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The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

August 5, 2014

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Shannon Turlington

You shall not go down twice to the same river, nor can you go home again. That he knew; indeed it was the basis of his view of the world. Yet from that acceptance of transience he evolved his vast theory, wherein what is most changeable is shown to be fullest of eternity, and your relationship to the river, and the river’s relationship to you and to itself, turns out to be at once more complex and more reassuring than a mere lack of identity. You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.

Long after I closed this book for the night and lay waiting for sleep to catch up with me, I thought about what I’d read, about the ideas posed by the novel’s premise and characters, and the implications for my own life and our society. That’s a sign of a book that’s definitely worth reading.

The story is set in the future on a distant planet, Urras, and its moon, Anarres. The culture on Urras is similar to ours: capitalist, competitive, with a huge gap between haves and have-nots. One hundred and fifty years ago in Urras’ history, a group of anarchists rebelled against this way of life. They settled on — or were exiled to, depending on your point of view — Anarres, a desert world where they built a subsistence society based on the premises of no government and no ownership of private property.

Despite the difficulties of their environment, life on Anarres is like a simple Eden. No one goes hungry while others eat. No one goes without a sheltered place to sleep at night. People work and study at what they enjoy, travel where and when they want, and everyone communally shares the necessary but non-glamorous jobs. Without commercialism to occupy them, people spend their time working, learning and socializing. Even an eight-hour workday is considered unusually long.

Of course, there are problems in this utopia, which have at their root the conflict between the continued survival of the society and the human drive to assert ourselves as individuals, to push the boundaries and explore new ideas. Without a government, Anarres is ruled by societal approval. Challenges to the status quo are unwelcome, and the challenger is often shunned.

This is the situation that the main character, a physicist named Shevek, finds himself in. He is on the cutting edge of theoretical physics but unable to progress in a society that does not want his work. So he begins communicating with physicists on Urras, and becomes convinced that he needs to be the first Anarresti to travel back to Urras in order to shake up his own society and return them to their anarchist roots.

The Dispossessed plays on the theme of time in many ways. The narrative is divided into two timelines: the present, when Shevek is living on Urras, contrasted with the Shevek’s past life on Anarres and growing discontent with his own society. Shevek’s physics are also concerned with time; applications of his theories could make possible faster-than-light space travel and instantaneous communication across space to other known worlds, including our Earth (called Terra).

The four cultures of humans portrayed in the novel — Urras, Anarres, Terra and another planet called Hain — also represent four possible timelines of the human species. Urras is most like modern-day culture, if exaggerated; consumption, possessions and power are all highly valued. Terra’s future warns of the consequences of such excess, a planet made desert by the waste of previous generations, now trying only to survive. Contrasted with these outcomes are the alternate paths proposed by Hain and Anarres. We are not told much about Hain, only that it is a very advanced civilization, which helped save the Terrans. It seems only fitting that when Shevek finally returns to Anarres, the only person who wants to accompany him and learn from him is Hainish.

This novel is rich and meaty, full of ideas and keen observations of human nature. Like the dusty plains of Anarres, it takes some time to get used to Le Guin’s dry writing style, which incorporates hard science and spare prose. But give it time and you will find many fascinating landscapes to explore.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

The Mind Readers, Margery Allingham

July 31, 2014

Penguin-a Allingham The Mind ReadersThe Mind Readers, Margery Allingham (1965)
Review by Adam Roberts

Allingham is famous as (of course) a crime writer; and it so happens that I’ve read a fair few of her Campion titles. I’d been aware for a while that she wrote a late career science fiction, or sort-of science fiction, novel, but hadn’t gotten around to checking it out. Well, the time came; and so I read it. I out-checked it. It got checked over. And out.

Verdict: it’s a strange novel, in good and bad ways. To read it as an Albert Campion novel (which it is; in the sense that he’s in it, although he never feel essential to it) is inevitably to compare it with earlier, better Campion tales and be struck by its creaky anachronisms and paper-thin mystery plotting. The first of these two problems is especially debilitating, I think. The story is set in the 1960s, and hinges on an item of miniaturised technological cleverness that magnifies and directs telepathic abilities; but apart from the occasional reference to televisions and The Cold War the feel of the novel is solidly 1930s in tone, dialogue, class-attitudes and, well, cosiness.

Most of the story happens in London, with two off-stage centres of action: a mysterious ‘island’ off the coast someplace, where scientific research into the possibilities of telepathy has been ongoing, and a famous English prep school where one of Campion’s nephews has been accused of cheating on his exam. He wasn’t cheating, or not in the conventional sense – he and his brother are telepaths, their skill aided by the pill-sized ‘Iggy’ tubes taped to their wrist or neck, and that’s how Eddie, or was it Sam, I forget, learned that the following day’s exam was going to be about ‘Horatius at the Bridge’. Anyhow, the government hush-up this scandal so as not to draw attention to the telepathy thing, or perhaps to cover up the fact that they’ve been schoolboys as guinea-pigs (again: I’m honestly not sure), and the boys come to London to stay with Campion and his wife. At Liverpool Street Station they are almost kidnapped, and Campion – apparently now employed in a semi-official though unpaid capacity by MI6, or something – looks into it.

The mystery, though, doesn’t take us very far. In her glory days Allingham was capable of constructing a properly intricate and absorbing puzzle-box textual logic. This, though, is the last novel she completed on her own before dying – cancer – in her early 60s (her husband completed subsequently one remaining unfinished manuscript, and then wrote a couple more Campion novels), and it feels underworked. Who tried to kidnap the boys? Sinister Forces of an Enemy Power. Who drugged one of the junior scientists at the Island and then left him in a room with the gas fire on but unlit, as if to try and suffocate him – only to leave the doors and windows open, so that the victim was discovered long before he died? This mystery is introduced at the quarter-point of the novel and, weirdly, tied-off at the halfway point – it turns out that one of the senior scientists at the facility was worried that his junior colleague might be about to overtake him. In order to keep him on staff – because he was making valuable contributions to the research – yet simultaneously stymie his chances of promotions, said senior scientist staged this half-hearted gassing, to make it look as though the junior chap was suicidal, hence mentally unstable, hence unpromoteable. Mystery-plotting things that make you go: hmm?

The senior scientist who staged the mock-attempted-suicide, and then stole the Iggy-tubes with a view to maybe selling it to the Soviets, or maybe just investigating them non-treacherously on his own terms—once again it’s not clear—turns up dead. He was killed, put in the boot of a car, transferred into the back of a stranger’s car to dispose of the body; but this stranger, instead of alerting the police, moved the body into the back of a van at a service station. Wha? Said van then got driven north by its innocent drivers, and co-incidentally happened to be involved in a large traffic accident. Only then did the middle, innocent-of-murder (but guilty of helping cover one up) driver go to the police to report that he’d moved the body. It’s all very strange, and takes the wind out of the narrative sails. At the very end Allingham pulls her finger out for a fairly exciting climax on the island, a tense stand-off between the elderly, feeble Campion and a younger, trained killer ready to dispose of him quickly and untraceably. But as a mystery-thriller there’s something missing in this novel.

The two schoolboys are oddly written, too: the fact that they are period pieces (samples of a now Dodo-like vanished species, the slightly precocious upper-class prep-school schoolboy) notwithstanding. Neither of them come alive in any meaningful, fictive sense, mostly because of the über-Richmal-Cromton mannered awkwardness of the way they speak and act. I might add: that could have been good thing—it could have added an estranging twang to the whole. But somehow it doesn’t. ‘Estrangement’ in the genre sense of the word isn’t Allingham’s game.

The ‘Iggy tubes’ work because they are powered by ‘carbonized Nipponanium’, a new element discovered in Japan and hence so-named. This also has a weirdly 1930s vibe, a gesture in the directions of ‘scientific plausibility’ so half-hearted as to be almost endearing (it reminds me of my favourite line from the old Flash Gordon serials, spoken by a panicking Dr Zarkhov: “he’s been infected with radioactivity! He’ll descend to the level of a brute!”) But then again, Allingham’s Iggy Tubes (a terrible name, by the way, for a piece of tech) are not offered to the reader as serious-minded attempts to extrapolate current technology, They’re a mystery McGuffin tinged faintly with social satire. But what’s really interesting about them is the way they touch in interesting ways on what Allingham does. They are, after all, a symbolic externalisation of the principle of absolute transparency; and to a writer whose whole process relies upon a strategy opacity, a playful withholding of revelation, a valorisation of the secret and the mystery, such a principle would be death.

Allingham was, in many ways, sui generis. A clever and playful novelist, always lively, usually witty and capable at her best of that truly unfakeable literary quality, charm. But in many ways, and despite the superficial fit of her imagination to the puzzle-mystery mode (and despite, moreover, her reputation as one of the giants of Golden Age detective writing), she isn’t terribly well suited to her chosen idiom. I think this is because she really can’t do menace. Her villains tend to be either narrow-minded misguided posh types, or else proletarian professional thieves and (as here) assassins who take a workmanlike pride in their labour. (Her working class characters are, without exception, grotesque sub-Dickensian caricatures too, but that’s not my main point). People talk about Tiger in the Smoke as Allingham’s masterpiece, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s her only novel to centre on what we would nowadays call ‘a sociopath’. Allingham specifically wrote the book in order to put on page a portrait of ‘pure evil’ in the titular and improbably-named Jack Havoc. But he’s a milquetoast sort of psycho, is our Jack: at the final hurdle he is touched by the innate godly goodness of a priest and, given the chance to save his skin and have a bit of fun murdering the bibbety-bopperty heroine, he fluffs it. You don’t see Hannibal falling down at that sort of hurdle.

That doesn’t necessarily matter; and at her best Allingham comes within spitting distance (though we can be honest: no closer) of being the ‘Wodehouse with murders and mystery’ that some of her supporters say she is. Not here, though. Her two telepathic schoolchildren had, in truth, been gazumped by Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, published eight years previously. There’s certainly no uncanny eeriness about Allingham’s two mind-reading schoolboys, and I’d say there ought to be. Indeed, the denouement relies upon them both acting like mature and responsible adults to neutralise the potential threat of the very technology that makes them mark-worthy in the first place.

I’m concentrating on negatives, when I should be accentuating the positives. There certainly are good things about this novel, I think. What Allingham does best at her best is a kind of an ingenious and playfully morbid intricacy, a surface glitter that plays cleverly both within and in a more meta sense with the conventions of her genre. I write in some spoilerish detail about Police at the Funeral (1931) elsewhere.

What I like about that novel is the way it takes the limitation of its mode, its airless and artificial ‘puzzle’ idiom, and makes a positive feature of it. Campion comes into a hell-ish closed network aristocratic family whose members are being bumped off one after the other. The murderer is inside the family, of course; but all the murderer does is make manifest the mortal logic of this particular kind of unhappy-family intra-dynamic. I quote myself:

The fact that this solution is so involuted, that Allingham portrays the family as a stagnant, closed circle from which and contained within which death operates, gives the book the superbly claustrophobic feel, despite its antic and sometimes strained touches of melodramatic gaiety.

There’s a whisper of something similar about The Mind Readers. The threat attendant to the stealing of the Iggy Tube is not that a super-villain will use this technology to take over the world, but something more small-scale and individual: that an unscrupulous individual will use them to pry and snoop, perhaps to nudge behaviour; something uncomfortable but still just this side of actual violation. That the notionally main character here is Albert Campion, one of the most blandly opaque detectives ever written, throws this into an intriguing sort of relief. What, after all, would the larger implications of a functioning telepathic technology be? Would it be world-shaking? Or would it join the teeming ranks of all our other many little technological advancements and gadgets? The Iggy tube conveys moods (‘feels’ the schoolboys call these) and sometimes content, but it’s no iPhone. On the other hand, the experience of so many surrounding people’s moods and thoughts is described as overwhelming for the adults who try it; oppressive and even stifling. Idiots and kids handle it better, because… well, I’m not sure what the ‘because’ is, here. Because kids are ‘naturally’ less attentive to other peoples’ emotions? It may be that Allingham isn’t so interested in self-absorption, or to put it more precisely she’s interested in the dangerous wedge-end of a new technology that erodes personal, affective space—and that, it turns out, was a pretty prescient future-fear for 1965.

This review originally appeared on Sibilant Fricative.

Judgment Night, CL Moore

July 29, 2014

judgmentJudgment Night, CL Moore (1952)
Review by Ian Sales

Catherine Lucille Moore is no longer as well known as she once was – a collection of her short fiction in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series notwithstanding – and at the height of her popularity in the 1930s and 1940s she displayed equal facility in both fantasy and science fiction, as is evident in her Jirel of Joiry fantasies and her Northwest Smith sf series. She was a frequent contributor to Weird Tales – in fact, her best-known story, ‘Shambleau’, appeared in that magazine, was her first sale, and was accepted the moment she submitted it: “My own perfectly clear memory tells me that I sent it first to WT because that was the only magazine of the type I knew well, and that an answering acceptance and check… arrived almost by return mail.” Judgment Night was her first novel-length science fiction, originally appearing serialised in Astounding Science Fiction in 1943 but not appearing in book form until 1952. (Previous sf novels had been co-written with husband Henry Kuttner, and appeared under the name Lewis Padgett.)

Princess Juille is the daughter of the Emperor of the Galaxy Lyonese. She is an amazon, a warrior-princess, war-like and hot-headed. But now the savage H’vani are threatening the empire and their horde will soon be at Ericon, the imperial capital world. Juille wants to attack them, but her father would sooner negotiate a peace – a war between the imperial forces and the H’vani would destroy the galaxy. However, before attending an important council of war, Juille decides to visit Cyrille, an artificial moon of Ericon known for its pleasure facilities. She will go incognito, and “see what it it’s like to be an ordinary woman meeting ordinary people” (p 15). And so she does, although not without cost to her identity:

She was no longer the sexless princeling of Lyonese … It was humiliating to admit by that very step that the despised femininity she had repudiated all her life should be important enough to capture now. (p 18)

Also present on Cyrille is Egide, a handsome prince who has a secret. He knows who Juille is, and he’s there to kill her. He believes his people – the H’vani, of course – will defeat the empire if Juille is dead. But he falls in love with her, and she with him. Much to the disgust of Egide’s companion, the warrior Jair.

The emperor, meanwhile, has been offered a weapon which will ensure victory, although its workings and effects are unknown. The alien who designed the weapon offers another to Juille, but this one he explains how to use: if she directs it at a person, it will remain locked on that person no matter where they are, but they will not die until she presses a second button. Juille, who has learnt that Egide is leader of the H’vani, of course uses it on him – even though the two are lovers. But when Egide withdraws from leadership of the H’vani, Jair takes over and the invasion of Ericon goes ahead as planned.

Judgment Night is pure space opera of the sort that doesn’t allow scientific rigour or plausibility to stand in its way. In that respect, it might as well be fantasy – indeed, the weapon given to Juille by the alien designer is to all intents and purposes magical. What technology is mentioned is explicitly identified as technology, and there’s no mention of whatever scientific principles or theories might underpin it. We are told Juille’s father rules a galaxy, but it is only a word – it might as well be a kingdom. And the H’vani, although repeatedly described throughout the novel as a separate race, are as human as the inhabitants of Ericon (yet, there are aliens in the story). It lends the novel a different affect to that of, say, Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories, even though each is as fantastical as the other.

Moore’s prose does not have the muscularity of contemporary woman sf writer Leigh Brackett’s, though like Brackett’s science fictions Moore’s rely on settings boasting deep time and semi-mythical histories. And also like Brackett, Moore’s plots, when you strip away all the sf trappings, are pretty basic. Neither of these factors are necessarily weaknesses. Indeed, both Moore’s and Brackett’s science fiction often work because of the trappings. And some of science-fictional elements are very interesting – in Judgment Night, for example, Ericon is home to a race of enigmatic Ancients who are pretty much living gods. They dwell in a forest over which no aircraft or spacecraft can fly (any that do are destroyed by the Ancients, thus demonstrating that they are quite categorically real). People can visit the Ancients, and some of them receive gnomic advice in return – both Egide and Juille consult them and, of course, the mystic oracles they receive are proven true by the end of the novel.

Moore’s Jirel of Joiry was a popular character and, like Juille, she was female, so plainly readers of the pulp sf magazines were not totally averse to reading stories with female protagonists. Admittedly, Juille is very much tomboyish during the opening chapter of Judgment Night, but then she swings to the complete opposite during her stay on Cyrille. Initially, this felt like cliché, or an inability to maintain a female protagonist without having to fall back on traditional gender roles; but on reflection, I think Juille shows the breadth of characterisations available to women in science fictions. In her introduction to The New Women of Wonder (1978), editor Pamela Sargent asks “why the overwhelming majority of science fiction books limit female characters to traditional roles”, but while Juille revels briefly in her new-found femininity, and falls in love with the antagonist, Egide, she never loses her agency. Moore is not only having her cake and eating it, she is getting away with it too. And that, to me, makes Juille a far more interesting character than she originally appeared to be.

Juille’s development as the story progresses only strengthens this aspect of her character. She starts the novel as a petulant hawk, but despite her relationship with Egide, she never abrogates her responsibilities or ideals. She loves him, but remains committed to destroying the H’vani. Moore manages this clever balancing act throughout Judgment Night and it works well. It’s perhaps the novel’s chief saving grace – the setting may be a somewhat identi-kit space opera, and the plot hardly original, but Juille as a protagonist lifts Judgment Night above what it all too easily might have been.

Islands, Marta Randall

July 24, 2014

islandsIslands, Marta Randall (1976)
Review by Joachim Boaz

One of the more effective ways to write about the ennui of immortality is often not from the perspective of the immortals themselves. Works like Raymond Z Gallun’s The Eden Cycle (1974) manage to convince the reader of the sensory overload generated by more and more baroque environments created by immortals desperate for something new and meaningful. But, like the immortal protagonists, by the end of the novel we are mentally exhausted and bored. Randall’s rumination is more modelled on James Gunn’s The Immortals (1962). Gunn’s near-masterpiece is less about mental states of the eponymous humans “blessed” with immortality, and more about the ramifications of their existence on the rest of society not “blessed” with such genetic structures. Randall’s Islands takes this formulation to its furthest point and generates a world where a single individual—the narrator – is the only one not “blessed” with immortality.

Tia is the only non-immortal alive. At seventeen she entered treatment expecting to live the life of an immortal but for some unexplained reason the treatment did not take hold, “You’ll live very well. But not youthfully. So sorry” (p 10). Due to medical advances, Tia can still expect to live at least two hundred years.

Just as the landscape of Earth – a mostly flooded world now (a past cataclysm is hinted at) – has changed from the world of our day, the successful implementation of immortality has irrevocably transformed their society. Intellectual advances have ceased, a profound malaise permeates. The immortals dabble in things like adolescents. They have passing interests in people, and activities, and expect to move on and experience new elements continuously. They obsess over beauty and perfection, and are terrified of decay and reminders that time, at one point, has passed.

All of these traits the immortals proclaim as virtues, Tia eschews. She narrates: “I carefully created a chronology for myself [...] At two hundred I would be shriveled and tucked, seamed and weak and lined and dithering. At one hundred I would be caught between that state and the next one down, between middle-age and senility” (p 89). She is drawn to the dangerous. She observes herself age with obsessive detail.

She recounts how in her youth, before her ability to age became apparent, she ran away from Paul, her immortal lover, in part because of her grief and despair at the failure of the treatment and the fear that she will be rejected. She voyages to Australia where the “damaged” immortals live – those who have suffered horrific accidents and are no longer specimens of beauty and are thus considered outcasts. She then travels to the Moon where groups of immortals, who dare to be intellectually stimulating and create new and wonderful works or art, and even spaceships for the exploration of the stars, reside. But she fears her bond with Greg, her lover on the Moon, would be shattered if she reveals her secret.

At the “current” moment in the narrative, Tia joins the crew of the Ilium, an oceangoing vessel that transports immortals to the submerged islands of Hawaii where they pillage the ruins for knick-knacks and trinkets for their residences. Tia on the other hand, is drawn to the past, drawn to a past where time mattered. And in the ruins she discovers another metaphoric island, a hidden room with a strange promise.

Do not let the atrocious cover art dissuade you from picking up the novel. The covers for both the 1976 and the 1980 edition do not represent the contents in any meaningful way. The 1980 edition suggests a romance-tinged affair – the man in control, clutching the woman. Randall’s book is altogether more chilling, and sinister. Randall could not resist a few snarky comments on her webpage about the “the floating purple turds” attacking the ship on the 1980 Pocket Books cover and the generally horrid luck she had with cover art.

Randall’s title is perfect. Tia is an island among the immortals whose lives and outlook on the world aso much different than hers. The structure of the novel, short chapters never longer than eight or so pages, are non-linear island-like memories, cut apart and reorganized they would form a linear narrative. Separated from each other they form momentary impressions… Likewise, Tia moves from world to world, the strange outcasts in Australia, the facilities on the Moon, the Ilium vessel that voyages to the submerged cities of Hawaii, and the dark room submerged in the ruins, a hidden space, a secret island.

My only qualm, and at some points it was distracting to a fault, is the narrative’s slow descent into metaphysical hoopla. Cringe-worthy passages such as this one – “Touched it. Changed it. Affected its movements. Altered its pace. With my – mind? Consciousness? Spirit? Soul?” (p 152) – weaken the otherworldly feel, they cheapen Tia’s profound, and entirely justified, brooding. Tia’s deepening existential crisis is depicted with all the existential indicators and pseudo-mystical excess that threaten to overwhelm the reader with insincere pathos and melodrama.

But Randall can weave some beautiful scenes. For example, her Ballard-esque sequences of scavenging the remains of a ruined world beneath the waters to disturbing glimpses of Paul’s strange sexual obsession with decay when his own body is unchanging…

Unjustly forgotten, Islands is a solid example of the late New Wave movement. I will definitely look for a copy of A City in the North (1976).

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

Worlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce

July 22, 2014

worldsforthegrabbingWorlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce (1977)
Review by Ian sales

Of the many science fiction writers of the 1970s who have been forgotten, it’s probably not unfair to say that Brenda Pearce is among the most obscure. A British woman science fiction writer, whose two novels were published only in hardback, it’s hardly surprising she’s virtually unknown today. And this despite being a John W Campbell Award nominee in 1975. But having now read her second novel, Worlds for the Grabbing, her obscurity is perhaps less of a mystery.

Although Pearce had two stories published in Analog during the mid-1970s, Worlds for the Grabbing very much follows a British tradition of science fiction. Rather than harken back to the sf of Heinlein, Asimov or Clarke, it has more of the flavour of that written by Captain WE Johns and Hugh Walters. Although not marketed as a “juvenile”, Worlds for the Grabbing initially reads like one, even though its protagonists are all adult. Perhaps it’s the faintly pedagogical tone the prose possesses; perhaps it’s the fact the novel is structured as four separate stories, with a framing narrative, each of which builds to a finale.

The story opens with Captain Kjell Redmain of the United European Space Service (which, despite its name, appears to be resolutely English), who is tasked with discovering the fate of a missing “daysider” which is believed to have crashed on Mercury’s sunward face. The daysider is a small spacecraft, specially built to survive the hellish environment on Mercury. Redmain’s small crew is European, but the most important member is geologist Dr Christopher Collins, and it is through his actions and scientific insight that the fate of the missing daysider is discovered. As is a substantial quantity of uranium, needed by a power-hungry and climate-crashed Earth. It goes without saying that the Mercury described by Pearce – a volcanic inferno, liable to send molten rock shooting skyward in a matter of seconds – bears no resemblance to the planet visited by the MESSENGER space probe in 2011, although, to be fair, it’s perhaps not so far from the thinking of the 1970s.

After the events on Mercury, Collins is sent to Pluto to learn why the diamond mine there has been unable to meet its (quite reasonable) quota, and why the staff on-site have been suffering from a variety of mental problems. Of course, the cause is a scientific puzzle, and Collins manages to solve it – even though he too is affected by it. Again, Pearce’s Pluto is of its time – for one thing, it’s described by as a “planet”, whereas these days, of course, we known it as a “dwarf planet” – but she throws out some nice turns of phrase while describing it:

Ahead of him, only slightly dimmed by his helmet’s thick faceplate, a skein of light sprawled blindingly across the sky. The skein was the Milky Way. After the closed in, small scale vistas of the Base, Collins was spellbound by its unimaginable energy, its multi-parsec distances, its intolerable glory. (p 98)

After Pluto, Collins is sent to Venus, this time to learn why two research stations on the surface were destroyed – and both destructions were connected with Venus’ vast subsurface reservoirs of oil. Collins is re-united with Redmain, but also part of the team is meteorologist Katherine Harrer, who proves to be an old flame of Collins’s. More than that, in fact, and their split was far from amicable. Once again, Collins solves the scientific puzzle represented by the oil on Venus. While Pearce describes the surface conditions reasonably accurately, the presence of the oil is justified with some adroit science-fictional hand-waving.

Introduced during the events on Pluto was psychologist Dr Rachel Bloch, and she, along with Collins, Redmain and Harrer, are next sent to Saturn, to discover why the crews of skimmers who dive too deep into the gas giant’s atmosphere begin to hallucinate and lose control. It’s yet another scientific puzzle, and requires the ingenuity of all four major characters to resolve. It’s the most science-fictional explanation of the four stories, and certainly has the most shocking ending – which is firmly rooted in the psychology of one of the characters.

The SF Encyclopedia describes Worlds for the Grabbing as a “routine but enjoyable space opera”. It’s not. For a start, it’s hard sf and not space opera. It’s certainly enjoyable, but it’s not especially routine – not in reference to other sf, US especially, of its type. Pearce’s prose bounces from workmanlike to quite good, and while there are no sentences that will take your breath away, neither are there any which may cause pain. However, Pearce’s race-relations are, even for the 1970s, border-line offensive. One of the second-string characters, Simon Litua, a physicist, is black, and he often defuses situations by using racist comments ironically. It’s painfully done. The gender politics in Worlds for the Grabbing are also somewhat backward. All of the major characters, with the exception of Rachel Bloch, are male, and the women seem to be confined to the “softer” occupations and sciences. For all its surface appearance of equality, Pearce’s future maps almost precisely onto the UK of the mid-1970s.

If I see a copy of Pearce’s debut novel, Kidnapped into Space (1975), I will buy it and read it. But the fact that she’s been forgotten in the forty years since her first publication comes as no real surprise. Perhaps she might have gone on to write more interesting books – she was, after all, a Campbell nominee – but we will never know. Worlds for the Grabbing is certainly no lost masterpiece, and reads more like an historical document than a science fiction novel for the ages.

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

July 17, 2014

The SparrowThe Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
Review by Shannon Turlington

It’s hard to describe the exhilarating sense of emotion I felt while reading this book. I don’t consider myself a religious person, and this book is unquestionably about religion and our relationship with God. I am a spiritual seeker, though, and I found this novel to be one of the most meaningful examinations of our purpose as humans that I have ever read. It is not an easy read, and it offers no easy answers. But despite its horrors – and some truly horrific things happen in this story – it is a beautiful, life-affirming read.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because part of the joy of reading The Sparrow lies in discovering it. Russell parcels out the story in bits and pieces, to prepare the reader for what’s coming. So, just a bare-bones summary, then: a group of people discovers radio signals – recordings of beautiful singing – coming from the Alpha Centauri system. One of these people, Emilio Sandoz, is a Jesuit priest, who interprets the singing as a sign from God. He spearheads a Jesuit mission to travel to the planet of Rakhat, four light years away, and meet the Singers.

Russell tells the story of the expedition mainly in flashbacks, alternating with scenes set in the present, after Sandoz has been rescued from Rakhat, the only survivor of his mission, a broken and despairing man. This structure allows the story to unspool slowly. The reader knows that Sandoz’s ultimate experiences on Rakhat were horrific, that he loses everyone he cares about and is somehow brought to a state of utter degradation, but we don’t know exactly what happened to him (until the end), or why. We are seeking, like Sandoz, for the the meaning of suffering and loss, searching for God somewhere in the universe. Even though it concerns aliens and space travel, The Sparrow is a very human story, a quest that mirrors one of our first stories: the story of the Fall of humankind.

When Sandoz and his friends arrive on Rakhat, it is literally a Garden of Eden, and the aliens they encounter first are like the innocents before the Fall. But Russell doesn’t make it that easy for us. The fundamental mistake that the human visitors make is interpreting this alien world through a human worldview. Russell’s tale of first contact is meant to mirror Europeans’ first encounters with Native Americans. Early on, the narrative includes a historical account of a Jesuit priest who was tortured and mutilated by the Native Americans he tried to convert, was rescued, but returned to America to be recaptured and ultimately killed. This story mirrors Sandoz’s journey in many ways. He is not interacting with primitive humans, though, but with alien species that at a very basic level he does not understand. Russell does a terrific job of making these beings truly alien and showing how the humans’ failure to acknowledge their alienness leads to the downfall of the mission and irrevocable changes on Rakhat.

However, the humans are just as alien to the Rakhat natives, and through their eyes, Russell leads us to question our own sense of morality. Sandoz is judged harshly by almost everyone upon his return, and to me, this is one of the most distressing truths of the novel: the lack of compassion we show our own.

The Sparrow is a book of contrasts. The planet of Rakhat is both incredibly beautiful and the scene of almost unimaginable horrors. The human characters are good, intelligent, loving people, yet the novel doesn’t flinch from depicting humanity’s failings, most especially our capacity to misjudge, misinterpret and, even out of good intentions, make the worst mistakes. And while this story is full of God, it doesn’t definitively answer for the reader the question of what God is or whether God even exists. For its contrasts, its challenges and its beauty, I absolutely loved this book.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr

July 15, 2014

hersmokeHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990)
Review by Chris White

Now, I’ve done a bit of research, and apparently when you review a collection of short stories you have to review each individual story – I’m not going to do that. And it’s not only because I’m lazy – I actually don’t want to ruin any of these beautiful stories for you. You should buy this book, I’m not joking.

James Tiptree Jr was probably one of the best science fiction authors to have ever written. Why am I tagging a bloke called James Tiptree Jr in my year of reading women? Because James Tiptree Jr was actually Alice Sheldon, an intelligence agent for both the USAF and the CIA, who wrote as Tiptree to protect her professional career.

“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” – Robert Silverberg

Tiptree’s work collected here deals with sex, and violence, and arousal, and death. From the tragic xenophobic xenophile of ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’ to the story that has haunted me since childhood – although I forgot the name of the author, I always remembered ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ to the sad, haunting victory of ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’. Yes, James Tiptree Jr was a master of titles.

I cannot recommend this collection highly enough, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a beautiful, moving exploration of humanity and of real science fiction – our humanity is exposed through our non-humanity, to each other and to the aliens that we conquer and subjugate in her stories. The cold hostility of humanity toward the conquered in ‘We Who Stole the Dream’ and to one another in ‘The Screwfly Solution’ are breath-taking, as is the beauty found in ‘Slow Music’.

What a beautiful collection. Equal parts terrifying, beautiful and tragic. Glorious science fiction.

“Passing in any crowd are secret people whose hidden response to beauty is the desire to tear it into bleeding meat.”

This review originally appeared on Chris White Writes.

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