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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

December 1, 2016

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Victoria Snelling

This was an interesting read from a style perspective. It was published in 1974 and feels even more dated than that. Partly it’s because the book looks at cloning technology and its physical and psychological effects and much of the thinking has moved on a lot since. That aside, I think the main thing creating the archaic feel was the use of omniscient point of view.

I can’t remember the last time I read something where the narrative was so far removed from an individual character’s POV. The advantage to this is that it keeps a story that unfolds over several generations to a manageable length. The book is relatively short at approx. 75,000 words. It also keeps the focus on the intellectual ideas behind the book – what happens when people only reproduce by cloning – and allows the author to present several sides of the debates.

The downside is that characterisation suffers. The reader never really gets in the head of the characters. On the one hand, the clones are presented to the reader as not quite human and distant POV gets in the way of identifying with them. There are two cloned characters, Molly and Mark, that we do get a bit closer to in the second half of the book and they are presented as being more human. I wonder if this was deliberate in order to emphasise that the clones are not like us. Which might have worked if the fully human characters in the first part of the book were more fully drawn. In the end I think that Molly and Mark are the most developed because they get the most POV time.

In this book I really noticed that the dialogue was used to explore the intellectual concepts of the book rather than as a characterisation tool.

It’s been a long time since I read a sci-fi novel in which the story was so clearly subordinate to the idea. I enjoyed it, but this one’s for the purists.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Dream Dancer, Janet Morris

November 23, 2016

dream_dancerDream Dancer, Janet Morris (1980)
Review by Ian Sales

I first stumbled across the middle book of Morris’s Kerrion Consortium trilogy, Cruiser Dreams, some time during the mid-1980s, and liked it enough to track down over the years the first and third books, Dream Dancer and Earth Dreams. Despite all that, it’s taken me until 2016 to actually get around to reading them… And now I’m wondering what I saw in Cruiser Dreams, because Dream Dancer is one of the worst-written books I’ve ever read. I find it hard to believe it was even edited.

The novel opens in Borlen’s town, New York, in 2248, on what appears to be a post-apocalyptic Earth, which is also a backwater property in a galactic polity of some sort. Three “enchanters” ride into town, and enter Bolen’s inn, clearly in search of “adventure”. But the situation turns nasty almost straightaway, two of the enchanters are killed, and the third only survives because he’s led out the back-entrance by the orphan girl who works as a skivvy at the inn. In return for saving him, she demands he take her with him when he leaves Earth – enchanters, it seems, are high-tech visitors from other worlds of the Consortium. The man, who introduces himself as Marada Kerrion, second son of the consul-general of the Consortium. Well, first son now, since one of the two enchanters left dead in Bolen’s inn was his older brother; the other was Marada’s betrothed. Not that Marada seems especially bothered by their deaths. The young girl is Shebat, fifteen years old, who has been used and abused by the regulars of the inn for years. Not that she seems especially traumatised by her experiences.

Marada adopts Shebat to protect her once the two reach Kerrion space – and it’s just as well he did, as Parma Alexander Kerrion, the consul-general, is not predisposed to take in a waif and stray from a primitive world, especially after losing his heir and a planned merger with the Labayas, a rival powerful family, by marrying off Marada to one of their daughters (she was other one who died on Earth). Morris introduces Parma to the reader while he is having a crap, leading to the line, “Parma got up from his defecatory throne” (p 39). As if that weren’t bad enough, Marris introduces Lorelei, the Kerrion “platform “(ie, space station) as follows:

“Above her head the sky rippled, a candent pewter pond. From glaucous downwarding curving hills around it shining villages like jasper berries seemed to hang suspended. Before her, a serpentine construction of shimmering glass and enchanted iron glimmering bright as silver crouched above the cinereous roadway” (p 19)

This isn’t “word salad” writing, it’s a complete abuse of vocabulary. It comes as no surprise that Morris later uses “irregardless” and thinks martial law is “marshal law”. The whole novel is like this.

It doesn’t help that the story is equally risible. Shebat grows up to be an absolute stunner – of course (although she’s only seventeem by the end of the novel). She also proves to have a natural aptitude for piloting, and as a dream dancer. And Parma has made her his heir, because Marada doesn’t want it and Parma doesn’t want the next eldest, Chaeron, to have it. Parma also gives Shebat her own ship, which she calls Marada, a state of the art cruiser. All starships in the Consortium are controlled by AIs in a sort of mind-meld with the pilot. Unfortunately, all this conflicts with the plans of the pilots’ guild, which has been conspiring for years to break the hold of the big families. So ‘Softa’ David Spry, top pilot of the guild and Parma’s private pilot, sort of kidnaps Shebat and hands her over to a dream dancer troupe in one of the low levels where the poor people and non-citizens live.

Dream dancing is illegal, and the pilots hope that Shebat will become so addicted to it, she stays disappeared. But, of course, Shebat proves so good at dream dancing she doesn’t even need the special equipment – and she produces a dream that is so threatening to the Kerrions that they clean out all the dream dancers – although not before Chaeron has rescued Shebat. And married her. (She’s still not quite seventeen, at this point.) Meanwhile, Marada has been married off to another Labaya daughter, but that turns out badly. In fact, everything starts to go wrong – and Shebat is bang in the middle of it.

Get over the fact all the characters are super-special at pretty much everything, and that unthinking acceptance of slavery and imposed poverty US science fiction seems so fond of depicting in its futures… then the biggest hurdle is the awful writing,such as,

“… when Selim Labaya had solicitously attended him on a walk through Shechem’s gardens, whose audacious expanse was full of flying things that shit whitely  on a man’s shoulder” (p 130)

or

“‘If you insist, prince of dalliance, pompous pederast,’ she snarled” (p 165)

It will be a while before I get round to rereading Cruiser Dreams. If ever.

Dawn, Octavia Butler

November 17, 2016

dawnDawn, Octavia Butler (1987)
Review by Simon Petrie

Octavia E Butler was an African-American SF writer who died in 2006, aged 58. Her fiction has won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and she was the first SF writer to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant for her writing. She wrote several well-regarded series of novels; Dawn is the first novel in what is variously called her ‘Xenogenesis’ or ‘Lilith’s Brood’ trilogy.

Dawn starts with the reawakening of Lilith Iyapo aboard an alien spacecraft in orbit beyond Earth’s Moon. Lilith is one of the few human survivors of a nuclear war which has devastated the Earth. Her captors / guardians / mentors are the Oankali, a three-gendered race of grotesquely tentacled humanoids. (It’s difficult, when reading the book, not to envisage the Oankali as looking like the Ood from Doctor Who.) Starved of human contact, and still grieving for a husband and son who were killed before the war which all-but-obliterated humanity, Lilith must conquer a deep-seated revulsion for Jdahya, the Oankali adult male who has been tasked with helping her acclimate to her circumstances. Once she has adjusted to Jdahya’s company (and his largely passive tutelage), she must learn to communicate with the less-patient, intermediate-gender Kahguyaht (one of Jdahya’s two spouses), then with the family’s adolescent child, Nikanj. With each of her teachers, Lilith strives (and fails) to argue for the necessity to accommodate the basic human needs for companionship, for freedom of movement, and even for information. The Oankali, it seems, are prepared to offer humanity’s remnants a form of salvation, a second chance at existence; but it is to be a second chance which is entirely on the Oankali’s terms. Humans will get to repopulate the Earth, if they agree to abide by the rules which the Oankali are laying down; but they will not get the Earth to themselves.

Dawn is an incredibly immersive view of a disorientingly alien culture: thinking through other books I’ve read in a somewhat similar vein, I think only Phillip Mann’s work (notably The Eye Of The Queen, a near-contemporary of Dawn, and this year’s The Disestablishment of Paradise) would come close in their ability to convey a detailed and convincing otherness. Stylistically, there are parallels with the writing of Ursula K Le Guin, most strongly The Left Hand of Darkness, with which there is a similarity not just in terms of tone but also of the exploration of alternative sexualities: where The Left Hand of Darkness has its each-way ‘kemmering’ of androgynous humanoids into briefly male and female counterparts, Dawn has its three-gendered aliens, with male, female and ‘ooloi’ genders, with the ooloi acting as a very hands-on intermediary between the more recognisable genders. Thematically, the work evokes comparison with Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End, with its superior aliens seeking to enlighten and to reshape humanity. I’d have to say that I found Butler’s view of future human evolution (or the foreshortened sketch of same on offer in Dawn) to be distinctly more palatable, largely as a result of the credibility and emotional depth of Lilith’s portrayal, and the sophistication (superior, supremely foreign, fallible, and somewhat arrogant) of Butler’s saviour-colonialist aliens. Although other humans do eventually appear in Dawn — the book’s final quarter places Lilith in the role of instructor and leader for the group which will subsequently be transported down — the focus, throughout, is on Lilith’s attempts to make her own personal peace with an alien culture which, no matter how well-meaning, spells a form of doom for human civilisation as we would recognise it.

Does Dawn work as hard SF? I think it does; the science in question is predominantly biological, and is addressed through Butler’s efforts to construct a detailed and self-consistent description of the Oankali’s aptitude for genetic (and more broadly biological) manipulation. This exploration is a satisfying and (I think) necessary component of the tale Butler is telling: while the story’s force derives from Lilith’s doubts and persistence as she masters the various dilemmas with which she is faced, its weight accrues from the Oankali’s plausibility as disturbingly accomplished genetic tinkerers, whose motivation in helping to perpetuate a human presence on Earth is plainly not pure altruism.

Butler shies away from simple answers: ultimately, it’s not possible to say whether she’s on the side of humanity, of the aliens, or somewhere in between. (The same could be said, I think, for her exploration of gender politics and of colonialism.) She just observes, and invites us to make our own conclusions of the scenario which she has sketched out with such care in this book. It’s this ambivalence, this careful understatement, which makes Dawn such a compelling story.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

Promised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice

November 9, 2016

promised_landPromised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice (1998)
Review by Jack Deighton

After her mother’s death Delanna Milleflores returns to Keramos, the backwater planet of her birth (from where she was sent years ago to get a decent education) to resolve complications over the inheritance. She wishes to sell up but local laws are strict and do not allow this unless the seller has been in occupation for ten years. In addition her pet scarab Cleo falls foul of the quarantine regulations and she finds that a marriage arranged by her long-dead father between Delanna and Tarleton Tanner (known as Sonny,) the man from the neighbouring farm (on Keramos these are called lanzye) who has been running Milleflores lanzye all these years, became legal. At the space-port she encountered local Lothario, Jay Madog, whose attentions she is plagued by from then on.

The apparent urgency with which her Keramos lawyer, Maggie, says she must take up residence in Milleflores in order to comply with the planet’s inheritance laws, necessitating catching the morning train, is somewhat vitiated by the fact that the terminus is still five thousand miles from Milleflores and it takes weeks to get there. The length of the journey would have disqualified her. The delay of course gives the authors plenty of opportunity to describe Delanna’s lack of knowledge of local customs and conditions and her adaptations to them.

From the start, though, we know where this is going. Delanna’s journey from worldly-wise offworlder (or been-to as they are known on Keramos) to falling in love with her childhood home again – and with Sonny – her accommodations to the idiosyncracies of life on Keramos (including a world-wide radio news and gossiping network where her inadequacies are exposed and everybody’s business discussed mercilessly) has an obvious arc which the authors do not eschew. The traffic is not all one way. She is able to contribute some of her expensively learned been-to computer skills to finding the best routes through dangerous salt-flats.

Promised Land is a very Willis kind of story in which her signature narrative technique of delay by interruption, of not getting to the nub of a situation, which so marred To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear, is to the fore. At first I thought her co-author Felice had muted this trait but it becomes increasingly irritating as the book progresses. Another quirk is that the main structural building material on Keramos is tile. (Keramos, you see.). Add in a sub-plot about an over-officious vet, Doc Lyle, and his obsession with protecting the wild-life and livestock of Keramos from contamination, particularly the very rare birds called Royal Mandarins, an obsession which threatens to endanger Cleo, and the indigenous animals known as Fire Monkeys (fascinated by Delanna’s red hair) and the elements are present for all the ends to be tied up.

This review originially appearedon A Son of the Rock.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

November 2, 2016

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Megan AM

This 1975 Hugo Award winner is probably the most literary bit of SF I’ve read all year. I’ve never read Le Guin before, but Jo Walton’s Among Others referenced her quite a bit, and made me eager to try her out. I’m glad I did.

Le Guin’s writing is beautiful. Nearly every page, especially for the first half of the novel, contains brilliant observations about the human condition, written in delicate language usually reserved only for high literature. This isn’t sci-fi. This is Literature with a big “L”.

It’s Literature that happens to be about a brilliant alien physicist who lives on an anarchist planet that was settled 180 years prior. As he works to discover a unifying Theory of Time, he finds his ideas stifled by the customs and needs of his anarchist community. He opts to continue his work on a neighboring planet, the planet of origin of his people, where capitalism and militarism reign, and where his work becomes threatened by the possibility of state ownership. This is a story about the tyranny of society, regardless of its legal and political system (or lack thereof), and the strength of the individual in combating that tyranny.

The story is secondary to the backdrop, which is why the second half of the novel dragged. I was much more intrigued by the first half, during which the world-building and philosophizing took place. However, as the worlds of Annares and Urras developed, the story unfolded and I found myself less eager to continue reading. Despite that, it was a beautiful book, and I would recommend it to anyone. Regardless of its vintage publication date, the themes and problems in The Dispossessed are easily transferable to modern times, and it doesn’t read like cheesy ’60’s/’70’s SF. This is a thinking person’s SF novel. Get out your highlighter.

Some quotes:

“A scientist can pretend that his work isn’t himself, it’s merely the impersonal truth. An artist can’t hide behind the truth. He can’t hide anywhere.”

“Nothing said in words ever came out quite even. Things in words got twisted and ran together, instead of staying straight and fitting together.”

“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”

“Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal, The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.”

Enjoy!

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Dreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre

October 26, 2016

dreamsnakeDreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre (1978)
Review by Debbie Moorhouse

Dreamsnake is unusual among post-apocalyptic science fiction in that new ways of living have been built, some of them technological, others closer to the land, and there’s very little harking back to the past. The “ancients” are mentioned and some of their buildings and their mistakes survive, but for the most part Dreamsnake‘s characters live in the present. As do we.

Snake is a healer who uses three snakes to diagnose and cure illness and disease. One is Grass, a dreamsnake, a species that originates with offworlders who are mentioned but never appear. Dreamsnakes are incredibly rare and the healers have had very little luck in trying to breed them. Yet at the same time they are essential to the healer’s work – they bring comfort and ease to the dying.

When she is treating a boy called Stavin for a tumour, Snake misjudges the fear and hatred of his clan for snakes, resulting in Grass’s death. Desolate and blaming herself, Snake resolves to return to the healers’ hall where she was trained. But on the way she finds more people to help, and learns of a possible source of dreamsnakes. If she can bring dreamsnakes to her fellow healers, then maybe the loss of Grass will be forgiven.

The writing is spare and overall doesn’t try to evoke emotion in the reader, which perhaps makes for a little distancing. But Snake is an interesting and compassionate character, who is also brave when trying to do the right thing. On her journey she introduces us to the different ways of living that have developed in the aftermath of what seems to have been a nuclear war. Tribespeople, desert people, horse breeders, recyclers, the closed and enigmatic city, all are glimpsed through Snake’s eyes and so imperfectly understood.

The snake medicine is fascinating, being a mixture of breeding, training, and genetic manipulation. Snake can let the snakes free to hunt, drink or explore, knowing they will return to her when she taps the ground. But although she’s immune to their venom, she’s not impervious to being bitten. It’s these small details that make the snakes realistic.

Overall, an intriguing and enjoyable read.

The Legacy of Lehr, Katherine Kurtz

October 19, 2016

legacy_lehrThe Legacy of Lehr, Katherine Kurtz (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

Katherine Kurtz is better known for her fantasy, especially The Chronicles of the Deryni, as indicated on the cover of this, her only science fiction novel. Although the edition shown was published by Avon, The Legacy of Lehr is a Byron Preiss package, written by Kurtz but also featuring interior illustrations by Michael William Kaluta. (The UK hardback edition, published by Hutchinson, has especially striking cover art by Melvyn Grant, incidentally.)

Dr Wallis Hamilton and Commodre Mather Seton are a husband-and-wife team who perform assorted jobs for Prince Cedric, the emperor’s brother. As The Legacy of Lehr opens, they are preparing to ship four wild Lehr cats – giant alien blue-furred lions, essentially – captured at great cost from their home world of Beta-Geminorum II to the Imperial capital, Tersel. To do this, they’ve had a an interstellar liner, the Valkyrie, diverted to B-Gem, which has mightily pissed off its captain, Lutobo, as the ship had been embarked on a record-breaking run between two worlds, and success would have resulted in a bonus for each crew member.

The cats are transported aboard by shuttle, and their cage set up in one of the cargo holds. They are guarded by the squad of Imperial Rangers which had been on the hunt with Seton and Hamilton. However, a couple of days into the journey, a passenger is murdered, his throat slashed open and a tuft of blue fur clutched in one hand. The Lehr cats are the obvious suspects, even though they could not have escaped from their cage or eluded the Ranger sentries. But the cats are known to be slightly psychic… and who knows what other psionic powers they possess? They were, after all, worshipped by the long-dead native race of B-Gem…

Neither Hamilton nor Seton think the cats are to blame, but Lutobo wants them destroyed. As more people are murdered, and more evidence is left pointing to the cats, so Seton and Hamilton – with the help of ship’s medic Dr Shivaun Shannon – decide the cats cannot be the killers, bringing the three of them more into conflict with Lutobo. They investigate each crime, trying to figure out who the killer is and why they might be framing the cats. As murder-mysteries go, The Legacy of Lehr is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It is, essentially, a pair of nested locked-room mysteries – in which the main suspects are locked in a cage they must escape in order to commit the murders, aboard a spaceship in flight from which neither murderers nor victims cannot leave. But then, the novel doesn’t read like it was meant to be a puzzle. Kurtz trails two obvious suspect in front of the protagonists, one of which is quickly shown to be innocent. The mystery surrounding the cats’ abilities is perhaps over-used to stretch out the investigation, and the abrupt swerve into vampirism as a motive halfway through feels like over-egging the cake.

The Legacy of Lehr is a fun novel with an engaging cast. It’s also nicely diverse, with two women among the four major characters – Hamilton and Shannon – and a number of POC among the cast, including Lutobo. (Only one alien race, the Aludra, appear in the story, and they provide one of its red herring narrative threads.) The universe of the book is somewhat identikit, with a benign interstellar empire, which is chiefly characterised by pomp and bureaucracy, but in all other respects resembles generic US society. The novel also features those little telltales which show it’s heartland science fiction – ie, set in a made-up world at some indefinable date in the future which is in no way a product of our current world. It’s not just the abundance of habitable worlds, but the way the science fictional technology all fills the roles of present-day analogues – spaceship for cruise liner, for example; or data storage chips, which must be moved by hand from one device to another (no network? Really?). It’s not really a failure of imagination, because that would presuppose imagination had been spent in building the universe of the story. Like many other sf novels of its type, The Legacy of Lehr‘s universe is built-up from established tropes, and they’re deployed without commentary or any real exploration. I suppose it could be called “Ruritanian sf”, a type of genre fiction in which present-day furniture is seamlessly swapped for science-fictional equivalents, with no effort made to interrogate these tropes, because they exist only as setting.

It has been said that if a plot could be transplanted to another milieu and still work, then it wasn’t really science fiction. That’s certainly true of The Legacy of Lehr. Lions on a transatlantic cruise liner, for example. A couple of the red herrings would have to go, as lions are not known for their psychic abilities. But certainly an average person in 1986 could be gullible enough to consider a vampire, real or imagined, as a possible culprit. But these are problems with heartland sf as a whole and not specific to Kurtz’s novel. As it is, The Legacy of Lehr is an entertaining read. Hamilton and Seton were clearly designed to have various adventures – they’re troubleshooters for the Imperial House, it’s a blatant set-up for further novels… So it’s a surprise, and a pity, none ever appeared.