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Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey

May 5, 2016

dragonquestDragonquest, Anne McCaffrey (1971)
Review by Megan AM

How can two consecutive books from the same series be so vastly different? Despite the fact that Dragonflight and Dragonquest share weak writing, clunky dialogue, plot holes, the former is considerably more enjoyable than the latter. Dragonflight is an interesting story, with some writing mistakes. Dragonquest is just a boring story, written poorly.

F’lar, the weyrleader of the dragonriders of Pern, is facing unrest among his people. Although the fight against the Thread phenomena has resumed after four hundred years, the Pernese are far from cohesive. The traditional old-timers resist progress, and the grouchy lord holders bristle at any dragonrider authority. F’lar must unify these groups in order to maintain his position as weyrleader and protect his planet. At the same time, F’lar is also entertaining the possibilities of dragon travel into outer space.

The pleasurability of the first novel, Dragonflight, is partly due to its tight structure as combined novellas. In Dragonquest, McCaffrey has more space to amble and dally, and we see that loss of structure in pointless dialogue and dropped plot threads. In Dragonquest, there is a lot of standing around and talking. We experience boring meetings, in which people argue, and perspectives change jarringly, in order to inform the reader of each characters’ motivations. In some cases, characters abandon their argument a few chapters later, with no explanation. There is no action or context to develop or explain conflict. The reader is simply told through expository dialogue or subtextual narration. It’s poor storytelling at its worst.

One of two things happened here: Either the success of the Pern novellas spawned the need for a sequel so rapidly that McCaffrey had little chance for the fleshing out and editing of a good story, or McCaffrey is a weak writer who just got lucky on her first Pern novellas.

Aside from the amateurish writing style, the focus on dialogue as a plot-moving device is downright boring. Writers: I attend enough boring faculty meetings at work, so please don’t make me read about them in your stories. (Only Susanna Clarke can get away with that, and that’s just because she’s perfect and writes boring so well, and with such purpose, in that tongue-in-cheek, British fashion of hers.) It’s also irritating that the dragons know everything, yet share so little without prompting, but no one invites them to these big important meetings. It seems to me that the lead bronze, Mnemorth, should be running the meetings.

Also, the strong, rebellious character of Lessa, who drove the action of the first novel, withers into a shadow of herself in this novel. She devolves into a boring housewife with little to contribute, while the rest of the characters lose the few dimensions afforded them from the first novel. The mean and grumpy lord holders behave like sniveling children, and F’lar and F’nor fumble around as bullies and elitists. To top it off, we see the introduction of fire lizards as pets, a plot thread that had promise of a good conflict, but fizzled like a Thread sprayed by agenothree. The fire lizards are essentially the Ewoks of Pern – cute, but unnecessary, but maybe that will change in later Pern stories.

Dragonquest touched upon some promising themes: tradition vs. progress, arrogance vs. honor, dragons vs. fire lizards, but none of these themes were elaborated in any satisfying way. The emphasis on petty dialogue made me feel as if I skipped the page with the action that caused the arguments. In some ways, Dragonquest feels like it was produced as a response to critics of the first novel. We see more attempts at scientific explanations and a meek effort to plug up previous plot holes (“If dragons can jump space and time, why not destroy the Thread at its source? Because oxygen!”) In other ways, Dragonquest feels like it might be a bridge novel paving the way for a later, and hopefully better, story. Despite my dissatisfaction with this book, I have hope that the next book will be better.

My advice to potential readers of the Dragonriders of Pern series: read Dragonflight, but skip Dragonquest.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper

April 27, 2016

grass-sheri-s-tepperGrass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by Victoria Snelling

Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture… Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Grass follows Marjorie Yrarier and her family as they go as ambassadors to Grass with the secret mission of finding a cure for the plague. There are two societies on Grass; the aristocrats, an ossified relic of old European aristocracy that spends its time hunting; and the Commons which is a vibrant, trading nation. Then there are the Hippae, who act as mounts in the aristocrats’ hunts, but who are far more than semi-intelligent animals.

I loved this. The central mystery is well-handled and the reveal is done slowly over the last third of the book. Grass as a world is vividly realised and it’s inhabitants and their relationships are well-drawn. The ideas about social organization are subtly woven in and the plot is always at the foreground. I actually couldn’t put it down. It’s nice to read something with a middle aged woman as the protagonist – especially science fiction, especially an adventure mystery. Marjorie is a wife and a mother, and yet she is portrayed as an individual, as active and as as driving the story. Marjorie is purposeful woman, driven to solve the mystery at the heart of the disturbing planet she finds herself on and, although she has love interests (three if you count her husband) they are secondary to the main plot. It’s worth mentioning because it strikes me that female protagonists, in this type of story, are pretty rare. Tepper avoids the traps of either making her female protag solely defined by her family and romantic relationships or making her a man in a lady costume. It’s so refreshing.

I only have two minor niggles, and seriously, they are tiny. First. the planet Grass is sharply drawn and the word picture is rich and vivid. The group of colonies that it is part of is quite fuzzy; I don’t even know whether to call it a galaxy, system or universe. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as most of the action is on Grass but it does feel slightly incomplete. The other niggle is the omniscient third person POV. Tepper handles it well so it doesn’t feel like head-hopping, but I did find it a little old-fashioned and in one or two places it is confusing.

So, Grass was excellent, overall. It was complex, deep and thought-provoking. It was beautifully written. It made me want to read everything else she’s written.

Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Murphy’s Gambit, Syne Mitchell

April 20, 2016

murhpys_gambitMurphy’s Gambit, Syne Mitchell (2000)
Review by Ian Sales

Thiadora Murphy is a Floater, she was born and grew up in zero-gravity. But now she is a cadet at the Collective Enforcement Agency’s university, four months away from graduation, the first Floater to ever join the CEA. Which is hardly surprising, given that she had to train for months to withstand the gravity at the university campus – and that the Floaters are the Collective’s workers, treated so badly by the Corporations which run the Collective that they frequently revolt. Murphy is also the university’s best pilot.

She is called into the office of the university commandant, where a civilian – clearly a high-up executive from one of the corporations – has her fly a simulator which matches no known ship, and then offers her a job as a test pilot. She turns it down as she wants to be a CEA officer. Shortly afterwards, she is set up by a fellow cadet, accused of stealing his sportster to ferry arms to rebel Floaters. She is dismissed from the university, refuses to return home in disgrace, but cannot find a job. Again, the corporation – Gallger, responsible for the “launchers” which are used to transport ships from star system to star system – offer her the test pilot position. Murphy again turns it down, realising that Gallger had engineered her dismissal. Instead, she goes to work for Avocet, the Corporation which builds ships.

Avocet want Murphy to steal the Gambit, the mysterious ship whose simulator Murphy had flown. For some unknown reason, Murphy appears to be the only person capable of successfully flying the ship. The theft goes as planned. Onboard the Gambit is Kyle, the man who sold out Gallger to Avocet. During their escape, Murphy discovers why the Gambit is so sought after – it can “self-launch”, ie, it doesn’t need a launcher to travel between stars. Self-launching ships would destroy Gallger’s control of interstellar travel, and also free the Floaters from their near-slavery.

Unfortunately, Gallger manage to recover the Gambit before Murphy can deliver it to Avocet. With the help of her Floater family, Kyle, and Floater scientist Spanner, Murphy plots to steal back the Gambit. She gives herself up to Gallger – fortunately, Kyle proves to be the errant brother of the Gallger CEO, Vivien – and is sent on a test flight in the Gambit, accompanied by the CEA cadet who set her up at the university. The second theft doesn’t go as planned, although Murphy does learn the secret of the Gambit‘s origin – and why both Gallger and Avocet wanted her to fly it.

The loss of the Gambit leads to Vivien shutting down all the launchers, precipitating a war with the Floaters. When Murphy returns to save the day, destroying the Gambit in the process, the other corporations step in and arrest Vivien. There is a tribunal. Murphy is now a popular hero and so untouchable, but it looks like Vivien might get off with nothing more than a slapped wrist. Murphy demands a chair on the tribunal for the Floaters, so they are represented in the Collective government. After some politicking, she gets her way, and everything more or less returns to normal – albeit somewhat better for the Floaters than before. And Murphy is a test pilot for Avocet, who are now trying to reverse-engineer the Gambit from its wreckage…

One peculiarity of American science fiction is its penchant for corporate-dominated futures, as if it were only the private sector which is capable of colonising the galaxy. It wasn’t the private sector which put twelve men on the Moon, and it wasn’t corporations which colonised – or rather, occupied – the North American continent. These corporate futures are always depicted as almost Dickensian, with rapacious executives, and a population barely above subsistence level and with little or no rights. What’s the attraction? The USA has a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, both of which protect its citizens. So why do US science fiction authors continually posit futures in which people have no rights at all? For the sake of drama? Rubbish. There’s plenty of mainstream drama – there’s an entire genre, as popularised by John Grisham and others! – about the operation of those rights, and the legal apparatus which enforces and protects them.

It strikes me that such science fiction novels – and Murphy’s Gambit is one – are not intended as cautionary tales. It’s a failure of imagination, not a warning. Modern american consumer society is so inundated with corporate products and services that writers imagine the future will simply be more of the same. And yet, for some reason that escapes me, they decide to couple this with a treatment of ordinary people even a Victorian slumlord would shudder to consider. Certainly there’s no good reason for such a situation in Murphy’s Gambit. Gallger has a monopoly on interstellar travel, and the existence of the Gambit is enough to threaten that monopoly. Cue plot. (Of course, an effective, and honest, government would not have allowed the monopoly to form in the first place; but US genre authors seem to like to forget that if corporations are not as evil and rapacious as depicted in fiction, it’s because their government prevents them from being so… albeit, sadly, with decreasing effectiveness.)

In many respects, Murphy’s Gambit reads more like a 1980s science fiction novel than one published at the end of the century. A protagonist who is an outsider, but also a hotshot pilot, reminds me of SN Lewitt’s Angel at Apogee from 1987. The corporate-dominated future feels more cyberpunk than hard sf, and while Mitchell successfully gets across the dangers of space, and the long-term effects of living in zero-gravity, the plot is pure space opera. There are also a number of malapropisms – “veritable” used where “verifiable” was meant, for instance – and, most annoyingly, Fomalhaut is referred to throughout as Formalhaut (the name is Arabic, الحوت فم , fom al-haut, “mouth of the whale”), suggesting the book could have done with a more eagle-eyed line editor. Nonetheless, it managed to win the Compton Cook Award for Best First Novel in 2001. Mitchell went on to write a further four sf novels, the last of which, The Last Mortal Man, was the first in a planned series, the Deathless, but the publisher chose not to continue after one book.

Cuckoo’s Egg, CJ Cherryh

April 14, 2016

cucckoos_eggCuckoo’s Egg, CJ Cherryh (1985)
Review by Megan AM

I was familiar with CJ Cherryh before I became familiar with the CJ Cherryh, thanks to the time, way back when, I googled something ubiquitous – though, I thought it was pretty unique – “female science fiction writer”. A strict fantasy reader at the time, I wasn’t interested in the harsh realities of space, but I was looking for something different because fantasy was starting to wear on me. I kept Cherryh’s name in mind and eventually stumbled across the first of her Foreigner series in a messy little secondhand bookstore near Rice University. I thought the diplomacy plot would appeal to my poli-sci sensibilities and it did. I liked it okay. And it felt exactly the way I expected space opera fiction to feel.

Nowadays, I’m a little more informed about the CJ Cherryh, and her place in sci-fi history, and since reading Foreigner, I’ve noticed that Cherry’s style is almost always described as cold, distant, and dry. Sometimes, mechanical. These descriptors are always loaded as a caveat, as if her writing should be warm, inviting, nurturing – just like all the other warm and fuzzy space opera authors clogging the bookshelves. Well, let’s just come out and say what those well-intentioned reviewers really mean: she is a woman, so where is her writerly womb?

So it’s interesting that I’ve come to a Cherryh book that is essentially about the nurturing of young life, of childhood and family. Will she remain firm in her portrayals of cold, enigmatic diplomacy, or will she breastfeed us directly from the page?

In Cuckoo’s Egg, Cherryh explores the development of a human boy, Thorn, raised by a warrior-judge, Duun, of the Shonunin race. Though Thorn’s differences and the reasons for his sheltered existence are never explained to him, the human boy becomes aware of them on his own. His strict hatani upbringing, however, prevents him from breaching cultural mores to inquire about his origins. He grows up isolated, resentful, and desperate for love and acceptance, while his hatani training adds to his physical and emotional burdens. When Thorn is finally ready to be accepted by the hatani community, he learns the truth of his origins and his ultimate purpose.

A standalone book, possibly built into Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe (although it didn’t feel similar in my limited experience), Cuckoo’s Egg is a coming-of-age tale of otherness and acceptance. Never mind the ill-fitting bird metaphor, it’s clear from the beginning that Duun, and his Shonunin peers, are fully aware that the baby Thorn is an outsider.

It waved its hands. He, Duun reminded himself. (p 19)

Instead, Cuckoo’s Egg is more about the human sapling growing up in an overprotective Shonunin household, while coming to terms with perceived secrets about his alienness within his beloved culture.

… Dunn was suddenly aware of a silence within the child, a secrecy which had grown all unawares, that small walled-off place which was an independent mind. Thorn had arrived at selfhood… (p 28)

Surely it’s not too soon to coin the phrase human gaze, (and someone probably already has), which is what Cherryh challenges by depicting the human as alien and other among the (normal) Shonunin people, where “the awful, demon face, to the slitted [sic] eyes with their centers like stormcloud” (p 18) disturbs medical personnel, and where holding the child “would have chilled the blood of any countryfolk…” (p 18). Thorn’s hairless skin repulses everyone (“I’m all in patches, Duun!”), and even a potential lover is revealed as a spy after she recoils at his advances. The Shonunin, with their fur, claws, and teeth, their restrictive caste-like society, and their severe reticence, are so different from the reader that when moments of humanity shine through, it’s clear that this book not only serves as an allegory of personal acceptance, but also a cultural metaphor that avoids the trappings of the imperialist and privileged gaze that usually comes with most alien fiction.

If large print and wide spacing (and pacing) is an indicator of a book’s intended age group, Cuckoo’s Egg ranks as one of the youngest novels I’ve read this year, notwithstanding the similarly named Cuckoo Song (2014) by Francis Hardinge. And like Cuckoo Song, Cuckoo’s Egg employs quite a lot of darling lesson moments, designed for developing minds: “Some day you’ll be wise enough to solve problems. Until then, don’t create them” (p 136), and “You’re different… and you want to make sure they respect you” (p 134). This is a perfect book for a young reader who might be struggling with real or perceived differences.

But if we’re going to compare Cuckoo kids’ books, I prefer Cherryh’s for its more penetrating treatment of otherness and growing up, along with her knack for conveying complex interpersonal relationships.

Okay, so maybe cold Cherryh is a tad warmer in this book.

But more than Cuckoo Song, I see more in common with its 1985 Hugo-nominated (and eventually –winning) peer, Ender’s Game. Much of Thorn’s rearing is strict physical and mental conditioning, Karate Kid-style, (another ‘80s peer… is KK the impetus for these books?), to become part of the hatani, a warrior-judge class within the Shonunin culture. Duun is often a distant, unsympathetic, and challenging parent, his training often strays to abuse and neglect. Like Ender with his games, Thorn meets every challenge, endures the depression of failure and isolation, and is surrounded by trusted adults who lie and mislead (for his own good, they say). Both Ender and Thorn are victorious in matters far beyond what they expect, with Ender fated to become a war criminal, and Thorn… well, with Thorn, it isn’t quite clear at the end of the book whether his fate is similar to that of Ender’s:

That’s what you are. A solution. A helper of the world. (p 135)

For Thorn’s sake, let’s hope so.

Warmer and slighter than Foreigner and Downbelow Station. More insightful, and better crafted than Ender’s Game. This kid-focused story might satisfy the critics who dislike her “cold” style, though fans of Cherryh’s will recognize her trademark touch of interpersonal maneuvering and stoic characters. Cuckoo’s Egg is a departure from her usual space opera designs, but mostly because it’s geared toward a younger crowd, though it makes for a satisfying snack for mature readers.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Mississippi Blues, Kathleen Ann Goonan

April 6, 2016

mississippi_bluesMississippi Blues, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1997)
Review by Matthew Montgomery

In 1994’s Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan attempts to meld the improvisational structure of jazz with the science fiction novel. More ambitious than simply offering nanotechnology as a gee-whiz cool thing (or novum as per Darko Suvin), Goonan’s debut puts stress on the generic limitations of the sci-fi field, pushing the novel into different realms of narrative possibility. Her 1997 sequel, Mississippi Blues, takes the world the first novel laboured at and presses further the melding of form and content, taking Mississippi Blues into new territories, both literal and figurative.

Mississippi Blues picks up almost directly where Queen City Jazz leaves off: Verity gives up control of Cincinnati and forces the city to relinquish nan-facilitated control of the citizens. Without the nan forcing them to act out the roles assigned by the corrupted intelligence at the heart of the city, the people are without purpose. Verity instills in them a nanotech-induced mission called The Norleans Plague, which coerces people into travelling down the Ohio River to New Orleans, essentially acting out the journey Huck Finn takes on. Commanding a nan-built riverboat, Verity takes them on a hallucinogenic voyage through a post-collapse America.

Instead of jazz as a structuring metaphor, Goonan looks to the blues to inform the thematics of the sequel. The novel does not shy away from the racial politics of the blues; instead, she reminds the reader that the blues has a complex political ancestry, including the songs of the slaves. Goonan uses the ignorance of her characters as an avenue for expounding on the dark sides of American history, all while skilfully weaving an intricate thematic web. Mississippi Blues is intensely focused on the conceptual potential of freedom and slavery. Verity has freed the people from a nan-induced slavery by shackling them to another nan-induced feverdream. Simultaneously, the novel asks whether this future society can ever be free of American history, can ever rebuild without the looming shadow of slavery and racism.

Goonan blends these strings of thematic investigation with sensitive characterizations of Verity and the other people on the riverboat. The structure of the novel, with its lackadaisical meandering down the river, allows Goonan the space to let her characters breathe and develop. Frequently, the narrative slows to let some backstory fill in, usually of the heartbreaking variety, as no character emerges unscathed by the trauma of society’s collapse. Goonan’s sensitivity towards the feelings and motivations of her lead characters remains of one her greatest strengths in this novel and the preceding one.

However, a problem from Queen City Jazz rears its head in Mississippi Blues. In order to prolong the plotting, Goonan relies on avoiding the reveal of information. Verity, raised in isolation, is almost completely unaware of how society has collapsed and how nanotechnology went from saviour to oppressor. She is constantly paired with characters who do know, but won’t provide answers, despite direct questions from Verity. It’s similar to the frustration presented by Dumbledore: people just won’t provide straight answers, leading to my frustration and frequent exasperation. It’s a delaying tactic and a stronger narrative might have provided an organic reason for withholding information beyond a character point blank refusing to divulge.

Mississippi Blues is a dense read, both in its execution and its worldbuilding. Even after reading two volumes in this quartet, I’m still somewhat unsure of the backstory’s chronology. Likewise, I’m fuzzy on many supporting characters’ motivations and position in the novel. An effect of an episodic structure, too many people are introduced and quickly dropped, their impact dulled by the frequency with which this happens. Still, Mississippi Blues is an engaging and thoughtful read, glittering with narrative and thematic ambition, anchored by some strong prose and confident characterization.

For more information, see A Lay of the Land.

Beggars and Choosers, Nancy Kress

March 31, 2016

beggars_choosersBeggars and Choosers, Nancy Kress (1994)
Review by Megan AM

Techno skepticism in a dystopian world controlled by a few genetically-modified humans, the second of the Beggars trilogy brings to mind Philip José Farmer’s ‘Riders of the Purple Wage’ (Dangerous Visions, 1967) where a society lives in trashy decadence on government-provided salaries upon the advent of fully-automated manufacturing and agricultural industries. Both stories share a crude, unenlightened vision of “The Welfare State”, but Kress breaks from Farmer’s negative characterizations of the lower classes by embedding her aloof, self-centered protagonists into the fold of thoughtful, questioning citizens who are confounded by regular breakdowns in technology and a growing sense of isolation from outside affairs.

And finally! After the first volume of bickering between the moderate Sleepless Leisha and her reactionary Sleepless foes, we finally get to see the social decay that Beggars in Spain often fuzzed about.

But first, let’s just come out and say it: The titles for these books are awful. “Beggars” looked ugly enough in the first volume, not to mention the weak reference fails at its geocultural point. (Why Spain?) And neither “beggars” nor “choosers” are even alluded to in the second installment because the analogy fits so poorly. The addition of the decadent “Livers” and public servant “donkeys” sound even worse… these aren’t realistic terms, they are derogatory slurs that not even Farmer’s absurdist society would willingly adopt for themselves. Besides that, these horrific social labels distract from the actual motif of this entire set up:

“Who should control radical technological advances and what impact will they have on society?”

More techno-fear than Red Scare, though the surface might suggest otherwise, it is a heavy-handed debate that is surprisingly engaging… even if you aren’t a political science major who grew up eating on the Lone Star Card and has to tie down her left knee to give others the floor. (Ahem, me).

Polemics aside, the most significant feature of the Beggars trilogy is Kress’s habit of writing women in non-gendered, unfeminized ways. Because of genetic enhancements, these women are viewed by society as the height of sexual attractiveness, yet their internal workings and external behaviors diverge from the standard genre characterization of women by conveying neutrality, logic, distance – what some people might call “cold”. They are not driven by romance, family attachments (although sometimes driven by parental trauma, which is, thankfully, only observed in the narrative, and not stated, so there is plenty to analyze), ambition, or passion. They just do. Much like how we often observe even the most “charismatic” of male leads. I find this divergence refreshing and subversive.

More specifically, Kress’s approach to writing rich, white women is interesting. We get plenty of rich, white women in fiction, from all kinds of authors, but not often with such familiar ambiguity. Flawed, almost to the point of contempt, yet intimate, as if manifesting from authorial-reflection. It’s disconcerting at first, especially because most of these rich, white characters are misleadingly positioned as protagonists. Some readers might interpret these characters as the established heroes of the narrative, and therefore the voices of reason, but Leisha’s moderate naiveté, Diana’s reactionary cynicism, and Drew’s (a male) self-centered obsessions will keep alert readers on their toes, especially as the lower classes they alternately condemn and (think they) defend rarely conform to their haughty worldviews. Things are just so simple for these elite characters, and within a text that highlights so many confused and complex perspectives, that’s the first clue that these lead characters are not heroes.

Genre readers have been trained on hero fiction for so long, some readers might fall into that pattern and misinterpret this tale. Kress is not the type of author to handhold readers away from that pattern, in fact, I think she relies on it to keep readers engaged (read: defensive or smug, depending on your POV). In Beggars in Spain, everyone is morally gray, but it might take the entire context of the book, with all of its table-tennis arguing, to see that. In Beggars and Choosers, the same applies, but this time, with the dive into “Liver” society, we see more of a distinct narrative distrust of all genetically modified people, while the “lazy” and “ignorant” “Livers”, the lower-class consumers of “Bread & Circuses”, reveal a more layered and nuanced existence.

But it’s not fair to dissect Kress’s characterization of the rich and elite without addressing the problematic portrayals of non-white characters. Each book contains at least one glaring instance of ethnic insensitivity that seems both unnecessary and offensive. In Beggars in Spain, I initially waved off the portrayal of an enemy Muslim character as an unfortunate consequence of a ‘90s unsophisticated attempt at diversifying a novella that, when following that character’s arc into the expanded novel, turned ugly. A sympathetic author would apologize upon being made aware of the misstep, but I stumbled upon an old interview in which Kress basically shrugged off the criticism as PC-oversensitivity. Beggars and Choosers continues the attitude during a very, very small scene, of which I am not going to describe because it relies on such a deeply embedded social stereotype, but hints at the same lack of sensitivity. Hopefully her perceptions have changed since then.

And there are other flaws. The “sleepless” element has long since run out of steam, to be replaced by a more general form of super-person. The prologue is unnecessary, and full of over-heightened dialogue. The final fifty pages unravel with a pointless cliffhanger to set up for the next novel. Some plot points seem too convenient, or unnecessary and over-complicated. Perhaps Kress is strongest in novella form.

But that said, I do appreciate Kress for creating books that I can think about, argue with, and that remain in the forefront of my mind long after I have read them. Like its predecessor, Beggars in Spain, I went into Beggars and Choosers expecting to be bored, but rediscovered the pleasure of what Kress does well: portraying unsympathetic characters in misleading and intimate ways, designing surprising, effective twists, and establishing a sense of narrative distrust by toying with the reader’s own sensibilities. Whenever I enter one of her novels, two things go through my mind: one, can she pull this off? Two, is she trying to piss me off? And it’s an everlasting game of ping-pong after that.

Kress is a difficult SF author to categorize because, while she’s not literary in any sense beyond a more complete form of characterization, she writes within mainstream science fiction conventions, but outside of formula constraints, all while embracing, challenging, and twisting the reader’s reactions. And, of course, I’ll never forgive her for introducing me to the idea of being Sleepless, as I damn her characters nightly for their sleepless virtues when I want to stay up and do anything other than sleep.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Bibblings, Barbara Paul

March 23, 2016

bibblingsBibblings, Barbara Paul (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

After nearly five years reviewing for SF Mistressworks, not to mention some of the research I’ve done for my own writing, I had thought I was reasonably well-informed on women science fiction writers of the twentieth century, especially those who had published novels. Even so, Barbara Paul was a name that had slipped me by, even though two of her novels – including Bibblings – were published in the UK. Having said that, she managed to produce five sf novels between 1978 and 1980, and a Star Trek novelisation in 1988, before turning to writing murder-mystery novels, which she continued to do until 1997.

Bibblings is Paul’s third sf novel, and it’s an entertaining mix of first contact, sf puzzle-story, and light humour, with a likeable narrator/protagonist and a central conceit that’s not at all difficult to figure out… although it doe suffer from being somewhat lightweight. The narrator, Valerie Chester, is a member of a six-member team in the Diplomatic Corps of the Federation of United Worlds. Lodon-Kamaria is not in the Federation, but it does possess extensive deposits of alphidium, which the Federation wants. Unfortunately, the two nations of the planet, called, er, Lodon and Kamaria, have been in a perpetual state of war for generations. And the alphidium is beneath the mountain range which forms the spine of the continent they share, and is the barrier between the two nations and the battleground on which they fight. Valerie’s team has been sent in to try and effect a peace between the two countries – or failing that,’to recommend which one the Federation should “assist” in defeating the other.

Unfortunately, a problem quickly presents itself when the team land in Lodon: the Lodonites are either insane or blind drunk, and when they’re not blind drunk they’re insane. Only the neuters, the race’s third gender, are unaffected – and they spend all their time looking after the others and keeping them topped up with the local whiskey. Not only does this make diplmatic relations difficult, but Valerie and the rest of the team cannot even understand how the Lodonites have managed to keep the Kamarians at bay for so long.

So they visit Kamaria… and it could not be more of a contrast. The Kamarians are smart and well-organised, entirely sober and completely sane. However, they’re can’t remember what triggered the war between the two nations, but they do know the Lodonites cannot be trusted and any sort of peace is out of the question… Oh, and there are these small golden birds, the bibblings of the title, everywhere…

When the Kamarians make reference to a “time of strength” and a “time of weakness”. and the diplomats notice that all the Lodonites fighting in the mountains are neuters, whereas the Kamarian soldiers are male and female… And then the Kamarians start preparing for the impending migration across the mountains of the bibblings by laying in stores of food and jars of whiskey…

To be fair, the focus of Bibblings is never on solving the puzzle. Two of the diplomatic team are medical doctors, and they quickly discover the organism carried by the bibblings which causes the periods of madness and lucidity. And the fact that it’s linked to fertility. While a medical solution is quickly proposed, getting the Lodonites and the Kamarians to cease hostilities once they will no longer each suffer a “time of weakness” each year proves somewhat harder to implement.

Paul’s prose is light and readable, she doesn’t make a nine-course banquet out of the relatively simple puzzle presented by Lodon-Kamaria, and she works through the political and diplomatic consequences of the solution with internal consistency and common sense. Perhaps the set-up is not entirely plausible – or rather, the fact the Lodonites and Kamarians have never progressed beyond a slow war of attrition in the mountains as a solution – and even the similarity of the two races to human beings is never commented upon (despite the presence of a neuter gender). As backgrounds go, it’s sketchy at best; Paul spends much more words on detailing the characters and biographies of her six diplomats. Which gives the odd impression that Valerie telling this story to someone – but it’s never explained who. It is, to my mind, one of the chief failures of first-person narratives – they’re cheap story-telling because they’re easy to write, when they should only exist because the viewpoint is crucial to the plot. But, as they say, Your Mileage May Vary…

Bibblings is not a book which asks to be looked into too deeply, but that’s equally true of a vast proportion of the science fiction corpus. It’s an entertainingly light and fast read, and it has not appreciably dated. True, the neuters get short shrift, and a running joke about the diplomatic team being nicknamed the “Anglo-Saxon Invaders” really should have been avoided… But Paul’s prose is assured, her plotting doesn’t miss a beat, and though the novel is only 169 pages everything the plot needs is in there. Those were the days, when novels didn’t need to be the size of Zeppelin hangars in order to tell a story set in, or on, another world. Admittedly, authors often managed such short wordcounts by presenting the entire universe as little more than middle America in different coloured hats – and Paul is no less guilty here than others of her time. But size isn’t always virtue. Nor, for that matter, is brevity. Bibblings is a fun read, but it’s not a book to set the genre alight, either back in 1979 or now. And, sometimes, we have to be content with that.

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