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An Exercise for Madmen, Barbara Paul

August 24, 2016

madmenAn Exercise for Madmen, Barbara Paul (1978)
Review by Joachin Boaz

Barbara Paul’s An Exercise for Madmen, a retelling of Euripides’s ‘The Bacchae’, follows an established narrative pattern: Stranger enters community with dangerous knowledge. Community reacts with suspicion but soon the stranger, despite claims of goodwill, begins to wield greater and greater influence.

In this case, a priapic-Romance cover “ideal” alien man named Zalmox (masculine to women, feminine to men) gets an entire community to have great sex with him and everyone else… And he brings magical alien apples, apples that cure madness…

Location: the Pythia Medical Project, “an isolated place [far from Earth] where research could continue uninterrupted without any immediate danger to human life”. Experiments on humans and animals abound on Pythia.

The cast: Pythian society falls into four main categories: the scientists, the test subjects, the technicians, and the sentient animal helpers (chimps with human hands). And Jennie Giess does not fit. She is an original test subject of Pythia raised away from Earth, her “parents were a sperm-and-ova bank in New York”. Depressed, drifting, prevented from returning to Earth by manipulative scientists, she is the only non-essential personal on the planet. Jennie spends her time writing about Pythia for Earth audiences and teaches the few children who do not show a propensity for science (a future where the liberal arts are no longer taught to all? perhaps that is why they are utterly unable to assess the morality of their often egregious experiments!). Jennie’s boyfriend and various ex-boyfriends add drama. There’s Sam Flaherty and his webbed feet, and Pythia’s leader Thalia, Jacob the intelligent chimp, children with blue and green cancer resistant skin, Dan the cybernetic man who controls the functions of the station…

And then there’s Zalmox, “an agronomist” who travels, with his space apple plants that cure schizophrenia, across the cosmic reaches bringing his endless libido to all. At first he causes a general fog of pleasantness to seep over the stratifications of Pythian society easing relations between groups, the experimental children and normals, etc. But soon a descent into bacchic chaos begins: a cataclysm of threesomes and other pairings with all genders and combinations and ages… The ramifications of this societal transformation are not as innocent (and “liberating?”) as Pythia’s inhabitants seem to think. But the power Zarmox exudes, seduces.

Two central elements prevent An Exercise for Madmen from failing completely. First, the two main women characters buck standard 70s SF trends. Thalia, the leader of the Pythia settlement, must make the hard decisions when the world is crumbling around her irregardless of her own personal safety. Jennie Geiss, depressed, dependent on drugs, aimlessly moving through a sequence of lovers, is not a traditional SF character – and I found the descriptions of her depression honest and affective: “A careless word, an unintentional snub, a short answer, the casual cruelty of other insecure souls in search of ego—boost almost anything was enough to make her withdraw into her herself even more during the day” [p 42].

Second, although the descent into bacchic chaos laboriously dulls the senses – there are only so many scenes of excess, partying to the cosmic beat of the stars stars piped over Pythia’s communication systems, and piles of naked people doing strange things to each other one can tolerate – the aftermath acts as a form of shock treatment. The tone shifts. The trauma sets in. The characters realize their agency and complicity in causing the chaos. The punch aches.

The novel’s final moments are weakened by a case of over-explanation in the form of Jennie Giess’ self-analysis (that doubles as the author’s statement of intention) as she contemplates her fate. A self-analysis that lays out the work’s allusions to and intellectual descent from classical authors should be apparent to a reader with some grounding in the classics and do not need to be spelled out in excruciating detail:

“Oedipus blinding himself in order to see … Gregory Samsa’s parents pretending they have no cockroach son. Different ways of coping with the incompatible. The healthy, unafflicted body has no need to cope: our long his of “coping” is symptomatic of – what? A terminal case of life? Sophocles, Shakespeare, the Pear poet, Swift, Kafka – five brilliant diagnosticians of human malaise. (We also have quacks: John Fletcher, August Stridenberg, Kurt Vonnegut)” [p 165]

I wonder in what category this novel lies.

My biggest frustration concerns the integration of experimental “meta” passages into the narrative. As the novel “rewrites” the play ‘The Bacchae’, Paul tries to put a more modern spin on the original notion of “script” by creating jarring filmic interludes. In Barry N Malzberg’s The Inside Men (1973) the filmic moments serve to show how the character views his own role, the invented movie as propagandistic filter. In Langdon Jones’ short story ‘The Eye of the Lens’ (1968), the camera lens, as a metaphor for God/an all-seeing entity/the sun, “sees” in a Godard-esque exercise that reduces narrative to a highly fragmented and symbolic sequence drenched with religious (and anti-religious) undertones. Paul’s script chapters, detailing the confrontation between Thalia and Zalmox, do not add to the story’s craft or generate a meaning-rich layer of complexity.

A series of surreal scenes and nonsense paragraphs, for example, one that repeats the letter “p” indicate the final descent into chaos: “I perpetuate the pattern. There’s a positive purpose propelling me – pushing, persuading, prolonging my problem” [p 148]. Yes, it’s a pattern!

As these two examples indicate, Paul moves half-heartedly in many different directions. The ideas unfurl in a logical sequence but do not meld together in meaningful or artful ways.

Not recommended.

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

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

August 17, 2016

02_herlandHerland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
Review by Jack Deighton

This is one of the earliest pieces of feminist Science Fiction, an attempt to imagine what a society without men might look like. In its form it is perhaps rooted in its time; on an expedition three men from the US hear rumours of a land of only women somewhere in the upper reaches of “a great river” – a land which no-one has ever seen but was said to be “dangerous, deadly” for any man to go there; and from which no man had ever returned – in other words a similar scenario to “Lost Worlds” of dinosaurs. That this is merely an authorial device to entice the men (and the reader) into Herland is revealed when they in fact travel by aeroplane into that mythical place, cut off by earthquake in the long ago, and find no danger but rather an initial sequestration along with a tolerant acceptance mediated by a kind of amusement.

As tends to be the way of these things all is couched as a remembrance by one of the three men, Vandyck Jennings, tracking his progress from a belief that there must be men somewhere in Herland and that social organisation without men must necessarily be lacking to an understanding of the dynamics and motivations of this strange country. But there are no men. The women in Herland reproduce parthenogenetically (how this happened is rather skipped over, being more like a miraculous occurrence than a demonstrable process but there would have been no Herland without it.) Social relations in Herland are such that violence and criminality do not occur. In effect they have been bred out. Roles – including childcare and education, though the latter is something of a life-long endeavour – are performed by those who have an aptitude for them and who specialise in that field. The contrast with the outside world is stark, especially in regard to the valuation of each member of society.

Initially the three are bemused by the appearance of their captors, “In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy,” and – a telling aside – “‘Woman’ in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow.”

The three do eventually form relationships with inhabitants of Herland (somewhat oddly the three women whom they first encountered on arrival) but with the difference in societal norms things do not go smoothly. Of the three intruders Terry O Nicolson is the one who thinks women like to be mastered. “His idea was to take. He thought, he honestly believed, that women like it. Not the women of Herland! Not Alima!” This conflict drives the novel’s conclusion and his banishment.

In his explanations of his world to those in Herland, Vandyck realises that, “Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions. Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness. Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder,” and religion’s “common basis being a Dominant Power or Powers, and some Special Behaviour, mostly taboos to please or placate.” His leads his companion Ellador to envisage sex as Vandyck describes its place in the outside world not, as with animals, for the one purpose of procreation but as specialised to a “higher, purer nobler use”.

Books such as this cannot be subjected to the usual reviewing criteria. The central focus of a novel about a utopia is that of the nature of the society described and how it differs from, and reflects on, ours. The idea is the substance of the novel. Though illumination of the human condition is not, such considerations as plot and character are secondary. Not that there is no character development in Herland: two of the three male adventurers who venture into this world come to their own terms with it. Nicolson the macho man of course does not. (Arguably he cannot, and without his following his instincts the events which led to Jennings providing us with this account would not have occurred.)

It might be argued that Herland is not Science Fiction. But if Science Fiction is the literature of ideas (often a reason for why some SF fails to produce rounded characterisation, but the SF background can be as much of a character as any humans in the story) then Herland definitely counts. Whatever, one hundred years on from its first publication Herland can still be read with facility. It still stands up. It still marks a contrast between what our society is and what it might aspire to.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

Vendetta, MS Murdock

August 10, 2016

vendettaVendetta, MS Murdock (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

There are some who believe women writing science fiction is a recent phenomenon – indeed, it is that misconception which prompted the creation of SF Mistressworks. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after the cyberpunk-led backlash against feminist sf, when women’s contributions to the genre were seemingly forgotten – other than a handful of big names, of course – but women continued to write science fiction and be published. True, MS Murdock’s Vendetta from 1987 is perhaps a bad example to pick, given the use of non-gender-specific initials (for Melinda Seabrooke); and that Murdock’s first novel, identified on the front cover of Vendetta, was unmistakeably a Star Trek book, Web of the Romulans. Sadly, Vendetta proves a poor example for yet another reason: it’s not very good.

Ran Corbin is Fleet Seneschal of the Kingdom of Dynt, effectively rules it like a tyrant, and plans to have the ageing king name himself as heir. But when he has Senator Foxxe and his family killed for treason – because they’d been helping slaves escape – it sets in motion a chain of events which might well bring about Corbin’s downfall. For a start, his massacre of the Foxxes is not complete: five-year-old Coryelle, and the slave, Marc, who is accompanying her, manage to escape. They smuggle themselves offworld, with the help of a retired retainer, hoping to track down Eban Foxxe, brother of the senator and implacable enemy of Corbin. But their “aerfoil” (souped-up so it can travel in space) crashes on the forest world of Adyton, and Coryelle and Marc are rescued by the old witch, Bricole. Meanwhile, Corbin launches a strike on Adyton’s floating city and destroys it, killing everyone… but Foxxe has already left. Foxxe sets up base on another world, and begins to build a hidden fleet to challenge Corbin, helped by his protegé Lar, and the beautiful-waif-fallen-on-hard-times Stella. Meanwhile, Bricole has her old friend Gisarme teach Marc the martial art (sort of) of auctorite.

Corbin, however, still wants Coryelle found, and so engages the mysterious bounty hunter Blazon to track her down. Years pass. Eban Foxxe is finally ready to make his move. Marc is now a self-assured young man and skilled in auctorite. Coryelle is, er, thirteen. Marc joins Foxxe’s rebel fleet and proves to a leader of men. Blazon finally tracks down Coryelle… and reveals he is her long-lost brother. And then news of Corbin’s latest plan, “dynterminate”, reaches the rebels: Corbin intends to exterminate everyone in the outer colonies. Foxxe is forced into action, leading to a pitched space battle at Chor…

There’s so much wrong with Vendetta, it’s hard to know where to begin. Throughout, the book is written as if it were fantasy, and presents a fantasy-type world; but then there are other worlds and pieces of high technology such as interplanetary communications, space travel, androids and blasters. Senator Foxxe is killed because he is anti-slavery, yet his brother, the rebel leader, keeps a personal slave and shows no indication of emancipating him. And there’s the whole concept of slavery itself. There’s no reason or justification for its existence in the world-building – not that there’s any indication of an industrial or economic base capable of sustaining an interplanetary, or interstellar, kingdom, never mind the technology in evidence throughout the story. Slavery is not “background colour”, and does not belong in any work of fiction as such.

The science fiction trappings of Vendetta strike a wrong note right from the start. The capital of Dynt appears to be a small mediaeval city – it even has a wall and gates, and guards to oversee who enters and leaves – and it’s only the phrase “… possibly even leave the  planet” on page 11 which signals the story is not actually high fantasy. Or rather, it would have done, had not the book’s cover art and blurb made it plain that Vendetta was science fiction. From that point on, sf tropes are dropped willy-nilly into the narrative: the aforementioned “aerfoil”, electronic locks, computers, a city which uses anti-gravity to float above a forest, an android (which attaches itself to Stella, and then Marc, but seems to serve no real purpose in the story)…

Even the climactic battle is hugely unconvincing as science fiction. For a start, it takes place in the “narrow channel” between Chor and its moon, which, if the Earth-Moon system is any indication, is likely several hundred thousand kilometres in width… The entire novel reads as if Murdock had no real idea of the scale of her universe. She describes Chor Harbour, the world’s starport, as “stretched out over the face of the planet” (p 245), and yet an earlier description mentioned only some tens of hangars. The city of Dynt is the only place identified on the planet which shares its name, although the roads leading from its gates – on which people use horses and carts – must lead somewhere. The flight from Dynt by Marc and Coryelle takes only days, yet the world of Adyton is later identified as one of the “outer colonies”.  Everything feels small, like it would in a medieval kingdom that can be crossed in a handful of days, and those outer colonies no more than villages on the borders.

As if that weren’t enough, Corbin is the worst kind of pantomime villain, who thinks nothing of wiping out a whole city because his enemy might be there. His title is Fleet Seneschal, but for much of the book the only military mentioned are the Garde – an elite city milita, although since no other armed force is named it’s hard to see how they qualify as “elite”. Then there’s the age of the female love interests. Stella is only fifteen when she joins Eban Foxxe’s retinue, but the narrative sexualises her. At thirteen, Coryelle is a “young woman” and plainly positioned as the mate of Marc, who is ten years her senior. Murdock may have considered the young ages a better “fit” with the presentation of the book’s universe as ersatz mediaeval, but I disagree. Even for a 1987 novel, it feels like a mis-step

Vendetta reads like a fantasy novel onto which a handful of science fiction trappings have been clumsily stapled. It also doesn’t help that the plot is driven by a romantic triangle, Corbin and Eban Foxxe and the lost Princess Tenebrae, all of which is back-story. Throw in slavery as little more than a form of conspicuous consumption for the wealthy, and young teenage female love interests… and the end result is a science fiction novel that’s best avoided.

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett

August 3, 2016

thelongtomorrowThe Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955)
Review by Megan AM

Len Colter sat in the shade under the wall of the horse barn, eating pone and sweet butter and contemplating a sin. (p 7)

That’s a killer first line. And now I want some cornbread.

With its bucolic setting and unsophisticated characters, as well as some rambunctious river moments with two growing boys, it’s as though The Long Tomorrow invites the tradition of Mark Twain into the realm of SF, supporting the success of Ray Bradbury’s nostalgia stories and setting the stage for Clifford Simak’s pastoral entreaties for peace in the following decade. (Yes, I know Twain wrote sci-fi. I saw that episode of Next Gen, too.)

An excellent example of a post-WWII attempt at post-apocalyptic fiction, a tradition that has endured and endured and endured. I often wonder if, after we finally suffer the apocalypse that humanity seems to crave, will we then sit around the campfire telling gripping stories about copy machines, fast food tacos, and skyscrapers.

Of course we will. But in The Long Tomorrow, Brackett explores that same question.

Some eighty years after nuclear war, humanity’s survivors subsist in pastoral communities ruled by religious sects, while a federal law forbids the establishment of cities. Len and Esau, teenagers of the New Mennonites of Piper’s Run, fantasize about the cities of the past, with their metal skyscrapers, electric lights, and automobiles. When the punishments for their technological transgressions go too far, the boys decide to break free of their stifling community in search of the mythical Bartorstown, where technology and science are celebrated and preserved.

Brackett is better known for her screenwriting career, with credits on popular hardboiled crime movies and some involvement in The Empire Strikes Back, and even most of her own bibliography is crime and space opera stuff. The Long Tomorrow is an unusual piece in the Brackett oeuvre, though many consider it to be her best. Whatever the state of her other novels, this is an excellent place to start.

Extremely readable and thematically immense, The Long Tomorrow tugs on the worries of a post-war world, a planet sitting on its own atomic power while two superpowers wobble in a precarious balance. This coming-of-age tale about Len and Esau mirrors the loss of innocence of post-WWII nations, where mid-20th citizens grapple with the consequences of the pursuit of knowledge and technology, while mid-20th nations grapple with each other. Len and Esau want to know things. They’re fearful, but warnings of danger don’t stop them.

Could you give up all the mystery and wonder of the world? Could you never see it, and never want to see it? Could you stop the waiting, hoping eagerness to hear a voice from nowhere, out of a little square box? (p 42)

The boys dance a precarious dance, both experiencing a spectrum of convictions, but never at the same time, constantly in flux with one another. Constantly in a bid to outdo and overpower one another. They blame each other for their uncomfortable pursuits. They are never in harmony.

Len. Esau. Lenin. USA. I know it’s the wrong time and conflict for Lenin, but maybe? Just because “Stal” is a crappy name? And maybe “Nik” is too obvious. (I searched around to see if someone else noticed this, and came up empty. So maybe I’m stretching. Me? Stretching? Never!)

But as much as this taps into the current events of the time, this is no study in polemics. Brackett explores the arc along with the reader, and questions are left to drift in the post-nuclear wind. Is knowledge worth the sacrifice of blissful ignorance? When the boys finally get their wish, their skins practically crawl with fear when confronted with certain technologies. Maybe ignorance sounds good again. But, can one ever return to ignorance? (Think on this before you judge the ending.)

Of the flaws, the women are thin in character and agency (read: annoying), typical for fifties SF, but surprising to see from a female author. We do get people of color, a tiny bit, but the one Hispanic is an alcoholic, and Len can’t help noticing the beautiful white skin of the (assumed to be) Native American daughter. This thinness does, however, lend some validity to the product-of-their-time apologists (myself included). The fifties just sucked for women and POCs, even in imaginary tales, even when written by women.

But, it’s remarkable how much Brackett packs in to this 200-page novel based on themes of Cold War social tensions, the risk of knowledge, the power of individuality, and socio-psychological conditioning. She explores post-apocalyptic power structures, the roles of religion in times of fear, and the manifestations of oppression in various societies. The tale feels literary as Brackett experiments with structure and foreshadowing. Her protagonists are developed, not just as agents of the narrative like many early SF characters, but as independent personalities. Len and Esau change and grow, sometimes in unpredictable ways that only make sense upon reexamination.

I’m happy to have found such a satisfying piece of fifties SF with Leigh Brackett. Nothing I’ve read from the fifties comes close to this level of sophistication.

Recommended for readers who want to read fifties SF, but can’t stand the stilted prose.

Recommended for readers looking for proof that women have been writing SF for a long time, and doing it well (better).

Recommended for readers who want to like Bradbury, but think he’s too heavy-handed with the metaphors.

Recommended for readers who love their post-apocalyptic fiction on the soft side.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Brightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr

July 27, 2016

brightnessBrightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr (1985)
Review by Kris

Like most readers, I am a big fan of Tiptree’s short fiction but had not read any of her novels. These do not have a strong reputation but, I feel, in this case at least that they deserve a second look.

To compare them to the genius of her short stories is decidedly unfair when talking of one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th Century. That is not to say it is a novel without problems, but it is one of the most imaginative.

Setting up the world we get the standard science fiction protagonist of Kip and Cory, the captain and their partner (albeit with a gender switch from the standard dynamic). However we are soon introduced to a vast array of disparate people who reflect the fascinating ideas of this Galactic Future:. We have a “light sculptor” who is not all he seems; we have an “Aquaman”, a genetically engineered gilled human the other seem to treat with a degree of awe; the equivalent of acting celebrities are soft porn actors; we even have a prince whose actual name is Prince but also is referred to as Superboy (in a relationship which I won’t go into); and then there are the faery like natives of the world Dameii who are central to the tale. The whole first half of the book is like a gorgeous painting described in bright colourful hues. In each word another element of the world we are creating is built until we have a composition like Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

However, like a painting or a tableau I don’t think it is made to be in motion. Once the nova hits it is meant to switch into a dark thriller. There are many interesting ideas about identity and genocide but these are written in a very clichéd manner, like something closer to the pulp novels of old. A good comparison for the book, both in terms of plot and feel, is the Doctor Who episode, ‘The End of the World’. There we are introduced to a wide array of aliens which show how obsessed with money, beauty and purity many people in the future still are. Yet they do so little after this introduction that could not be placed in any other story for the most simple of motivations.

Further, the world-building in many ways makes it more confusing. For example, most of the character have multiple names which are relevant as they show different traits and interrelations between the characters. Yet when you have a character called “Prince”, “Pao”, “Prince Pao, “Prince-Prince Pao” and “Superboy”, it is hard to be exchanged in an action sequence when I have to flick back to the appendix to remind myself who exactly is referring to whom.

And yet, there is something fascinating in watching this art being build up and then torn apart. We would assume at the start this may be some hippy utopian society with all these different people living in harmony and art allowed to be as free as possible without censorship. Then we discover the dark secrets at the heart of all these people and it results in many that did not deserve it suffering.

I would not recommend this as a showcase of the best of Tiptree’s work but as another side of a master of their craft or if you enjoy complicated character pieces it is definitely worth checking out.

This review originally appeared on Cloaked Creators.

Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D., Andre Norton

July 20, 2016

starmanssonStar Man’s Son 2250 A.D., Andre Norton (1952)
Review by Guy

This is Norton’s first science fiction title. She notes in an Algol Profile by Gary Allan Ruse, “As I started producing more, it was at the same time that science fiction became saleable,” she says, “So from then on I went into science fiction. Before that I had written spy stories, and adventure stories and historical novels. Things of that kind. You see, you couldn’t sell a science fiction book prior to 1951.” The publication of science fiction novels really took off in the 1950’s, before that science fiction appeared primarily in the pulp magazines and even longer works were serialized in several issues of a magazine. Despite an appearance of her story ‘People of the Crater’, as by Andrew North, in Fantasy Book Vol 1 No 1 in 1947, Norton, unlike most of the science fiction writers of her generation really did not publish much short fiction.

It is two hundred years after the Blow-up, the Atomic War which has decimated the world and Fors of the Eyrie has been passed over for admittance to the Star Hall. The Star Men are explorers who search the wilderness for forgotten knowledge and goods for the Eyrie. Fors has several strikes against him: his mother was a outsider, a member of the plains tribes and Fors had been brought to the Eyrie as a child, by his father Langdon. Langdon, a Star Man himself, was killed on his last trip and so cannot speak for him. And most importantly Fors has enhanced hearing and sight and his white hair clearly marks him as a mutant. So that night Fors pillages the Star Hall for his father’s bag which contains a map to a pre-blow-up city and sets out into the wilderness with Luna his great hunting cat, a beast the size of a mountain lion but marked like a Siamese. Dogs have died out and been replaced by these larger versions of domestic cats who have the ability for limited unspoken communication with some people and they are the companions of the Star Men. Now for Fors his adventures begin, he moves across a devastated and largely unpopulated landscape that is returning to the wild. He encounters more and more remnants of the pre-blow-up civilization and obtains a horse that has strayed from the plains tribes. Eventually he finds the city pictured on his father’s map. Once in the city Fors rescues a black youth Arskane from a Beast Thing trap. Arsine is a scout for a clan of black sheep herders who are migrating into the area. Together they have encounters with both the Beast Things and the plains tribes and things get really exciting as they realize they are caught up in a much larger conflict.

Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D., is an enjoyable read. It was originally marketed as a juvenile novel but the later Ace publication made no mention of this and the book seems to have sold well. Donald A Wollheim, the head of ACE Books at the time, notes in his book The Universe Makers, “I was thinking the other day of ACE Books’ most unsuspected best seller, a novel I reprinted and whose title I changed to Daybreak, 2250 A.D., it was written by Andre Norton as a juvenile novel, and it was her first science-fiction book-length work. She called it Star Man’s Son. It has sold continuously and rapidly for fifteen years, in printing after printing, with steady price rises to meet the rising costs of production, has broken the record for any book ever published by what has become a major paperback publisher and continues to sell with unabated interest. Well over a million copies would be my conservative estimate of its total sale to date. There is nothing in our ACE edition to indicate it is supposed to be a juvenile novel” (p 60). Wollheim also discusses how readers of Norton’s novel, as well as other science fiction novels of the time which took for granted that an atomic war could happen, and the result could well be a devastated world inhabited by mutated survivors.

But this does not seem to have been an important consideration for Norton when she wrote the novel. Paul Walker interviewed Norton for his book Speaking of Science Fiction and raised this point.

PW: Of your books, my favourite is Star Man’s Son. I wonder if it reflected your own anxieties about the Bomb?

AN: No, I was not thinking of the Bomb, except as a means of the plot beginning. What had always fascinated me was trying to imagine my home city of Cleveland as it might be as a deserted ruin. Cleveland, then is the city of that book – only distances in it have been telescoped.

Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D. is a great introduction to Norton’s work since many of the plot elements appear again and again in her work. The protagonists are often young orphans or outcasts. Robert D Lofland conducted a long interview with Norton in her home for his MA thesis, ‘Andre Norton, A Contemporary Author of Books for Young People’, in 1960. In speaking about Norton he notes “she feels the hero must be an orphan in order that his parents cannot interfere with his actions”. Norton will often introduce minority characters, examples include Fanyi of No Night Without Stars, Hosteen Storm of Beastmaster, and Travis Fox of Galactic Derelict. In the same thesis Lofland states “she does feel strongly about racial prejudice and does not feel it should exist”. One of the most obvious threads running through her novels is some level of communication between humans and animals which can be found in many other novels including Catseye, Beastmaster, Storm over Warlock, Moon of Three Rings and No Night Without Stars.

So why did I like this novel so much as a teen and adult? Fors has a sword, a bow and a giant cat, for a pet crazed kid with hamsters, wow. As enemies the Beast Things are pretty scary and clear cut. Like almost all protagonists in YA literature Fors is unappreciated (weren’t we all at that age) but wins his place in the world in the end. While Norton states The Bomb did not influence her thinking in this work, but as a child who was taught to crawl under his deck in a Windsor public school in case the big ones launched from Cuba, it certainly influenced my reading and my thinking. Norton books were common in both my school library and the public library across the street and I loved authors with a big backlist, as knowing there were many more books by them to enjoy had great appeal. Often I would read one book, be it a historical novel, mystery etc, and then seek out and read all the other books by that author without embracing the entire genre.

So Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D. was just the beginning, Andre would take me out of my own life, across the galaxy, into our future and our past, with aliens, animals and adventures galore. Thanks Andre!

This review originally appeared on Star Born.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

July 13, 2016

TheLeftHandOfDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Victoria Snelling

I put The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin up for my book club to read. There was a point before I’d read it where I was getting worried that it would be really hard going, because two people had given up on it only a few pages in.

But I have two hours of commute and I was determined to see it through to the end. As I am quite interested in gender representations in literature and keen to avoid problematic stereotypes in my own writing, I felt that this was an important book to read. Le Guin sends a male protagonist, Genly Ai, as an ambassador to a world in which people are not defined by gender. Each person has a monthly cycle in which they are sexually active for about a quarter of the time and pairings change into male/female pairings depending on the interaction of hormones between them. Every person will be male sometimes and every person will be female sometimes. Every person will be both father and mother.

The first third of the book is hard going. There is fantastic depth to Le Guin’s worldbuilding and there’s a lot to take in. The narrator of this section, Genly Ai, is also highly unreliable, although that doesn’t become clear until later in the book. While reading it I was disturbed by the judgements Ai was making, in particular the negative qualities he clearly identified with the female. The book was written in the late sixties and reflects a very stark correlation of masculinity and positivity. I’d like to think that is less true today, but perhaps it’s just less boldly stated.

Anyway, the world that Ai is visiting is split into nations and there comes a point at which Ai goes to another nation. Here the book changes. Another character, Estraven, becomes a POV character. Through Estraven’s eyes we see things differently and realise just how unreliable Ai is as a narrator. The pace of the story picks up and in the last half is quite the adventure story.

I was awed by Le Guin’s worldbuilding. Her world is worked up from the bottom meaning that everything is different and new and we can’t make any assumptions. After having read so many fantasies lately where the worldbuilding has been quite superficial, this was both inspiring and intimidating! The writing is wonderful; I really enjoyed the lush, detailed language. The characterisation is subtle and effective. If was going to make any criticism it would be that the various voices could be more differentiated, but it’s a tiny point. The Left Hand of Darkness is amazing; go and read it now.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

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