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Rimrunners, CJ Cherryh

February 22, 2017

rimrunnersRimrunners, CJ Cherryh (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

Bet Yeager is a vagrant on Thule Station, a decrepit space station off the main trade routes between Union and Alliance territories. She marooned herself there after escaping from Pell Station aboard a freighter. Each day, she visits the station office, hoping for a new berth to ship out on. But none is forthcoming. When a drunk surprises her in a public toilet – she had been sleeping there – and attempts to rape her, she kills him. Desperate for somewhere to lie low, she moves in with a sympathetic barman, but he soon turns abusive. And when he pushes her too far, she kills him too. So it’s a good job a suitable ship then turns up at Thule Station, Loki, and despite Yeager’s lack of official credentials, her captain takes her on as a machinist.

Loki, however, is not a merchant, but a “spook”, a ship with overly-powerful engines which can lurk ahead of warships and gather intelligence or provide early warning. Which means the regime aboard is tough, perhaps even tougher than on a military ship. Yeager is assigned to an off-shift, where she tries to fit in. But she’s not very good at keeping her head down, especially in a ship where the command crew seems to treat everyone like slaves, and feuding cliques have formed among the lower ranks. Her first move, for instance, is to defend a fellow member of her shift, Ramey, known as “NG” for “No Good”, even though he is treated with contempt by most of those aboard.

Ramey’s reputation is a result of a crewmember he was working with dying in an accident and, although it wasn’t Ramey’s fault, he was blamed. But sticking up for Ramey makes Yeager enemies among the crew, resulting in several fraught encounters in the mess and bunk-space the shifts share. It doesn’t help that Loki‘s operations are secret, its crew kept in the dark, and there seems to be some sort of battle for influence going on between two of the ship’s senior officers.

Fortunately, Yeager is more than she seems. She may have been hired on as a machinist, and have some experience in the role, but she is actually a marine. She was left on Pell Station when Mazian’s fleet was forced to withdraw (events described in Downbelow Station (1981)). She’s been trying to return to her original ship, but Mazian’s warships are renegades and wanted by both Union and Alliance. The captain of Loki has a plan to protect his ship in a forthcoming clash between other forces, and it involves Thule Station. It also involves Yeager, once the captain learns who she really is – he has two sets of salvaged marine powered armour. He needs Yeager to get them working…

Rimrunners is a prime example of Cherryh’s sf. It does exactly what she is very good at; and it’s flaws are those which are characteristic of Cherryh’s fiction. Yeager is a well-drawn character, and if she’s perhaps overcompetent at times, it fits with the story. The narrative, as in much of Cherryh’s oeuvre, is only the tip of the iceberg that is the novel’s plot. The reader follows Yeager as she interacts with Loki‘s crew and tries to figure out what the ship is up to, but what is going on outside the ship, and in Union-Alliance space, only comes into focus as the book approaches its end. (And, yes, it is, in part, a continuation of the events from Downbelow Station.)

The whole set-up aboard Loki, however, never quite rings true. Cherryh does an excellent job of depicting the technology and engineering, and if it’s a little dated that’s hardly unexpected (the treatment of computers, for example). But to treat a crew of seasoned professionals like galley-slaves, and to hand out orders that come across as dictatorial whim like some interstellar Captain Bligh… Well, it’s a miracle Loki has lasted as long as it has. After all, galley-slaves were never given shore leave when a ship reached port – although events in Union and Alliance space seem bad enough that no one would willingly strand themselves at a station. There’s always the example of Yeager, as detailed in the opening chapters, so show the likely consequences of such a decision. Nevertheless, life aboard Loki comes across as far too selfish and cutthroat for a vessel whose survival depends on the smooth working of those on board her.

It often seems as though science fiction sacrifices common sense for drama, even if Rimrunners, or indeed Cherryh’s entire Union-Alliance body of work, is set in interstellar space several centuries from now (albeit without any sort of rigorous extrapolation). Wars between planetary systems seem no more implausible than wars between nations either side of a great ocean, although the ability to prosecute such a conflict is entirely dependent on the technology of transport. Certainly such wars were fought in human history with much cruder technology than that on display in any science fiction novel – although in terms of journey time, the distance was effectively the same. A polished and professional crew, working smoothly in unison, much as you would find on a modern-day US Navy warship, plainly isn’t dramatic enough. (Nor, of course, would it hire on a random stranger at some out-of-the-way port, but never mind.) It’s possible life aboard Loki was inspired by life aboard eighteenth-century warships, and there is ample documentation, and no end of fiction, depicting how brutal such a life was. But that was a consequence of the society of the time, and the opening chapters of Rimrunners plainly show an egalitarian, if somewhat libertarian, space-going society. (I will never understand why libertarianism has proven so popular in American science fiction: it’s probably the least plausible, and least sustainable, political system for colonising other planets and running an interstellar polity.)

One of the things science fiction has been doing since its earliest days, and it’s slapdash even at the best of times, is forcing contemporary sensibilities onto an historical model, and then painting it all with a science-fictional gloss and sticking on a few techno-baubles. True rigour in world-building is rare. Having said that, the sort of immersiveness which requires such levels of rigour is a relatively recent phenomenon, so it seems a little churlish to complain of its lack in a twenty-eight-year-old novel. Rimrunners is Cherryh on top form, displays her muscular prose to good effect, showcases her ability to draw good characters, and demonstrates her skill at playing shell games with her plots. If sometimes the world-building creaks at the seams, or feels a little dated, then that’s a minor quibble.

Primary Inversion, Catherine Asaro

February 15, 2017

primary-inversion-catherine-asaroPrimary Inversion, Catherine Asaro (1995)
Review by Simon Petrie

Catherine Asaro’s Wikipedia page lists a formidable range of accomplishments. She has a doctorate in chemical physics, is a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, and teaches chemistry, physics and maths at various levels. (Her science pedigree is impressive: she’s published papers with Alex Dalgarno, and her father appears to have had something to do with the dinosaurs’ extinction.) She’s also performed as a ballet and jazz dancer, has served as an artistic director for two dance companies, and has collaborated (both as a lyricist and as a performer) with the rock group Point Valid on a science fiction / music project. She’s a past president of SFWA, and the author of a large number of SF novels, novellas, and collections. (I stopped counting at around two dozen.) She’s had numerous award nominations and wins, including Nebula awards for her novel The Quantum Rose (2001) and her novella ‘The Space-Time Pool’ (2008). Much of her SF qualifies as hard SF, and some even has diagrams.

As it turns out, Primary Inversion, contains neither diagrams nor formulae. It’s Asaro’s first published novel, dating from 1995, and is one of a large number in her Saga of the Skolian Empire (although it doesn’t technically mark the beginning of the Saga, since some subsequently-published books deal with preceding events. The Wikipedia page has a helpful flow diagram, to assist with following the timeline).

At the start of Primary Inversion, Sauscony Valdoria (“Soz”) is on rec leave with her team – the combat-hardened Rex and Helda, and the new recruit Taas – on the Allied (neutral-zone) planet of Delos. Sauscony is a Jagernaut, an elite FTL fighter pilot equipped with all manner of biomechanical enhancements designed to allow her to control her spacecraft by thought. The Jagernaut corps, though small in number, are an essential component in the armoury of the Skolian Empire, an interstellar empire in a constant state of war with the much larger and ruthless Trader empire: the Jagernauts’ unique ability to communicate instantly across multiple-light-year distances, using a network created and maintained through psionics and quantum entanglement, is pretty much all that stands in the way of the Traders’ plans for Galactic domination. It’s an uneasy balance, one which has been maintained for generations, but, clearly, something’s going to give, sooner or later. After tangling with a Trader team on Delos, Soz and her team make an unwelcome discovery on Delos, leading them to suspect that “sooner” might well be on the cards. Specifically, they learn that Ur Qox, the arrogant and bloodthirsty Aristo emperor who heads the Traders’ ruling Highton caste, has a secret heir: the charismatic Jaibriol, who holds a secret of his own, one as likely to destroy him as it is to lead to the Skolian Empire’s downfall. Sauscony, no stranger to unpredictable and rapidly-developing situations, suddenly finds herself playing for very high stakes indeed.

The speculative component of Primary Inversion is substantial, and quite heady. Faster-than-light travel, telepathy, instantaneous communication, and quantum creation of matter/antimatter from the vacuum of interstellar space: as a combination, it threatens to become top-heavy, particularly viewed alongside a plot which merges elements of hard SF, mil-SF/space opera, dynastic fantasy, superhero/supervillain wish-fulfilment fiction, and romance. In places, I felt like some of the scaffolding was showing through (early on, there’s at least one out-and-out example of infodump-disguised-as-dialogue), and there were places, also, where I felt the interpersonal dynamics didn’t entirely ring true. But it should be remembered that this is Asaro’s first novel, and while there were some things which grated for me, there were also several strengths. The story makes good use of situational humour; the more extravagant science aspects are justified with plausible (and generally acceptably brief) explanatory paragraphs; there’s an astonishingly-choreographed near-lightspeed space battle; and there’s some genuinely moving emotional shading to several of the character interactions. (Against this, there are times when the book seems quite chimeric, with Soz on occasion displaying the kind of carelessness that sees people in horror movies walk along pitch-dark floorboard-creaking passageways while creepy music plays.) But if you can forgive the story some patchiness (and let’s face it, hard SF and romance is a difficult trick to pull off), there’s a lot to recommend Primary Inversion – and there’d be every reason to expect that Asaro’s later fiction manages to avoid most of the (minor) potholes suggested above. Plus, for all that a full character description of Soz (which I’m not offering here, because spoilers) would make her sound highly Mary-Sue-ish, she’s given sufficient depth to be genuinely engaging, and enough vulnerability and ambivalence to remain believable, despite her credentials. For that reason, I think I owe it to myself to check out some more of Asaro’s writing.

How would I assess Primary Inversion as hard SF, rather than simply as general SF? Hmm… I’m not completely comfortable with the psionic aspects of the story, which while necessary and integral to the plot didn’t always feel natural or consistent to me. In this respect, I sometimes found suspension of disbelief to be a struggle, and I suspect hard-SF purists (among whose number I do not count myself) would likely have greater problems with it. But Asaro always makes an effort to justify her extrapolations, and in that respect the story certainly plays fair by the rules of hard SF, in spirit at least. And her FTL gimmick is brilliantly imaginative – and followed through with a storyline which treats it as more than a gimmick, with some genuine speculation on the ramifications of such technology for travel, warfare, and civilisation. (I should note here, also, that Asaro has authored academic papers on such FTL possibilities.)

Overall? It’s a busy book, well-paced, keenly imagined… kaleiodoscopic at times. (Remember, it blends hard SF, romance, and themes from dynastic fantasy. ‘Kaleidoscopic’ pretty much goes with the territory.) If that sounds like it might be your cup of tea, then yes, it probably is.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

Cordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

February 8, 2017

cordelias_honourCordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
Review by Megan AM

I really wanted to love these two novels, just so I could identify with the legions of Lois McMaster Bujold fans who buoy her consistent status as the second-most nominated, and second-most winning, author of Hugo Best Novel Awards.

But, alas, I remain unimpressed. I’m sorry, Bujold fans. Once again, I am just not cool enough to fit in with the in-crowd.

Bujold advises Vorkosigan newbies to begin the series with Shards of Honor (1986) and Barrayar (1991), which is sometimes combined into the 1996 omnibus Cordelia’s Honor. This advice goes against publication order, but both novels center on Cordelia Naismith, the mother of the great Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of other books in Bujold’s series. Cordelia’s stories act as an introduction to the world of Barrayaran politics, and provide a non-spoilery background for the uninitiated.

Shards of Honor is the better of the two novels, at least at first. Best described as adventure-romance, it explains the circumstances behind the unlikely romance of independent off-worlder Cordelia and her future husband, military and political powerhouse Lord Aral Vorkosigan. Abandoned by a military coup, enemy captain Vorkosigan takes Cordelia as his hostage and they trek across an unfamiliar planet toward his hidden cache of resources, towing along Cordelia’s severely injured subordinate (ugh, this poor sod). Vorkosigan schemes his way back onto his ship, and Cordelia’s prisoner-like status evolves, causing Cordelia to question her loyalty to her own planet. Warring and scheming bring the two together again, and they fall in love!

The Good: It begins with an exciting and imaginative romp across an unexplored planet, which brings us flying, blood-sucking jellyfish, and six-legged scavenger beasts.

The Bad: It gets a little Twilighty in the second half when Cordy gets a bad case of Conduct Disorder and practically drowns her therapist, manipulates a naive newsman, and hijacks a postal rocket… just to get to the man she loves. Not only is this behavior obsessive and codependent (ie, bad for feminism), but it is inconsistent with the character’s established behavior.

The Ugly: A terribly uncomfortable, and seemingly unnecessary, group rape/torture attempt occurs somewhere in the middle of the book. (Shame on you, Bujold, for falling on this trite plot device.) In fact, it seems every major character in Shards of Honor and Barrayar has some dark, sexually abused past, as if that’s the only method Bujold knows to add depth to her characters.

Barrayar
In Barrayar, Cordelia and Aral are married, and Aral is named Regent to the child Emperor of Barrayar. Cordelia finds herself estranged from her surroundings, no longer a celebrated captain, and stuck as a bored and pregnant housewife on an unfriendly planet. She befriends some new characters, and dips her toe into the strange, unwritten customs of Barrayaran society. At the same time, Aral’s controversial appointment attracts violence, Cordelia’s pregnancy is threatened, and their relationship is tested by another coup.

The Good: Ummm, this half of the omnibus won the 1992 Hugo Award… somehow.

The Bad: The story’s structure hinges primarily on contrived, cliched scenes, such as going into labor in the middle of a street battle. Awkward, expository dialogue is used to explain the knotty political maneuverings on Barrayar.

The Ugly: Heroine Cordelia comes off as selfish and impetuous as she manipulates her staff to risk their jobs, their lives, and Vorkosigan’s attempts at peace, in order to rescue her unborn, high-risk fetus, while neglecting the status of other innocent hostages imprisoned in the same building.

The Unexplained: I can’t quite grasp Barrayaran technology. The Time of Isolation is over. They have rocket ships, they jump wormholes, they fight with pulse stunners. So why do they still behead criminals with axes? Shouldn’t they have lightsabers, or something?

Reading trumps TV and movie viewing because it affords us the luxury of exploring characters’ internal thoughts and motives, but that’s not the case with the Vorkosigan series. Bujold cheapens the reading experience by sacrificing perceptive, insightful narration for back-and-forth, expository dialogue. Shards of Honor and Barrayar is just a lot of standing around and talking, which might make a good television, but it robs the novel of any emotional and psychological depth.

Despite the many, many weaknesses of these two novels, both Shards of Honor and Barrayar have moments of exciting storytelling, and some readers may be able to overlook the lazy technique and selfish protagonist. This is best recommended for SF readers who lean politically Right, where Cordelia’s religious and pro-life philosophies can be appreciated.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

February 1, 2017

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs of a a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Ian Sales

The narrator, Mary, is a communications specialist on missions to visit planets inhabited by alien races. She uses her knowledge and skills – and, it is implied, some telepathic ability – to communuicate with the natives of planets previously unvisited. Memoirs of a Spacewoman recounts some of the missions the narrator embarked upon. And their consequences. It is a book clearly not written by an author steeped in science fiction, which lends the whole more of a fabulism air than a science-fictional one; but in contrast, it also covers areas not generally explored by actual genre writers.

The book is structured, more or less, as the reminscences of the narrator, often referencing later events, or commenting on the incidents being described. It does not really feel like a written memoir, as you’d expect from the title, as it’s far too chatty. And yet, although it has a sense of verbal narration to it, the prose is too clear and controlled to convince as speech. If anything, it makes the book a… friendly read, making it likeable even if other elements of the narrative might be hard to like.

There’s something very haphazard about the expeditions described by Mary, although the way her story-telling drifts from breathless to calm and considered from one page to the next probably makes the missions seem less organised than they actually were. (Although some of the events described were clearly the result of bad planning and/or bad leadership.) The aliens she meets are certainly inventive, and most definitely alien – there are no corrugated foreheads in Memoirs of a Spacewoman. Martians, however, are described as “in some ways so like ourselves”, but they communicate tactilely, even using their sex organs… a fact which makes human-Martian relations somewhat strained on expeditions… Among the aliens Mary meets are a race who are “distressingly like centipedes” and who live in transparent houses; a weird protplasmic blob which she has grafted onto her body; and, the mission which takes up the most of the book, a planet that is home to a race of caterpillar-like and butterfly-like aliens.

It’s these last aliens which Mitchison uses to illustrate the point at the heart of Memoirs of a Spacewoman. On first arriving on the planet, the expedition members find the caterpillars and determine they are sentient because of the patterns they make using their colourful droppings. Mary manages to communicate with the creatures, and they prove to be an unsophisticated race. Some time later, the caterpillars are attacked by butterfly-like aliens. The members of the expedition find this aggression baffling. (It doesn’t take them long, however, to discover that the caterpillars undergo metamorphosis to become the butterflies.) Mary manages to make herself understood by the butterflies, and learns that sometimes one of their number breaks out of its chrysalis with deformed wings. While the butterflies have lost all memory of their lives as caterpillars, they do know that they came from. And they blame the caterpillars’ habit of wallowing in stagnant bogs and making patterns with their droppings for causing the incomplete metamorphoses.

It’s hard not to read it all as an allegory for religious creeds and their concept of heaven. The caterpillars fear the butterflies, and yet they’re supposed to stop doing what comes naturally to them because the butterflies promise they will lives of joy after their metamorphosis – despite not presenting any evidence of this to the caterpillars. It’s not exact but the point is clear. And it’s reinforced by the rest of the book’s general message of peace and understanding.

Having said that, Memoirs of a Spacewoman is by no means a religious book, and presents its thesis in a form that is clearly science fiction – alien planets, telepathic communication – and was, in fact, first published by Gollancz, who put the phrase “her first science fiction novel” on the cover. Mitchison’s science fiction, however, owes more the British tradition from Lewis and Wyndham, than it does the US tradition which grew out of the pages of Amazing Stories. It lends the book, as noted earlier, a fabulist air, rather than scientific tale of derring-do the actual plot would normally suggest. But Mary’s breezy narration of events, and the almost child-like depiction of alien worlds, do not detract from the many serious points Mitchison makes.

Some of the attitudes in the book read a little dated, some are almost prescient. It’s an entertaining book, and a deal more thoughtful than its prose suggests. Mitchison went on to write two more science fiction novels – Solution Three (1975) and Not By Bread Alone (1983); but she wrote over forty novels, and around ninety books in total, between 1923 and her death in 1999 at the ripe old age of 101.

Heaven Chronicles, Joan D Vinge

January 25, 2017

heaven_chroniclesHeaven Chronicles, Joan D Vinge (1991)
Review by Simon Petrie

Joan D Vinge’s asteroid-colony book Heaven Chronicles is novel-length, but it’s not a single novel: instead it combines the works ‘Legacy’ (which I judge to be on the awkward cusp, in length, between a novella and a short novel) and the short(ish) novel ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’. To complicate matters slightly, ‘Legacy’ is itself a combination of two short novellas ‘Media Man’ and ‘Fool’s Gold’. Two of the three component stories (‘Media Man’ and ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’) first appeared in Analog magazine, respectively in 1976 and 1978; ‘Fool’s Gold’ was first published in Galileo magazine in 1980. The Outcasts of Heaven Belt has also all been published separately as a paperback. Additionally, Vinge has apparently revised all of this material, in a book entitled Heaven Belt which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet seen release.

The tales within Heaven Chronicles all concern the unfolding, and downward-spiralling, history of the colonised asteroid belt orbiting the star Heaven, in a system rich in planetoidal resources but lacking any habitable planets. The two stories comprising ‘Legacy’ explore the adventures of prospector-turned-media-reporter Chaim Dartagnan and pilot Mythili Fukinuki, who meet as participants in an ill-fated mission to rescue the wealthy occupant of a spacecraft marooned on the frozen, inhospitable Planet Two. ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ deals with the events that unfold following the arrival in Heaven system of Ranger, a well-resourced and technologically advanced starship piloted by Betha Torgussen who, after the ship comes under attack from an overzealous colony defence force, is one of only two survivors from an original complement of seven.

There’s a decidedly old-fashioned and pulpy feel to Heaven Chronicles. (I offer this as an attempt at classification rather than any implied criticism.) There’s a lot of argument, a lot of tension, some well-telegraphed action and a kind of rough simplicity to the characterisation, more so in the space-operatic ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ than in ‘Legacy’. The most obvious overarching characteristics of the stories are, however, an evidently thoroughgoing respect for the laws of physics and an interest in the exploration of gender politics. It’s probably relevant also to note the book’s thoroughgoing use of “metric time” – ie, seconds, kiloseconds, megaseconds, gigaseconds – rather than the “imperial time” (hours, days, years, etc) to which readers are presumably accustomed. The use of unconventional time units is initially disruptive – the conversion to familiar units has to be thought through, the first few times – but does, I think, encourage a degree of immersion in the story that might otherwise be absent.

I found ‘Legacy’ to be the more rewarding of the assembled components: while neither Dartagnan nor Fukinuki is a particularly compelling viewpoint character, the interaction between them is fascinating, and I appreciated the story’s ultimate (rather elliptical) denouement. ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ suffered slightly by comparison: the story seemed overlong and meandering in places. Overall, while I found the book enjoyable, I suspect its “bitsy-ness” might irk some readers, since, despite the presence of common characters, the three stories don’t really mesh together to form a complete whole. On the other hand, it would probably hold a strong appeal to devotees of 1950s and 1960s space-based SF.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin

January 18, 2017

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin (1971)latheofheaven
Review by Megan AM

One of the most radical, yet unradical, ways of thinking.

Fundamentally paradoxical, yet still, fundamental.

Both the thesis and antithesis for change.

(One of most difficult concepts to teach to a classroom of 9th graders scratching themselves in their uniforms on that one day of the year when state-mandated teaching objectives cross into the territory of “Eastern Philosophy.”)

The Tao. The Way.

George Orr is the embodiment of The Way.

In The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr visits a therapist to deal with his lifelong problem of affecting reality with his dreams, what he calls “effective dreaming”. But when the landscape of reality starts changing, steady Orr is not sure he can trust the ambitious Dr. Haber with his powerful mind. Can a passive, compliant person like Orr take back control of his dreams, and reset the world?

The dualism of personality, symbolized in the style of a PKD novel.

But, really, a celebration of a particular personality.

At first, it may seem like a tale about two undesirable opposites, vain wit versus witless passivity. Le Guin pulls no punches with her quarry, the arrogant therapist Dr. Haber, who was “no being, only layers” [81], and who “was not… really sure that anyone else existed, and wanted to prove they did by helping them” (p 28)

(Ouch, says the woman who practices the same profession.)

But Le Guin also drops a few judgmental remarks on her protagonist Orr, who is “unaggressive, placid, milquetoast…” (p 7), and “meek, mild, stuttering” (p 42). George Orr is “like a block of wood not carved” (p 96).

But it turns out Le Guin likes blocks of wood. And so does Lao Tzu:

The way goes on forever nameless.
Uncut wood, nothing important,
yet nobody under heaven
dare try to carve it.

[“Sacred Power,” Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way by Ursula Le Guin, p. 48]

In the notes of her demystified translation of the Tao Te Ching (2009), Le Guin expounds on that “block of wood”:

Uncut wood – here likened to the human soul—the uncut, unearned, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial. (p 83)

Not an attack on the passive personality. This is the celebration, perhaps exploration, of one. A personification of The Tao.

There’s other good stuff, too. Le Guin, as always, is funny, with “enhuging” and “enreddenhuged” being only two examples of hilarious attempts at short and concise, Tao-like humor. She also addresses vainglorious ambition, the expert pretense of therapy, Orwellian dystopia, PKD-style wibble-wobble of dreaming, interracial relationships, the gray tedium of an ethnic melting pot, among other things.

But The Lathe of Heaven also arouses curiosity about Le Guin’s lifelong relationship to Taoism. A woman who tells it like it is, who dissects books with an unforgiving blade, who unleashes snappy comebacks at fellow authors, and who turns humble acceptance speeches into defiant criticism. Ursula Le Guin is no George Orr.

But The Lathe of Heaven is a lot like The Tao.

Simple. Short. Sweet. Funny.

Mystical and whole.

Like the stanzas of a Tao verse.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Heart of Stone, Denny DeMartino

January 11, 2017

heart_of_stoneHeart of Stone, Denny DeMartino (2001)
Review by Ian Sales

Philipa Cyprion used to be the emperor of Earth’s astrologer, but she fled the planet, and her job, after the murder of her husband, who had also worked for Emperor Theo. Now she’s been called back, because one of the emperor’s sons (has has over a hundred children) has been murdered, and the emperor thinks Cyprion, with her science of “the interplanetudes”, can solve the crime. To this end, he pairs her with a Terrapol detective called Artemis Hadrien – despite the name, he is male. Details of Prince Lundy’s murder suggest a link to the Waki’el, an alien race with which Emperor Theo is allied. In fact, he has such close ties to the Waki’el that he has a half-Waki’el daughter… And she becomes the next victim.

The Waki’el are humanoid, and either blue or cranberry-coloured (DeMartino seems confused as to what colour cranberries are), possess some sort of sternum ridges, and visible within the cage they form, an external heart. The female Waki’el also produce an addictive drug called “honey” in glands in their mouths when sexually aroused. Some of them produce an even more potent form of this substance, called “amber”. These last belong to a different caste to the ruling Waki’el, although they are born among them.

The plot of Heart of Stone is tied up in both the science of astrology as practiced by Cyprion and the life-cycle of the alien Waki’el. It’s all something to do with zero-point energy, or “creation energy”, and photons and the speed of light in this dimension and an alternate dimension where souls go when people die, and from where they are reincarnated… but the Waki’el apparently have a direct connection to that dimension. Except the current Waki’el leadership have been trying to take control of the zero-point energy, or something, by fitting “quantum pacemakers” to their external hearts, in order to extend their lives. They’ve been assisted in this by “balloon heads”, who are the super-intelligent but profoundly disabled results of humanity wanting “to see how a human fetus would form while stranded for nine months in the creation energy” (p 114). Also involved in the conspiracy is the emperor’s “executioner”, Cornelius Paul. The dead prince and princess were just collateral damage in the plot to seize control of the zero-point dimension and the Earth. Or something.

Cyprion and Hadrien learn all this during a visit to Arif, the Waki’el home world, in the Pleiades Star System (DeMartin probably means “star cluster”. They have travelled to Arif with Paul, although they are at pains to point out they are acting under the direct orders of Emperor Theo. Unfortunately, this seems to cut very little ice with the various people Cyprion and Hadrien interview… and their eventual stumbling onto the solution is more the result of Cyprion’s wild theorising on creation energy, the way in which the Waki’el interact with it, and the “tachyon pacemakers” designed and built by one of the Waki’el chief priests…

As if Heart of Stone‘s failure as a crime novel, and its frankly confusing science-fictional world-building, weren’t enough… DeMartino chose to make Cyprion British, and the Britishisms she uses throughout the novel are all… wrong. I can’t even tell if it’s done as a joke, they’re so completely tin-eared:

“… If I get the chance, I’m going to give the little bramble bunny a piece of me mind.”
“A piece of me mind?”
“And that’s another thing. Don’t go braying about me accent. I’m from East London. Get used to it.” (p 6)

Rhyming slang is used quite often in dialogue – and it’s often wrong, or a phrase you very rarely hear:

“… So, tell me. Which dustbin lids were they?”
“Dustbin lids?”
“Dustbin lids – kids,” I said. (p 11)

“Have you ever seen so many bobbies in one place, going about their trade like it weren’t nothing?”
Bobbies was short for Bob Hope which rhymed with dope. (p 138)

Some other British terms are mis-used – a “johnnie”, for example, is not a toilet…

“… so I hid in the johnnie for a while…” (p 19)

… “wank” is certainly not

I didn’t distract him by replying. It wasn’t so much because I didn’t want him wanking Hadrien but more because my brain had swerved into overdrive like a Rolls-Royce driven by a spoiled princess. (p 133)

I smelled his musky odor. It threatened to make me wank, but I held in the nausea, sitting back quickly. (p 161)

Some more mangled Britishisms – I suspect “tiddlywink” is supposed to be drink…

I polished off the rest of my tiddlywink before standing up (p 163)

… but the phrase is definitely “bread and butter”…

… no astrologer worth his bread and jam would say (p 175)

… and it’s “birthday suit”, but not “pony trap”…

“How dare you invade me privacy? I’m in me friggin’ fancy suit … if you ever come into me space uninvited again, I’ll rip off your Tommy Rollocks at the root and stuff them up your pony trap (p 177)

And even verbs get misused – Hadrien will have been grassed up… and…

I had a feeling that Hadrien had been grassed by one of the boys at Terrapol. (p 76)

I’d say Cornelius Paul is crapped up in the brain (p 188)

“Brahms and Liszt” means drunk…

“Are you telling us that Zebrim Hast has fed us a load of Brahms and Liszt?” (p 190)

And “septic tank” is rhyming slang for Yank, not the reverse…

” … it stinks like an overflowing yank in here,” I muttered (p 202)

As for the rules of cricket…

… and we found ourselves offside at the cricket match (p 205)

Philipa Cyprion is without a doubt the most unconvicing British character I have ever read in a book, and that’s in a story which itself doesn’t convince, set on a late twenty-third century Earth which doesn’t convince, and in prose in which all the cultural references are mid- to late-twentieth century, like Elvis Presley and Adolf Hitler…

A sequel to Heart of Stone, titled Wayward Moon, appeared in the same year as the first book. DeMartino had previously published a near-future urban fantasy quintet under her real name, Denise Vitola.