting it down again, not getting to grips with it. Didn’t like the writing, didn’t believe the world building or plot, couldn’t care for the protagonists. Only the fact that I was reading this as part of a self-imposed challenge kept me going. That, and the feeling that a novel which had won the Arthur C Clarke Award and which was commercially successful enough to span four sequels, must have something in it that I was missing.

Perhaps it was just that this was a novel I needed to immerse myself in fully, not read in bits and chunks here and there during the daily commute. Gwyneth Jones is not a writer who grabs you from the first sentence – at least she isn’t for me. She writes her characters from the outside in, rather coolly and hence it takes more time to get into her characters’ heads than it would with a more “warmer” writer. I had the same sort of problems with the future England Bold as Love predicted, which at first seemed dated and implausible, more sixties New Wave than early 21st century science fiction.

Bold as Love‘s future England is part of a Britain more or less peacefully dissolving itself, against a background of ecological catastrophe engulfing Europe, never really explained. There are some hints of global warming, some mentions of eco scandals – BSE, foot and mouth – that had recently happened or were happening when Jones wrote the novel, but nothing all that concrete. Despite all the chaos and dislocation this environmental stress supposedly visits on England, it barely impacts on the protagonists’ lives.

Probably it’s because our heroes are countercultural royalty, two rock princes and the princess they both love: Ax Preston, Sage Prender and Fiorinda, impossibly young, ethereal, a rockstar in her own right. All of them came together on one of the last big rock festivals to celebrate Dissolution Summer. The government meanwhile, or what remains of it while Britain dissolves, is running consultation sessions with all the heavies of the counterculturals, or at least those bothering to show up. The old system is dying and the young, ambitious men and women one or two rungs below the real power in England want to use the counterculturals to replace it, to get themselves into power. Ax certainly knows he’s being used, but he has his own plans, Sage knows but doesn’t care, while most of the other, lesser countercultural stars are just there for a laugh; Fiorinda is there but has bigger problems. But when of the lesser stars stages a coup and takes over the counter, all three are drafted to form part of his government to lead the green revolution.

Bold as Love revolves around the adventures of Ax, Sage and Fiorinda as they have to solve the problems of an England where the counterculture isn’t any more, but in control of the country. These are huge, from more radical greens wanting to destroy everything modern to Muslim separatists in Yorkshire, but are all sorted out through the same solutions, by holding a rock festival. The power of rock and the genius of Ax, Sage and Fiorinda conquers all.

The plot’s not the heart of the book; that’s obviously the relationship between our three heroes, one that every review of Bold as Love insists is like that between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, though I find that too pat. These three lovers don’t need to destroy themselves just because they’re two men loving the same woman. Gwyneth Jones instead makes this a much more mature love triangle, in the end based on mutual respect and love between the two men as well as between each of them with Fiorinda. It’s in the scenes that she concentrates on the deepening of these bonds that Jones is at her best and Bold as Love convinces the most.

At first glance Bold as Love looked like a late and out of date example of New Wave nihilism, but thinking about it when reading it I realised that instead it mirrors the anxieties of late nineties Britain, when the optimism of early New Labour had long since vanished, the country resigned to being rundown and slightly shit, but still with a bit of the glamour of Cool Britannia left, that idea that rock bands could influence politics by rubbing shoulders with the politicians. The counterculture as well aren’t sixties hippies, but the much harder nineties ecological movement, the people who’d sit out in the woods for months on end to stop the construction of another highway. Jones takes these elements and puts them in essentially a fantasy tale.

Bold as Love didn’t quite convince me as a novel, but I think that was as much me as the novel. Try it yourself.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The People: No Different Flesh, Zenna Henderson

December 4, 2014

thepeopleThe People: No Different Flesh, Zenna Henderson (1966)
Review by Ian Sales

Although popular during the 1950s, and in print up until her death in 1983, Zenna Henderson is mostly forgotten these days. Her last book in print appears to be a NESFA retrospective collection in 1995. She is best-known for her stories of the People, a group of humanoid aliens with psychic powers who settled secretly on Earth. This may well be why she is no longer read, because those stories are the sort of backwards-looking science fiction popular during the first half of the twentieth century which confuses its future setting with nostalgia. The People: no Different Flesh, the second collection about the People, is a case in point.

According to, The People: No Different Flesh was first published in the UK in 1966 – although its contents, six novelettes, all originally saw publication in F&SF between 1961 and 1966 – and only saw print in the US the following year. It is in fact arguable whether it qualifies as a collection or a fix-up novel, as Henderson uses a framing narrative extended from the first story, which gives the book its title, to introduce each of the following five novelettes.

Mark and Meris live somewhere in rural USA, and have just lost their baby. One stormy night, they find a young girl, no more than three or four years old, who can float through the air, speaks no English, but seems to be able to read minds. They name the girl Lala after the only word she seems to be able to say, “muhlala”, and look after her, hoping to find her family but also realising that may not prove possible as they’ve realised she’s not from Earth. Soon afterwards, Lala’s father turns up, and explains that the two of them are of the People, born on another planet, but sent to settle secretly on Earth. Their “lifeslips” crashed during a storm, and the father, Johannan – although most of the People have ordinary Anglophone names, some have weird made-up ones – has no idea where to find the nearest People community. Happily, they find him instead – although not before an incident with a young rich tearaway and the neighbourhood’s “good kid”, Tad, who has been running around with him and his crowd.

Once the other People have arrived, they tell stories to Mark and Meris to describe who and what they are, and it’s these that form the bulk of the book. The first, ‘Deluge’, is set at the time of the break-up of the People’s home world, called by them Home. It is narrated by an old woman, who elects to stay behind. Nothing is explained, not how the People live, nor what destroys their planet. It’s implied the People were once highly sophisticated but have since lost the bulk of their knowledge – although apparently not all of it, as they are capable of building spaceships to evacuate their planet. The spaceships scatter, and some head for Earth. The second story, ‘Angels Unawares’, tells of a young couple travelling into an unnamed Territory in the late nineteenth century as the husband has been hired as the superintendent of a mine. En route, they stumble across a farmstead that has been burned to the ground, and in the ruins they find a young girl, around eleven or twelve years old. Like Lala, she quickly shows her extraterrestrial origin by floating through the air; and, like Meris and Mark, the narrator, Gail, and husband Nils decide to look after the injured girl, and don’t seem at all bothered by her magical abilities. Before reaching the mine, they spend the night at a town founded by a Christian fundamentalist – it was men from that town who killed the young girl’s parents and brother and burned their farmstead. Once at the town, the three settle quickly, but a member of the fundamentalist town who recognised the girl has followed them…

‘Troubling of the Water’ is set at roughly the same time as ‘Angels Unawares’, and again the narrator is not one of the People, but a teenage boy. His parents, young sister and himself are trying to eke out a living in Fool’s Acres, a farm in the Territory, but water is scarce and their creek is beginning to run dry. A meteorite crashes nearby and from it they rescue a young man who is badly-burned. Although he heals quickly, his damaged eyesight does not return although he can apparently sense objects about him. With the injured man’s help, the family discover water on their property beneath the bedrock, and the farm is saved. The fifth story, ‘Return’, is told from the point of view of one of the People, a young woman who persuades her husband to take her back to Earth from New Home so her baby can be born there. But their spaceship crashes and he is killed. She is rescued by an old couple who are working a played-out mine. The canyon where the People lived has been dammed and turned into a lake, which is what caused the crash. The young woman is arrogant and condescending, despite being treated well by the old couple. Eventually, she learns the errors of her ways.

The final story, ‘Shadow on the Moon’, mentions the Space Race without actually giving any details, or even mentioning NASA. It was published in early 1962, so it’s possible it was written before either Gagarin or Shepard made their historic flights. Remy, seventeen years old and one of the People, wants to go to the Moon, but his parents forbid. Then he and his sister, Shadow, stumble across a mad old man living in a shack near an abandoned mine… and it transpires the old man’s on built a rocket in the mine-shaft, but then died in a cave-in, and his father is trying to finish the spaceship in order to bury the son’s body on the Moon. The story makes no concessions toward realism – the spaceship is shaped like a giant bullet, it’s powered by a thought-amplifier which would allow non-telekinetics to lift it into space, and it was built by four ex-armed forces (possibly from WWII) men who appear to have no relevant qualifications or experience.

Although published in the mid-1960s, it’s hard to identify when the framing narrative in The People: No Different Flesh is set. While the stories follow an historical timeline, beginning at some unspecified time on Home, the first story set on Earth, ‘Angels Unawares’, takes place in the late nineteenth century. The teenage girl from it is mentioned in ‘Deluge’ and appears to be roughly the same age, which suggest the journey from to Earth took days or weeks at most. The setting for all stories is identified only as “the Territory”, and since by the turn of the twentieth century only Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico had yet to gain statehood (Alaska didn’t even become a Territory until 1912, and a state until 1959), the People seem to have settled somewhere in the south-west US. Which also fits in quite well with the mention of deserts and mines. But, it’s implied, Mark and Meris are more contemporary, especially given that at least one of the People they meet is the offspring of the children named in ‘Angels Unawares’ and ‘Troubling of the Water’, and yet… There’s mention of television, but everything feels like it belongs several decades earlier. Tad finds a Model A in a junkyard, and Ford stopped making them in 1931. The People travel to Mark and Meris’s house in an Overland, a car company which folded in 1926. True, there are thirty-year-old cars still on the road in 2014, but would cars from the early days of motoring be routinely seen, even in rural America, in 1965? By 1960, 20% of US farms still didn’t have electricity, so I suppose it’s possible. Perhaps it’s worth noting that Henderson was born in 1917 in Arizona, so her stories of the People may well be set in the world in which she grew up…

Having said that, there is a lot of 1940s to 1960s science fiction which, despite its galactic empires and alien worlds, always manages to feel like it’s set in 1930s USA. It’s not just the often-unimaginative extrapolation – which is mostly not an issue in the case of The People: No Different Flesh – such as computers the size of small buildings, everyone using paper to record things, or storing data on tape… But details such as men wearing hats and smoking cigars, the rigid gender roles, the way in which technology is not prosaic but tied to specific science-fictional signifiers – there are spaceships but no hair-driers, for example… This lack of immersive world-building proves a strength in The People: No Different Flesh because the bulk of the book is historical. The framing narrative, however, is weak, not only because its setting doesn’t entirely convince as contemporary but because its entire raison d’être feels weak – gratitude for the rescue of Lala, and curiosity – and far too authorial. The People themselves are also too much paragons, the protagonist of ‘Return’ notwithstanding, and read like real good neighbourly sorts dialled up to eleven. With magical powers.

I can see how some might find these stories charming, but for me I’m afraid they’re somewhat too insipid and saccharine, and far too driven by nostalgia for a “simpler time” which all too often romanticises the hardships of past days. Disappointing.


Komarr, Lois McMaster Bujold

December 2, 2014

komarrKomarr, Lois McMaster Bujold (1998)
Review by Martin Wisse

Komarr was the first Miles Vorkosigan book I’d ever read, back in 1998. At the time it was the latest in the series to have been published and deliberately written as a jump on point for new readers like me. I didn’t jump in completely ignorant however, as the Vorkosigan series was one of the favourite series of rec.arts.sf.written, with each new novel thoroughly dissected and discussed. It was these discussions that prompted me to finally pick up one of the series and luckily, it was the perfect starting point.

What I missed about Komarr the first time around was how feminist it is in its own right. It’s not an overtly political book, but the heart of the story is how one woman manages to escape from a bad marriage and the gender assumptions, traditions and expectations she grew up with. It’s her story that makes Komarr special, in what otherwise would’ve been a fun but unremarkable adventure science fiction story. As I’ve realised since, Lois McMaster Bujold has always been good at infusing even her slightest science fiction with subtle sociological backgrounds, imagining what effects the usual genre props might actually have on a society. So for example, the coming of Galactic gender assignment technologies to backward Barrayar has lead to a glut of males, as tradition values male heirs more than costly daughters and every family scrambled to make sure they got their quota of males. It’s something that has happened in the real world as well, not that outrageous a prediction to be sure, but Bujold pulls that sort of thing all the time, hidden in plain view in the background to Miles’ adventures.

Now in the previous book Miles was made Imperial Auditor, a job which means acting like the Emperor’s Voice, a role that seems to have been designed with him in mind. It gives him almost the same power and authority as Gregor, the emperor himself and the freedom to use this power in any way he seems fit on his assignments. He’s the newest but not the only Auditor and to get some on the job training he has tagged along with his fellow Auditor Professor Vorthys on his latest case, investigating whether the ore freighter that rammed the Komarr orbital mirror display did so accidentally or on purpose. Said mirror is an important element in the terraforming of Komarr, helping raise the average temperature there and augmenting the planet’s natural sunlight. Komarr itself is a colony of Barrayar which guards the sole wormhole that gives access to Barrayar and through which it had been invaded by the Cetagandans once already. Taking no chances, Barrayar therefore conquered Komarr and kept a tight grip on it ever since. Under Emperor Gregor Komarr has been put on a more equal footing, with the emperor himself due to marry a Komarran women. All of which makes the task to find out what happened at the Solyatta all the more important and the investigation incredibly delicate.

But Komarr starts with Ekaterin Vorsoisson, dutifully going through the motions of a now loveless marriage. Grown up with all the traditional notions about marriage, honour and a woman’s duty that being part of Barrayar’s Vor class, its aristocracy instills in its daughters, she feels she has no choice but to remain loyal to her husband, even if he does not deserve her loyalty. Her honour does not allow her otherwise, even though it costs her dearly. Not in the least because Tien, her husband, suffers from Vorzohn’s Dystrophy, a genetic disease that will kill him eventually if left untreated and which even worse is also present in her nine year old son Nikolai. It’s a treatable disease, but Tien refuses to take action unless he can do so outside the Barrayaran Empire, for fear of being branded a mutant. Barrayar’s long isolation from the rest of the Galaxy has given it a long history of genetic disease and fear of so-called mutants, something Miles with his own odd personal history, having been exposed to toxins while in the womb and as a result saddled with a short, out of proportion body and brittle bones, long since replaced by more sturdier replacements.

Miles and Ekaterin meet due to the simple reason that she’s the niece of his fellow Auditor and they’re both staying with her and Tien. On Miles’ side, it’s love at first glance. Ekaterin on the other hand, though oddly charmed by him, is stuck fast in her shell, built up through her long marriage with Tien, bound to her duty. And in the meantime there’s still the question of what happened at that orbital mirror and what her husband might have had to do with it. In the resolution of this Ekaterin plays a large role, showing that if she would return Miles’ love, she would be the ideal woman for him as she singlehandedly wrecks the plot of the conspiracy that caused the accidental sabotage. It’s a brilliant scene and made me whoop almost as loud as Miles threatens to do when he hears of it.

Komarr is told through a tight third person narrative, with viewpoints switching between Ekaterin and Miles in alternating chapters. The contrast between Miles’ usual exuberant personality and Ekaterin’s far tighter grip on her emotions is done well and subtlety so it comes across as natural rather than manufactured. Ekaterin is wholly believable and sympathetic, while Miles’ crush on her is completely in character as well. He is rather more restrained than in earlier novels, as the realities of his new career sink in. Characterisation on the whole is very good, with the nominal villains of the story having understandable motives for their actions, even coming across as sympathetic at one point.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The Pride of Chanur, CJ Cherryh

November 27, 2014

cherryh-pride_of_chanurThe Pride of Chanur, CJ Cherryh (1982)
Review by Martin Wisse

The Pride of Chanur is a trade ship run by Hani – a race of bipedal intelligent lions – of the Chanur house/clan, captained by Pyanfar Chanur. She’s doing the rounds of her ship, currently docked at Meetpoint, the big interspecies trading station run by the stsho, when something speeds past her into the ship. At first thinking it some kind of animal escaped from another ship, it turns out to be sapient, but “naked-hided, blunth-toothed and blunt-fingered” unlike any species she knows, something that after careful questioning calls itself human and turns out to have escaped Kif custody, the Kif being a particularly nasty race of black robed, grey skinned, long snouted pirates and thiefs. She refuses to hand it – him – over to them and the result is she and her ship have to flee Meetpoint, one step ahead of the murderous Kif, who in the process blow up and murder another Hani ship…

If the descriptions of the alien races here sound vaguely familiar, it might be because you’re an old skool Master of Orion player and are reminded of the alien races there. Either through sheer coincidence or a bit of influence, that game ended up with a lot of similar races to the novel. The background is also reminiscent of MOO. Several intelligent species discovering interstellar travel at the roughly the same time, both oxygen and methane breathers over time have managed to reach a Compact, through which peaceful trade and other contacts are possible. They may not understand each other that well, but enough to trade or at least leave each other alone. It reminded me of the trading/diplomacy aspects of Master of Orion. Is it any wonder that rereading The Pride of Chanur also made me want to play MOO again?

But the other thing that reading The Pride of Chanur reminded me off was this song: ‘Stress’, by French electronic group Justice, and what you feel watching the clip. Because if there’s anything that makes Cherryh stand out as a science fiction writer is how much stress she puts on her characters, even in a relatively lighthearted story like this. From the start, even before the story proper begins, Pyanfar is under pressure, having her young niece Hilfy on board for her first voyage. Once the human, Tully, is on board and they are being chased from the Meetpoint system by the Kif things get worse.

Pyanfar has to deal with seemingly untrustworthy allies, Mahendo’sat, a kind of evolved squirrels, not to mention inscrutable methane breathers, the knnnn, blundering around as well as having political troubles back home, as a perhaps Kif influenced coup is undertaken against her uncle’s mastery of the Chanur clan. This combined with the sheer physical stress of jumping between star systems, especially with consecutive jumps and it’s understandable almost every physical description of Pyanfar has her haggard and tired, not to mention having her hair fall out in clumps…

It doesn’t always make for easy reading. The same goes for Cherryh’s writing style. She wants you to pay attention, doesn’t often repeat herself and drops little clues in when you least expect them. Terse is the right word for it. Reading any of her novels therefore takes some effort, much more so than, eg, a Lois McMaster Bujold. Which can be a bit of a problem when reading one on a warm tram at the end of a long working day…

The Pride of Chanur is the first book in a series, but stands alone. If you’re new to Cherryh, it’s a good introduction to her strengths and style; if you know her already you’ve already read this, right?

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.


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