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Dangerous Games, Marta Randall

November 25, 2014

dangerous_gamesDangerous Games, Marta Randall (1980)
Review by Ian Sales

Dangerous Games is a direct sequel to Randall’s Journey (1978), and begins seven years after the end of that book. Once again, the Kennerin family, owners and settlers of the world of Aerie, are the focus of the story. In the earlier novel, they rescued several hundred people from concentration camps on NewHome, shortly before NewHome’s sun went nova (fighting off an incursion by the NewHome military in the process). They also set about planting a crop whose harvested sap can be used as a conductor in electronics. By the time Dangerous Games opens, the Kennerins have a small fleet of starships, a processing plant, and a successful business. They get on well with Aerie’s native kasirene (large four-armed kangaroo-like aliens), although the Kennerin internal family dynamics are not so smooth.

The novel starts in the viewpoint of Sandro Marquez, whose family invented, and was very successful at growing and selling, the same conducting sap grown by the Kennerins. But the Marquez family proved too successful and was subject to a hostile takeover by the Parallax Corporation. Sandro is on the run after killing the Parallax agent, and is taken aboard Jes Kennerin’s ship as a “Second” (which appears to be a first officer). Jes, it seems, has a habit of picking up “strays” and taking them home to Aerie, where they settle and become part of the extended Kennerin family. Also aboard the ship is engineer Beryl, but Sandro can’t work out her relationship with Jes. She’s a nasty piece of work, although he finds her sexually attractive. When Sandro eventually reveals his background to Jes, he is taken to Aerie to tell the rest of the Kennerins – because Aerie is likely to be Parallax’s next target.

On his next trip, Jes’s ship breaks down and he’s forced to land at Gensco for repairs. There he meets Tatha, the cat-like woman depicted on the front cover of the book. She is a genetically-engineered native of a very early human colony. Parallax is in the middle of a plan to takeover Gensco. Tatha wants to leave but the inhabitants of Gensco make it very difficult for transients. So Jes takes her back to Aerie.

Some time later, the kasirene decide that Hart Kennerin, who had been banished from Aerie in the previous book, but allowed to return home years later, has not made reparations to the kasirene. As a teenager, he had experimented on kasirene pups – until now, the kasirene had been satisfied with the punishment meted out by the Kennerin family, but now they want more (hardly surprising: banishment seems a feeble punishment for his crimes). This situation is only made worse by a kasirene agitator who has been telling the others that perhaps they’d be better off if Parallax bought out the Kennerins.

Tatha then moves to centre-stage, as she feels the Kennerins have underestimated the threat from Parallax. So she sets about creating a situation which will prompt the Federation to interfere and prevent a Parallax takeover. But she can’t tell anyone, and many of her actions initially seem to be directed against the Kennerins. It is this plan of hers to which the book’s title refers.

Dangerous Games is, like Journey, a pioneer novel transplanted to a science fiction milieu. But where that first book saw the hardy settlers choosing their land and settling down to build their town – and also welcome new settlers, and fight off the local bad guys – this one documents the next stage of such a town’s inevitable history, the rise of the indigenes and the threat of takeover and/or occupation by the local rapacious “railroad company”. The kasirene, despite their appearance, are pretty much ersatz Native Americans and some facets of their culture are little more than that of assorted Native American historical culture with the numbers filed off. Even the argument about swapping one set of human occupiers for another is one that has precedent in American history. And if Randall paints the Kennerins as liberal, tolerant and benign “owners” of the kasirene planet, she frequently tries to offset this by showing how dysfunctional they are as a family.

But that too is simply part of the pattern. Melodramas and soap operas and pioneer dramas all seem to be powered by the internal dynamics of the central family, and the more dysfunctional that family is the more powerful the engine of the story. Randall’s world-building is relatively light – there’s enough scaffolding around the FTL, with its “tau” and “grabs”, so it doesn’t fall over and kill suspension of disbelief; but there’s little else in the book that differs much from the late 1970s. Some quick and dirty extrapolations now seem quaint, if not bizarrely wrong – data held on tapes, everything done on paper, no personal communicators, computers still expensive and discrete and not integrated into everything. Dangerous Games is science fiction as tales of other worlds and other times that will never come to pass, even though the reader is expected to believe – or at least suspend their disbelief – in such an eventuality. Given that this novel and its predecessor are about people and their interactions, rather than big ideas or mind-bending concepts, the essentially make-believe nature of the setting seems irrelevant. The same story could well be told in early nineteenth century North America, and very little in broad stroke would need to be changed. But science fiction allows more freedom, and Randall makes good use of it. True, Parallax is a staple cliché of many genres of fiction; and the narrative arc of Dangerous Games is far from unique to science fiction… But none of this spoils the book. If anything, Dangerous Games is a more involving read than Journey, and its story seems more science-fictional, its setting and narrative better integrated into the genre corpus.

I suspect Randall had more tales to tell about the Kennerin family but, except for a brief mention in A City in the North, their story ends here. To understand and enjoy Dangerous Games, Journey really should be read first. Although the packaging may not explicitly state it, the two books are very much a diptych.

Sign of the Labrys, Margaret St Clair

November 20, 2014

signofthelabrysSign of the Labrys, Margaret St Clair (1963)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Margaret St. Clair was one of a handful of prolific women SF authors who started publishing short fiction in the late 1940s – her first SF story was ‘Rocket to Limbo’ for the November 1946 issue of Fantastic Adventures. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s she published eight slim novels, mostly Ace Doubles (paired with authors such as Philip K Dick and Kenneth Bulmer). Regardless of her earlier publishing prowess – by the publication date of Sign of the Labrys she had four novels in print and somewhere around 125 short stories – Bantam Books felt the need to include the following back cover:

WOMEN ARE WRITING SCIENCE-FICTION!

ORIGINAL! BRILLIANT!! DAZZLING!!!

Women are closer to the primitive than men. They are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind’s obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel. Such a woman is Margaret St. Clair, author of this novel. Such a novel is this, SIGN OF THE LABRYS, the story of a doomed world of the future, saved by recourse to ageless, immemorial rites…

FRESH! IMAGINATIVE!! INVENTIVE!!!

Unfortunately, Sign of the Labrys is a disappointing read. The post-plague world is dark and creepy and for the first half an uncanny (palpable) tension permeates. But, ultimately the fantastic setting, revisionist stance on the normal pulp gender dynamics, are weakened by a disjointed (verging on amateur) narrative filled with Wiccan “craft” practices and references. As other reviewers have pointed out, one could easily substitute the Wicca magic with the pulp SF staple “psi-power” and I agree completely. I suspect Margaret St. Clair felt more comfortable with the short story form. Sign of the Labrys has all the same flaws as other works produced by short story writers who tried their hand at novels in the 1950s and 1960s (Robert Sheckley comes to mind). Individual scenes are transfixing but the transitions, characterizations, and thrust of the work all verge on inarticulate.

Vaguely recommended for fans of pulp science fiction.

Sign of the Labrys takes place in a bizarre world at indefinite point in the future wrecked by a serious of yeast plagues that afflicted both humans and plants: “When the yeast cells escaped from the scientists who had been working with them, and started the great plagues, it was not only the sorts that were deleterious to human beings that escaped. Our domestic animals died too – the mortality was even higher among them – and our food plants too were affected” (p 8).

In a world where “nine-tenths” of the population was wiped out, either accidentally or purposefully to prevent a nuclear war (this is never entirely clear), a strange society develops. As if a manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder, the remaining individuals retreat into isolation: our main character, Mr Sewell ruminates, “it is odd how much we dislike contact with each other nowadays” (p 1). Large swathes of the country, in fear of nuclear war, had been fitted with massive underground complexes stocked with huge stores of food meant for survivors. Instead, survivors of the plague often wander the subterranean depths (the surface contains little living matter) consuming whatever canned food pillaged from the stores they wish. A few work at “jobs” whose sole purpose is to keep people occupied: disposing the dead bodies or moving boxes from one end of a warehouse to the other and back. Mushrooms harvested from moist clefts in the artificial cave walls, not afflicted by the yeast plagues, provide the sole “fresh food.”

On some of the levels of the underground complexes contain societies of VIPs who had retreated to their shelters early. They have deluded themselves into believing that the enemy released the diseases and that there is a war going on the surface. Due to the side-effects of the plague, revulsion for your common man, the VIPs pop pills and while away there days gambling and indulging in sexual experimentation. While on other levels scientists, who live mostly in isolation, still experiment on the surviving lab rats.

It is into this doomed world that Mr Sewell lives must find his way. He lives near the surface. Occasionally he works burying the bodies or moving boxes – he derives most of his enjoyment from harvesting mushrooms. His life is transformed when a member of the skeleton governmental body, the FBY, approaches his living space in the fallout shelter and asks if he knows a woman by the name of Despoina. She is supposedly a witch, or perhaps a sower of a particularly virulent strain of the yeast plague. FBY’s interest is nebulous and unclear. Soon Mr Sewell starts to believe that Despoina might be real – especially after he finds a mysterious ring, and the sign of the Labrys carved in his favorite mushroom hunting area.

He is swept into a quest downward towards the deepest levels of the fallout shelter. Women move in and out of the narrative who seem to always know slightly more than he does. Margaret St. Clair purposefully recasts the standard pulp narrative. Mr. Sewell is not the “I need to change the world” proactive hero, rather he is desperately naive and needs everyone else’s assistance figuring out his part in the puzzle. The women scientists he encounters, Despoina herself, are the real forces who know what is happening in the world and have a plan to try to fix things. Soon Sewell realizes that his quest that mirrors a Wiccan ritual of initiation. But what is his role? And what will happen after the initiation?

“We Wicca know how to be happy even in a bad world. But we cannot be content with a bad world” (p 94). And Despoina has a plan…

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold

November 18, 2014

civilcampaignA Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold (1999)
Review by Martin Wisse

A Civil Campaign should have been the last novel in the Vorkosigan series. Starting with Brothers in Arms and continuing through Mirror Dance, Memory and Komarr Lois McMaster Bujold had constantly upped the ante for Miles, not just by giving him bigger challenges to overcome, but by forcing him to grow up and become mature, putting him in situations where his character strengths are useless or even counterproductive. A Civil Campaign is the culmination of that process, as Miles crashes hard against the realisation that his usual crisis management tactics are not suitable for trying to win the hand of the woman he fell in love with the first time he saw her. At the same time Bujold also ties up all the loose ends from the earlier novels, providing a proper ending for the series. It’s not a book for people new to the series.

In the previous book, Komarr, Miles had met Ekaterin, a duty bound Vor woman trapped in a loveless marriage, and fallen hard for her from the first moment. With Ekaterin now a widow, Miles sets out to court her, but with the best of intentions decides to do so without her knowning or telling her that this is what he’s doing. Surely the same tactics of deception that worked so well in his career as a galactic man of mystery will be good enough to win him a wife? Of course there’s also the small matter of the imperial wedding to prepare for, the return of his clone brother Mark with his Escobarian business partner and their somewhat too biological startup they’ve set up in Vorkosigan House, the blossoming relationship of Mark with Kareen, the daughter of one of Miles’ father’s – count Vorkosigan – oldest friends and various other minor complications and side issues Miless will have to deal with, but how hard can it all be?

In typical Miles style, on small deception leads to another and it all blows up in spectacularl fashion when the small and intimate dinner Miles planned for him and Ekaterin and some carefully selected guests grows out of control and everything that shouldn’t have come out in the open just yet, does. It’s then that Miles finally learns you can plan to conquer a woman’s heart like you can plan the conquest of a star system. It’s a brutally crafted, darkly funny comedic scene, excruciating in the way the best comedy can be. It makes me wince everytime I read it. For Miles, once he gets out of his funk, it’s the chance to do what he does best: damage limitation.

What makes A Civil Campaign so good are the characters, as Bujold has developed them over the course of the series. Miles, though he should know better by now, is still the same cocky little manipulator he always was going into the book, only to come a cropper because of it, but is able to learn from his mistakes and grow up. Ekaterin, though angry at Miles’ deception is also able in the end to set herself over it. Most of the people involved in the various plots and subplots, the viewpoint characters, are confused to what they want and how they can get it, struggling even to get to a place where they can find out what they need to do. In the end it’s all set to rights of course, but it takes effort for everybody. And it’s only once the disastrous dinner party has happened and everybody’s dreams seem shattered that rebuilding can take place, helped by one of the greatest supporting characters in science fiction, Cordelia.

Despite the lack of galactic intrigue and world-shattering conspiracies this is the most compelling novel in the whole Vorkosigan saga and also the most entertaining and witty. You could call A Civil Campaign a regency romance in space, Bujold keeping the tone light even when Miles’ dreams are shattered. This light mood is sustained by the callbacks and references to earlier stories, making it something of a box of chocolates for a Vorkosigan fan, with something for everyone. It all helps to set off the darker parts of the plot.

Speaking of regency romance, this is more Jane Austen than Georgette Heyer, as the reality from Ekaterin’s point of view is far more serious than it is for Miles, no matter how bad he feels when he thinks he may just have chased away the love of his life. Barrayar is a primitive, conservative society and the role of women in it is not at all equal to that of men. She has to deal with the expectations of Barrayar society and her own family in addition to everything Miles has to go through and at one point she might just lose her son, Nicky, if she does the wrong thing. After Komarr it’s another example of how Bujold manages to sneak in some light feminism.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett

November 13, 2014

thelongtomorrowThe Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955)
Review by Hudson Jesse

If indeed social movements occur in cycles that over time have a net result of zero, what then is the value of scientific pursuit? If humanity will inevitably revert to primitivism, of what use is maneuvering toward that fuzzy idea of ‘civilization’? Is it just to give us something to do with our time on Earth? Is it an innate, unavoidable aspect of being human we should shun? Is it just false hope? Or, is there a light at the end of the tunnel? These questions and more Leigh Brackett examines in her oft-overlooked 1955 magnum opus The Long Tomorrow. A simple tale, it nevertheless lays bare one of the most fundamental questions we face: to what goal should humanity strive?

Post apocalypse, The Long Tomorrow posits an America where technologically advanced civilization was put to blame for the catastrophe of global nuclear war that followed upon Hiroshima. Religious groups jumping into the void of leadership that followed, new laws were enacted to prevent cities from developing larger than 1,000 people. Large gatherings of minds seen as the root cause for the development of such destructive technology, in the years that followed America became a scattering of pastoral micro-communities of religious groups of varying fervor. Neighbor keeping close watch over neighbor, technology such as radios and tvs is the work of the devil, the simple life of farming the norm.

The Long Tomorrow opens with Len Colter contemplating a sin. Living in Piper’s Run, a New Mennonite community in the former Ohio, the mere thought has his mind burning. Thus it is with reluctance he and his cousin Esau sneak out of their houses that night to attend a tent meeting in a nearby village. Witness to a fire and brimstone sermon, the meeting ends with the violent death of a man believed to have forbidden technology. Len and Esau accidentally coming into possession of the radio in the resulting chaos, curiosity gets the better of them, and after hiding it in a tree, the two begin spending their nights trying to figure out how the strange device works. But when their community discovers the radio, a scandal breaks out, and Len and Esau, whipped and punished, must make a decision: remain in Piper’s Run or see where destiny will take them.

Given the rural life depicted, philosophical questions asked, and everyday man’s approach to dialogue and social interaction, The Long Tomorrow is reminiscent of a John Steinbeck novel. No one novel in particular, but for the horses and quotidian details of farming, as well as the ability to place within the simplest of scenarios some of the most basic and important questions regarding belief and what’s good for society does the parallel occur. That Brackett likewise does this in intelligent fashion while maintaining her characters’ humanity places her novel in company with the American great.

But where Steinbeck’s concerns were often regarding class and the economic systems underpinning class struggle, Brackett’s concerns are more knowledge based. Focusing on the value, purpose, and application of science, nuclear technology is the crux of her story. Knowledge that can be both utilized to supply electrical power to mankind as well as destroy it in terrible fashion, Len must ultimately grapple with the idea of whether the pursuit of knowledge benefits mankind. Brackett not shuffling the deck in favor of either side, the decision is anything but straight forward. The positives and negatives of both conservative and progressive views are put on display, making Len’s decision all the more difficult. Thus, despite the seeming anti-religious stance of the plot summary above, a brighter side of pastoral life is displayed, in turn lending the outcome a strong sense of real-world relevance.

The Long Tomorrow thus forms a wonderful yang to the ying of George Stewart’s 1949 Earth Abides. Both post-apocalyptic novels, Stewart, in rather clumsy, unrealistic fashion, depicts the descent of mankind from civilized to primitive in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. The Long Tomorrow’s starting point many years after such a catastrophe, Brackett questions the value and possibility of re-climbing the ladder, of bringing humanity back to a state of ‘technologically advanced civilization’. Relaying the resulting quandary in terms far more human than Stewart’s, one can appreciate the sentiment Mother Earth will outlive us all, but without humanity, there would be no story. Brackett’s novel is thus the more relevant of the two, as no matter what point in humanity’s existence is examined, the questions remain valid.

In the end, The Long Tomorrow is a wonderful novel that examines the long-term value of technology in human terms. Set in a bucolic, post-apocalyptic scenario wherein nuclear technology has humanity in fear of its own creations, one young man, coming of age, grapples with the value of furthering the research into technology, with both sides of the argument fully represented. Involving religious fundamentalism, founded and unfounded fears, the concerns and motivations of human behavior, the false and real hopes technology offers, and the future of mankind, Brackett shows insight into humanity through the characters – as rational and irrational as they are – to make a statement beyond the text. For this balance, The Long Tomorrow is a more satisfactory novel than not only George Stewart’s Earth Abides, but also the novel which most often steals the spotlight of post-apocalyptic humanism: A Canticle for Leibowitz. Not just apologetics for urbanity and technology, the novel extends beyond politics to touch upon one of the most basic and complex relationships existent: humanity and it’s technology in the long term.

The Venus Factor, Vic Ghidalia & Roger Elwood

November 11, 2014

venusfactorThe Venus Factor, Vic Ghidalia & Roger Elwood (1972)
Review by Ian Sales

Although the cover of this book may wrongly suggest to an unobservant browser that it’s a novel by Agatha Christie, it’s actually a somewhat odd anthology of “science fiction” by women authors. And I say “odd” for two reasons: the term is used on the cover, but not all of the stories in the book actually qualify as science fiction (and even more flexible definitions than most would have trouble incorporating them); and second, the anthology contains four stories from the 1930s (and late 1920s) and three from the late 1960s – plus one from the 1950s. It’s a peculiar spread, especially since three of the early stories didn’t originally appear in genre venues. In some respects, then, The Venus Factor is a curiosity, something of an historical document. What it is not, is a good representative selection of science fiction by women writers of the twentieth century.

‘The Last Séance’, Agatha Christie (1926), is, The Venus Factor insists, Christie’s only “science fiction” story, and there is, it has to be said, a definite attempt by Christie to add some sort of scientific gloss to her story of a Parisian medium who performs one séance too many. Sadly, that scientific basis, which treats ectoplasm as something real and produced by the human body, is nonsense, and Christie’s prose throughout is clunky and terrible.

‘God Grante That She Lye Stille’, Cynthia Asquith (1931), is another story that only qualifies as science fiction if the genre is defined so loosely it might as well include anything and everything. A young doctor in a small English village falls in love with the lady of the manor, who is young, beautiful and wan, and, she claims, frequently subjects to bouts of personality loss, where she feels as if she doesn’t exist. She even claims to have experienced occasions where her reflection does not appear in mirrors. Meanwhile, in the cemetery beside the manor house there lies the grave of an ancestor who lived fast and died young several centuries before – and according to family legend refused to “lye stille” on her deathbed. The story pans out pretty much as expected, and though Asquith displays the odd nice turn of phrase, there’s little in this to lift the story above others of its ilk of the time.

‘The Foghorn’, Gertrude Atherton (1933), is not even genre, no matter what definition you use. A young woman falls in love with a young man, they go out into Golden Gate in a rowing boat, but a thick fog suddenly descends. A large ship runs them down in the fog, and the young man dies. The woman wakes to find herself in a hospital. But all is not as it seems. The prose is somewhat excitable, and the twist ending comes as no real surprise.

‘Against Authority’, Miriam Allen deFord (1966). Although mostly forgotten these days, deFord was hugely prolific during the 1950s and 1960s. But then, she never published a novel, only some eighty stories between 1946 and 1978. While ‘Against Authority’ may be from her most successful decade, there’s little in it that stands out. After a war with the Pelagerians, who invaded Earth and then disappeared, the surviving nations banded together under the Authority, the ruler of Turkey. And, forty-eight years later, he still rules; although he promises to hand over power to a democracy eventually. A group of students are part of a plot to assassinate the Authority but, in a twist stolen directly from GK Chesterton, it turns out to have been entirely organised by police spies. But then it transpires the Authority is not what he seems – as one of the conspirators, a daughter of his by artificial insemination, manages to work out. There are a few interesting ideas in this story, but it reads like a substandard work by one of that decade’s more thoughtful writers (which is not to say that those writers did not themselves produce substandard work).

‘J-Line to Nowhere’, Zenna Henderson (1969). While Henderson may be best known for her stories of the People, she wrote plenty of other sf. In fact, she was one of the most successful female sf writers of the 1950s. This story is set in some future metropolis in which nature is absent – Malthusian stories were popular during the 1950s. The narrator stumbles across a forgotten station on the J-Line, which is in a park, and spends an idyllic afternoon there. But when she returns to her sick mother and the realities of life in the city, she knows she will never find the “Nowhere” station again. Although the story strikes an effectively elegiac note, it’s too thin for it to have much impact.

‘The Ship Who Disappeared’, Anne McCaffrey (1969), is one of McCaffrey’s brainship stories, which are based around a premise that today we find distasteful: disabled babies are built into spaceships to be their “brains”. Each brainship also has an able-bodied crewmember, a “brawn”. In McCaffrey’s series, one such brainship, Helva, sings to pass her time and has become quite accomplished. But that is more or less irrelevant in this story. Helva notices that four brainships have disappeared, but her brawn, Teron, refuses to investigate as he’s a stickler for rules and regulations and they have no orders to search for the missing ships. At their next stop, the Antiolathan Xixon, some sort of religious figure, though neither Helva nor Teron recognise his title, asks to come aboard. They let him, he subdues the crew and steals the ship. But because Helva had been arguing with Teron, she had left open the comms link to Central Worlds, and her bosses heard everything. So they rescue her. And the other four ships. It’s a remarkably thin plot, in which Helva proves less than active, padded out with lots of bickering between the two main characters.

‘The Lady Was a Tramp’, Judith Merril (1957). The lady of the title is, of course, a spaceship, a tramp freighter to which “IBMan” Carnahan, navy reserve lieutenant, has been assigned straight from naval academy. Although he is realistic enough to accept his posting as the bets he’s likely to get, he’s dismayed by the seeming laxity of the Lady Jane‘s crew – and he is also shocked by the free and easy sexual relations between the ship’s Medic, the only woman aboard, and the rest of the crew. In fact, his prudishness is little more than outright misogyny: “‘If I go to a whore, I don’t want her around me all day. And if I have a girl, I damn sure don’t want every guy she sees to get into… you know what I mean!'” Time has not been kind to ‘The Lady Was a Tramp’. While the “IBMan” and “analog computers” read as little more than quaint failures at world-building a future, the gender politics in the story are so old-fashioned it makes its entire premise feel unnecessary, if not offensive.

‘The Dark Land’, CL Moore (1936), is Moore’s fourth Jirel of Joiry story and originally appeared, unsurprisingly, in Weird Tales. Jirel is lying on her death-bed, but is abducted – and healed – by Pav of Romne, the titular dark land, a magical place where nothing is what it seems. Pav wants Jirel to become his wife, but she refuses. He accepts a bargain: he will let her find a way to destroy him, if she fails she will wed him. While searching for a weapon, she meets the white witch, who loves Pav and would have him for herself. She tells Jirel how to kill Pav. Jirel kills Pav. And discovers that Pav is Romne, and she was duped by the white witch. The prose is somewhat overwrought, with lines like: “Hell-dwelling madman!” she spluttered. “Black beast out of nightmares! Let me waken from this crazy dream!” And a lot of said-bookisms.

All things considered, The Venus Factor fails at what it purports to be, which is, according to the back-cover blurb: “an anthology of science fiction stories written about women by some of the top women SF writers”. Christie, obviously, was never classified as a science fiction writer – indeed the front cover of The Venus Factor brags that the book “includes the only science fiction story written by Agatha Christie”. And while Asquith’s story is about a woman, the narrator is male and it his attraction to the woman in question which drives the story forward. Likewise, Merril’s somewhat belaboured story of sex therapy may draw parallels between the spaceship (which is, of course, seen as female) and the ship’s doctor, but the protagonist is male and it is his emotional growth which is the focus of the story. There is no single story in The Venus Factor which is alone worth the price of admission, and Christie’s reputation is unlikely to be harmed if ‘The Last Séance’ vanished back into obscurity. A shame.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

November 6, 2014

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Naomi Mitchison’s first science fiction novel, Memoirs of a Spacewoman, is a brilliant episodic rumination on the nature of non-violent interaction with alien species that challenge (and transform) conceptions of ourselves and others. The first sentence of the novel narrows in on Mitchison’s central themes:

“I think about my friends and the fathers of my children. I think about my children, and I think less about my four dear normals than I think about Viola. And I think about Ariel. And the other. I wonder sometimes how old would be if I counted the years of time blackout during exploration” (p 5)

Technological change (the crews of FTL spaceships experience time-dilation called “blackout”) yields a unique set of sociological problems. The conception of family is forced to evolve as the relationships between explorer parents and children who do not accompany them on voyages – and how each experiences time – generate distinctly different ways of living. Society also transforms as humankind contacts bizarre new lifeforms, attempts radical communication experiments, and interacts with neighboring aliens for prolonged periods of time.

Highly recommended for fans of thought-provoking 1960s social science fiction (especially of the feminist bent). For those who are willing to read along the more esoteric and unjustly forgotten fringes will discover a wealth of worthwhile SF by women authors pre-Le Guin.

Caveat: Do not expect pulp heroes, space battles or political intrigue. This is social science fiction at its best.

Judith Merril’s radical and inspiring short story ‘Daughters of Earth’ (1952) traces the history of the space program – from the first spaceships to the first colonization program attempts – through women scientist/astronaut descendants of a single family. Memoirs of a Spacewoman follows similar lines: The narrator, Mary, is a communications officer who follows in the footstep of her explorer mother on a series of expeditions to alien worlds with their unique biological organisms and communication problems. Despite the loss of her mother on one of these voyagers she is irresistibly drawn to the challenges of space. Likewise, her daughter Viola, although physically disabled after her mother experiences an unusual pregnancy, feels the allure of scientific discovery.

Most appealing about Mary is her incredible devotion to her own area of expertise and her empathy, regardless of differences she encounters, with others. She has the credentials and experience to be the leader of new expeditions but refuses to take them: “I know I would forget about my expedition if I came on a really interesting communications problem” (p 5). Although some of her fellow astronauts (mostly women) cannot help but judge the aliens she attempts to be openminded: “one reads and watches, one steeps oneself in 3D and 4D; one practices detachment in the face of apparently disgusting and horrible events; one practices taking bizarre points of view” (p 7).

Of course, it is never that simple: Mary’s experience with her “daughter” Ariel is case in point. In one of the novel’s many episodes – often attached to a particular expedition/biological puzzle – scientists bring back a life form that might not be sentient. This being regenerates from the smallest fragment: “if kept in a suitable environment, they developed into the whole animal, but on a very small scale and barely viable” (p 41). Initially they decided to graft the animal on other non-human animals. They discover that they survive and flourish, at least for short periods of time, and before detaching from the host.

Mary decides that she will take on a graft to learn more about the creature. The experiment is transformative: “I can still remember, past any memory of my later children’s fathers, the peculiar feel and taste on my tongue of Ariel’s pseudopodium, something altogether of itself” (p 49). Ariel grows on her body, Mary experiences similar physical experiences linked to pregnancy, she becomes deeply attached to the unusual form attached to her… With time dilation blackout and long periods away from her children she is less able to form parental connections with them. But she can with Ariel who is attached to her body and soon some elements of communication become possible. But Mary’s joy is short lived as the grafts detach they wither and die.

Other episodes deal with forms of loss. On a world with a deep muddy chasm caterpillar-like aliens seem to spend their lives eating, arranging their multi-colored rock-like fecal matter in brilliant patterns, and rooting around in the mud. Mary and the other scientists feel deep attachment to the caterpillar creatures. Francoise, one of the scientists, goes to extraordinary lengths to communicate with them. But the biological deepens when butterfly-like creatures descend and slaughter some of the caterpillars: it appears that the “butterfly had no maternal feelings, could not have” (p 117). But Francoise becomes too attached, too willing to intervene, to willing to judge and alien species that seems distinctly alien…

Despite Mary’s frequent concerns about her children whom she can only maintain brief contact with, her all consuming career, her infrequent interaction with her lovers (often male colleagues) due to constantly shifting assignments, her strange experience with time (years and years go by on Earth while the astronauts age only when they are out of blackout), and the loss of her “daughter” Ariel she finds solace in her work and the valuable interactions, however brief, that she is able to form with others.

A powerful vision.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Vast, Linda Nagata

November 4, 2014

vastVast, Linda Nagata (1998)
Review by Martin Wisse

Space opera used to be terrible, reactionary stories of brawny male heroes with safe Anglo-Saxon names making the galaxy safe for Terran manifest destiny by cheerfully genociding any alien races looking at them funny. Long derided as the lowest of the low, though with the occasional saving grace in the form of that elusive “sense of wonder” all science fiction strives to achieve, it was sort of rehabilitated in the seventies by a generation of fans and writers who’d grown up reading the stuff. In the eighties and nineties this led to the s-ocalled New Space Opera, which took that sense of wonder and removed the xenophobia and human supremacy from it. Though in this New Space Opera the universe was far more indifferent to human pretensions than the old stuff, it could still be upbeat, as in e.g. Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, where hundreds of various human races live happily ever after in an AI-controlled utopia.

But not always. In Linda Nagata’s Vast the universe is not just indifferent, but actively hostile to human life. A millions years old alien war has left still active, automated warships behind, warships capable of blowing up suns. As humanity moved out of the Solar System and established colonies around other stars, these Chenzeme ships started to attack. One such attack has left only four survivors, fleeing the attack aboard the Null Boundary, a slower than light spaceship, who have decided to go look for the source of the Chenzeme coursers, somewhere in the swan direction of the Orion arm of the galaxy, all the while being chased by a Chenzeme courser themselves.

Vast is therefore one long chase scene, taking places over centuries of travel time as the Null Boundary moves further into the Orion Arm. It reminded me somewhat of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space and sequels, which also partially took place aboard vast, ancient slower than light ships moving between star systems. There’s the same feeling of claustrophobia and isolation, though Nagata’s characters are much more strange than Reynolds’.

There’s Lot, infected by the alien Cult virus, which basically makes him want to infect everybody he meets to let them join in a brotherhood of cosmic love. Unfortunately for him, everybody on the ship is immune to him, which means he has no outlets for his urge to infect. It’s unclear where the virus came from, whether it’s related to the Chenzeme or, as some of the characters speculate, their hypothetical enemy.

Then there’s Nikko, the owner of the Null Boundary who most of the time remains within the ship’s systems, only occasionally downloading himself into a meat body and who, during the long centuries that nothing happens, tends to wipe his own memories every ninety seconds, living in minute and a half loops unless something interesting happens.

The two remaining passengers on the Null Boundary are Urban and Clemantine, the most normal and human looking, but like Nikko, each of them can upload and save their memories to the ship’s systems, re-downloading in new bodies when needed. Thanks to the cult virus, Lot can’t and is therefore condemned to spending a lot of time in cold sleep. He and Clemantine used to be lovers, but when she was still vulnerable, he infected her with the virus, which put a bit of a strain on their relationship. Now she’s cured but none of the other three trust Lot all that much, suspicious of his virus induced pacifistic leanings.

Vast is a psychological drama, where the questions of where the Chenzeme came from or what their goals were, are never quite answered, but the focus is in how Lot and all deal with their long voyage towards an answer, change and evolve during their journey. It’s not entirely successful, as other than Lot, the characters remain largely two dimensional, not quite convincing. Nikko and Urban especially come across more as a collection of tics and responses than as real people.

Vast is an excellent example of the new hard space opera, playing “fair” with the laws of physics in limiting its space ships to slower than light, while still using miracle technology in the form of nanotech, computer uploads, semi-intelligent alien viruses, not to mention functioning robot warships millions of years old. It attempts to show something of the vastness of space by emphasising how long a journey even between relatively close star systems would be, again something that isn’t entirely successful. In the end Vast provides a sort of monochrome sense of wonder, much more sober than the old, gaudy space opera of the pulps.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

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