Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt

Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

As an object, Angel at Apogee the paperback says several interesting things. The author is given as SN Lewitt, thus disguising her gender. (In fact, from her seventh novel, 1995’s Interface Masque, Lewitt began using her full name, Shariann Lewitt.) The cover-art features an advanced jet fighter and the tagline “The Hottest Pilot of Them All…”. It all seems designed to suggest this is a military science fiction novel, written by a male author and aimed squarely at male readers.

The back cover blurb, however, reveals that the title character is female, and suggests that the plot of the novel is not the testosterone-infused future combat tale implied by the front cover. Further, there is a quote from Andre Norton.

Angel at Apogee is actually a heartland sf story about a young woman who, in an effort to protect her own interests, discovers the truth about herself, her world and her people. Gaelian YnTourne may be a space-fighter pilot (a cadet, in fact, as the novel opens), but she is also heir to one of the most powerful families on the world of Dinoreos. She is also something of an outsider. She was born and spent the first seven years of her life on the primitive planet of Cahaute while her parents were on a survey mission there. Her relatives, however, are not entirely convinced she is fully of their blood – her mother died on Cahaute, and they suspect her real mother may have been a native.

The Dinoreosans are a nasty lot. They have several grades of aristocrat, in order of precendence Ot-tan, Li-tan and Sonna-tan. Everyone else is a commoner and beneath notice. The YnTourne are Ot-tan. They also have a seat on the Board of the Protectorate. Dinoreos is a corporate oligarchy, and the consortium that is the Protectorate controls the entire planet and a second world, Adredri. All Adredri are considered no better than commoners. Cahaute is the only other planet known to Dinoreosans, and it is inhabited only by small tribes plainly modelled on Native Americans. It is the Protectorate’s plans to exploit Cahaute which drives the plot of Angel at Apogee.

While Gaelian is set to inherit the YnTourne seat on the Board, her grandmother, the current holder, doesn’t want her to. She’d much rather Gaelian’s cousin, Dobrin, did so. So, while Gaelian is determined to fight for her inheritance, she’d much rather be a pilot – and she’s the very best at the Academy. The only person close to her is Golran, but he’s a commoner (one of the rare ones allowed entry to the Academy). Any kind of relationship with him is deeply frowned upon. Gaelian is already affianced to Teazerin YnSetti, who is clearly a nasty piece of work, arrogant and sadistic.

Gaelian overcomes her first hurdle – her family position – quite quickly and relatively (no pun intended) easily. She never wanted that seat on the Board anyway, Dobrin can have it. And he’s a good sort really. But then Gaelian’s piloting career comes a cropper when she is waylaid and kidnapped by the Adredri, who, it transpires, secretly have technology the equal of Dinoreos. And on Cahaute, a Dinoreosan base camp, commanded by Teazerin, is having trouble with restless natives.

In Gaelian, Angel at Apogee has an engaging heroine; and she later proves to be more than she appears to be – it is her Cahaute blood – and so is firmly within sf’s custom of featuring protagonists with super-human or near-messianic abilities. In Gaelian’s case, these abilities are linked directly to the secret history of Dinoreos, Adredri and Cahaute.

The setting of the story also has its appeal. It seems a curiously confined space – it’s not made clear if the three worlds are part of the same planetary system, though in effect they might as well be. The cultures of the three are drawn well – one of the highlights is Gaelian’s witnessing of an annual religious festival on Adredri. However, the depiction of the aristocracy on Dinoreos is somewhat troubling. Initially, it seems the four sectors of Dinoreosan society have racial roots, with the Ot-tan historical conquerors of the others. Later, it is revealed that Dinoreos was settled by a single race. But there is still a nasty streak of bigotry in the attitude of the Ot-tan to the other Dinoreosans, the Adredri and the Cahautans. This is amply demonstrated in an Academy “honor court” incident witnessed by Gaelian early in the novel.

Important to the story, and to the culture of Dinoreos, is the game of nerris. This is played in a court with a wall each of black, red, blue and yellow. A specific strategy is associated with the team defending each colour. The game is played with a stick, which has a blunt end and pointed end. The stick is also barbed. Drawing blood is considered a part of the game. The stick too is often used as a metaphor in Dinoreosan society. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear exactly how nerris operates, and its use as metaphor – especially playing “as blue” or making a “yellow play” – in interactions between the characters does little but confuse matters.

Angel at Apogee is a good, solid sf debut. It’s a fun read from start to finish, with a likeable protagonist, an interesting setting, and a resolution that satisfies. Following it, Lewitt wrote a military sf duology similar in broad form to Angel at Apogee, before moving onto sf novels less obviously positioned as military sf. Her last novel was Rebel Sutra in 2000 (see here).

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Beyond the Sealed World, Rena Vale

Beyond the Sealed World, Rena Vale (1965*)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Before Rena Vale became a science fiction author she was a secretary for the California State Assembly Committee on Un-American activities. In an affidavit she detailed her own experiences as a member of the Communist party and implicated famous individuals she worked with including Lucille Belle (of I Love Lucy fame), novelist John Steinbeck, actress Gale Sodergaard, and various others.

I’m not going to lie but this piqued my interest. Was her science fiction simply an extension of her anti-Communist works published in the 1950s? A quick Google Books search reveals a fascinating selection, an anti-Communist novel, The Red Court, “last seat of national government of the United States: the story of the revolution to come through Communism” (1952) and a pamphlet, ‘Against the Red Tide’ (1953), etc.

With the 50s character of the world in mind, parts of Beyond the Sealed World still come off as overly propagandistic, hokey, muddled, and extraordinarily sexist (surprising considering the female author). A world where good rural pseudo-Christian folk are manipulated by an evil “Chinman” and some barbarians who use destructive means to force the opening of the repressive/sterile sealed world of “Science”, which eschews individualism, plans marriages, and follows autocratic party leaders.

Part I of the work is by far the most readable. Daly 1444, a flavor engineer, is selected by Calinda, the sex-symbol daughter of the Sealed World’s leader, to be her mate. Her father doesn’t endorse their match and uses his authority to remove the office of flavor engineer. He’s sentenced to exile beyond the walls of the city. Daly 1444 is taken in by a renegade group of guards who have experienced the joys of the outer-world while on patrol duty on the roof of the Sealed World. Daly’s declared “L’ouverture”, after the Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture who led a brutal rebellion against the island’s French masters, and is cast out. He keeps a mirror so that he can to signal those on the roof. This section explains the workings of the repressive Sealed World of science and is on the whole a fun exercise in world-building. Daly 1444 is a suitably love-struck, indecisive, and confused young man thrown by external into a world-changing role.

The central portion of the world rambles in every which direction. Daly 1444 is taken in by some superstitious but good pseudo-Christian folk who tell him about the wonders of God — he slowly converts over the course of the novel. He also learns about a “Chinman” who tried to introduce technology to the pleasant rural folk and was kicked out. He smokes opium all day, enslaves the local populace, and plans how to extract the technology from inside the Sealed World (protected by a death ray, etc). Daly 1444 “accidentally” gets married to the first woman who comes his way (a completely empty character who sleeps with everyone she can get her hands on). Daly is also pursued by young various barbarian girls who demand he sleep with them!

Daly has no real plan to fulfill his destiny and constantly blathers on about how he misses Calinda. As a result, the “Chinman” and a barbarian leader take over the operation with terrible ramifications.

Is the reader supposed to empathize with those who facilitated the deaths of countless sheltered/brainwashed innocents who died in the Sealed World? Or root for the pseudo-Christians who were unfortunately co-opted into “opening” the world by evil forces? This paradox is Vale’s point — a point weakened by endless parades of nubile female characters demanding that Daly impregnate them, spank them, and grab their breasts (I’m not kidding!). Daly, despite his newfound Christian faith doesn’t mature over the course of the work — his entire world view is oriented by his selfish desire to get his hands on Calinda even if that results in piles of dead.

With those points in mind the work is more complicated than a piece of simplistic anti-Communist propaganda but on the whole less “fun” to read. At least the first edition cover is wonderful!

Avoid.

(*Concerning the publication date: Rena Vale’s Beyond the Sealed World was written in the 1950s and sold to Shasta press. However, the press went bankrupt and the novel remained unpublished until 1965.)

This review first appeared on Scientific Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

SF Mistressworks on BSFA Award short-list

Breaking news: SF Mistressworks has been shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Award in the non-fiction category – see here. I’m especially happy about this because not only have I been a member of the BSFA for over twenty years, but I’ve also voted on the Awards during most of those years. So thanks to everyone who nominated SF Mistressworks.

Of course, this website would have been nothing without the following:

Adam Roberts, Aishwarya Subramanian, Blue Tyson, Cara Murphy, Cheryl Morgan, Ian J Simpson, Jenni Scott, Joachim Boaz, Kathryn Allen, Kev McVeigh, Larry Nolan, Martin Wisse, Michaela Staton, Niall Harrison, Paul Charles Smith, Paul Graham Raven, Richard Palmer, Sam Kelly, Sandy M, Shannon Turlington and Shaun Duke.

Being on the shortlist is their achievement as well, and I’m very grateful.

But, first and foremost, we should thank the women sf writers that SF Mistressworks was set up to celebrate. There are still a vast number of their books we’ve yet to read, enjoy, and then review; and we won’t stop until we’ve done them all.

Leviathan’s Deep, Jayge Carr

Leviathan’s Deep, Jayge Carr (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

Jayge Carr was a pseudonym of Margery Krueger, who, between 1976 and her death in 2006, had published four genre novels and some fifty short stories. The SF Encyclopedia describes her as “not the most inventive of recent writers” but her fiction as “solidly crafted, well characterised and readable”, which is very much damning with faint praise. It was because of Carr’s story, ‘Webrider’, in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years that I tracked down a copy of Carr’s debut novel Leviathan’s Deep

And having now read it, I’m not inclined to disagree with the SF Encyclopedia’s characterisation of her work.

Which is not to say Leviathan’s Deep is bad. On the contrary, it’s a mostly interesting science fiction novel, and if it fails it’s not for lack of trying. The Kimassu Lady is a Delyene, a native of the water-world Delyafam. The Delyenes are amphibian humanoids and mostly resemble humans – except for their bright orange skin, lack of head or body hair, and having no navel. The Kimassu Lady, however, is a freak, and has pale colourless skin, which actually makes her beautiful by human standards. Though the cover art depicts Kimassu with breasts, no mention is made of them in the novel – and you’d have to wonder why amphibian humans would even require them. The Delyene society is matriarchal, with females more intelligent and much longer-lived, but far less numerous, than the males. Each female has a household of males, which they treat like chattel and will sexually prey upon. Kimassu is a torturer by profession and an expert on the Terrans who visit Delyafam and trade with the Delyene. The humans have imperialist designs on the planet, but are surprised at the Delyenes’ rejection of their longevity drug, which they have successfully pushed on other planets and subsequently brought the populations under their control.

The Kimassu Lady finds herself intrigued by a human male, Neill, who was caught in the forbidden precincts of the Goddess’s temple and brought to her for punishment. She chooses instead to learn more about humans from him, though this brings her and her noblelady sponsor into conflict with an anti-human noblelady. Kimassu hides Neill on a desert island, but is then captured by Admiral Gorky, who, it transpires, wants Neill, as the man is an agent of a rival interstellar empire. Kimassu is tortured, but Gorky falls in love with her and tries to make her his mate – and so Kimassu learns about human females and their treatment at the hands of their males.

It’s there that Leviathan’s Deep is at its least successful. The Delyene and their society are protrayed as the inverse of human society, but it’s a human society which has not existed for many decades. There are no female human characters in the novel because, it is implied, they are very much second-class citizens. It’s all very well commenting on gender roles in society through inventing a society in which the roles are reversed, but as commentary it’s only going to suceed if the original model is recognisable. This is further not helped by the human characters in the novel talking like the cast of a 1940s science fiction story – and Neill especially sounds like a clichéd Irish rogue from a bad Star Trek episode.

There are other problems. Shortly after Kimassu and Neill arrive on the desert island, he tries to rape her. He fails because while Delyene females are sufficiently biologically similar to human females to permit intercourse, they’re different enough in that they can choose to prevent sex. In fact, on Delyene rape is perpetrated by females on the males. Rape should never be treated lightly, and Kimassu’s offhand dismissal of Neill’s attempt, not to mention her own boasts of raping Delyene males, seriously undercuts the impact of any commentary the reversal might be trying to make. Later, Kimassu learns from Neill the advantages of an intelligent male, a male who can be a companion as well as a sex partner, and while she’s in no way redeemed by her love of a good man, the relationship does drift dangerously close to cliché. Happily, the plot then takes an abrupt turn and moves quickly away from any incipient mawkishness.

Leviathan’s Deep is told entirely in Kimassu’s voice, which Carr handles well. Kimassu is herself an interesting character and, while not entirely plausible, makes for an unusual perspective on what is pretty much a typical “noble savage turns tables on technological imperialists” story, a plot that is far from uncommon in science fiction. During Gorky’s imprisonment and enforced domesticity of Kimassu, she plays an innocent abroad, though the naivete often feels forced, and the episode seems slightly off since prior to it Kimassu had been brutally tortured by one of Gorky’s minions.

It seems to me that women sf writers are far better at writing alien points of view than male sf writers. Many have made a career of it, such as CJ Cherryh. Leviathan’s Deep fits well within that tradition, and like most such sf novels its alien voice is drawn with skill. However, it’s in the psychology of the human cast that Leviathan’s Deep chiefly disappoints. To be fair, it’s not an area in which science fiction as a genre has a very good record, so it seems somewhat churlish to complain about that aspect. In fact, but for the strangely old-fashioned feel to the human characters, Leviathan’s Deep would be a novel easy to damn with faint praise. Which is a shame, as it is indeed “solidly crafted, [mostly] well characterised and readable”.