Hellflower, Eluki bes Shahar (1991)
Review by Martin Wisse
Eluki bes Shahar is a science fiction and fantasy writer better known as Rosemary Edghill, the form of her name she now prefers. She’s been active since the late eighties, starting her career writing straight romance novels, then moving on to science fiction and fantasy, most recently in collaboration with Mercedes Lackey. I think it’s fair to say she’s only been middling successful as a writer, somebody largely forgotten as an science fiction writer. The question is, is she worth rediscovering?
At first glance Hellflower seems to be a bog standard space opera or adventure sf story. Hardbitten female independent trader/starship captain rescues a young nob from a mugging, due to his honour he’s now in her debt, the same honour leads him to be scheduled for execution, she rescues him again, they take off from the planet guns blazing, he turns out to be more than just a young, bored noble and she’s in over her head. What makes Hellflower different from the several dozen other space opera stories with the same plot is the atmosphere of elegiac foredooming it takes place in. This particular caper might have a happy ending after all, but sooner or later the odds will catch up with our protagonist.
Said protagonist is Butterflies-are-free Peace Sincere st-Cyr, who grew up on a low technology reservation planet and broke the embargo into a precarious life in the Phoenix Empire. Her only friend and confidant is Paladin, the last existing AI left in the empire, now installed in Butterfly’s ship, The Firecat. AIs are feared and loathed in the empire, with Paladin being a remnant from an earlier golden age. Together they’ve so far managed to survive in an increasingly hostile universe, but Paladin knows if Butterfly doesn’t, or pretends to, that it’s just a matter of time before something goes wrong.
And Butterfly’s impromptu rescue of Tigger Stardust, young teenager hellflower aristocrat with an overinflated sense of honour, first from a gang of thugs, then from police imprisonment, looks very much like the straw that’ll break the camel’s back, as they’re hunted from one world to another. It soon becomes apparent that the trouble Tigger found himself in was not entirely of his own making, but that he has made powerful enemies because of who he is.
Though a fairly standard sf plot, what makes Hellflower different is the melancholic atmosphere. There’s none of the romance of the usual science fiction smuggler/freetrader adventurer; Butterfly St Cyr is no Han Solo. She’s scrabbling for a living on the margins of galactic society and her odds for survival are low and getting lower. There’s a sense of realism there that you don’t see a lot in science fiction, that of knowing you’re winning if you can manage to keep your head above water.
What I also liked was the relationship between Butterfly and Tigger, who against all odds don’t become lovers or romantically engaged, something even rarer in genre fiction. Tigger admires and looks up to Butterfly, while she is equal measures annoyed and amused by him, but neither is attracted by the other.
Finally, what also sets Hellflower apart is the language, which has echoes of Delany and Zelazny in its richness.
Which all in all means that yes, if you like good, fun adventure science fiction, this is a good bet.
This review originally appeared on Cloggie.
Gate of Ivrel, CJ Cherryh (1976)
Review by Adam Roberts
I’ve tried reading Cherryh’s SF before and, to use the pinball idiom favoured of SF fandom, I “bounced off her, hard”. I think what put me off was an, as it seemed to me, old-fashioned trudginess about the whole: clogged, under-visualised and in some cases apparent interminability. I bogged down in Downbelow Station, said ciao! no to the myriad Chanur books, and having taken it out of the library I came to the conclusion that a lifetime was not sufficient time, and eternity barely long enough, to read the whole of Cyteen. This, I should add, is not merely a matter of length: I have read many books that were longer than hers. It was something to do with (what seemed to me) a painful slowness, indeed a drabness, about the telling.
Lately I’ve tried again: this time with her “Fantasy” series The Chronicles of Morgaine, and her first published novel, Gate of Ivrel. And to my surprise I very much enjoyed it. The story is simple: a High Fantasy world of horselords and peasants, mountains and plains has an in-effect supernatural layer of strange creatures, immortal wizards and amazing weaponry, courtesy of a network of high-tech “Gates”, set up in “the unimaginable past” as (we assume) teleportation of hyperspace portals, but now decayed into strange and dangerous loopholes into a mode of chaos. The story starts with young warrior Vanye in a tight spot: his father is king, but he is a bastard, and his two legitimate brothers have bullied and tormented them all his life. Finally they assault him with swords, and in defending himself, he kills one brother and maims the other. He is banished, disgraced, and declared “ilin”. According to the exacting code of honour of this world, “ilin” are…
… criminals, or clanless, or unclaimed bastards, and some religious men doing penance for some particular sin, bound in virtual slavery according to the soul-binding law of the ilin odes, to serve for a year at their Claiming. (p 23)
Vanye is claimed by Morgaine – the titular protagonist, a remnant from the ancient past. She was last seen on this world a century earlier. Since then she’s been hiding inside one of the gates (or something: it’s not entirely clear) after she led a disastrous military campaign against the northern kingdom of Hjemur. Her aim was to destroy the Gates, but she failed and thousands died. Now her name has positively witchy and indeed diabolic connotations: and though she calls herself human others class her as “qhal”, the race that built the Gates in the backward and abyss of time, and a word that now effectively means something like “dark elf”.
The High Fantasy tropes are laid out with respectful fidelity, which leads us perhaps into over-familiarity. Once Morgaine has claimed Vanye she binds him to a promise to help her destroy Hjemur, or if she dies to destroy it himself. Miserable, filled with superstitious terror in her presence, he is nonetheless bound so strictly by his honour code that he cannot deny her. Thereafter they go on a long quest, which entails trouble with monstrous creatures very much not referred to as orcs in the mountains, a sojourn in an Old English style horselord keep where the king is being secretly controlled by a weird mage behind his back, time in a monastery where their hurts are healed, treks past evil-haunted lakes, through dangerous forests, across great plains and to a final big showdown on the flanks of an evil mountain, the Ivrel, which is where the Boss Gate, that rules all the other gates, is to be found. The purpose of this quest is to destroy not a magic ring of power with charmed letters written upon it, but a completely different artefact: a magic sword of power with charmed letters written upon it. Bunging this sword through a gate will do the job, we’re told:
“I will tell thee,” [Morgaine] said softly, “if something befall me, it could be that thee would need to know. Thee does not need to read what is written on the blade. But it is the key. Chan wrote it upon the blade for fear that all of us would die, or that it would come to another generation of us – hoping that with that, Ivrel still might be sealed. It is to be used at Rahjemur, if thee must: its field directed at its own source of power would effect the ruin of all the Gates here. Or cast back within the Gate itself, the true Gate, it would be the same: unsheathe it and hurl it through.” (p 161)
Those rather Yorkshire-sounding ‘thees’ are how Cherryh marks Morgaine as coming from a past age of the world in which she moves. It took some getting used to, for me (Cherryh is an expert Latinist, and taught the language for many years, so she knows the difference between a ‘thee is’ and a ‘thou art’; but she insists on using the former idiom the whole way through her novel. Ah well). At the mountain they meet the Evil One, Liell – the evil counsellor they met earlier, who has been preserving himself ever-young by periodically glomming his spirit into younger bodies, with the help of the power of the Gates. He almost succeeds in doing this with Vanye, and finally does do it with another of their companions, Chya Roh, meaning that for the end of the book and, I assume, in its sequels he is the series’ Sauron. He escapes. “How?” I hear you ask: “does Roh row row his boat gently down the stream?” No. He hops through the Boss Gate. Morgaine goes after him. Determined to get back at Chya.
Now, emphasising the simplicity and (we can be honest) derivativeness of this story, as I am doing here, does not capture the flavour of reading the novel. It’s true there is something old-fashioned about the way she puts her story together: for good and ill, but the ‘good’ of it is not to be sniffed at. It feels slightly effortful, working one’s way through; but this effort correlates quite well to a world in which life is hard, travel slow and dangerous, and the (mark the scare quotes, I prithee) “reality” of pre-industrial-revolution life is scrupulously worked through and attended to. Cherryh observes this almost to a fault: Morgaine and Vanye are repeatedly waylaid, ambushed, tricked, imprisoned and so on; which kept un-suspending my disbelief – Morgaine, after all, carries with her not only the lightning-shooting by-the-power-of-grayskull Wonder Sword (She! Has! The Power!), but also a small handgun-sized laser or phaser or somesuch device. The former makes enemies disappear altogether; the latter slices through flesh like butter. It’s a little hard to see why she almost never uses them.
Cherryh’s style is brisk, almost terse. Her descriptions are nugatory and the backstory clots those portions when it is discussed with unexplained names and heritages and a welter of opaque references. Yet there are several things about this novel that work powerfully well. One has to do precisely with the style, actually: its very terseness stands in astringent and welcome contrast with the bloaty, weightless blather of so much contemporary Fantasy – padded like a stuffed mattress with pointless conversations and interminable descriptions of landscape, clothes, food served at table, military tactics and so on. There’s something pleasingly to-the-point about the way Cherryh writes; and if I sometimes found myself wrongfooted or baffled, well the upside there was the way that bafflement enhanced the estrangement of the built world. The exacting and sometimes counter-intuitive honour code of the world added to this; the kinship alliances and hostilities, the hierarchies and protocols. The drabness of her approach happens to suit a world defined by a kind of punishing drabness of climate and society.
But at the heart of the success of this novel is the central relationship: beautiful, ageless Morgaine – ruthless and unswerving, but in a noble aim; handsome, capable, muscular Vanye, sworn to serve her in everything. It is what my friend Justina Robson aptly calls “a fit bloke fantasy”, and Cherryh makes it work by with-holding most of the romantic satisfactions her readership might otherwise expecting. At any rate, when Morgaine releases Vanye from his oath at the end and rides into the Gate in pursuit of the evil Chya Roh – and, of course, Vanye turns his back on his world to follow her – it’s surprisingly affecting. The story continues in 1978’s Well of Shiuan, which I shall now read.
Shards of Honour, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Review by Diarmuid Verrier
…or, if you like, Shards of Honor, is the first novel published in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. I’d come across her name several times on this blog, and seen that she’s won a Hugo award an outrageous four times. Apart from that, though, I knew nothing about her or her works.
So, what’s going on with Shards of Honour? (Spoilers follow, if you’re concerned about that sort of thing.) At the outset, Cordelia Naismith, head of a survey expedition from Beta Colony (a liberal democracy), is stranded on an otherwise uninhabited planet when the rest of her expedition is attacked. Uninhabited, that is, but for those that did the attacking – a troop of Barrayarans (a militaristic empire). She winds up joining forces with a lone Barrayaran – Aral Vorkosigan – and they work together to cross the dangerous terrain back to the Barrayaran base. This plot, and the militaristic-exploratory world it is set in, seemed to me like something straight out of a Star Trek screenplay.
Cordelia helps Aral wrest his command back from some treasonous officers, is proposed to (there’s nothing like fighting off alien spiders together to forge a close bond between people quickly, I guess), gleans a bit of useful information about Barrayaran military objectives, and skedaddles back to Betan space in no time flat.
In the second section of the book, set months later, Cordelia leads a sneaky one-way mission past Barrayaran picket lines to get essential tide-turning technology to the besieged planet of Escobar. Why a survey officer should be the one to lead a military expedition is not clear, but it does get her back into the hands of Aral. While a prisoner on the Barrayaran flagship she manages (with a little help) to defeat a rather broadly drawn de Sade-type commander (why is an interest in S&M so often shorthand for villainous?), then waits with Aral while she and he watch the mission of conquest fall apart following the succesful delivery of the technological assets.
In the third section, after being welcomed home as a hero following the collapse of the Barrayaran offensive, Cordelia suffers from some psychological ill effects from her time as a prisoner of war. She rapidly alienates the Betan authorities, which includes kicking the Betan president – Steady Freddy – in the balls. (In a recurring joke, every character who mentions the president quickly claims that, “Well, I didn’t vote for him!”.) Her superiors learn of her relationship with Aral, and come to the conclusion that she must be a subconsciously programmed sleeper agent working for the Barrayarans. Though short, I thought this was the strongest section of the book. It reminded my of the hopelessness and unreason of Kafka and the surreal paranoia of Philip K Dick. Cordelia’s mental state deteriorates as every claim she makes that she wasn’t brainwashed seems only to make the authorities more convinced that she was. She eventually escapes, and finagles a ride to Barrayara, where she (her PTSD miraculously disappeared) and Aral live happily ever after (…or so we would be content to assume if there weren’t a whole series of books telling us what happened next).
I enjoyed this book quite a lot and read it over just two days. The universe isn’t particularly evocative, but the different factions are as effective as they are in, say, Star Trek at allowing the writer to describe archetypal social/philosophical positions and present conflict between them. The intrigue and political side of things is done very well, and the action in the book is pretty decent too. The prose is generally plain, but is leavened by the occasional bit of humour, some bright metaphors, and the odd phrase or old saying that is slighly off the beaten track. The characters too, particularly the two protagonists, are well drawn. However, while Cordelia is smart, proactive, and kick-ass she’s nowhere near as compelling as Aral Vorkosigan, who is a powerful miltary commander and a strategic genius; and an amazingly wealthy aristocrat with a little bit of angst and a tortured past. Actually, though the trembling heart stuff is kept to an admirable minimum, this conjunction between relative Plain Jane and slightly-damaged, but oh-so-desirable aristocrat reminded me slightly of Twilight (I guess this is a standard romance trope, but Twilight is the current cultural touchstone for romance, so that’s what I thought of). Don’t let that comparison put you off though! Yes, it’s a bit fairy tale, but the love stuff here was done relatively reasonably, with a light touch, and, importantly for those wanting their fix of SF, was very definitely secondary to a tale of swashbuckling interstellar conflict and intrigue.
Final rating? On the classics/important reads side of things, it’s a 3, but on the potboiler/enjoyable reads side, it’s a 5. That said, I don’t think you would ever try to read this novel as a stand-alone classic – instead it provides insight into an author (perhaps slightly less well known now than in her heyday) whose overall oeuvre may one day be considered “important”. Certainly, as one of relatively few women authors of SF, and one who’s won four Hugos at that, I’m hopeful that this will turn out to be the case.
This review originally appeared on Consumed Media.
False Dawn, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978)
Review by Joachim Boaz
One of the women wasn’t dead yet. Her ravaged body hung naked from a broken billboard. Her legs were splayed wide and anchored with ropes; legs and belly were bloody, there were heavy bruises on her face and breasts, and she had been branded with a large “M” for mutant. (p 1)
Before there was Mad Max (1979), directed by George Miller, there was Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s False Dawn… In 1972 she published her brutal and terrifying short story ‘False Dawn’ in Thomas N Scortia’s anthology Strange Bedfellows (1972). A few years later the work was deemed important enough to be included in Pamela Sargent’s famous anthology Women of Wonder (1975). This story forms the first chapter of her post-apocalyptic novel False Dawn.
In the 60s highly inventive post-apocalyptic stories flourished: for example, JG Ballard’s masterpiece The Drowned World (1962) filled with images of uterine spaces and encroaching waters, Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964) where the elderly are the inheritors of the earth, and DG Compton’s The Silent Multitude (1966) where conversations drift amongst the decaying cityscapes.
Yarbro pursues a somewhat different tack in False Dawn. She seeks to tell an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of a world gone to hell due to environmental devastation. I suspect this novel and John Brunner’s masterpiece The Sheep Look Up (1972) were influential for later SF.
This is not a cozy apocalypse. This is a world where deranged individuals both male and female who have managed to survive prey on travellers, where roving bands of Pirates loot, rape, and destroy under some tenuous ideology of “survival”. A world where most births produce deformed children, the wandering diseased transmit horrific illnesses, and religious fanaticism of the most virulent sort abounds… A few enclaves manage to eke out a semblance of civilized (rural) existence in the face of these threats. And the promise of more pristine environments that must exist over the next range of mountains, motivate some to keep searching for a better life.
Before society completely collapse groups of scientists experimented on humans in an effort to create bodies that would survive the ravishes of the environmentally destroyed landscape: “they had decided to adapt. They adapted their children. Viral modification, they called it, when it worked” (p 71). Our heroine, Thea is one of these designed “mutants” although her mutation does not play a major role in the novel.
Unfortunately this hyper-realistic recasting is not entirely successful despite its admirable intentions.
False Dawn‘s central protagonist, a “mutant” woman named Thea, is remarkably resilient. The novel stars off with her winding her way through a scene of incredible destruction caused in part by the Pirates: dead bodies, a raped woman splayed on a billboard, packs of wild dogs, dead animals whose decayed bodies show the signs of viral infections. Her objective: Gold Lake, where civilization might still exist. Her trek takes her across Northern California: a vast expanses of mutilated landscapes, dying peoples, and horrific surprises.
However, her solo journey ends when she encounters Evan Montague, the ex-leader of the Pirates. Evan is dying, his men, increasingly radicalized, turned on him and cut off his arm. The Pirates will stop at nothing to kill their ex-leader. Thea, against her gut feeling and desire to remain alone on her journey, joins up with him on her quest.
A third character “joins” Thea and Evan, an unstable man named Lastly who fought for the C. D. militia. Thea and Evan are disarmed by Lastly at rifle point and forced to march with him. Lastly lusts after Thea and rapes her as Evan collects fuel for their fire: no punches are pulled, the scene is devastating. Evan returns and kills Lastly.
As their journey becomes increasingly difficult for a one-armed man, Yarbro strategically has his “mutant” modifications manifest themselves: “Evan’s arm grew back as fall came on. It sprouted slowly as they left the contamination behind them, beginning as a tawny spatulate paddle below the angry cicatrix marking the path of the saw [...]” (p 38). The majority of the story’s plot concerns the daily survival of the pair – investigating abandoned houses, building crossbows, avoiding the Pirates- as they make their way across snowy mountains towards Gold Lake.
The more thematic arc of the novel novel follows Thea’s slow recovery from the mental trauma she experienced. I found Yarbro’s treatment of the Thea’s extreme difficulty of recovery from such an experience is admirably conveyed and believable. As she recovers, Evan rekindles her memories of the past – they often reminisce about food, remember fragments of music. Also, she slowly begins to overcome the more general trauma generated by the virtual destruction of the world.
The end is bittersweet.
False Dawn attempts to be a realistic story with an exciting plot and careful character development. I remained unconvinced by some elements of the second point. As soon as Thea meets Evan Montague, the ex-leader of the Pirates, the novel tends to slip into very common gender dynamics (he is much older than her and falls in loves, he kills her rapist, he awakens her earlier memories of music and culture, etc). Evan is also completely unconvincing. How can a man who once lead the Pirates – ie, a force of incredible destruction – suddenly transform into a caring, loving, and tender individual? Yes, he attempted to stem the tide of the Pirates’ increasing radicalism and was nearly killed for his actions…
The sweeping scenes of devastation are well-wrought and terrifying. The horror elements are predictable but effective. I prefer 60s/early 70s post-apocalyptic experimentation over hyper-violent realism.
Vaguely recommended for fans of post-apocalyptic SF.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.
Irsud, Jo Clayton (1978)
Review by Ian Sales
Irsud is the third book in Clayton’s nine-book Diadem Universe series, featuring the beautiful Aleytys who apparently has to spend much of her life in slavery of one form or another in order to offset her super-special snowflake status. At the end of the previous book, Lamarchos, Aleytys had been sold into slavery by Maissa, who has kept Aleytys’s young son, Sharl. Irsud opens on the eponymous world, and it is the the queen of this planet who has purchased Aleytys. For a particular purpose. The nayids of Irsud appear human in almost all respects…
… her body heating a little as she noted the genital similarity to the men of her own species. (p 14)
… except they have antennae (or rather, antennas), compound eyes, and a society which sort of resembles that of hive insects… Well, they have a queen… And, er, that’s it really. They also have slaves – members of their own race from other communities, as well as hiiri, small furry aliens who, it is implied, are the native race of Irsud. Aleytys is a slave, but her role is somewhat different to that of the other slaves – she has been bought because the queen wants to use the young woman as a host for her egg. When the queen dies, her consciousness is stored in an egg, which is then surgically implanted into a host body. The egg grows thousands of tendrils into the body, and slowly takes control of it… before eventually turning into a larva which eats the body from the inside. Aleytys was specifically chosen as a host because the queen hoped her new adult form would incorporate Aleytys’s special snowflake characteristics.
The process takes a year, during which Aleytys is held a prisoner in the queen’s fortress, under the control of the kipu, the dead queen’s chief advisor. Fortunately, Aleytys persuades a male slave nayid – the queen’s ex-lover, in fact – to surgically remove the psi-damper the slavers had implanted in Aleytys’ shoulder, and which was keeping her in a lethargic and disassociated state. Once back in control of her faculties – and in communication with the three disembodied intelligences residing in the diadem, the device which “chose” Aleytys in the first book of the series and which gives her much enhanced psi abilities; once more compos mentis, Aleytys sets about plotting her escape… With the help of Burash, the nayid slave and now her own lover, and a slave hiiri (small furry aliens) who works as a domestic servant in the fortress but has contacts with the hiiri rebel leadership.
The kipu, however, is determined to keep control of Aleytys, as her own power depends upon the old queen’s survival. (The nayids, incidentally, are matriarchal.) Aleytys manages to persuade the kipu that the queen has “woken up” inside her, but the kipu is not fooled for long. Nonetheless, she chooses to go along with the pretence in order to maintain her position… But then one of the dead queen’s daughters tries to kill Aleytys – first using hired assassins, then with poison – so Aleytys arranges a meeting with the hiiri rebel leader… but they are all captured by the kipu and her soldiers…
There are an awful lots of words in Irsud describing Aleytys’ body and her beauty. She also seems to spend a lot of the time naked (as she is, in fact, on the cover of the book). Then there are her “powers”… These seem to grow in both breadth and potency as the story progresses. And Aleytys only uses them when the story demands it, often conveniently forgetting her abilities in some situations.
It all wears a bit thin after a while. There is a plot somewhere in Irsud, but its buried beneath endless paragraphs pointing out how special Aleytys is and, oh, what a wonderful and beautiful body she has. Given that, it seems churlish to complain that the nayid social structure and biology makes no sense – compound eyes on a humanoid? A queen who lays eggs in an alien race that has two functioning genders?
Sandals and spaceships, or swords and spaceships, has long been one of science fiction’s more problematic subgenres. Spun out of the planetary romances of the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but with a more science-fictional sensibility laid over the top, it seems to consist chiefly of space operas stories in which slavery is rife, violence is endemic, and women are treated like chattel. I find it hard to understand why someone would want to write such science fictions. What is there to be gained in imagining a universe in which slavery is acceptable and women have all the rights of domesticated pets? Not only is it deeply offensive, but it leads to super-special snowflake characters such as Aleytys – because it’s only by being super-special snowflakes can protagonists like her have sufficient agency in such settings to generate drama, or even melodrama.
Apparently, the Diadem books remained in print for over a decade, right up until 1990. I can’t honestly understand why.
The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey (1969)
Review by Martin Wisse
Some writers you can only appreciate if you discover them in the golden age of science fiction – twelve – because at that age you’re less likely to notice the two dimensional characters, slipshod plotting or obnoxious politics you would’ve noticed as a more experienced reader. McCaffrey is such a writer for me. I loved her books when I was twelve and reading them from the local library, but trying my hand at some of her later works ended in disappointment. There’s also the danger of rereading cherished childhood classics and finding that in hindsight, they’re not so great after all. With McCaffrey’s early Dragonriders novels I already took that gamble and got lucky, now I’ve reread perhaps her best known novel outside that series and see if The Ship Who Sang was as much of a tearjerker as I remembered.
Sentiment is an underrated emotion in science fiction, something we’re a bit embarrassed about, but which plays a greater role than you’d expect in such a “rational” genre. Quite a few classics thrive on it – ‘Helen O’Loy’, ‘Green Hills of Earth’, ‘Faithful to Thee, Terra, in Our Fashion’ all spring to mind – and as I remembered The Ship Who Sang, it positively wallowed in it, in this story of a severely disabled girl whose only hope for any sort of life was to become the “brain” of a spaceship, who then found love in the arms of her “brawn” partner only to lose him to cruel, cruel fate. The perfect sort of story for a sensitive twelve year old, but would it hold its appeal?
The problems start literally from the first paragraph:
She was born a thing and as such would be condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph test required of all newborn babies. There was always the possibility that though the limbs were twisted, the mind was not, that though the ears would hear only dimly, the eyes see vaguely, the mind behind them was receptive and alert.
The electro-encephalogram was entirely favorable, unexpectedly so, and the news was brought to the waiting, grieving parents. There was the final, harsh decision: to give their child euthanasia or permit it to become an encapsulated ‘brain’, a guiding mechanism in any one of a number of curious professions. As such, their offspring would suffer no pain, live a comfortable existence in a metal shell for several centuries, performing unusual service to Central Worlds.
That’s a fairly dodgy attitude even in a novel written at a time and in a country that had no problems with involuntary sterilisation of undesirable people and nonconsentual medical experiments, let alone now we’ve sort of managed to accept disabled people as human. To have a writer approvingly talk about euthanasia for mentally disabled babies, or lifelong servitude for those merely severely physically disabled, if their parents allow it, is a reminder of how social Darwinist (or downright fascist) science fiction could be and sometimes still is.
It left a nasty taste in my mouth, though for the rest of the novel this background is never referred to again and Helva, the protagonist, is perfectly happy being a Brain. What reinforces that feeling is the way the Brains are forced into servitude to pay off the huge debts they occurred from being kept alive the way they are, which they have to work off in service to Central Worlds. What’s more, anything that Helva needs as a ship to fulfil the missions she’s sent on she needs to pay for herself, including any damage done to her in the mission. It does feel a lot like slavery, even if she does get paid for these missions as well. All of this is completely ignored in the stories that make up this novel, just part of the background, a device to get Helva to go on dangerous missions to pay off her debts.
I didn’t remember any of this from the last time I read The Ship Who Sang, decades ago; what I remembered was the romantic story at the heart of it, as Helva comes of age and gets her first partner, the “brawn” who will handle all those physical tasks on planet she can’t do herself. It’s during the party for the eight candidates that Helva gets her name as “the ship who sings”, as she reveals her ability to do just that and turns out to have a perfect voice that can do anything the best “normal” singers can do. That’s when she first meets Jennan, the only one to consistently talk to where her physical presence was located in the heart of her ship-shell, the one she immediately falls in love with and who actually dies less than ten pages later. The rest of the novel is about Helva dealing with her loss and grief, ultimately finding new love in the strangest of places.
Because this is a fixup novel however, with each story in it originally having been published as a standalone, the characterisation of Helva is rather two dimensional and that deep love and deeper grief doesn’t look so impressive anymore as it did at age twelve. The sentiment is there, but much of it has dissipated after the first two stories, McCaffrey preferring to tell perfectly good sf puzzle adventure stories for the rest of the book. These are decent enough on their own, but I missed the emotion in them I remembered.
In its place was something more nasty, a deep ingrained sexism that again I completely missed the first time around. Helva is consistently shown to be “not like other girls”, one of the boys, while other women are either victims or harpies, largely illogical and emotional, with things like logic and emotions explicitly shown in gendered terms. It’s all very Heinleinian, with McCaffrey having the same sort of this is how the world works and anybody who thinks otherwise is a fool tone in her writing her. It’s very offputting and offensive once you notice it.
Without the sexism, without the dodgy background McCaffrey gave the novel, what remains is a great idea executed through decent if not world-beating stories. It’s typical of the science fiction of this generation that most of the interesting stuff is discarded so quickly, largely due to the length restrictions it had to labour under. This after all is a novel of barely 200 pages, which tells half a dozen of stories during it. That leaves little room for anything but plotting.
A bit of a disappointment then, another book I’d with hindsight should’ve left to memory.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Zhenya Bourova
Feminists have been reading, and re-reading, The Left Hand of Darkness for a long time. Le Guin herself returned to the book and its setting more than once as her feminism developed alongside and through her writing. Now, over four decades after it was first published in 1969, the text itself has become bound up with the history of its interpretations.
I first read The Left Hand of Darkness two years ago. Pushing away the image that had imprinted upon my mind’s eye – those two tiny figures, all alone upon the ice – I remember feeling smug and ready to criticise. The book had begun, in Le Guin’s own words, as a “thought-experiment”: she “eliminated gender, to find out what was left”. Yet in insisting so strongly upon a people in whom the masculine and the feminine were blended, Le Guin made the gender binary – and the very idea of masculine and feminine characteristics – even stronger. If there was a radical point to that experiment – that is, the deconstruction of gender, as opposed to its hypothetical elimination — then the experiment had failed.
Reading it now, I feel that the book is not so much about that experiment as it is about impossibilities. The impossibilities created by our insistence upon dualities; the impossibility of representation, by the self and of the other, and also the impossibility of contact between the two. It is about the violence done to the other’s subjecthood in ascribing them to one half of a duality, and the impossibility of exiting a worldview premised on dualities to see an other as they really are.
The plot is sparse and far from fast-paced, but in a good way. A man, Genly Ai, comes as an envoy from Earth to the planet Gethen, seeking to persuade its rulers to join a coalition of eighty-three planets called the Ekumen. Gethen has an Earth-like atmosphere, but a semi-arctic climate, for which, on other worlds, it is known as Winter. But most of all it is a world set apart by the biology of its inhabitants, who are androgynous and sexually inactive except for an oestrus period each month known as kemmer. During kemmer, the Gethenians can take on the role of either male or female, in sex and also in reproduction. The rest of the time, Gethen is a society without sex.
The effect of the Gethenians’ ambisexuality, we are told, is multiple:
“Anyone can turn his hand to anything… The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be… ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be — psychologically or physically… Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.”
On Gethen, Genly is seen as a “pervert”, a “sexual freak” whose state of “permanent kemmer” and fixed maleness make him the subject of both suspicion and wonder. When he fails to convince the paranoid, capricious (and pregnant) king of Karhide to form an alliance with planets beyond his own, he decides to try his luck in the neighbouring nation of Orgoreyn, which has a very different government. Arrested and taken to a labour camp in the far north of Orgoreyn, he is rescued by Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who was once Genly’s patron at the court of Karhide. Together, the two of them undertake an incredible eighty-day journey back to Karhide across the Gobrin Glacier.
At first, despite the book’s far-flung setting, this sounds incredibly familiar. The male hero, by going on a physical journey through an unfamiliar and threatening landscape, undergoes a transformation. But for me, the most interesting part of the book is the extent to which that transformation does not, and can never, succeed, due to the effect of symbolically entrenched binaries and hierarchies on Genly’s ability to make connections with others.
When the story begins, Genly has been on Gethen for over a year. Yet he has by no means come to terms with being surrounded by people who, for three-quarters of the time, have no sex at all. He insists on labelling the Gethenians he encounters as either “masculine” or “feminine”, despite himself acknowledging that this is a purely artificial game – and one that usually fails. When he asks his building superintendent, whose curvy figure and “prying, spying, ignoble, kindly” nature lends itself to the label “landlady”, if “he” has borne children, he is answered in the negative; the lady has borne none, but sired four.
But the way Genly plays the game also betrays his internalised misogyny. The characteristics he associates with femaleness – in the absence of females capable of serving him as sexual objects – are mostly negative. He admits to disliking and distrusting Estraven’s “femininity”, which he describes as “all charm and tact and lack of substance”. At any sign of shiftiness, spying, intrigue, playfulness – but also, later, softness and vulnerability – in a Gethenian, he categorises them as female (and therefore other to himself). His difficulty with Estraven, then, is one of intimacy. Knowing him better than anyone else in Karhide, he cannot truly call him either a man or a woman without knowing the insufficiency of either label. And yet as long as he is unable to perceive Estraven as “an integral man”, he is also unable to trust him.
To some extent, this changes out on the ice. Genly is forced to confront the violence that his insistence on a gender binary does to the non-conforming subjectivity of his companion. When Estraven goes into kemmer, Genly realises that all along he had been pretending not to see the female in him:
“Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality… I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship, to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.”
But to what extent does Genly – to whom even the women of his own world are “more alien” than the Gethenians – become capable of accepting that kind of “reality”? Reflecting on their journey, Genly later concludes that he and Estraven “had touched, in the only way [they] could touch”. Yet was it only the man (who was also a woman) that he reached out to?
One conversation between Genly and Estraven suggests that it is not possible to transcend thinking in terms that divide and bisect the other, while remaining intelligible to oneself.
“You are isolated, and undivided,” Genly says to Estraven. “Perhaps you are obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.”
“We are dualists too,” Estraven replies. “Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”
“I and Thou…Yes, it does, after all, go even wider than sex…”
It is impossible for Genly to conceive of wholeness. But then, is it possible for anyone? Genly is unable to conceive of an other as a full person. He can only reach out and touch – the mindspeech between him and Estraven is certainly some kind of connection – but to represent that connection, or the being with whom that connection was made — that’s something else altogether. This connection remains depressingly untranslated, by the end of the book, into the ability to see the Gethenians for who they really are.
Or, for that matter, to really see women.
“There are no women in it”, wrote Joanna Russ of The Left Hand of Darkness in 1972. The absence of women is not only a result of Le Guin’s (later regretted) insistence upon using the masculine pronoun ‘he’ throughout the book. It is also exacerbated by the fact that although the book insists that the Gethenians are manwomen, we see almost nothing of their alleged femaleness (except for the associations made by Genly). We see nothing of childbearing, or child rearing. If no one on Gethen is quite so free as a male anywhere else, or as “tied down” as women elsewhere, we are shown only the freedom, and nothing of the being “tied down”.
The woman-shaped gap in The Left Hand of Darkness seems to be very much a consequence of Le Guin’s commitment, when the book was written, to a bourgeois individualist writing tradition – and to a science fiction that answered questions about what another world might look like only in relation to its male population. It was, after all, written at a time when a major category of science fiction comprised what Russ described as “intergalactic suburbia” – where the world building, however imaginative in relation to things like technology, left unquestioned the gendered division of labour, and replicated on faraway planets the core values of the American middle class.
To be fair, Le Guin’s “thought-experiment” does question the universality of some of these values. For instance, the book does not export laissez-faire capitalism to Gethen (though the precise nature of the economics of Karhide and Orgoreyn is left relatively vague). Gethen is also a planet that has never known war. Yet a comment by Genly makes it clear that the causal link between biological sex and the division of labour is one thing that will not be questioned:
“It’s extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones. Even where women participate equally with men in the society, they still after all do all the childbearing, and so most of the child rearing…”
Genly’s assumption – that women’s biological role in reproduction should also be determinative of the division of labour in the raising of children – is a depressing outlook for what is supposed to be a league of (I repeat, eighty-three!) futuristic worlds. If Gethen is to be the odd one out, it is doubly to be expected that the allocation of responsibility for the raising of children – not to mention the structure of a family – will be a point of interest to an outsider (and certainly to the reader, looking in). There is no excuse for deeming that side of life too matter of course – too humble, too ordinary – to be the subject of a novel.
And yet, for all its shortcomings, The Left Hand of Darkness has a feminist following well beyond the usual readership of science fiction. Perhaps this is not so much because of what the book has to say about gender as it is about the questions that it leaves unanswered – and the questions it inspires.
Perhaps it is also because its shortcomings have been acknowledged by Le Guin herself, who admitted that the book had Estraven doing only “manly things” during his journey across the ice, and regretted locking the Gethenians into heterosexuality. After over 20 years of experience as a feminist, Le Guin admitted that in her early years as a writer, she did not yet “know how to write about women”. Certainly the story ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’, published nearly 30 years after The Left Hand of Darkness, focuses back on the family, gives an insight into Gethenian child rearing practices, and incorporates same-sex encounters into the story. And Le Guin’s later works – such as the other stories that make up The Birthday of the World (2002), and her latest instalments in the Earthsea saga – also focus directly on the perspectives of women, without marginalising their experiences.
The Left Hand of Darkness thus becomes more than a thought-experiment. In being bound up with its many re-readings, it also becomes about the growth and development of Le Guin as a writer, and the journeys traced by her and other feminists in the context of science fiction. It becomes about the growth of the women who read and re-read it, who are inspired to take a new look at gender, and ask questions of their own.
This review originally appeared on beyondescapism.
For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.