Shards of Honour, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Review by Adam Whitehead
Cordelia Naismith, commander of a survery ship from Beta Colony, is marooned on an uncharted planet when her vessel is attacked by Barryarans. Naismith is captured by Captain Aral Vorkosigan, the infamous Butcher of Komarr, and taken on a gruelling cross-country journey to his base camp. However, Vorkosigan himself is facing a prospective mutiny led by an ambitious junior officer and both Beta and Barrayar are about to find themselves on opposing sides of a bloody war.
The Vorkosigan Saga is one of the most famous ongoing works of science fiction in the United States. Comprising (so far) fifteen novels and numerous short stories and novellas, the series has won four Hugos (including three for Best Novel), been nominated for another six and has won an additional two Locus Awards and two Nebulas. The series has sold more than two million copies for Baen Books in the States, but is almost unknown in the UK. Repeated attempts to publish the series here have failed, usually due to low sales and indifferent reviews.
Reading Shards of Honour, I have to reluctantly adopt the traditional British stance of not seeing what all the fuss is about. The book starts off well enough, with an adventure storyline featuring two people (and a severely injured third) abandoned on a planet and having to work together to survive. These sequences, though indifferently written, are interesting enough and Bujold reveals an interesting amount of character through the actions of Cordelia and Aral. Unfortunately, what she doesn’t do is provide them with any chemistry. When Cordelia realises she is attracted to Aral, and Aral reciprocates those feelings, it kind of comes out of nowhere. When (spoiler alert!) they are eventually rescued, the book descends into a montage of Cordelia being captured, released, re-captured, escaping, being almost-raped (the lazy go-to jeopardy trope for any female character in peril, naturally) and so on for a good hundred pages or so. Due to the stodgy prose, mechanical dialogue and somewhat stilted character reactions, none of this is particularly exciting.
Things perk up a little bit towards the end, with the revelations of the extent of a supporting character’s psychological trauma and a subplot about a bunch of unborn babies in exowombs (the result of war rapes) having to be forcibly supported by the fathers who conceived them both being intriguing, but these are very minor elements that arrive rather late in the day.
Shards of Honour has moments of interest, but overall is stodgily-written and unconvincingly-characterised. Still, it’s a first novel and not one of the most well-regarded in the series.
This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.
Armed Camps, Kit Reed (1969)
Review by Joachim Boaz
… and the men were on the way to the bar, they were talking about the performance, they had to compare it to every other performance, they had to link them all and form them into something continuous, something to keep away the dark (p 19).
Kit Reed’s first SF novel Armed Camps is all about characters constructing narratives and conjuring visions in order to keep the aphotic tides of societal disintegration at bay. The two paralleled narratives – a woman (Anne) running from her past and a man (Danny March) slowly recounting what led to his own downfall – are two different ways of fighting off what is bound to come. An oppressive melancholy that never lifts soaks the passages, presaging the motions of the characters as if they are trapped in some Thucydidean manifestation of the cyclicality of history.
The style and content of Armed Camps is best described in context of the New Wave movement within SF of the late 60s and early 70s – but, it is worth noting that Kit Reed, unlike John Brunner or Robert Silverberg who had to radically depart from what they they had previously written (pulp) to construct their New Wave masterpieces, deployed a similar literary style in her first published works of late 50s. If you are interested in her earliest SF work I recommend the short stories collated in her 1967 collection Mister Da V, and of course, her recently published “retrospective” collection of shorts from her entire career as of now – The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories (2013).
Firmly a practitioner of social science fiction, Kit Reed has explicitly said in interviews that Armed Camps was her “why are we in Vietnam” novel – it is worth pointing out that the Tet Offensive, the largest military campaign of the war, was launched in early 1968. That said, unlike many anti-war visions of the period, I found Armed Camps a finely wrought commentary that does not resort to simplistic answers. Neither Danny March’s resort to terroristic violence nor Anne’s desperate adherence to pacifistic utopianism are presented as the way we can extricate ourselves from endless war.
Recommended for fans of New Wave and anti-war SF – and especially, for all fans of literary SF.
Kit Reed’s dystopic near future Earth is mired with unrest. A sort of police state exists, and gun ownership is ubiquitous and necessary for protection: A government inspector proclaims in shock, “Of course you need guns, everyone needs guns” (p 64). Likewise, war has manifested itself in an almost allegorical form that illustrates its endless nature – a sort of single combat with flame throwers is waged between vast military bunkers.
Danny March was one of the best soldiers who flamed countless enemies (p 33). However, after an incident – that isn’t divulged until the end of the novel – March, after he’s found guilty, is trussed on a pole above a military installation as punishment. The military panoply of his ritualistic punishment is piped to America’s TVs. In March’s interior monologue he proclaims morosely: “You wonderful folks at home have all turned to some other channel, you tuned out as soon as the ceremony was over and they rolled the scaffolding away, you couldn’t ever wait for that final drum roll, you tuned me out and forgot me, just like that” (p 11). One of Reed’s central themes are the rituals that we adhere to in order to find some solace in a chaotic space: The ceremony of March’s punishment is one of many such rituals within the text. But Reed argues that there’s a rather more sinister edge to ritual – just as TV audiences changed the channel to order to avoid seeing the more mundane realities of March’s life while fastened to a pole, ritual can obscure a rotten core.
March’s life plays out as an attempt to break from the ingrained military ritual and the seductive (and meaning generating) forces of tradition. His father was a soldier, his father’s best friend was a soldier, his mother wanted March to be a soldier after his father’s death, the military wants March to sign over his son to the military… March himself never had a childhood or someone to stand up for him – after his father’s death he has to “be the man” at a young age. However, he did find solace in the adventures of Captain White and “his dusky friend Hassim” (p 58) in the newspaper funnies: The Cap gets in trouble (but never dies of course) and Hassim comes and rescues him, repeat, repeat, repeat. As March languishes away his existence bound to his pole, he recounts how he found solace in the presence of Hassim. March, of course, is a stand in for Cap. Although never explicitly stated, Reed’s novel adeptly evokes the power that such stories had (and have) on youth – the ritual of reading, the stability of the plot, the simple messages.
The second narrative line follows Anne who is running from her past. As with Danny March, she is desperate to find meaning in her earlier actions. As she runs, she encounters others who have constructed meaning-forming rituals: e.g. at the Opera house, “men were on the way to the bar, they were talking about the performance, they had to compare it to every other performance, they had to link them all and form them into something continuous, something to keep away the dark” (p 19). Later she encounters Billy, who, along with throngs of other wealthy individuals, parties away behind walls that block out the chaos of the streets in an unfinished mansion (p 29). Billy’s mantra is an empty one – the shallowest possible – “Be pretty and dance” (p31).
Eventually, Anne joins up with Eamon in Calabria. Eamon is a pacifist and Calabria is a series of ramshackle houses and barns located in a National Forest. He espouses radical pacifism and wants to believe that his idealism can be implemented. Anne buys into this vision completely but slowly observes Calabria fall into ruin…. Eamon himself, although the last to give up his own message, lashes out. And as Anne’s utopia crumbles she too is forced to confront what made her run.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.
The New Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent (1978)
Review by Ian Sales
This is the third of the Women of Wonder anthologies published during the 1970s, and while its title would suggest its aim is to introduce new female science fiction writers, only two – Eleanor Arnason and Pamela Zoline – did not appear in either, or both, of the two earlier volumes (see here and here). Unusually, there is no story by Ursula K Le Guin in the book, but Alice Sheldon does make an appearance under her male pen-name, James Tiptree Jr. It’s difficult not to wonder who exactly the “new” in the title refers to. The Women of Wonder series was rebooted in 1995 with two volumes: Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years ( reviewed here and here) and Women of Wonder: The Classic Years.
Once again, Sargent opens the anthology with an introduction, this time 34 pages long. And, sadly, this only demonstrates that nothing ever changes. After a quick history of women in science fiction, she writes:
Even so, most science fiction is to this day has remained conservative in its sociological extrapolations. In pointing out this flaw, one is likely to be accused of seeking to impose an ideological test on the genre, rejecting works that do not measure up. But in fact I am asking why the the overwhelming majority of science fiction books limit female characters to traditional roles. (p xv)
After descriptions of several sf novels which break this mould – Samuel R Delany’s Triton, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, Kate Wilhelm’s The Clewiston Test – Sargent stresses that restrictions on female writers, and what they were allowed to write, still exists, and even notes:
One author of a successful first novel had her second novel rejected by the same publisher because the book was about an all-female world and there were no male characters in it. (p xxv)
While there are several such books now – Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite immediately spring to mind – they are still very much in a minority… and yet sf novels which feature almost entirely male casts (and what few female characters do exist in them are either presented as victims or have no agency) are still relatively commonplace. Sargent identifies a nostalgia “in recent years” for “traditional stories with familiar trappings”. And that, according to the skewed view of the history of science fiction which seems to be the current-day accepted narrative, means science fiction stories for, by and about men. The fact that the three Women of Wonder anthologies were not repeated until almost twenty years later is testament to this. These anthologies were clarion calls, but more than thirty years later the message still hasn’t been heard:
Perhaps the genre as a whole, having often ignored women – as well as the old, the non-white, and the non-Western – does not quite hold together. It is within this context that we can view the role of women in sf. By adding their voices, they enrich the entire fictional system of science fiction. (p xxix)
The original The Women of Wonder anthology opened with a poem by Sonya Dorman, and so too does this one: ‘View from the Moon Station’. It’s a short poignant piece, which is pretty much described by its title – although its imagery is driven by memory. Though the passage of time has rendered its sentiments somewhat clichéd, it still manages to impress with its choice of imagery and its careful build-up to its emotional payload.
‘Screwtop’, Vonda N McIntyre. The title refers to a penal installation in the jungle on the human-settled world of Redsun. The prisoners are forced to labour drilling holes to deep underground pockets of superheated water, which is used to generate power for the various cities on the planet. Kylis is one such prisoner, and she has joined forces with Gryf, a “tetraparental”, and Jason, a new arrival. It’s Kylis who graces the cover art of The New Women of Wonder, although she does possess a disturbing likeness to Karen Carpenter. Kylis is a space rat, a person who travels from planet to planet as a stowaway, but the Redsun authorities caught her and sentenced her to Screwtop. Gryf is a political prisoner – as a tetraparental, a manufactured genius, he is obligated to work on government-chosen projects, but he refused. He only has to agree to the authorities’ demands and he will be set free. The three of them are plotting to escape Screwtop, although this would involve a potentially-fatal trek through hundreds of miles of alien jungle… There actually is not much in ‘Screwtop’ which actually demands it be science fiction. The penal facility could just as easily be on Earth, and the three inmates guilty of crimes against an existing earthly regime. Also, the entire installation itself doesn’t sound right. The inmates must drill a new hole when the last one has emptied itself of steam… Except that’s not how geothermal power works. Usually, water is pumped down the hole to be heated deep underground, and the steam which results is used to generate power. It is then cooled, and pumped back down the hole. Why would they actually siphon off all the superheated water? It makes little or no sense. It seems a shame that a story with such well-drawn characters and a nice sense of place should fail in such a fundamental fashion. ‘Screwtop’ was originally published in The Crystal Ship, a 1976 collection of three novellas also featuring Joan D Vinge and Marta Randall – but edited by Robert Silverberg.
‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons’, Eleanor Arnason. I expect that within weeks of the first science fiction story being written, someone wrote a story about writing a science fiction story. Certainly it’s an established tradition within the genre, if not within literature as a whole. The protagonist of ‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moon’s is writing a story titled ‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons’, a pulp sf tale with spaceships, chases across “Titan’s methane snows”, “strange psychic arts from Hindu mystics”, assassins and the fate of the moon(s) in the balance. Unusually for the form, however, her story has a heroine. And the villain of the piece is perhaps not so villainous after all. As she considers her story, the rescue of her partner, 409, by the heroine, so the writer reflects on her own world. It’s a nicely-judged story, gently mocking the conventions of pulp sf while it carefully subverts them. Presenting it as a meta-fictional piece also makes it more thoughtful than perhaps it would have been had it been presented straight – at the very least, doing it this way doesn’t allow for misinterpretation of its subverted tropes. The story first appeared, unsurprisingly, in New Worlds and was deservedly shortlisted for a Nebula Award.
‘The Triumphant Head’, Josephine Saxton. I’m not entirely sure what to make of what little of Saxton’s fiction that I’ve read, and ‘The Triumphant Head’ is a case in point. It describes the beginning of a day for a married woman, as she wakes up, washes, puts on her make-up, and gets dressed. Yet it is presented as if the woman were an alien in disguise – or certainly not human. It feels like too obvious a conceit to bother fictionalising, but Saxton maintains a slight undercurrent of farce to the story, which not only works in its favour but also makes it an enjoyable read.
‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, Pamela Zoline. If there is one story which is often held up as emblematic of New Wave science fiction in Britain, it is this one by US author Zoline. (The introduction to the story mentions a novel, Dream-Work, on which Zoline is working; it was apparently never published. A shame, it would be interesting to read it.) Structured as 54 sections of text, some of which are titled, the story presents episodes – vignettes, almost – in the life of middle-class American housewife Sarah Boyle, juxtaposed with science-fictional commentary and short essays on a variety of topics, scientific and otherwise:
30. Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and witty young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family which keeps her happy and busy around the house, involved in many hobbies and community activities, and occasionally given to obsessions concerning Time/Entropy/Chaos and Death.
31. Sarah Boyle is never quite sure how many children she has. (p 110)
A quick check on isfdb.org reveals that ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ has been anthologised 16 times, the most recent in 2010. Zoline wrote a further four short pieces of fiction, the last of which appeared in 1988 in her only collection, Busy About the Tree of Life. I can only wonder what more she might have written had the genre been more welcoming to women who chose to write about women’s lives in a science-fictional mode.
‘Songs of War’, Kit Reed. In Los Angeles, the women decide they have had enough and form their own army, which occupies a farm up in the hills overlooking the city. Over a period of several weeks, women leave their husbands and families and join the army, which has itself already split into several factions. On first pass, this story reads like a criticism of the women’s movement – for all their ambitions, the women who gather at the farm soon begin to bicker and the various factions begin to work covertly and overtly against each other. The radical militants attack a few soft targets – a shopping mall, for example – while the housewives are given housewifely duties (kitchen, creche, etc). The teenagers are more interested in boys than solidarity, and the woman who becomes the army’s unofficial spokesperson would sooner promote her media career than the army’s manifesto. Eventually, the army disperses in ones and twos, although not after some violence, and the wives and daughters return to their homes, changed by what they’ve experienced – as, in some cases, are their husbands and fathers. As a commentary on the frationalisation of movements, especially ones without clear goals and policies, ‘Songs of War’ is a witty commentary, as it also on the quotidian lives of the women in the story. But there’s nothing in it that’s, well, science fiction. It appears to be set in the present day of its writing (ie, 1974), and there’s not a single sf trope to be seen anywhere. Which begs the question, does it get a pass as science fiction because sf is so bad at incorporating the lives of women into its stories?
‘The Women Men Don’t See’, James Tiptree Jr. This is one of Tiptree best-known stories, though personally I think some of her other works are stronger. The narrator is heading to Mexico on a fishing trip, but his charter plane from Cozumel proves to be unavailable. He persuades the pilot to let him hitch a ride on another plane heading south – and the other passengers prove to be a totally innocuous mother and daughter. The plane crashes en route, leaving narrator, pilot, mother and daughter stranded. Running short on potable water, the narrator and the mother leave the other two – the pilot is injured – and head for an inlet about a day’s walk away. Except it’s not really a walk, as they have to struggle through a mangrove swamp. The two of them witness something very strange – and the narrator belatedly realises it is a landing by extraterrestrials… and the mother has taken something from them. She persuades the aliens to return the two of them to the crashed plane, which they do. She then persuades the aliens to take her and her daughter with them on their interstellar travels. While the story is predicated on the (male) narrator’s realisation that such women have never really impinged on his worldview before, and that such women have thoughts, desires, ambitions no different to his own, like many of Tiptree’s stories it makes its point with a thumb heavily pressed on the scales. The central premise – aliens visiting Earth somewhere in the Mexican jungle – is presented without any real commentary, or any interrogation of the trope. Which perhaps weakens the point the story is trying to make. ‘The Women Men Don’t See’ feels like a story which was written as science fiction only because its author wrote science fiction. I don’t really see that as a strength.
‘Debut’, Carol Emshwiller. I would categorise ‘Debut’ as fantasy rather than science fiction, which does make its presence in this anthology somewhat puzzling. A blind princess is taken to the queen after years of being pampered, but the princess is paranoid and tries to stab the queen… who removes the mask blinding the princess so she can now see. But she cannot interpret what she sees and so fails in her assassination attempt. She escapes the palace and takes refuge in a wood… And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in this story. It feels like I’m missing the metaphor. There’s no denying that Emshwiller writes excellent prose, but the obliqueness of her imagination often leaves me foundering.
‘When It Changed’, Joanna Russ. This story describes the time men from Earth arrived on the world of Whileaway thirty generations after the Whileaway men all died in a plague. The Earthmen can’t process an all-female colony, especially one that functions perfectly well without men, and are by turns befuddled or deeply patronising. The narrator shows remarkable restraint. But the women of Whileaway have decided to accept the presence of the men, and reluctantly accept that their way of life may well be over forever. Though the story only suggests the path the future may take for the colony, it’s a far from happy ending – and all the stronger for what it leaves unsaid. This is easily one of Russ’s best short stories.
‘Dead in Irons’, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. This is heartland sf, both in terms of setting, tropes and its politics. Aboard an interstellar starship, stewards look after the passengers, including the frozen steerage ones. The stewards are run like a satrapy by the most brutish and violent steward, and anyone he dislikes or won’t do what he is told is given steerage duty. Shiller has only just joined the ship, and refuses to be Wranswell’s mate, and so is assigned steerage. But she quite likes it there. Wranswell’s previous lover wants to persuade Shiller not to accept Wranswell’s offer and so sabotage’s Shiller’s cold gear, which makes the duty even more onerous and dangerous. Eventually Shiller is waylaid and frozen with the steerage passengers. When she wakes, she discovers the ship is lost and the stewards have eaten all of the steerage passengers. This is not a pleasant read, and it’s, er, hard to swallow a starship crew that is so violent and savage.
‘Building Block’, Sonya Dorman. Norja is a space architect, but has been forced to visit a recall doctor to help retrieve Norja’s forgotten design, the Star Cup, a “radical and innovative” design for a space home. Norja’s business is failing because she is blocked, and even her frequent drinking binges have failed to unlock her memory. But Dr Bassey withholds the tape containing the results of the recall session and demands money for it. So Norja visits a family friend, Dr Moons, and asks for his help in recalling the memory. But once he has a tape of the design, he insists on being paid to hand over the tape. Since she can afford neither person’s demands, Norja decides the Star Cup is lost forever and so throws herself into the design for something new – a multi-occupant space condominium. It proves very successful, and as she leaves it, a contract for a second already signed, she sees a competitor building a Star Cup, and knows that she has just killed the market for single-occupant space homes… I’m not sure which is sillier in this story – that two people would ransom the information they obtained from a memory retrieval operation (and one of them is a medical professional); the whole “space home” thing; or the revelation that one form of space habitat would comprehensively kill the market for other forms. Norja may be a personable narrator, but as science fiction ‘Building block’ is sadly weak.
‘Eyes of Amber’, Joan D Vinge. T’uupieh is a cast-down noble and assassin who has been befriended by a demon, which possesses the eyes of the title. Except it’s not a demon, it’s a space probe from Earth, and T’uupieh is a native of Titan, the moon of Saturn. Although T’uupie’s narrativeh reads like a fantasy – but for the odd details which reveal her to be an alien, such as the mention of wings – Titan’s environment is rendered quite accurately for the story’s time of writing. It’s an impressive piece of worldbuilding. If the male human protagonist, Shannon, who is the sole human capable of communicating with T’uupieh, is a bit wet, that’s a minor flaw – T’uupieh is much more interesting a character. I’m not entirely convinced by the story itself, however. Shannon tries to impose his own morality on T’uupieh, which she roundly rejects. But in the end, she learns a lesson which aligns her moral compass a little more closely with his. But such sentiments were more widely acceptable in the 1970s than they are now – indeed, ‘Eyes of Amber’ won the Hugo Award for best novelette in 1978.
When the conversation turns to influential science fiction anthologies of the past, the ones most usually mentioned are Asimov’s Before the Golden Age series, or some of the New Wave anthologies such as Dangerous Visions or England Swings. I’m surprised the Women of Wonder books are not mentioned in the same breath. It’s hard to say which is the strongest of the three – it’s probably best to get all of them – because they are all very strong collections of short science fiction, and there’s not a dud story in them (though some stories are more successful, or have aged better, than others). It’s only a shame they have not proven as influential as they should have. Perhaps if cyberpunk had never happened, or had been a little more discerning in its choice of inspirations, they might have been. As it is, it took a further twenty years before the series was rebooted. And yet Sargent’s five Women of Wonder anthologies remain outliers in the genre. I have, to date, identified only a further six women-only science fiction anthologies, published between 1976 and 2006 (see here).
That’s not really a record to be proud of.
In the two and a half years since SF Mistressworks began, it has posted reviews of 196 different books by 95 women science fiction writers, some of those books more than once. Thirty-six people contributed those reviews, most of which were reprints from other places - but some were original to SF Mistressworks. That’s an achievement to be proud of, I think. And we’ve no plans to stop.
For a number of reasons, the schedule has unfortunately slipped on occasion. Toward the latter half of 2013, we had to go to a fortnightly schedule, but we’re back now to posting one review a week. Perhaps at some point we’ll be able to return to our earlier schedule of two reviews a week. In other words, more reviews of eligible books are always needed. That’s for science fiction books – novels, collections, anthologies, even standalone novellas – written by women and published before 2001. Reviews should be at least 500 words, and if not original to SF Mistressworks we’ll include a link to their first appearance.
We’re toying with the idea of introducing an irregular series of reviews of short fiction during 2014. These won’t be scheduled, but posted as and when. The idea is to review – in 500 words or more – a single science fiction short story by a woman writer. Again, the story must have been published before 2001. Contributions are welcome.
Here’s hoping 2014 is a good year for everyone. SF Mistressworks will carry on, and perhaps we’ll do something special when we hit the site’s third-year anniversary in June. We shall see…
Happy Holidays to everyone who reads, supports or has contributed to SF Mistressworks, whether you are celebrating it today or not.
Ammonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
Review by Alix Heintzman
In Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, we find a world without men. If you’re imagining a serene society ruled by wise matriarchs, or a planet of space-babes waiting for Kirk to rescue them, then perhaps this book is not for you. Because Griffith’s world is different. Her book is about reworking the familiar ploys of science-fictions past and making them wonderfully new. It’s classically science fiction, in that it pushes irreverently against the boundaries of classic science fiction.
The first few pages of the book are filled with enough airlocks, sliding doors, and food dispensers to satisfy the most rigid sci-fi fan. An anthropologist named Marghe is in space, preparing to descend to the planet Jeep. Jeep, we learn, was once colonized by the Company for its valuable resources. But then a virus swept through the settlers and killed all the men and most of the women, and the Company abandoned the project. Five years later, they’ve developed a vaccine and returned. Marghe is the scientist who will be simultaneously studying the natives – human women who have survived the virus for centuries and somehow managed to reproduce – and testing the vaccine. She descends into a classically colonial scene: a militarized Company base surrounded by a vast unknown planet full of preindustrial natives.
At this point, the tone shifts. Marghe leaves the safety of the base and heads north, searching for the Company scientist who disappeared before her arrival. The elements of classic science fiction fade as Marghe travels through a premodern world of nomads, sailors, farmers, and pastoralists. Her anthropological journey quickly morphs into a scramble for survival. She’s kidnapped by the Echraide, a violent indigenous clan, escapes into the tundra, and gets adopted by a friendly coastal village. Along the way, several crises build: the Company seems likely to destroy the planet if the vaccine fails, but the success of the vaccine would lead to full-scale colonization and the destruction of native lifeways; the Echraidhe start a genocidal war, which threatens the Company base and the rest of the planet; and Marghe’s own allegiances shift and evolve, in a complicated but familiar process of “going native”. All these crises fit together in a stunning and powerful climax: Marghe standing alone on the grassy plains, between two lines of advancing soldiers, telling a story. It’s an intricate plot, which improves with the second and third reading.
Ammonite is filled with tried-and-true science fiction themes, but none of them lead to the places you’d expect. The idea of the women-only world, in particular, is an old and treacherous device. In the 1950s, planets controlled by women were a fun way for male science fiction authors to talk about how terrified they were of female agency. Matriarchy led to creepy hierarchical societies that hated individualism, violent Amazonian cultures that cannibalized men as a hobby, or maybe just groups of love-starved women in Outer Space. Then second-wave feminism arrived and started generating woman-only utopias. No war! No violence! Equality, vegetarianism, and peaceful negotiation as far as the eye can see.
But, as Griffith says, “I am tired of reading about aliens who are really women, or women who are really aliens.” And so Ammonite plays a sly trick on us all. The headlining plot device, a planet without men, turns out to mean nothing at all to the hearts and minds of the characters. Jeep is not a homogenous planet of bitter women, or a bloody jungle filled with Amazons. It’s a planet with peace, war, pettiness, greatness, bravery, and fear. Because “Women are not aliens”.
The idea that a planet of women would function suspiciously like a planet of humans has met with skepticism. Bloggers and reviewers have claimed that she’s ignoring “the thousands of years of Darwinian selection that developed gender roles in the first place”, and that “human gender roles are clearly defined by nature (as they are in chimps)”. And that’s the sound of several generations of feminist scholars rolling their eyes. The intertwined myths about biologically-determined gender roles, the natural origins of patriarchy, and the oppositional differentness of men and women are clearly alive and thriving. Stories like Ammonite are still necessary.
Colonial encounters are another common device in science fiction. For about half a century, white male characters have been busily exploring (and exploiting) foreign planets, whose alien populations are variously racially constructed. Sometimes the encounter is a violent struggle against dehumanized others, sometimes it’s a righteous crusade to save the downtrodden inhabitants, and sometimes it’s a thrilling tale of the white interloper going native. These are essentially the same stories that the British told about South Asia and Africa, and Americans told about Native Americans, except with a few more spaceships. They’re stories told from a position of cultural supremacy.
Marghe’s journey fits perfectly within the colonial mold. She’s the rational, scientific white woman bravely pushing past the colonial frontier into savage territories. Then she’s kidnapped by violent and possibly insane natives, and slowly loses her grasp on her own civilized identity. That’s more or less the plot of every Dr. Livingstone-I-presume adventure story from the British Empire. But it’s an intelligent colonial adventure, where the natives are given history, complexity, and agency in their lives. The Erideche, Marghe’s kidnappers, aren’t just bloodthirsty savages. They’re a dying culture coping with a harsh climate, who have turned in desperation towards millennarian cultism. Their story borrows from the South African Cattle Killing, and has an internal logic that’s usually denied to hostile natives.
These are the larger, and most successful, pieces of Ammonite. There are other layers. Marghe’s own psycho-spiritual journey is central, and several secondary characters are involved in similar personal evolutions. These are absolutely convincing transformations, but phrases like self-awakening and self-discovery make me picture obnoxiously cheerful, skinny women talking about meditation. But, ultimately, even the cheerful yoga-mat-carrying types of women are not aliens. They would be welcome on Jeep.
This review originally appeared on The Other Side of the Rain.
The Crossroads of Time, Andre Norton (1956)
Review by nawfalaq
This morning I finished The Crossroads of Time by Andre Norton (1912 – 2005). It was originally published in 1956. The edition that I read is the ACE 1980 version.
Chapter one is a really good example of how to get the reader engaged in a book straightaway. Instead of giving us a long lead-up or background, we meet the main character in a hotel room. By page two, we meet a gunman, and by page three the main character is a bit of a hero. Hello, Blake Walker – your life is about to change. Thanks for rescuing Agent Kittson.
Anyway, after reading the first chapter, I basically knew that I would be in for a penny, in for a pound, so to speak. Blake Walker is thrust, by his having been a bit of a hero in the hotel hallway, into a new paradigm in which he learns that travel between his world and parallel worlds is possible. He learns that there are criminals who are intent on traveling betwixt worlds in order to cause mayhem and distort those worlds’ natural progression of history. Blake also learns that there are psi’s – persons who have advanced mental capabilities such as telepathy and telekinesis, etc. In fact, Blake may actually be a psi. So much for going to art school…
Overall the writing is fast-paced and the story tends to feel like an action thriller. There is some science fiction in here – but only as a background skeleton to the story itself. For example, not a whole lot is detailed out on how/why some of these scientific items operate. They just do.
Unfortunately, there are some flaws in the book. For example, chapter four. I have no idea what happens in that chapter – and I read it thrice. I just could not figure out what happened. Sometimes, writing “action” scenes is tricky. At least comic book writers have help from their artists to help show you what is going on. Another thing, the title…. well, since this is not time travel (Cf. Quantum Leap), but rather traveling laterally across a variety of parallel worlds, I feel that the title is misleading. It is not the crossroads of time. Finally, other than Blake and Kittson, the other characters kind of blend together and are not really all that distinct or memorable. I know this is a short-action piece, but maybe a little more distinction between characters would have helped the novel not seem so jumbled at points.
In any case, I am glad I read this. I had fun. It was a decent read. But I wish it were a little bit better. As I understand it, there is something of a “sequel” as well, though I do not own it. A good read for someone who just needs a little science fiction and does not want to invest too much into a story. I admit, I’m probably being a little bit harsh with this one.
This review originally appeared on AQ’s Reviews.