Women as Demons, Tanith Lee (1989)
Review by Ian Sales
SF Mistressworks exists to review science fiction books written by women and published before the beginning of the twenty-first century. While two of those criteria are quite clear, genre can be a nebulous thing. Yet it makes little sense to err on the side of caution in such matters – it’s the fact that the books reviewed here were written by women that is of paramount importance. In other words, the occasional piece of fantasy or mainstream may appear on this site – providing, of course, it’s not too overt, and it has some connection with science fictions that do fit within SF Mistressworks’ remit. Which is why Women as Demons by Tanith Lee, a collection of short stories which are mostly fantasy, is being reviewed here. Admittedly, it was originally published by The Women’s Press and quite clearly states “sf” at the bottom right of the front cover. And the back-cover blurb also says, “In this rich and varied collection of fantasy, science fiction and horror stories…”. Given all that, it would seem churlish to exclude the book because it’s not heartland science fiction. So here we go…
Women as Demons contains fourteen stories, which originally appeared between 1976 and 1988, and two original to the collection. Most are from the late 1970s, and were published in a variety of magazines and paperback anthologies.
‘The Demoness’ (1976) is straight-up fantasy. A woman waits in a tower, and is visited by a man and he learns the hard way that she is a succubus. Some time later, another man visits, a friend and brother-in-arms of the first, but he does not succumb to the succubus’s charms and rejects her. So she sets off in pursuit of him. The story tries for a Matter of Britain atmosphere, but doesn’t quite pull it off. The title character is pretty much the embodiment of the collection’s title, but she still feels like a fairy-tale staple. It didn’t seem as though the story added much to the cliché, and for much of its length it felt somewhat over-written.
‘Deux Amours d’une Sorcière’ (1979) is another fantasy, and is not dissimilar in broad shape to ‘The Demoness’. A beautiful woman kept by an older man meets two young heroes and falls for one of them. Everyone assumes she is in love the blond of the pair, so to protect the brunet, the true target of her affections, she plays along. Her sugar daddy is unhappy, however, and arranges for the putative lover to be murdered by footpads. This is one of those fantasies where it all feels a bit like some 1960s romance of the Age of Chivalry but with names slightly changed – eg, Parys, Jhane…
‘The Unrequited Glove’ (1988). Once you’ve finished groaning over the title, you slowly realise this is quite an effective little horror tale. A Mediterranean resort in the early part of the twentieth century, all very Bonjour Tristesse meets The Talented Mr Ripley, and an obsessive young woman falls for the local desirable playboy. He casts her off once he’s had his fun, she takes it badly… and one of her gloves remains to haunt the playboy until he eventually meets an untimely end. Like the previous two stories, this one relies a lot on atmosphere, and Lee is skilled at generating the necessary ambience through her use of language.
‘Gemini’ (1981) is the first of the science fiction stories in the collection, but its setting is not explained. The narrator appears to suffer from a fear of other people – she refers to it throughout as It – but in this world she must work in “Service” for a specified period every three months. She chooses a job which would limit her interaction with other people, but is soon given an assistant, a young man, who tries to get to know her better. So she kills him. The setting is vague, as is whatever It is.
‘Into Gold’ (1986) is, I think, set in Roman Britain, although it is hard to be sure as Lee gives few details. A fortress commander and his sidekick become de facto leaders of a small town, and under their rule it begins to prosper. Foreign traders appear, their caravans festooned with gold, and the commander takes a fancy to the chief trader’s daughter – who apparently can turn objects into gold. She stays and marries the commander, but the sidekick is suspicious of her. She has a child by the commander, but when she takes it on a trip to a distant village to cure its sick residents, he follows as he’s convinced she plans to either perform witchcraft or run off with the child.
‘The Lancastrian Blush’ (1989) is original to Women as Demons, and though it pretends to historical fiction – as its title would suggest – it’s pure fantasy. A Yorkist on his way to Bosworth Field has doubts about his allegiance. En route he comes across a strange castle, and falls in love with the lord’s daughter. Castles weren’t actually that common, even in the fifteenth century, as they are hugely expensive to build. The lord of the castle magically keeps the Yorkist prisoner so he won’t fight at Bosworth Field (incidentally, the battle was not known by that name until at least 1510, twenty-five years later). The Yorkist manages to escape, with the help of the daughter, fights in the battle, and does indeed swap sides.
‘You Are My Sunshine’ (1980). I have no idea if the title was inspired by the song made so famous by the Muppets. I’d like to think it was. The story originally appeared in Chrysalis 8, one of a paperback anthology series, so it seems unlikely. As, in fact, does the premise of the story. Leon Canna is a sort of chief steward aboard a starship. The story is framed as his testimony after the total loss of the vessel on which he served (he’s the sole survivor). Canna claims the disaster was caused by a woman, but his interrogators are unconvinced… so he explains what happened. He persuaded a dowdy young woman to use the starship’s solarium, which is a side-benefit of the starship’s method of refueling itself from suns. The more unfiltered sunshine she takes in, the more beautiful – and radioactive! – the young woman becomes. And she’s in love with Canna. It ends badly. The central premise of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ is, quite frankly, nonsense, and its “Plain Jane to charismatic beauty” plot is no better.
‘The One We Were’ (1984). Reading this collection, it occurred to me that Lee’s somewhat florid prose was best-suited to this sort of near-Gothic horror fiction, much like the earlier ‘The Unrequited Glove’. Here, a famous writer of “historical romantic novels” in Paris is persuaded by a popular clairvoyant that she is a reincarnation of a minor poet who had died young a century or so earlier. The writer obsesses over the poet, changes her appearance to match the one existing photograph of him, and collects everything and anything she can find about him. And then a young man appears, who also believes himself to be a reincarnation of the poet – and was informed as much by the same medium, in fact. There’s really only one way it can end. And so it does. Bizarrely, most of the characters are named, but some use that fin de siècle convention of an initial capital and an em-dash.
‘The Truce’ (1976) is one of the collection’s few science fiction stories, although it is well-disguised. Two warring tribes – it is implied this is a post-apocalypse world, but it’s not categorically stated – try to make peace by joining a member from each in a sanctioned relationship. But one tribe rejects the other. It comes as no surprise to discover that one tribe is female and the other male. This is the sort of “Shaggy God” story that used to crop up regularly in sf magazines back in the 1940s and 1950s.
‘The Squire’s Tale’ (1980). A knight and his squire pass through a clearing in which a witch has been burned at a stake. At the next town, the squire discovers he is turning into a woman, and is driven out of the castle. He has become possessed by the witch. And that’s pretty much all there is to this story – the setting is identikit Fantasyland, the central premise is obvious from the second page, and the narrative neither resolves the squire’s situation nor uses it to make any kind of commentary.
‘Discovered Country’ (1989). An ultra-rich woman in a future in which the Solar System has been settled has a son whom she ignores for much of his life. But when he turns thirty-two, she welcomes him into her life, though neither seem especially happy with the arrangement. So they go their separate ways. Then she dies suddenly, and she has one last bequest, something he must do in order to inherit her vast wealth. The title refers to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country”. This is a story that succeeds more on its prose than its plot.
‘Winter White’ (1978). Crovak is a Conan-like chief of a clan who, while on a trip, discovers a strange flute in an abandoned “drom-hall”. He blows the flute, which makes a noise like a woman in pain. And from that point on he is haunted by a woman in white that only he can see. And over the following months he gradually falls to pieces. There’s a Celtic fantasy feel to this story, although the central character smacks more of the Cimmerian barbarian than Pryderi fab Pwll.
‘Written in Water’ (1982). The sole survivor of a global pandemic finds a young man who has apparently dropped from the sky in her garden. He’s clearly alien and cannot speak. She looks after him, but after an abrupt epiphany in which she realises – or supposes – he was sent to Earth as an Adam to her Eve, she kills him. And that’s it. Another Shaggy God story which, although it subverts the trope, still manages to be somewhat obvious.
‘Mirage and Magia’ (1982). This one is Lee channelling M John Harrison, and it’s quite effective. A mysterious woman enters the town of Qon Oshen, and at regular intervals entices young men to her magically-protected mansion. The following morning, they are found wandering brain-dead. A master thief breaks into the house and discovers that the woman is searching for someone, and that the young men appear to be captivated by the thousands of mirrors which decorate the house’s interior. And then a mysterious young man appears in Qon Oshen… This is a story which relies more on its prose style than it does its plot, and it works pretty well in that regard.
‘The Thaw’ (1979). This story also appears in Pamela Sargent’s 1995 anthology, Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years. In the future, they have finally discovered how to resurrect those who have cryogenically frozen their bodies, but it seems the first person they resurrect is not quite what they expected. Though she appears to be Carla Brice, her descendant, there to welcome her and help her adjust to the future, learns there is something far from human about her.
‘Northern Chess’ (1979). A female knight happens open an investment of a magician’s castle. The sorceror is dead, but this is his last standing castle and the knights are determined to destroy it. But its magic has beaten them at every turn. Unused to the concept of a female knight, in fact downright misogynistic about it, the knights motivate her to have a go at the castle herself… and she succeeds. Because the magician’s curse said it would be destroyed by “no man”. Yes, it’s really that corny.
Sadly, the title of Lee’s collection promised more than I felt it delivered. Fans of her writing might well enjoy it more than I did, but in terms of what I was led to expect, I was disappointed to find mostly stories of women as femmes fatales, women whose agency existed only in counterpoint to that of male love interests, and women who formed one half of a romantic situation. For all Lee’s fancy prose and inventive – albeit often vague – settings, and her obvious facility at various styles and modes of genre, the stories themselves were not especially original, and their dénouments were all too often all too obvious. I was hoping for something a little more subversive, something that was more of a commentary on the roles women characters play all too often in genre fiction. But this is not that book.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Adam Whitehead
Thousands of years from now, the myriad colony worlds of Hain (including Earth) are being reunited under a new interstellar government, the Ekumen. Genly Ai is the First Envoy, who sets foot alone onto the surface of the frigid planet of Winter (Gethen to its inhabitants) to bring offers of trade, peace and alliance to the people of the planet. However, the genderless inhabitants (who only have sexual urges and genders for a brief period once a month) are sceptical of Ai’s claims, and he soon finds himself a pawn of political factions in two neighbouring countries eager to use or discard him as they see fit.
The Left Hand of Darkness was originally published in 1969. It is set in a shared future history which Le Guin has used for several other novels and short stories, though foreknowledge of these other works is completely unnecessary to read this book. The novel also has a formidable reputation as one of the most critically-acclaimed science fiction novels in the history of the genre, noted for its complex themes and its use of metaphors to tackle a wide variety of literary ideas.
The novel spends a fair amount of time talking about the genderless inhabitants of Gethen, who have no sexual urges at all apart from a brief period called kemmer, when they are able to mate and reproduce. Le Guin has put a lot of thought into how not only this works biologically but also the impact it has on society and on the world. Her notions that a lack of sex drive for most of the month reduces the aggressiveness of humans (Gethen has never had a major war) seem obvious, but these ideas are constantly examined and re-examined during the course of the book and she steers away from trite answers.
Whilst the gender theme is notable and the most oft-discussed aspect of the novel, much is also made of the planet’s cold climate and the challenges the people face in living in a world mostly covered by glaciers and icecaps where the warm seasons are perishingly short. The politics and divisions between the neighbouring countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn are also described in some detail. As a result Gethen, also called Winter, is as vivid and memorable as any of the human characters in the novel.
Amongst the individual characters, the dominant ones are Ai himself and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide whose interest in Ai sees him suffer a fall from grace and having to travel a long road to try to redeem himself. The book is told from the first-person POV of both characters, moving between them with interludes taking in myths and legends from Gethen’s past and also on matters such as the Gethenese calendar and sexual biology (there’s also an appendix which handily collates this information into an easy-to-find collection). The two characters are compelling protagonists, with Ai’s bafflement at his status as a man from another planet being considered incidental at best to the trivial politics of two nations leading him into difficulties, whilst Estraven’s characterisation is subtle and compelling, with the reader constantly having to review his or her opinion of him based on new information as it comes to light.
The themes that the novel tackles extend far beyond the obvious ones of gender and climate. Duality (expressed in Ai’s discussion of Taoism with Estraven), faith, the difficulties of communication even when language is shared and politics are also discussed and examined. But where The Left Hand of Darkness impresses is that these thematic discussions are woven into the narrative in a manner that is seamless and stands alongside a compelling plot. The book’s climax, where the two main characters have to traverse a 700-mile-wide icecap with limited supplies, is a fantastic adventure narrative in its own right.
Complaints are few. Written in the 1960s, Le Guin presents a few outdated ideas on gender roles and sexuality that were common at the time, but these are minor issues at best.
Overall, The Left Hand of Darkness is a smart and intelligent read that has a lot to say and does so in a manner that is page-turning, compelling, relentlessly entertaining and refreshingly concise (the novel clocks in at a slim 250 pages in paperback). One of the all-time classics of the genre and a book that more than deserves its reputation.
This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
Review by Shannon Turlington
Some might argue that Frankenstein, which depicts a scientist using technology to play god and reanimate a corpse, is the first science fiction novel. I have trouble coming up with an earlier example of science fiction than Frankenstein, published in 1818. So the first science fiction writer, Mary Shelley, is actually a woman, and her creation endures as a true classic of the genre.
Those who take the time to read the book may be surprised to find that Frankenstein’s monster is not a green bolt-head with a limited vocabulary. Although larger and stronger than most men, he is actually intelligent and an eloquent speaker. After trying to interact with people and being rejected because of his hideous appearance, the monster realizes that no human will accept him and he is doomed to isolation. He becomes obsessed with seeking vengeance from his creator by murdering members of his family. Frankenstein vows to destroy the monster, and the two engage in a chase that finishes in the Arctic.
Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 18, and it was published anonymously when she was 21.The story of the novel’s composition is almost as legendary as the novel itself. When Percy and Mary Shelley were visiting the poet Lord Byron one rainy summer, they amused themselves by each writing a ghost story. There, Mary Shelley had a dream that gave her the idea for the story:
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
(Another guest, Dr. Polidori, wrote a vampire story, so two classic horror figures were born from the same game.)
The classic theme, and warning, explored in Frankenstein is that man should not play god. The dawn of the Industrial Age brought with it fear of what man and machines could accomplish, and the unforeseen consequences they could have. There is also a theme of the monster as isolated, without an identity, adrift in a world where he can make no connections and life has no meaning for him. Again, this poses a warning of the dehumanization that technology can bring. These themes resonate throughout the science fiction genre even today.
Of course Shelley’s creation endures in films, plays and popular culture. Frankenstein also spawned several science fiction tropes, including the mad scientist and the monstrous reanimated corpse. Frankenstein represents our continuing fears of meddling with technologies we do not understand. Writer Isaac Asimov coined the term “Frankenstein complex” to describe the fear of robots. Even the term “frankenfood” has been used to refer to genetically manipulated food.
As familiar as Frankenstein is, it is worth it to return to the original novel, which remains an entertaining and relevant work.
This review originally appeared on Read More Books.
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.