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The Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre

March 25, 2015

theexilewaitingThe Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre (1975)
Review by Kate Macdonald

This was Vonda McIntyre’s first novel, published in 1975, about twenty years after the first thalidomide disaster in Germany, the UK and North America, in which around 10,000 children died or were born with malformations. The novel is about disability, and difference, and how society accepts and rejects different differences. It’s also an astoundingly undated speculation on a future society, which she developed further in her 1979 novel Dreamsnake. By using a medical incident from the recent past and replaying it in a future of decay on earth that can only be escaped by space flight, it’s clear that McIntyre is exploring ethics, medicine and society.

The main plot is about Mischa, a teenage sneak thief struggling to make ends meet for herself, her addicted artist brother Chris, and her greedy uncle who is quietly selling off their younger siblings as beggars to keep himself in paid companions and nice carpets. The whole family is impaired in one way or another, but only those children who don’t look human are cast out into the underground caves. The others have to work. A subsidiary plot is how their degenerate and decaying earth city, Center, is going to survive, given that its economy is being strangled by the decadence of the Families who run its necessary services.

Mischa’s forays into Center’s stratified layers of houses and shops and palaces, looking for targets, show the phenomenal imaginative effort that McIntyre put into creating this massively complex society. It’s complicated by the arrival of Subone and Subtwo, two two-metre tall pseudosibs with computations for brains, who plan to effect a takeover of Center, but their private subplot of fracturing bond conditioning disrupts everything. Jan Hikaru, a mathematician travelling with the pseudosibs, has come to Earth with the body of his elderly navigator friend to bury her on her home planet that she didn’t live to see again. He links all the plots together when he discovers Mischa’s mathematical abilities, and Subone lasers Chris, driving Jan and Mischa underground ahead of the pseudosibs’ pursuit, where they find the secrets of Center’s survival.

Yes, it does sound complex. But The Exile Waiting is so rich, the complexity is barely noticeable when you begin to read, because you are immediately beguiled by the detail. From the first page of the novel – Jan Hikaru’s diary – the reader understands that spaceport bazaars are commonplace, that Jan’s father wants him to be ethnically Japanese rather than the blond genes he so obviously also carries, that Jan is running away from purposeless study to find something worthwhile, that the old navigator’s eyes have been destroyed by too much space radiation, that space navigators have care homes and she has a wide acquaintanceship, and that Earth is held to be abandoned and dead.

The second page, which describes Mischa returning home after an exploratory trip underground, tells us that Earth has many old nuclear-age structures still underground, that robot mice still dig tunnels to lay communications webs underground according to an old and forgotten but still running program, that the underground outcasts are used to frighten Center children, but that the cave panthers are more dangerous. Other marvellous discoveries include organic lightcells that you feed with powdered protein to keep glowing, that the mining Family have soft white flabby hands because all their work is done by machines, that baby sister Gemmi can call Mischa and Chris telepathically, relentlessly, which is their uncle’s hold on them, and Chris’s addiction has blown his and Mischa’s last chance of getting away on the seasonal space ships. Their technology is disconcertingly old and new, reflecting poverty and privilege. Crystal knives aren’t picked up by metal detectors, but punishment by sensory deprivation puts offenders into skintight suits suspended in gel. There is passive, indifferent cruelty and rough, unaccustomed affection in a society that is slowly only able to focus on survival, rather than living. It is joyless, and emotionally dead.

Gender divisions, and disability, which are two very fashionable topics now in the study of fiction, are used to drive this novel’s ethics with breath-taking assurance. What really impresses is me is how McIntyre’s prose is pure enough to remain undated (a very rare talent) and also remain precise and clear in what she is saying: that just as society should develop to not care about gender, it should not make exiles and outcasts out of bodily difference. The multiple focalisations, by which the story is told from the perspectives of Mischa the local, and Jan and Subtwo the visiting aliens, gives the reader a kaleidoscopic impression of Center as a place of hopelessness and cynicism from all sides. We become increasingly desperate for Mischa, and the other characters who attract readerly empathy, to escape, and to leave the filth, misery, and crumbling wrongness of this society behind. We do get there, but the adventure is far too complicated to explain here. Go buy a copy.

This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald ~ about writing, reading and publishing.

The Power of Time, Josephine Saxton

March 18, 2015

poweroftimeThe Power of Time, Josephine Saxton (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

Josephine Saxton is perhaps best-known for her 1986 novel Queen of the States, which appeared on the first ever Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, but lost out to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However, her first published piece was ‘The Wall’ twenty years earlier in UK sf magazine Science Fantasy. That story appears in The Power of Time, Saxton’s first collection, which contains fourteen stories, dating from 1965 to 1983, and three original to the collection. Reading Saxton’s short fiction, it’s fairly clear she was a writer with marked New Wave sensibilities, who continued to write using them throughout her career.

‘The Power of Time’ (1971). This also appears in More Women of Wonder, which is where I first came across it. The story is set in the distant future, when only a handful of people remain on the Earth. The narrator purchases Manhattan, and wants it moved in its entirety to East Leake in the UK. Meanwhile, a woman in the twentieth century has won an all expenses paid trip to New York, where she is escorted to museums, restaurants and like by a string of handsome men. Not wanting to fall in love with the men, she chooses instead to fall in love with the city… And it’s her descendant who has Manhattan moved to England. It all ends badly, however. The story’s strength lies in its present-day narrative, which is something Saxton is generally good at – as, indeed, was a lot of New Wave science fiction. The far future part of the story, by comparison, feels a little too whimsical and hand-wavey.

‘Lover from Beyond the Dawn of Time’ is original to the collection. An author’s note reads “Homage to HK Giger, and with respect to HP Lovecraft”. Set in the year 6666, a woman is moved to a new unit in a block in what “was once called Switzerland”, and in her dreams finds herself chosen as consort for the eponymous Lovecraftian paramour. I wasn’t especially convinced by the attempt to reference Giger’s art, but the Lovecraftian visuals were certainly done well. A framing narrative describes the story as a medical health report, which felt unnecessary as the main narrative is an effective sf/horror piece.

‘Food and Love’ (1975). Saxton has written about food elsewhere, in the 1986 collection Little Tours of Hell: Tall Tales of Food and Holidays. In this story, the dinner party described very much revolves around food. But this is just a dream – possibly? – by one of a handful of survivors at the end of the world.

‘Silence in Having Words: Purple’ is also original to the collection, and I really couldn’t get on with it. It felt far too self-indulgent, an attempt at something Delany-esque that went on and on, but without the lushness or inventiveness of a Delany story. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it joke reference to Deep Purple, but it felt like a story that far out-stayed its welcome.

‘New Aesthetics’ is the third and final story original to the anthology. It’s also about food, but scenes of eating paper products – newspapers, magazines, detergent boxes – is juxtaposed with loving descriptions of actual food. Both are a reflection of politics and taste in a near-future world, as if the consumption of opinion has become a stand-in for aesthetic judgement.

‘The Triumphant Head’ (1970). This also appeared in The New Women of Wonder, and while it appears to a describe a woman getting herself ready for the day ahead, it presents the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, as something much stranger, perhaps even alien. The New Wave often featured the quotidian, but it didn’t usually focus on the domestic – Pamela Zoline is the only other such writer who springs to mind. Saxton’s careening prose seems an odd way of telling the story, but it actually works quite well.

‘To Market, to Market’ (1981). This is a flash piece, no more than a page and a half long, about a mother feeding her children in a post-apocalyptic world, and it makes no secret of the fact the food is long-dead human flesh.

‘The Wall’ (1965). A wall across a landscape divides a man and a woman – not the most subtle metaphor ever – but the two manage to find a way through it, and so find a way to live together. While science fiction provides plenty of tools for literalising metaphors, the central premise can occasionally feel a little banal… although in this case that may be a consequence of the story’s age.

‘Dormant Soul’ (1969). Probably the strongest story in the collection. In parts, it reads like a dress rehearsal for Queen of the States. The protagonist is a thirty-five-year-old woman who lives alone. One night she is visited by an angel, who reveals he is actually a visitor from another planet. It seems she is at risk of being possessed, or has been possessed, by demons from another planet, and Armaziel has come to free her. Part of the cure involves getting seven random people to pray for her. So she rings names she has picked from the phone book, and it seems to work. Her life improves. As in Queen of the States, it’s not entirely clear how much of the narrative is real – and genre – and how much is simply a reflection of the protagonist’s mental state.

‘Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon’ (1972). On a planet where “everyone is sick on Pergamon, it’s the law”, a young woman in perfect health is examined by doctors. But then the “Congenitals” and the “Starving” invade the hospital theatre, and Elouise is afraid they will tear her limb from limb. So she psychomatically makes herself ill until she is just like them. Much of the story is taken up with the doctors’ examination of Elouise’s body.

‘The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky (1981). This is a weird one. The staff of a research laboratory throw a party to celebrate a recent discovery, and those who attend have to come as animals, but not in costume, they must mime the animal they are pretending to be. Initially, the party goes well, and the scientists’ stock rises. But at a another party, jealousy in the lab causes each of them to use their discovery – the ability to remotely program people with behaviours to embarrass each other… but, of course, they all play the same trick on each other and it all ends badly.

‘No Coward Soul (1982). An artist performs brain surgery on herself in order to insert a means of self-administering drugs to certain portions of her cerebral cortex. With each step, she either re-experiences or hallucinates an incident, such as being caught trespassing on a farmer’s land, or a meeting with “Vennors the Lizard Lord”. The surgery is unsuccessful – or rather, too successful since she can no longer distinguish between the scenes she hallucinated and reality.

‘Black Sabbatical’ (1971). A family are visiting Morocco as the husband is on sabbatical and researching local mosaics. During a picnic in the desert, the wife screams that she’s leaving him and runs off into the desert. She vanishes completely. After taking the children back to the UK and leaving them with relatives, the husband returns to search for his wife, eventually finding himself involved with a local magician who offers him a devil’s bargain. This is a nicely atmospheric story which slowly but inexorably descends into horror.

‘Living Wild’ (1971). A woman lives alone in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic UK, but it is not until halfway through that the story reveals what caused the cataclysm – aliens stole the planet’s metals. At one point, she befriends an escaped lion, and the pair “went for long walks and scrambled around the hills”. Except the lion is actually a dog, and the narrator may not be living rough in a post-apocalyptic countryside.

While not every story in The Power of Time is successful, and some have not aged especially well, there’s little doubt that Saxton possessed a singular voice and often used it in presenting a particular vision. She writes about women and their lives, and she uses science fiction to bend and reshape the way those women perceive their own existence in order to better emphasise the accommodations they have been forced to make in order to survive or even prosper. It’s not just the narrator of ‘The Triumphant Head’ making herself presentable for her husband, as if the only face she can present is one dependent on artifice. Nor is it just the narrator of ‘Living Wild’ who can only imagine true freedom by recasting reality as an Earth after an alien attack.

The domestic is not something which features often in science fiction, although there have been several women sf writers who have made a point of including it in their stories. In many such stories – ‘That Only a Mother’ by Judith Merril and ‘Created He Them’ by Alice Eleanor Jones spring to mind – the woman is presented with adversity, or a world destroyed, and manages to maintain a facade of normality in spite of it. Saxton, however, turns this on its head, and instead destroys the world inside her protagonists’ heads – or, in the case of ‘Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon’, her body – which twists and bends their perceptions as a means of dealing with, or commenting upon, the real world and the difficulties they face living in it. It seems to me this is a technique which came out of the New Wave, and then vanished as the New Wave was subsumed into the general corpus of science fiction. Which makes the output of writers such as Saxton all the more worth reading and treasuring.

Ice, Anna Kavan

March 11, 2015

iceIce, Anna Kavan (1967)
Review by Joachim Boaz

“Despairingly she looked all around. She was completely encircled by the tremendous ice walls, which were made fluid by explosions of blinding light, so that they moved and changed with a continuous liquid motion, advancing in torrents of ice, avalanches as bid as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world” (p 37)

Anna Kavan’s masterful post-apocalyptical novel Ice (1967) parallels the death throws of a relationship with the disintegration of the world. As the unnamed narrator (N) and the girl (G) traverse an indistinct, interchangeable, world transformed by glacial encroachment, only the same movements are possible: flight, pursuit, flight, pursuit… Repetition reinforces the profoundly unnerving feel of both physical and mental imprisonment: as movements are predicted, trauma is repeated.

Kavan described her own writings as “‘nocturnal, where dreams and reality merge” (Booth, p 69). In the prologue to her earlier novel Sleep Has His House (1947) she explains the reason for this self-description: “Because of my fear that the daytime world would become real, I had to establish reality in another place” (quoted Booth, p 78). Kavan’s fiction is highly autobiographical and informed by her experiences in asylums, heroin addiction (she died the year after Ice was published), and psychiatric treatment (and friendship with psychiatrists) by various proponents of existential psychology.

It is hard not to see similarities with her contemporary JG Ballard (especially the fraught apocalyptical landscapes of The Crystal World and The Drowned World), who was a fan of her work (Booth, p 70). Francis Booth, in Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1980, points out that both Ballard’s early post-apocalyptic novels and Ice operate in ruined worlds both psychological and physical (p 70).

Kavan was a literary author who operated outside of SF conventions. The novels published after she took the name Anna Kavan – from one of her earlier pseudo-autobiographical characters – were highly experimental in nature. It should be pointed out that Kavan did not intend to write science fiction despite the fact that Brian Aldiss voted it the best SF novel of 1967 (Booth, p 97). According to Booth, most likely she had not read any of her SF contemporaries – also, many of the tropes that appear in Ice had appeared in her writing for decades (Booth, p 97).

Highly recommended for fans of literary SF in the vein of early JG Ballard and the more radical experiments of Brian Aldiss.

N (the unnamed narrator) is sent back to his homeland “to investigate the rumors of a mysterious impending emergency in this part of the world” (p 17). Of course, the government would not disclose the facts but he had been privately informed about a steep “rise in radioactive pollution, pointing to the explosion of a nuclear device” (p 38). Whatever the exact nature of the disaster, Kavan is uninterested in laying out lengthy scientific discussions of man-made ecological transformation, a “vast ice-mass” is created that creeps unchecked across the landscape (p 38). This metaphorical agent of destruction mirrors the psychological state of the characters.

N claims that “reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me”. Places which he once remembered are now “becoming “increasingly unconvincing and indistinct” (p 17). This “general disorder” is a pervasive quality (p 17). He soon gives up his aims to investigate the impending emergency and instead seeks an unnamed “girl” (G) whom at one point he had intended to marry.

For N, G is an object to possess: “I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real” (p 19). N’s psychological state is often disturbing. His hallucinations/dreams, which N claims are caused by drugs prescribed to combat his insomnia and headaches (p 2), visualize her crushed by ice, suffering, screaming: “I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in a white face, heard her thin, agonized scream” (p 18). And, N feels no pity for her but rather feels an “an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer” (p 18).

The countless occasions N hallucinates visions her destruction, her erosion, her fragmentation, her brittle limbs cracking like ice, are repetitive, the symptoms of N’s deep trauma, of atavistic desires to possess and control. She too is scarred by her experiences.

“Her face wore its victim’s look, which was of course psychological, the result of injuries she had received in childhood; I saw it was the faintest possible hint of bruising on the extremely delicate, fine, white skin in the region of eyes and mouth. It was madly attractive to me in a certain kind of way […] At the moment, in what I took for an optical delusion, the black interior of the house prolonged itself into a black arm and hand, which shot out and grasped her so violently that her shocked white faces cracked to pieces and she tumbled into the dark” (p 28).

N is caught between two opposite forces. The first, possessing G who flees from all meaningful connections, almost resigned to the destruction of the world. The second, his study of “an almost extinct race of singing lemurs known as Indris, living in the forest trees of a remote tropical island”. He is transported away from the destruction of the world by their melodious voices: “I began speaking to them, forgetting myself in the fascination of the subject” (p 21). N is drawn to them. G is repulsed by them: “To me, the extraordinary jungle music was lovely, mysterious magical. To her it was a sort of torture” (p 25). He wishes to return to the land of the singing lemurs and laments his inability to separate himself from his visions of possession: “She prevented me, holding me back with thin arms” (p 101).

After G flees from her husband, N runs after her possessed by horrific images of her death and destruction: “She escaped from the forest at length only to see the fjord waiting for her. An evil effluence rose from the water, something primitive, savage, demanding victims, hungry for a human sacrifice” (p 71).

Flight, pursuit, flight, capture, escape, pursuit, flight. As if caught up in some post-apocalyptic performance of Ravel’s ‘La valse’ (1919-20), a macabre dance of death, N and G – possessed by primordial forces – move across an imprecise allegorical landscape at the end of the world where powers shift and mutate and realign and decay.

As the destructive dance continues, fragmentation occurs: N cannot separate himself from the captors who hold G “I fought to retain my own identity, but all my efforts failed to keep up apart. I continually found I was not myself, but him. At one moment I actually seemed to be wearing his clothes” (p 131). But they are both trapped in this pattern. The visions of Indris and the melodious lemurs are but memories crushed too by the end.

Filled with unsettling yet gorgeous images, Ice is a triumph of 60s experimental literature with post-apocalyptic undertones. N’s visions of G’s destruction unnerve and cut deep. The dreamlike repetition, the interchangeability of the landscapes, N’s hallucinations and obsessions, are like some second skin you cannot shed. A melodious rumination on destruction…

“Day by day the ice was creeping over the curve of the earth, unimpeded by seas or mountains. Without haste or pause, it was steadily moving nearer, entering and flattening cities, filling craters from which boiling laval poured. There was no way of stopping the icy giant battalions, marching in relentless order across the world, crushing, obliterating, destroying everything in their path” (p 131).

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

Foreigner, CJ Cherryh

March 4, 2015

foreignerForeigner, CJ Cherryh (1994)
Review by Martin Wisse

Foreigner is the first novel in one of CJ Cherryh’s popular series, yet until now I had never read any of them. She is such a prolific writer that it’s easy to miss a series or two. She also has such a wide range, writing anything from fantasy to space opera, that not everything she writes appeals to every one of her fans. The number of people I’ve known who hated her breakthrough novel Downbelow Station for example…

Yet, once you’ve read a few of her novels, you discover that there is one narrative trick all her stories have in common, no matter what the setting or the plot is. What she likes to do is to take her protagonists out of their comfort zone, get them at their most vulnerable and then put the pressure on. Every one of her novels I’ve read has the same structure. The protagonist is a young man (rarely a young woman) put in a position of responsibility but without power. Usually he’s an outsider in an alien culture, cut off from his own people, in the middle of some sort of political crisis he barely understands let alone can influence. She then let’s this crisis heats up, makes sure her hero gets little to eat and less sleep and is as far removed from the centre of the crisis as possible, yet still has a vital role to play in resolving it, even if he not necessarily knows it. To make sure the reader is as much in the dark as the hero, she usually makes sure they’re only looking at the story through his eyes.

In Foreigner‘s case the eyes we’re looking through are Bren Cameron’s. Bren is the paidhi, the human interpretor appointed by treaty to the court of the aiji of the Western Association. The paidhi is the person the most responsible for keeping the peace between human and atevi ever since the war two hundred years earlier. It been an accident that had put humans on the atevi’s planet and many of the latter were still not happy about it, but at least they were now confined to only one island and forced to share their technological and scientific knowledge. It’s this that is the humans’ greatest advantage and it’s Bren’s job to share them in the most advantageous way possible, striking a balance between being useful to the atevi, not forcing their technological development too soon and keeping at least some bargaining chips off the table for as long as possible.

Not an easy job, but things get worse for Bren quick. His story starts with an assassin in his room and Bren driving him off with an illegal gun. In response Tabini-aiji order’s Bren’s bodyguards to bring him to his grandmother’s castle – the one who twice tried to be aiji instead of her son and grandson and who might have been involved in the tragic death of her own son, but who in any case doesn’t like humans very much.

Alone, isolated and confused, cut off from the modern world in a castle that was old when humans first went into space and only barely upgraded to include modern amenities like indoor plumbing and electricity, Bren is not happy. His existential dilemma is that his instinct is to trust and like those atevi like Jago and Banichi, his two bodyguards, he has known and worked with for years, yet these are human emotions not mirrored by the atevi. Their language can only think about “like” in the sense that you can like a breakfast fruit, but does have fourteen different words for betrayal. Instead atevi are ruled by man’chi, the sense of duty and obligation owned to an association or leader, which can get very complicated indeed. It’s the conflict between Bren’s instincts and feelings and his imperfect understanding of man’chi that drives most of the stress he’s under. Literally kept in the dark at times, he has no idea what’s going on, what his own role in it is or how to get out from the hole he is in.

Foreigner is one of those Cherryh novels that was difficult to read for me, because I could see the pain that was coming for Bren all the time and was wincing in advance. I’d figured out Cherryh’s trick it took me some effort to get back to the story. I also had some problems with the setting. The atevi with their sense of man’chi and lack of emotions and complex web of aristocratic power relations come across as “space Japanese”, with the human settlement standing in for the Dutch at Dejima during the Shogunate. It took some time for me to get over this.

What I also had problems with was the central conceit in the story, that it would be possible to trade scientific and technological information for two hundred years without the atevi catching up and surpassing humans. Cherryh does play some lip service to the idea that the atevi do innovate on their own as well, but it does seem humans are the main driver of scientific progress, which I just don’t buy. Science doesn’t work that way, you cannot just keep parcelling out little nuggets of information like that without sparking off a scientific revolution. Especially on a planet with a few million humans and a billion or more atevi.

Setting aside those objections, once I did immerse myself in the story, it was just as gripping as any other Cherryh one. This isn’t her best novel perhaps, but like most Cherryh novels it’s still very much worth reading.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The Time Traders, Andre Norton

February 26, 2015

timetradersThe Time Traders, Andre Norton (1958)
Review by Martin Wisse

If it wasn’t for Project Gutenberg I might’ve never read this novel. Though Andre Norton was one of the most prolific US science fiction writers, mostly writing what we’d now call young adult novels, she was never translated into Dutch much so was missing when I went through my personal Golden Age. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to catch up with her, in no small part thanks to Gutenberg’s collection of her works. Because until roughly the seventies, American copyright was only valid for a limited time and had to be explicitly renewed, a lot of science fiction pulp and early paperback stories entered the public domain. In this case, the copyright on the original 1958 hardcover publication of The Time Traders was never renewed, making it fair game for Gutenberg.

I picked this out of the available Nortons for two reasons: it was the first book in a series and more importantly, it was a time travel story. It had been a while since I’d last read a good, old fashioned time travel story and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly. After all, it has time agents who have to travel undercover through prehistoric times to find the ancient civilisation from which the Soviets are getting sophisticated weaponry and technology they couldn’t have possibly produced themselves.

But that does point to the novel’s greatest problem: it was written in 1958, at the height of the first Cold War and it shows. It’s not just that this is a straight arms race between heroic, American time travellers and devious Soviet agents, it’s also that the protagonist, Ross Murdock, is an example of that other fifties bugbear, a juvenile delinquent, mollycoddled by society. He thinks he knows how the game is played until he finds himself being drafted in a top secret project, which we, even if the title hadn’t been a dead giveaway, know soon enough is a time travel project, but which costs him some time to find out. Though gifted with a bit of cunning and some inner strength, Ross at first is not the brightest bulb.

The Time Traders starts with Ross being drafted into the project, blind, as alternative to being sent to prison for unspecified crimes. He at first thinks to play along to bide his time until he has an opportunity to escape the polar base he’s sent to, but when his chance at escape would mean betraying the base to the Soviets, he can’t do it. This finally earns him some measure of trust as the goal of the time travel project is explained to him and he begins his training in earnest.

This second part of the book is dominated by I guess you can call it a love story, between Ross and his mentor, an older time agent called Gordon Ashe. Gordon is the father figure Ross never had and he does his utmost to win his respect. This comes to a head as they go on their first time travel journey together, back to Iron Age Britain, where the agents have established themselves as foreign traders and established a small base. Of course things go wrong and of course it turns to Ross to save the day.

If I’m honest, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Ross and Gordon’s adventures in prehistory, rather than it all devolving in spy games with Russian time agents. Though much of what Norton shows of Iron Age Britain may be obsolete or have always been nonsense, she does have a good eye for the small, telling detail to make a world come alive and I would’ve liked to spent more time there. The plot itself is of course dated, especially because it is supposed to be set sometime in the near future, but after a while it didn’t bother me. If it would you, there’s an updated version brought out by Baen Books, if I’m not mistaken, which has updated the Cold War plots. I’m not sure that was needed.

The Time Traders was popular enough to spawn three sequels, two of which (but not the second) are also available at Gutenberg, as well as three much later continuations by Norton plus a junior writer. Again, not having read them, I’d be wary to try these latter. Famous writers revisiting popular series with the help of less famous writers never work out.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh

February 24, 2015

kifstrikebackThe Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

At the end of Chanur’s Venture, Pyanfar Chanur and her ship, The Pride of Chanur, had found themselves heading for Mkks, a station in the disputed zone between the kif and mahendo’sat, chasing after a kif leader who had kidnapped Pyanfar’s niece Hilfy and the human Tully. These events were precipitated by the return of humans to Compact Space, which in turn led to a bid for power between two kif leaders… And it’s one of these whom Pyanfar finds herself reluctantly allied to – the very same one, in fact, called Sikkukkut, who kidnapped Hilfy and Tully.

So The Pride of Chanur, Sikkukkut’s small fleet, the mahendo’sat hunter Jik, and even the hani ship Vigilance form an impromptu task force and descend on the kif station Kekf and seize control of it, cutting off Sikkukkut’s rival and causing him to badly lose face. (Kif politics operates on individuals’ clout, or sifk, and leaders can rise and fall in moments.) Somehow the enigmatic knnn are involved in all this, and the bird-like shsto have been making secret treaties with some of the hani in order to cut the mahendo’sat out of any future trade deals, and the House of Chanur back home is near-bankrupt and wanted for a number of violations of laws and treaties – which is why Vigilance is dogging The Pride of Chanur

The Kif Strike Back reads like the middle book of a trilogy, which in effect it is. The first book of the quintet, The Pride of Chanur, felt like a one-off, and the second book, Chanur’s Venture, took the ending of the first book and ran with it. The fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, takes place many years later. And like many middle books of trilogies, The Kif Strike Back seems to consist chiefly of getting the various players into place for the final showdown, which, I’m guessing, will take place at Meetpoint, where the quintet opened. There is also a great deal of explaining, by Pyanfar, of what is going on behind the scenes and the motivations of the various factions – all, that is, except for the methane-breathers, as no one ever really knows what they’re thinking. To make matters worse, Tully confesses that the human ships may have actually fired on knnn ships. And no one messes with the knnn. They are centuries ahead of everyone else technologically, and don’t appear to deal very well with other races.

But if The Kif Strike Back isn’t quite as engaging a read as Chanur’s Venture, there is still much to like in it. Cherryh reveals more about the kif, and they’re a lot more interesting than they had appeared in the earlier books. Pyanfar makes an excellent protagonist, although perhaps she’s praised a tad too much by other characters (leading the reader to suspect the rest of the hani are not much good at anything). There is also a pleasingly slightly old-fashioned feel to the universe of the series. The pidgin spoken by the mahendo’sat is perhaps less pleasing, and it’s unlikely any writer would do such a thing in a twenty-first century novel. But the technology of Compact Space, with its huge space stations, FTL drives but no artificial gravity, the clunky tech of 1970s visions of the future… It’s all a bit retro. And there’s an implausible level of commonality in the technology across the various races – which also feels somewhat retro. While the various races’ spaceships may look different, they all seem to operate exactly the same – although it’s hard to tell how much so, given that Cherryh is characteristically parsimonious with detail. Her prose has always been about the characters and their actions and thoughts, and she rarely spends more than the minimum number of words on setting.

The Kif Strike Back is followed by Chanur’s Homecoming and Chanur’s Legacy. This series is solid hard-ish space opera, perhaps a little past its sell-by date – but when did that ever stop a science fiction reader? The Compact Space quintet doesn’t pretend to offer relevance to a twenty-first century reader; it didn’t to a reader back in the 1980s. And back then, I suspect, it felt a little like one of those wind-up toys from an earlier generation, a bit clunky, no smoothly rounded corners or brightly-coloured moulded plastic… but it did something interesting and fun. And sometimes that’s all you want from a book.

The Secret of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett

February 19, 2015

sinharatThe Secret of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1964)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Leigh Brackett was the queen of pulp SF. She started writing adventure stories in 1940, but her first novel in 1944 was a mystery, No Good from a Corpse. As legend has it, Howard Hawks was so impressed by it that he asked for “this guy Brackett” to write a screenplay of The Big Sleep with William Faulkner. Today Brackett is more famous for her screenwriting career working with Hawks – most of them westerns or noir, old John Wayne flicks like Rio Bravo and Hatari!, but also the first pass of The Empire Strikes Back for George Lucas, the only time she worked on a SF film. Those screenplays diverted her focus from science fiction, though she did return in the early 1970s to write the Skaith novels before succumbing to cancer at the age of sixty.

The Secret of Sinharat is a novel expanded from one of her 1940s novellas, 1949’s ‘Queen of the Martian Catacombs’ for the Planet Stories pulp. Everything points to her husband, fellow SF writer Ed “World Wrecker” Hamilton, as the source of the revisions, especially since Brackett was busy writing screenplays at the time. There’s enough differences to make The Secret of Sinharat and ‘Queen of the Martian Catacombs’ their own distinct works, but the core of the novella is alive and well in the short novel.

Eric John Stark finds himself trapped on the Martian desert, his mount dying of thirst, men of the Earth Police Control hot on his heels. Led by Stark’s foster-father, Ashton Simon, the police are on to Stark’s purpose on Mars: they know he was hired by a revolutionary to train an army of drylander barbarians and low-canallers, they’re aware of the coming revolt against the Martian city-states that will cause rivers of blood to flow in the streets. But since they cannot intervene in Martian affairs, they need Stark to become a double-agent and shut this revolt down, and Stark finds himself working to diffuse the very revolution he was hired to instigate.

Playing the game of bluff and double-bluff will be easy for Stark. Finding one of his fellow mercenaries is an old adversary, Luhar the Venusian, is only a passing concern. Nor are the grudges of the rebel lieutenants, one of which has an addiction to radioactive rays that bring out mindless, primal savagery. No, the trouble comes from the revolutionary leader, who claims he’s found the secrets of the lost Ramas of Mars – long-dead immortals thought close to godhood, with incredible powers like the ability to transfer minds between bodies. Because there are long-dead secrets on this planet many would kill for, and legend of the Ramas’ extinction may be greatly exaggerated…

Brackett’s prose is unmistakable; it’s full of vigor and wonder, and it’s no surprise she influenced dozens of authors (such as Michael Moorcock, who wrote a glowing introduction). She transmutes the California of 1940s literature into the red planet Mars – the seedy underbelly of the Martian city-states could be the San Francisco streets trafficked by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; her unforgiving Martian desert is the same type of rugged frontier she brought to life in Howard Hawks’ westerns. The twists, the thrills, the adventure are all here. Regardless of the flaws of the planetary romance sub-genre – of which they are many – it makes for excellent entertainment. Really, there is no finer practitioner of SF adventure than Brackett: her tales echo Burroughs’ Mars, but have a uniqueness all their own.

The Secret of Sinharat is a good example of why Brackett’s fiction surpasses much of the pulp adventure of her time: elements of revolution and postcolonialism add extra depth to this story. The Martian revolt centers on the groups living in the shadow of the ruling city-states, drawing immediate comparison to the African states gaining independence in the early 1960s; the underground revolt is trained by grim mercenaries and led by a die-hard idealist reminiscent of Castro or Che. These themes would have been relevant and topical when novelized in 1962, but they were part of the story back when it was a 1949 novella. Brackett’s women are femmes fatale – sexy, dark, and dangerous, not simpering clichés in constant need of rescue. Stark is an anti-hero, and I can’t recall many anti-heroes before the 1970s… Yet you can picture him in some alternate universe played by Humphrey Bogart, grinding out a cigarette stub in the sands of some dead Martian sea.

The Secret of Sinharat succeeds because of Brackett’s compelling prose and rich atmosphere. I could argue that The Sword of Rhiannon is her best sword-and-planet work, but I can’t really fault The Secret of Sinharat; it’s a solid adventure yarn made better by its depth. Characterization and plotting is still pulpy – that is to say, thin and straightforward, respectively – and Brackett’s tales are dated, an acquired taste at best. But if you’re in the market for adventure, Brackett is among the best practitioners of that art. Moorcock makes a persuasive argument in his introduction that Brackett raised the bar for space opera, and I’m inclined to agree with him. An enjoyable old-school romp.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.

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