Darkover Landfall, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1972)
Review by Joachim Boaz
Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999), most famous for her Arthurian fantasy novel Mists of Avalon (1983) from late in her career, published countless SF works starting in the late 1940s. Her first novel The Planet Savers (1958) introduced readers to the massive and complex Darkover sequence of works — by far her most famous and iconic contribution to SF.
Darkover Landfall is a somewhat routine adventure (with a good dose of social commentary) which, according to internal chronology, is the beginning of the vast Darkover series. Although I cannot speak for the rest of the sequence as this is the first of Bradley’s novels I’ve read, I found Darkover Landfall a problematic and inarticulate novel despite the always seductive colonizing an alien world premise.
Sometime near the end of the 21st century a colony ship is thrown off course due to a gravitational storm and crashes on an unknown planet. The original destination was an already established colony. However, the new planet they find themselves stranded on, Cottman IV, has yet to be even surveyed and contains inhospitable mountains, mysterious natives, frequent forest fires, strange clouds of mind-altering pollen, and few useful or easily accessible metals. Over the course of the novel, both the crew and the colonists are forced to reconcile themselves to a difficult new life where rescue is virtually impossible. However, this new life will be a much more primitive one due to the lack of natural resources.
Imbued into the standard colonizing a new world plot are often successful attempts at social commentary (at least in the first half of the novel): for example, themes related to the “Terran Bill of Rights” that governs society on Earth: “No law shall be made or formulated abridging the rights of any human being to equal work regardless of racial origin, religion or sex” (p17). Rafael MacAran, one of the main characters, is forced to abandon his traditionalist/sexist views of women after he is ordered to take along female scientists on his survey trips despite his hollow protestations: “I asked for men on this trip. It’s some mighty rough ground” (p17). He of course tells himself that “he is no male chauvinist” (p15) but takes along men who are physically unable to make the difficult journeys across the mountain ranges.
There is also a running commentary on the effects of overpopulation on Earth and how the social positions that were created by it have to be abandoned in the new colony. Bradley postulates that in an overpopulated future where birth control is easy to access and universally accepted, “a wave of feeling had made abortion completely unthinkable. Unwanted children were simply never conceived” (p60) (her discussion does not include rape). Women have children only when they want to. However, on alien planets, according to Bradley’s biological extrapolations, the fertility of women is lower and this choice has to be addressed.
This biological principle the novel adheres to, i.e. fertility is lower for women on alien worlds due to mysterious planetary effects, segues into a very troubling theme: does the individual woman or her male dominated community control her uterus. Bradley’s answer is straightforward — the community. Considering how most of the novel is concerned with pointing out the hypocrisy of sexist men, such a stance strikes me as bizarre. Camilla, the second in command of the colony ship, is forced to acquiesce to societal demands that she deliver her child — remember, there’s no birth control…
This is further compounded by a periodic flare-up of a mind-altering pollen cloud that causes everyone to have massive orgies. In short, pregnancy results whether a woman wants to get pregnant or not — not only does she have to keep the child, she has to refrain from any physical labor while she is pregnant! For example, “Colony women have to be pampered” (p100) due to the potential infertility, stretches of low fertility, and the potential health defects of the fetus (caused by working?). In short, the egalitarian Terran Bill of Rights referenced above has to be abandoned. In Earth societies where a lack of medical advances (in the current day and the past) made pregnancy extremely dangerous to the mother and child, the mother is still forced to work in order to provide for her family. This would definitely be the case on a resource poor planet! Not only is Bradley’s extrapolation of the role of women in a low-technology colonial society poorly researched, but is also socially regressive.
As Bradley’s fellow SF novelists Vonda McIntyre and Joanna Russ pointed out in articles on the novel, her discussion of the role of the female colonists — who are mysteriously the only gender whose fertility is decreased by the alien environment — is often frustrating. Russ’ early complaints even categorized it as antifeminist… I have not found any indication that there was a satirical intention on Bradley’s part.
Also, the fantasy-imbued world — for example, fairy-like aliens who live in the woods and strange telepathy enhancing crystals — will not appeal to everyone.
Vaguely recommended for fans of straightforward pulp SF adventures imbued with a good dose of social commentary. Although neither the plot nor the commentary is altogether successful.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.
We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Martin Wisse
We Who Are About To… is arguably Joanna Russ’ most famous and controversial novel after The Female Man. That novel became famous because of its outspoken feminism, still rare in science fiction at the time; if we’re honest, still somewhat rare today. We Who Are About To… committed a greater sin however, by attacking the optimistic, can do attitude of classic science fiction, the belief that any adversity can be overcome by man’s unique fighting spirit. It’s not just that the protagonist doesn’t win in the end; even Asimov the arch-optimist had written ‘Founding Father’ ten years earlier, a story in which four astronauts fight but fail to terraform a planet before it kills them. No, the real problem is that she rejects the choice out of hand and chooses not to fight, not even to try.
That of course went against the grain, with plenty of science fiction fans being outraged about it, if I can believe the contemporary fan publications. But We Who Are About To… is about more than just rejecting science fiction’s traditional morality, it’s also a novel about how die. Slightly over half way through the story the central conflict of whether or not to fight has already been resolved, in favour of not to. The rest of the story is all about how you die. This part of the book has received less attention than the first half.
The plot is simple. A small, mixed group of interstellar travellers crashland on an unexplored planet barely liveable, far away from civilisation. Their hopes of being picked up are almost nil. They have shelter in form of the lifeboat that has set them down and enough supplies, water and tools for several months. They’ve no idea if there’s life on the planet and whether or not they can eat it, or it can eat them. The outlook is bleak, but they are all determined to make a go for it. All, but one, our protagonist, who is the only one to realise that rebuilding civilisation is not on the cards and wants nothing to do with it.
She argues as such, but is overruled. Civilisation is going to be restored, which means the women will need to start populating the world and make babies. Our hero obviously doesn’t agree with this and fight backs, eventually escaping the camp and moving away somewhere where she can die in peace. In the end she ends up killing everybody when they won’t leave her alone, then dies herself.
Russ does load the dice a bit. The narrator herself is an elderly, slightly embittered, cynical, “difficult” no-nonsense woman, not dissimilar to some of Russ’ heroines from The Female Man. We see events only from her point of view and she has little sympathy for any of her fellow passengers, who all come across as nasty stereotypes one way or another. The successful business man and woman and their bratty daughter, the strong but dim ex-football player, the smug, status aware but intellectually stagnant professor, the blonde floozy, the bitter young woman who hates everybody. Almost from the start they are all hostile against her, the men all determined to play pioneer, the women, apart from her, content to go along with this. The others are more than happy to force the narrator into going along with their agenda, tying her to a tree and raping her if need be. It’s not subtly done, which somewhat lessens the impact, but sometimes you need a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.
Once the narrator has escaped and killed her shipmates, not without some regrets, the story’s focus switches to how she deals with dying. She doesn’t commit suicide, just moves away from the lifeboat back to the cave where she hid before and stops eating. It takes time for her to die this way and she has long days to think about her life and to deal with any regrets she had about it, or about what she did to the other survivors. She hallucinates, but is never unaware that these are hallucinations, she gets weaker, slips away more and more and finally dies quietly: “well it’s time”.
This was the same way my wife died when she stopped treatment last year, well, without all the killing of course and how Russ described it was both familiar and emotional for me. She got the process right, the way in which it seems to drag out, then goes much more quickly than you expected, then suddenly the end is there. For me this was far more confrontational, far more powerful than the first half of the story.
I’m not sure in the end whether We Who Are About To… is actually a good novel, rather than a strident one. It was certainly a necessary one, a much needed kick in the pants to science fiction’s innate sense of human superiority.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.
Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Review by Adam Whitehead
AD 2352. Humanity is divided into two factions, the Company which rules over Earth and the Sol system, and the Union, which rules over the outer colonies and worlds. In between are a narrow band of independent stations, nominally loyal to the Company but open to all traders and merchants. For years the Company and Union have been at war, but Earth’s appetite for conflict is dwindling. In the end they have withdrawn practical support for their offensive fleet under Captain Mazian, leaving him a rogue agent whose goals and loyalties are suspect.
Caught in the middle of these turbulent times is Pell Station, circling the planet Downbelow in the Tau Ceti system. The closest independent station to Earth, it is a logical place for refugees from the warzone to flee to, straining resources to the limit. The Konstantin family which controls Pell Station struggles against the competing demands of Mazian’s fleet, the refugees, the station’s existing complement and the Company, and must also guard against infiltration from the Union, whose vast resources are finally gaining the upper hand in the conflict.
Downbelow Station was originally published in 1981, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel the following year. It seems to be regarded as the best entry-point for Cherryh’s Alliance-Union setting, a vast future history spanning centuries of mankind’s expansion into space and its division between different factions, and the various conflicts it faces. The setting encompasses several dozen novels published out of chronological order and divided into confusing sub-series, making it perhaps the serious SF counterpart to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld work in being slightly daunting for newcomers. Luckily, Downbelow Station makes a solid starting point for those interested in exploring the setting.
The novel’s setting is classic space opera. An opening prologue sets out the history of humanity’s expansion into space and the background of the Company Wars before we are dropped straight into the action, with the personnel of Pell Station, the mining settlement on Downbelow and the carrier Norway all struggling to handle the refugee crisis. Cherryh successfully gives the impression that this is an ongoing story and history, where we are simply dropping in to observe a crucial moment and are then pulled out again at the end. This process works quite well.
Overall, the book is solid, with some interesting characters who are drawn with depth, but where what is left unsaid about them (particularly Mazian, Mallory and Josh) is as important as what is. There’s also a nice inversion of cliché, with an initial figure who appears to be the typical bureaucratic buffoon is later revealed as a more intelligent and interesting character. There is also a fair amount of ruthlessness in the book, with major characters disposed of with little forewarning, but also a reasonable amount of humanity and warmth. Cherryh has a reputation for creating interesting alien races, and whilst the native ‘Downers’ of Downbelow are initially simplistic, they rapidly become better-drawn as the story proceeds as their full potential emerges, even if they’re not really all that ‘alien’.
On the minus side, after the initial burst of action accompanying the refugee fleet’s arrival, the novel takes a good 200 pages or so to fully work up to speed. During this period the book becomes bogged down in Cherryh’s sometimes odd prose and dialogue structures (terse, short sentences short on description are favoured throughout). The lack of description extends to the worldbuilding and even space combat. We are given very little information on what weapons the ships use in battles (mentions of chaff suggest missiles, but we are never told that for sure), whilst the economic structure of the merchant ships and the independent stations appears under-developed. Those used to the immense, Tolkien-in-space-style SF worldbuilding of modern SF authors like Peter F Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, Alastair Reynolds, may find the thinness of the setting somewhat unconvincing (at least at this early stage). In addition, Cherryh’s use of technology is somewhat inconsistent. None of the humans use implants, there are no AIs or robots, and everyone taps commands manually into computer consoles, yet at the same time there are also sophisticated memory-altering techniques and FTL drives.
Downbelow Station is ultimately a good novel and an intriguing introduction into what could be an interesting SF setting. However, it suffers from occasionally obtuse writing and some unconvincing worldbuilding, and it certainly isn’t better than The Claw of the Conciliator, The Many-Coloured Land and Little, Big - the books it trounced to win the Hugo.
This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.
Star Rider, Doris Piserchia (1974)
Review by Ian Sales
There is a tradition in science fiction of the fix-up novel, in which a writer cobbles together a novel out of several short stories, often adding linking text to create a single narrative out of the lot. Doris Piserchia’s second novel, Star Rider, is as far as I can determine not a fix-up novel. But it reads like one.
The novel breaks down more or less into three sections which, while they may share the same cast and setting, appear to have entirely separate focuses. In the first, the reader is introduced to Lone – later called Jade – a young female jak, and her mount, Hinx. Jaks are humans with the ability to travel the stars using some sort of mental power. They can only do this when they are riding a mount. (The cover art may show Hinx as a horse, but the text makes clear mounts are descended from dogs. Nor does Jade appear fifteen-years-old on the cover.) Using D-2, the jaks travel about the D-3 universe, searching for the mythical planet of Doubleluck. They are as a race fiercely independent and hedonistic. Jade is neither unusual nor – initially – exceptional. Piserchia presents the jaks much like riders of the old Wild West, even down to the debased English they use.
Jade and Hinx are followed and caught by Big Jak and his mount, Volcano. He has determined that she is potentially dangerous – and she proves it by discovering Doubleluck… Or rather, she discovers Earth, the origin of humanity, which is now a dead and ruined planet. So he traps her on a world with himself and mount-less jak called Shaper. The latter spends most of his time making hats out of metal, which block the jaks’ mental powers. Jade tries on one of the hats, but cannot remove it. She asks Big Jak to take her to Earth, which he does. She then spends several chapters trying to survive on the dead world…
But when Big Jak comes to rescue her, and uses a device from an Earth museum to destroy the hat she is wearing, they are attacked by dreens. Jade is captured, taken to the world of Gibraltar and put in an insane asylum. Apparently, the people of Gibraltar think the jaks should be “cured”, and so send their guardians and police, the dreens, out to capture them. Jade has been separated from Hinx but, unusually, she does not go mad as a result. Eventually, she is permitted to leave the asylum and enter Gibraltar society. Although the world has no government or leadership, it does not appear to be free or anarchic. Jade is educated and learns much of the world… and the dreens, who are its secret rulers. She also discovers that the dreens are spreading a rumour among the jaks that Doubleluck has been found. Without that to search for, they are committing suicide.
In the final third of the book, Jade steals a dreen mount and escapes Gibraltar. She finds Hinx and the two are reunited. They head for Earth, where Jade is convinced Doubleluck exists and is hidden. She finds it – a fantastic jewelled city inside a mountain. But the dreens have tracked her there, and with their leader Rulon – who wants to take Jade as his consort – they occupy the city. During her escape, Jade had found Hinx on the planet of the varks. These are creatures which appear to be part jet-engine, and much as mounts do they can telepathically communicate with jaks.
Eventually, the dreens come a cropper, Jade admits Doubleluck does not exist, but offers the jaks something better – she knows how to leave the galaxy, something jaks have been trying to do for millennia.
I’m not entirely sure a plot précis can quite get across the strange flavour of this novel. The weird swerves in emphasis during each of the three sections take some getting used to. And the opening section, with its varmintest varmints jaks and mounts reads like some bizarre pastiche of the Wild West for no good reason. In all other respects, Star Rider is very much a book of its time. Much of the story is carried in dialogue, the cast is entirely male but for Jade, and she is so exceptional she actually saves the universe. While Piserchia’s prose may be a little better than, say, Heinlein’s, and her imagination a great deal stranger, this is very much a heartland science fiction novel of the early 1970s. It’s an interesting read, but I’m not sure it would ever be called a good one.
Incidentally, while the cover art on this review shows the original Bantam paperback, it was later republished by The Women’s Press in 1987.
Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold (1991)
Review by Adam Whitehead
Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony has married Aral Vorkosigan, the Imperial Regent, and is now living on Barrayar, the homeworld of her former enemies. Cordelia is bewildered by Barrayaran society, which is militaristic, elitist, feudal and unforgiving of physical infirmity or weakness. As she sets out to try to make a fairer life for her family and friends, they are all swept up in political intrigue and civil war when Vorkosigan’s regency is challenged.
Barrayar is less the sequel to than the direction continuation of Shards of Honour, the first novel in The Vorkosigan Saga. This is understandable, as Bujold wrote them as one one long novel, but broke off before Barrayar was very far underway and ended up writing a whole bunch of other novels before getting back to this one. This sabbatical was for the good, as Barrayar is a significant improvement over the lacklustre Shards of Honour, featuring much more interesting characterisation and a more a gripping plot.
As before, the book is told from the POV of Cordelia and the book is focused heavily on her characterisation as she adjusts to life on a new world. Exploring Barrayar from the outside is a good idea, as Cordelia gets to express the reader’s disbelief that such a techno-feudal society could even exist. There are some great moments as well where natives of Barrayar try to ‘shock’ Cordelia (such as with rumours of a gay affair between two male lords) with scandals only for her to find them bafflingly ordinary and inoffensive. It would be easy for Bujold to make Cordelia arrogant and superior about such things, but she plays fair and on one or two occasions Cordelia has to admit where her own world has gotten things wrong, and where Barrayar may have better ideas (though the reverse situation is much frequent).
In the first novel, Cordelia was stoic to the point of being emotionally inert, but in the sequel she is a much better-nuanced character who reacts more believably to events. Bujold never lets us forget that Cordelia is a trained and professional military officer, so her crisis-management skills and tendency to personally take part in dangerous missions herself are well-founded. The theme of motherhood is also explored, as Cordelia falls pregnant only for her unborn child to suffer injuries in an attempted assassination attempt. Barrayaran tradition would be to have the child aborted, but Cordelia causes a scandal by using imported Betan technology to save his life at the cost of leaving him crippled, to the fury of her father-in-law. The resulting tension may be obvious (‘baby in danger’ is a bit old-school for an SF trope) but it works quite well.
In the latter part of the novel, when open civil war erupts, Bujold’s decision to stick with Cordelia as the POV character pays dividends. Normally in a big SF novel, the author would adopt a multi-POV approach, or stick with the characters in the thick of the action. Instead, Cordelia is cut off from the outside world and has to lie low in the countryside without a clue as to how things are progressing or where her husband is. This approach is purposefully frustrating, as we share Cordelia’s annoyance at not knowing what’s happening and it works quite well.
On the negative side of things, the focus on Cordelia compromises the characterisation of secondary characters. Aral Vorkosigan himself remains a fairly distant figure and Cordelia’s staff get mixed treatment. Bothari is a sympathetic-but-tragic character with an edge of unpleasantness to him, making him a fairly complex and interesting character for the ‘badass big arse-kicker’ trope. Droushnakovi and Koudelka are likable characters but their inability to progress their relationship and their comedy of manners of constantly misunderstanding what the other person is doing briefly made me think I’d picked up one of the weaker Wheel of Time novels. Cordelia serving as counsellor and den-mother to her staff is an interesting idea, but it slows down the pacing at critical junctures. There’s also the bigger problem that Barrayar is not really convincing as an SF society and is rather unpleasant. Though this gives us empathy with Cordelia, it also means that the intricacies and court politics of Barrayaran society come across as being rather flat. And probably the less said about the cliched villain, the better.
Barrayar is a huge improvement over its forebear, featuring a far more interesting storyline, some accomplished worldbuilding (although of an unpleasant and unlikable world) and better characterisation of the protagonist, despite some more mixed results for the secondary cast.
This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.
A Spaceship Built of Stone, Lisa Tuttle (1987)
Review by Ian Sales
Back in 1975, two authors who had yet to have novels published collaborated on a novella. It was published in Analog, was shortlisted for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and placed first in the Locus Poll for novellas. Two more novellas followed, in 1980 and 1981, the bulk of the work apparently done by only one of the authors. The other writer, however, had since had a collection and a novel published. In 1981, a fix-up novel of the three novellas was published, the debut of novel of one of the pair. In the decades since… one author had nine novel in a variety of genres and six collections published, while the other wrote a further three novels, edited a successful series of shared-world anthologies, before turning his hand to epic fantasy and becoming one of the best-selling writers in genre fiction. That 1981 fix-up novel was Windhaven and, obviously, one of its authors was Lisa Tuttle. The other was George RR Martin. And it’s a shame Tuttle’s career has not followed the same trajectory as Martin’s because she’s plainly the better of the two writers… as this collection, A Spaceship Built of Stone, plainly shows.
While the stories in this collection are all science fiction, not all of them read like science fiction – they skirt the edge of genre, they flirt with genre tropes, they make use of science fiction’s toolbox but refuse to place themselves firmly in the genre landscape. And that is perhaps their greatest strength.
In opening story ‘No Regrets’, a published poet returns to the university town in which she once lived fifteen years before to take up a post as a visiting lecturer. She had not been a student at the university, but her boyfriend had and she’d moved to the town to be with him. He wanted her to marry him, but she wanted to be a poet… so she left him. She is lent a house owned by the university in which to stay… and it proves to be the one she’d shared with that boyfriend of years before. Who is still at the university, but now a lecturer. The house proves to be haunted – not by ghosts, but by echoes of the life the poet might have led had she chosen to stay with her boyfriend all those years ago. And when she gets to meet her ex-boyfriend – now married, with two children of his own – and they discuss the life they might have lived had she stayed… Well, there’s a superb deconstruction of the ex-boyfriend’s perception of what might have happened had they actually married. Read this story not for its central premise but for the excellent way Tuttle uses it to interrogate women’s roles.
Women’s roles are also central to ‘Wives’… except the wives of the title are not human, but the natives of some alien world that has been conquered by humans. The “wives” use techniques unique to their alien nature, as well as those used by human women, so as to effect the appearance their husbands desire. But Susie begins to question the role she has been forced to play:
She thought about going back to her house in the settlement and wrapping herself in a new skintight and then selecting the proper dress and shoes to make a good impression on the returning Jack; she thought about painting her face and putting rings on her fingers. (p 29)
She thinks the wives should reject the parts they are playing, throw off their disguises, and return to the lives they led before the humans came. She is persuaded against this by the other wives because all that would happen… is what has already happened. It’s perhaps not the subtlest of allegories, but it makes its point forcefully and intelligently.
‘The Family Monkey’ is one of the longest stories in the collection. An alien crashlands in Texas in the nineteenth century and is taken in by a nearby family. The alien cannot talk, and its telepathy has been severely restricted by injuries sustained during the crash. Over the generations – the story is told in the voice of one member from each generation – the alien remains with the family, and at least one member can communicate emotionally with it. Until the present day, when its fellows contact Earth and arrived to take it home. But the alien’s presence in the family has led to changes in the women – they have become more independent. One goes off to New York to study, and on her return finds the courage to stand up to her father. And another in the present day doesn’t want to go away with the alien because her telepathy makes her a freak. ‘The Family Monkey’ feels a little like two stories welded together – one set in the nineteenth century and one set in the present day – and suffers as a result.
The wrasse, a brightly-coloured fish found in on the Great Barrier Reef, apparently exhibits unusual social behaviour. Each male has a harem of up to six female fish, but when the male dies, one of the female takes over his role and biologically changes sex to do so. This is the central premise of ‘Mrs T’, in which a journalist visits a woman who has discovered something important. There’s no much that is unexpected in this story, and though the writing is good its predictability makes it seem a lighter read than it is.
Though the title might suggest otherwise, ‘The Bone Flute’ is one of only a few stories in A Spaceship Built of Stone which inhabits genre heartland. It is set in a sketchily-described interstellar civilisation, and involves a trip to a world that has been cut off from the mainstream of humanity for several centuries. The protagonist is a trader and has taken her toy boy, Venn, with on her trip to the world of Habille. The world is notable for the fact its inhabitants form life-long attachments – in direct contrast to the trader and Vann. While visiting a small village, the two witness a man playing haunting music on a flute, and he later explains that the flute was made from a bone of his dead, and still much-loved, wife. Venn then falls in love with a local woman and decides to stay on Habille, despite being warned by the trader that he must remain committed to his new lover for the rest of his life (and she knows he’s incapable of doing so). A decade later, on another world, the trader is present at a recital given by a bone flute player from Habille – and it is the woman her boyfriend left her for. Venn is also present. But the flute player tells the trader that the flute is made from the bone of her dead lover… Apparently, there was some controversy around this story and its Nebula Award nomination – see here.
The title story is based on one of those superb premises every genre writer wishes they had. Tuttle only skims lightly across the top of the premise, rather than interrogates it rigorously, and while she uses the same approach in some of the other stories in A Spaceship Built of Stone, here it demonstrates its effectiveness. A teaching assistant at a university is using dreams as a topic for discussion, and himself dreams of visiting a ruined city in a desert, beneath which the inhabitants are hiding in tunnels. On the bus to the university, he sits beside a young woman he finds attractive and sees that she has doodled in her sketchbook a design he remembers from his dream. They discover their dreams matched… as do a further five of his students in his class. Some time later, a new Anasazi ruin is discovered in New Mexico, and it resembles the ruined city the teaching assistant and the other dreamt. And then the Anasazi are among them, as if they had never died out, and they petition the US government for their ruined city… No one seems surprised or puzzled by this except the protagonist, who theorises about a people who use dreams to prepare their way before peacefully infiltrating Earth and becoming just one more culture on the planet.
‘The Cure’ refers to an injection designed “to stimulate and strengthen the body’s own defences against microscopic invaders” (p 128). But babies born to women who have taken the Cure prove to be without language. A woman has given birth to such a son and she appears to have lost language in sympathy. The story is addressed to the woman by her lover, who wonders if she too might end up the same but wlecomes it if it means saving their relationship.
Ron has died but Felicia has paid for him to be “revived”, but in ‘The Hollow Man’ the husband who comes home from the hospital is not the man she remembers. As the title suggests, there is something missing inside him – and this is apparently true of all of those who have been revived, though their loved ones may refuse to see it. Ron originally committed suicide, but since being revived he can’t even care enough to do it again. He will go on living as a revived person because to do anything would require some sort of commitment. Again, the shape of story is hardly unexpected once the set-up has been described, but Tuttle’s story is not about Ron and his struggle to survive, it’s about Felicia and her relationship with the person she knows to be her husband.
If ‘The Other Kind’ feels a little old-fashioned in plot, the sort of story that might not have looked out of place in a 1960s or 1970s sf magazine, the way the story is told certainly owes more to the New Wave. The humans on the world of Ederra live lives of plenty, waited on hand on foot by the native Ederrans, or Teddies. The aliens are not slaves, the humans tell themselves, because they work for the humans out of love. The narrator is a young man who feels at odds with his fellows humans, and is increasingly drawn to the Ederrans – even sexually. He explores his new feelings, enters into a relationship with an Ederran, and discovers that it is possible, through surgery, to become a Teddy. Except what he learns as he undergoes his transformation is not what he had believed. Perhaps the final revelation is not exactly a surprise,
The final story, ‘Birds of the Moon’, is the most overtly fantastical of the stories in the collection. Amalie dreams of cold birds on the Moon, and has done since her husband Jim, an Apollo astronaut, returned from there. He is also having an affair, but when Amalie is confronted by her husband’s lover in the supermarket she knows the affair is not serious. Meanwhile, her daughter Carmen is – autistic? Amalie has lost her husband – not physically but certainly emotionally, a result of his lunar mission. Nor can her daughter connect emotionally to her, or indeed anyone else. This is what the birds are. Stories featuring astronauts, especially ones from real space programmes, I feel need to be solidly grounded in detail, because there is something extraordinary in the profession and to treat it like any other fails to make use of that. While Jim’s experiences have created the situation described in ‘Birds of the Moon’, his background doesn’t really impinge, other than providing the central metaphor and some of the imagery used to describe it. This is a story that bears rereading, but I would have preferred it be better earthed, so to speak.
For a collection published in 1987 and containing stories published between 1976 and 1985, A Spaceship Built of Stone is very strong. The title story alone is worth the price of admission. Some of the others perhaps feel a little well-worn these days, though there’s no denying they’re written in classy prose and several still have power. ‘No Regrets’, ‘Wives’ and ‘Birds of the Moon’ are good, the ending of ‘The Bone Flute’ lifts it above other stories of its type, and ‘The Hollow Man’ works really well because it is not about the titular character.
Jo Fletcher Books is apparently in the process of republishing Lisa Tuttle’s back-catalogue, and A Spaceship Built of Stone is already available as an ebook. I don’t know if a paperback edition is planned, but if you have an ereader then this is certainly a collection worth buying.
Mister Da V., Kit Reed (1967)
Review by Joachim Boaz
Kit Reed has been publishing literary, thought-provoking, and darkly satirical sci-fi + speculative fiction + non-genre fiction since the late 1950s… And she is still going strong — her most recent novel Son of Destruction came out last year. Reed’s collection Mister Da V. and Other Stories contains three stories from the late 50s including her first published work, ‘The Wait’ (variant title: ‘To be Taken to a Strange Country’) and ten others from the 1960s. A few of the stories in the collection are not overtly science fiction — regardless, one could argue that all but ‘I am Through with Bus Trips’ contain speculative and/or sci-fi elements.
Most stories are deceptively simple moral fables that put a twist on everyday family life. For example, a mother daughter trip in the countryside becomes a sinister nightmare — ‘To Be Taken in a Strange Country’ (variant title: ‘Wait’). And in ‘At Central’ a boy’s harmless crush on a television actress causes him to uncover the truth about the world. ‘At Central’, ’The New You’, and ‘Automatic Tiger’ are the best of the collection. They are told with energy and wit and bitterly rip into the heart of things with relentless glee.
‘To Be Taken in a Strange Country’ (variant title: ‘Wait’) (1958): A dark and surreal fable in what might be a post-apocalyptical landscape (but perhaps that is a stretch). A mother and daughter head out on a car trip in order “to reassure themselves that there were other people in the town, in Georgia, in the world” (p 8). They arrive at the town of Babylon which appears to be a normal place. However, the town square is filled with beds under the trees where the ill and dying reside waiting to be cured. But, there are no doctors… The mother falls ill and doesn’t mind sleeping all day with the other ladies under the trees while various medicines are applied with the half chance that they work. And the daughter is forced to confront her new world and the wishes of her mother who doesn’t detect (or is purposefully oblivious to) the sinister undercurrents of what is really happening. The coercive powers of small town life allegorically embodied….
‘Devotion’ (1958): ”Harry Farmer loved his teeth” (p 24). He really loves his teeth. More than anything else in the world. And the world knows that he loves his teeth and while his friends’ teeth decay and fall out he shows his off with glee. But everyone must grow old but Harry has a plan to con his friends into believing his teeth are still perfect. Another slightly fantastic but sinister allegory….
‘The Reign of Tarquin the Tall’ (1958): An unusual assortment of characters — children and thirty-year olds — live together in a house. Lukey obsesses over his ant colony which he believes is a microcosm of the world “and if doesn’t like the way things are going, he’s going to take an axe and destroy the whole thing — and when he does, that the world will go too, under some bigger axe” (p 34). Martin and Leroy play with their play spaceship. And Tarquin declares himself king of the house and invents rituals of power…. And the truant officer — concerned with the kids in the house who have skipped school — threatens to destroy their strange existence.
‘Ordeal’ (1960): The first overtly science fiction story in the collection concerns a drugged future where most everyone resides in massive cities hooked up to machines which pump happy drugs into the system. But Dario isn’t interested in living this type of existence — he’s transfixed by the small bands of warriors who wander in-between the cities fighting their increasingly ritualistic battles. Soon Dario meets Andrew who had previously attempted to join the warrior band. But there are ordeals of entry to this exclusive group.
‘Judas Bomb’ (1961): A post-apocalyptic future where youth gangs have taken over America. Few adults remain alive…. And the youth end their lives — often fighting other gangs — by the age of twenty. Netta is the head of the Hypettes, the female members of the Hypos gang. Netta and Johnny set out to steal a bomb from a rival gang. She’s the only one who has a plan… Despite the heroic intelligent female character whom we root for, the context of her actions and the outcome is purposefully nihilistic. A march towards inevitable entropy…
‘Piggy’ (1961): In the hands of a lesser writer this story would have been giggle inducing rather than deeply moving. A mysterious form descends from the sky and impregnates a mare on Theron’s farm. Theron, a young boy, becomes intensely attached to the offspring of this mating, a strangely proportion/weak/oddly pink horse-like creature named Piggy. Theron discovers that Piggy, despite its physical ailments, has other properties… Theron’s father on the other hand is frustrated that Piggy can’t pull a card or plow. I found this tale moving, and as with many of her others, on the surface deceptively simple.
‘Mister Da V.’ (1962): The narrator’s father hatches a money-making scheme to create a time machine and bring Leonardo da Vinci to the present. Instead of showing the world the great man, the father keeps him cloistered upstairs while he writes a book on Leonardo. The narrator and the narrator’s siblings find ways to communicate with Leonardo and soon he escapes downstairs. But Leonardo isn’t happy with his existence despite the growing knowledge that many of the marvels did in fact come to fruition.
‘The New You’ (1962): One of the best of the collection — this was recently included in Ian Sales’ list of 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women (although I would argue that ‘At Central’ is better)… ”Now — The New You” (p 109) the ad reads. All you have to do is buy the product and you will be transferred into a new body. Unfortunately, the old body still remains. Martha often pretends that she is more desirable and attractive. She even has conversations with her alter-ego, named Marnie, who possesses all the characteristics Martha wishes she had. Martha gives in and purchases the product. Marnie walks out of the box svelte, six inches taller, gorgeous, perfectly proportioned… Marnie and her husband become the center of attention, the talk of the town. But Martha still lives in the closet, eating chocolate, wandering around. A virulent and effective condemnation of commonly held conceptions of the relationship between beauty and worth. A particularly memorable and disturbing moment occurs when Marnie forces Martha to be a maid at their dinner party. Highly recommended.
‘Automatic Tiger’ (1964): Benedict means to get a present for his second cousin but when he brings home the incredibly expensive luxurious automatic, life-like, voice activated Royal Bengal Tiger he keeps it for himself. The Tiger seems to make Benedict more of a man…. And when their out running together he feels powerful, above the law. Soon he rises in the ranks at his business, successfully solicits his sultry secretary, the microphone that connects him to his tiger almost always around his neck. But soon he forgets about Ben the Tiger who gathers dust in the corner, whose luxurious whiskers droop and break. Explores similar themes as ‘The New You’.
‘I am Through with Bus Trips’ (1967): This contains neither fantastic or speculative elements and is the sole disappointment of the collection. The narrator, a cheerleader in grade school, wages a war against her history teacher Mr Armitage. Rivalries, cheerleaders, football players, etc — not my cup of tea.
‘Golden Acres’ (1967): Nelda and Hamish leave their home — compelled by their children — and head to a retirement home. The benefits promised are spectacular including around the clock medical care (and a hospital called The Tower of Hope), nice residences, tons of potential friends, clubs and societies. But then they arrive they discover that there are stringent rules on bedtimes and dinnertimes. “No clutter!” Mr Richardson proclaims sweeping their family photos away from sight…. Nelda and Hamish soon discover Golden Acres’ less golden core — is escape even possible? A satirical take on our treatment of elders.
‘At Central’ (1967): The best story in the collection. In an overpopulated future those who are able to procure housing sit in front of their televisions with their doors barred. Whenever an ad appears the TV’s coin slot guarantees the product is quickly transported to your home. Want the dinner the actress is eating? Simply insert coins and the chute will deliver it in no time… Experience the world through the TV. Van has a childhood crush on the actress Missy Beaton who winks at him through his personal TV set. Little does he know that his journey outside in search of Missy Beaton will result in him learning how much the world has changed since they locked themselves inside their rooms to escape the press of the crowds.
‘Janell Harmon’s Testament’ (1967): A vaguely fantastical story about a woman who cleans an immense castle owned by an Italian. She spends her entire time moving from room to room cleaning — cleaning becomes an obsession. When she gives birth she fears for the state of the castle…. And the dust that seeps over everything and the smudges and mold and wrinkles and diminishing sparkle of the candlesticks. She argues that castle, and the work it embodies, compelled her to act violently.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.