Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (1957)
Review by Adam Roberts

I decided, on the principle that one should not condemn an enemy from a position of ignorance of their work, actually to read Ayn Rand’s sumo-size Objectivist novel Atlas Shrugged (1957). This I did, over the Easter break. And what an interesting experience it turned out to be.

I was surprised, for one thing, how readable the book was. I’ll confess that somewhere around page 300 the relentlessness of the novel’s combination of gnashing, effortful intensity of outrage and the sheer pressure of industrial-economic pseudo-detail was starting to wear me out. But I pushed through, and the last eight hundred pages just slid by. Which is to say, eventually they slid by. Which is to say, what with the fact that there was nothing on the telly, and nothing much else to do, eventually I read it. Actually the novel elaborates a narrative version of society rather like Dynasty: a few brilliant, beautiful members of the super-rich, a few powerful villains, and lots of spear-carriers. Dynasty was always crap but watchable, not unlike this book. Indeed, had Dynasty had the courage of its convictions and spent a series tracing the decline of its America into a dystopian economic collapse, brought about by the ressentiment and incompetence of the masses manipulated by evil politicians via spurious slogans of ‘social equality’, and thereafter the resurrection of a cleaner, better, grander enterprise society, then it might have very much resembled Atlas Shrugged.

One of the things that surprised me was how very redolent of a particular era of American science fiction the novel is: in tone it reminded me of Robert Heinlein – the long declarative sections in which characters debate the best way to get a misfiring country working again, the stress on engineering competence as the touchstone of human value, the vigorous simplification. There’s also something of Philip K Dick, in the first half at least, in the sense of a flattened, rather greying representation of social disintegration; although Dick was too canny to invest his hopes in the Wellsian utopian idealism of a society planned and run by geniuses in the way Rand does.

In obvious ways, of course, the book is science fiction. For instance it posits the creation of certain technological nova for instance: a superstrong variety of steel, a motor engine that draws its power from ‘static electricity in the air’ as it drives along; a weapon that destroys using only sound waves. More to the point, its worldbuilding is of the sub-Orwellian, or sub-sub-Orwellian, variety, where everywhere in the world has been swallowed by malign ‘people’s republics’ (the whole of Europe, for instance, is a place of mass slavery, death camps and wicked pseudo-Communist tyranny). America seems to be the last place in which Capitalism still operates, but it’s under threat at the beginning and succumbs about halfway through. Our main characters are: brilliant and beautiful Dagny Taggart, of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad (keeping the entire company operating through sheer force of her will and genius, and in the teeth of the company’s nominal director, her venal brother James); brilliant and handsome Hank Rearden, owner of Rearden Metal and inventor of the new sort of steel, trapped in a loveless marriage; and the handsome and brilliant Francisco D’Anconia. These three have a few loyal and worthwhile friends and deputies, but otherwise all the other characters manifest the physical ugliness of the self-evidently corrupt (“the pendulous face of Orren Boyle with the small slits of pig’s eyes. The doughy face of Mr Mowen with the eyes that scurried away from any speaker and any fact”, [p560]).

For about two thirds of this 1100-page novel Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden undertake heroic struggles to keep their respective companies afloat in the face of the tide of public hostility, governmental tyranny and greed. D’Anconia on the other hand, though posing as a skittish international playboy, is actually working for a hidden cabal of geniuses, organised by one John Galt. In the world at large the question with which the novel opens (“Who is John Galt?”) has become a meaningless slogan, uttered by people when they mean to say “who knows?” But John Galt is real. He has a plan to save the world.

The world he is trying to save is sketched by Rand via emblematic figures. For example, the Arts are represented by a wholly meretricious novelist called Balph Eubank who writes novels with titles like The Heart is a Milkman and The Vulture is Moulting. It might be considered, shall we say, brave of a writer who called her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged to crack wise at the expense of pretentious novel titles. But never mind that for the time being. There’s also an evil Relativist philosopher called Pritchett who preaches the fluidity of all meaning and the absence of absolute values, and who, in the rigorously pared down logic of the novel, has replaced the only other philosopher in the world – a virtuous quasi-Objectivist called Hugh Akston – in public affection and influence. Akston is working as a fry-chef in a café in the middle of nowhere, but he’s perfectly happy. Indeed, as the “looters and moochers” grasp more and more power into their greedy, incompetent hands, the people of real talent (almost all such people, according to Rand, are businessmen and factory owners) are silently vanishing, whither none know. Corrupt Washington politicians enact more and more oppressive legislation, until the country grinds to an absolute standstill. Then, when Rand has squeezed every last dribble of outrage from her polemical spleen, she reverses the movement; the novel ends as the disappeared geniuses and great wo/men return, poised to set the world to rights, and get their proper reward: healthy profits, lots of money, and a world fit for rugged individualists to build railways across.

Most of the novel is written in a declarative, rather grey prose, in which characters discuss various practical matters at length.

“All right Hank,” she said, “we’re going ahead with the new Rearden Metal bridge. This is the official order of the official owner of the John Galt line.”

He smiled, looking down at the drawings of the bridge spread in the light on his desk. “Have you had a chance to examine the scheme we submitted?”

“Yes. You don’t need my comments or compliments. The order says it.”

“Very well. Thank you. I’ll start rolling the metal.”

“Don’t you want to ask whether the John Galt Line is in a position to place orders or to function?”

“I don’t need to. Your coming here says it.”

She smiled. “True. It’s all set, Hank. I came to tell you that and to discuss the details of the bridge in person.”

He was not looking at her; he was looking at a sheet of figures on his desk. “I’ve had my engineers prepare a breakdown of the cost of the bridge,” he said, “and an approximate schedule of the construction time required. That is what I wanted to discuss with you.” He extended the papers. She settled back to read them. [p204]

There’s an awful lot like this. From time to time Rand puts the declarative mode on one side in order to purple-up her style. The result is not what literary critics call “good”. Here is Dagny riding a train:

The green-blue rails ran to meet them, like two jets shot out of a single point beyond the curve of the earth. The crossties melted, as they approached, into a smooth stream running down underneath the wheels … Trees and telegraph poles sprang into sight abruptly, and went by as if jerked back. … The glass sheets of the cab’s windows made the spread of the fields seem vaster: the earth looked as open to movement as it was to sight. Yet nothing was distant and nothing was out of reach. She had barely grasped the sparkle of a lake ahead, and in the next instant she was beside it, and past.

Rand is fatally drawn to over-emphatic expression. At moments of intensity (and this novel is prodigiously over-supplied with such moments) she turns the prose-style dial all the way up to 11, and, in some cases, to 12. This is how something occurs to one character: “it was not a thought, it was like the punch of a fist inside his skull” [p224]. Nothing moves; everything whirls, or thunders, or convulses. Characters are not afraid, the fear “goes through them in spasms”. Instead of “speaking” people cry and scream. Here, from a few pages in the middle of the novel:

“Dagny,” he screamed. “Don’t go …!”

The screaming of the telephones went on through the silence.

He flung the glass door open and from the threshold, in the sight and hearing of the room, he screamed: “where is she!”

“I won’t tell you.”

Taggart’s scream rose to the shrill impotent sound that confesses a miscalculation. [p624-5]

You’ve probably had that experience yourself, of hearing somebody screaming at the top of their lungs in a way that betrays miscalculation. The point is that when intensity has no other mode, it palls. There are times – and actually, the times are all the time without exception – when it is simply more effective to write “he got to his feet and spoke” than it is to write “he shot to his feet with the stored abruptness of a spring uncoiling, his voice driving on in merciless triumph” [p620]. But the idea that less could ever be more was clearly one alien to Rand’s aesthetic. The back of my Penguin edition of the novel carries this endorsement, presumably from a 1957 review: “she writes brilliantly, beautifully, bitterly. The New York Times”. The bitterness comes through on every page that isn’t given over to improbable ecstasy, but the brilliance and beauty … not so much. Often the writing is really heroically bad, impossible simile following impossible simile. Here we read of “an announcer, with a voice like a machine-gun spitting smiles …” [p826]. There we read:

A gray cotton, which was neither quite fog nor clouds, hung in sloppy wads between sky and mountains, making the sky look an old mattress spilling its stuffing down the sides of the peaks. [p518]

If Objectivist philosophy called for people to sleep on mattresses stuffed with sloppy wads then no wonder it didn’t catch on.

But, wait, what am I saying? Objectivism not catching on? Objectivism has become, via indirect routes, the dominant ethos of the world today. Alan Greenspan may not individually have been the world’s most powerful figure, but his long period of prominence and influence reflected a half century in which the principles of profit, individualism, greed and selfishness achieved unchallenged dominance across most of the Western world. It has conquered even China and Russia now. The paradise-on-earth Rand prophesied: we’re pretty much living in it. Atlas Shrugged is about as timely a book as is imaginable.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, there’s an obvious answer and a less obvious one. The obvious one is that Atlas Shrugged is a polemical Objectivist novel, designed on every page to advance Ayn Rand’s philosophical world-view. It’s not that her authorial thumb is in the balance; it’s that she has jammed her whole arm in there – that she’s clambered her entire body into the balance and is jumping up and down to get it to register the quantity she wants. It seems to me that the flaws in Objectivist thinking are such as to render the novel inert as polemic, and without that there is only the rather empty Soapy pleasures of the narrative. But a Randian would complain, with some justice, that I’m only voicing my own ideological preconceptions.

But there is another problem here, and it has to do with dramatic conception. Atlas Shrugged is a one-dimensional novel, despite Rand’s very strenuous efforts to breathe life and depth into it. It is one dimensional because Objectivist philosophy holds to a strictly non-dialectical, one-dimensional metaphysic. Whether this is a valuable philosophical position or not is a matter about which interesting discussions, perhaps, can be had; but in a purely dramatic sense it is a fatal limitation.

Characters in the novel repeat, not once but many times, that there is no such thing as contradiction. “If you find a contradiction,” says D’Anconia, time and again, “then examine your premises. You’ll find one or other of them to be mistaken.” This is the caricature image of Objectivism as a whole: a hectoring insistence that one “examine one’s premises!” But, to put the matter in artistic terms, it robs narrative of dramatic tension. For Rand there is nothing tragic in Antigone; there cannot be a clash between Creon and Antigone. All there can be is one party (I’m guessing she’d side with the latter) in the right and one in the wrong.

But this would be to misread Antigone; or to put it another way, the reason why aesthetic theoreticians have over many generations kept banging on about the play, is that it embodies with attractive clarity precisely the motor of the greatest art: not only tragedy, but all properly engaging or moving dramatic representation. Conflict. Without conflict there isn’t drama. And for all the pop-eyed cod-intensities and enormity of scale of Rand’s novel, there isn’t really conflict, or drama, to be found anywhere in the text. Her politicians don’t really believe in social equality and justice; they’re all venal self-serving villains. It would have made a more interesting novel if they did really believe in social equality and justice, or if Rand had been able to think herself convincingly into the mindset that did. Her heroes are in the right on page 1, and in the right on 1168, and the reader is never allowed on any page to doubt that they are right.

This review originally appeared on The Valve.

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Flowerdust, Gwyneth Jones

Flowerdust, Gwyneth Jones (1993)
Review by Ian Sales

It was nearly a month now since the news from Gamartha… And overcrowding was weighing heavily on [Ranganar’s] resources. Divine Endurance (p 155)

Between those two sentences, Gwyneth Jones has squeezed a novel: Flowerdust is set during the events narrated in her debut novel, Divine Endurance. That novel told the story of the Peninsula, the angel-doll Chosen Among the Beautiful, the eponymous cat, and the revolt of the Peninsulans against the offshore rulers. Around two-thirds of the way through Divine Endurance, the two main characters, Derveet and Prince Atoon, find themselves waiting in the Southern city of Ranganar for some sign of what their next move should be. And this is when the events of Flowerdust take place.

Refugees have been flooding to Ranaganar and have been placed in a large camp. Whilst visiting this one day, Derveet and Atoon hear of a drug called Flowerdust, a drug they know to be both dangerous and extremely rare. with the help of Endang, an educated male, and Cycler Jhonni, a character who appeared in Divine Endurance (but only in a minor role), they set about uncovering the source of the drug. This leads them north into Timur and a reform camp run by an old Koperasi friend of Derveet’s. The characters, however, soon realise they have stumbled across more than just a cache of the drug, and the last part of the novel leads up to the revelation of what exactly it is behind the reform camp.

However, the story is just as much about the characters – especially Cycler Jhonni and Endang. Their relationship forms one of the major narrative threads of the book, centring around the strange “female” powers he begins to manifest. This is particularly so during the trip north from Ranganar to Timur where his powers go into overload and affects the reality of those around him – shades of Kairos (see here and here)?

The Peninsula has always been one of the better-built fictional worlds, both interesting and sufficiently alien, and leaving the sure knowledge that it continued to live after the story was over. Gwyneth Jones has often been seen as a political writer, and it is this that adds depth to the world of Divine Endurance and Flowerdust. Matriarchal societies may be fairly common in sf, but successful ones are not and I would count the Peninsula with its dapur as one of them.

It is always interesting to see how authors behave when they return to worlds they have previously built. So, if I’ve taken liberties in finding a place to slot Flowerdust into Divine Endurance‘s narrative, then so has Gwyneth Jones in her return to the Peninsula. There are small details that don’t tally across the two novels. Why such revisionism? These changes don’t detract from the novel in any way, but then I’m not sure they add value either. Perhaps it’s just Varleyism (see the Afterword to Jon Varley’s Steel Beach).

On the whole, I think Flowerdust is a more coherent novel than Divine Endurance (and comparisons are inevitable). However, of the two, I’m not sure which is the better. Whilst Divine Endurance is a book that needs to be read carefully and savoured, I don’t think this applies to Flowerdust. This is not to say it isn’t an excellent read, but it is an easier one. It’s a difficult judgment call: Divine Endurance did most of the hard work in setting up the background and (most of) the characters, after all.

Overall, Flowerdust is a highly readable, well-written and valid addition to both Divine Endurance and Gwyneth Jones’ oeuvre. Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared in Vector 179, June/July 1994.

Northwest of Earth, CL Moore

Northwest of Earth, CL Moore (1954)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

She was unbinding her turban…

He watched, not breathing, a presentiment of something horrible stirring in his brain, inexplicably… The red folds loosened and–he knew then that he had not dreamed–again a scarlet lock swung down against her cheek… a hair, was it? A lock of hair?… thick as a thick worm it fell, plumply, against that smooth cheek… more scarlet than blood and thick as a crawling worm… and like a worm it crawled.

Catherine L Moore is one of the greatest forgotten pulp legends. She sold her first story, ‘Shambleau’, to Weird Tales when she was twenty-two, and established herself as a leading author in the weird tale short-story field. She was written a fan letter in 1936 by fellow forgotten SF legend and Lovecraft Circle writer Henry Kuttner, and the story goes he mistakenly thought “CL Moore” was a man; that awkward segue lead somewhere, because they married four years later. Moore and Kuttner would collaborate on numerous stories and four novels, the most famous being ‘Mimsy Were The Borogroves’. After Kuttner’s untimely death in 1958, Moore stopped writing altogether. She left behind a swath of short stories, but only two novels without Kuttner’s collaboration: Doomsday Morning and Judgment Night.

Pick up any best/greatest science-fiction anthology from the 1950s or 1960s, and there’s a strong chance there will be a mention of Moore and Kuttner, if it doesn’t include one of their stories. (Most often ‘Mims…y or the similar ‘When The Bough Breaks’ will show up.) They received praise from the likes of Asimov, Silverberg, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Greg Bear, and CJ Cherryh.

Today, Moore and Kuttner are nowhere to be seen on such lists. As the authors of the pulp age die off, there are fewer voices to put Moore and Kuttner on best-of lists, fewer people who remember their impact on the field. Paizo’s trying to bring them back with their Planet Stories line; two of Moore’s longer series characters, Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith, and Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis had their tales collected for early Planet Stories books. (Kuttner’s The Dark World and his Gallegher stories have since been reprinted.) Meanwhile, Haffner Press has been reprinting numerous pulp legends, including a recent collection of Moore/Kuttner stories and Henry Kuttner’s weird tales output.

‘Shambleau’, the opener for this collection, is one of the best non-Lovecraft weird tales I’ve ever read, a fantastic little thriller retelling the Medusa legend. Smith helps out a girl, more than meets the eye, and things take a dark twist pretty quick. It has imagery and description that caught Lovecraft’s attention; the descriptions are beautiful and vibrant. And they’re lurid descriptions, as you’d expect from pulp; ‘Shambleau’ has an overt sensuality pulsating just beneath the surface, oozing sexuality from Moore’s tone and word-choice. It’s a unique experience, and stands as one of the best 1930s-era Lovecraftian-style eldritch horror stories of the pulp era; give it a read and prove me otherwise. (That version cuts the amazing pseudo-intro history, alas.) And it’s the first thing Moore wrote.

Alas, Moore figured what worked once would work again, and so all the other stories attempt to replicate ‘Shambleau’ as close as possible, with only the specific details changed around. They all break down into one simple formula:

  1. Northwest Smith is lounging around some seedy port-city, looking for a job/something to do/a source of booze, when he runs into
  2. a beautiful woman, in reality a femme fatale who is mentally dominated by, enslaved by, or is herself the
  3. strange, nightmarish entity/nameless horror from beyond space and time/a dark and long-forgotten being of deific power that
  4. somehow catches Smith unawares, making him freeze in terror/madness/a dream fugue-state/abject misery, whereupon it begins to do something horrific to Smith/the femme fatale/his pal Yarol the Venusian, until
  5. Smith forces himself out of this mental paralysis/his pal Yarol the Venusian arrives in the nick of time to save Smith, whereupon
  6. the dark entity is shot to death with heat-guns, and the femme fatale slips into the tranquil peace of being dead/fades off into the mists of obscurity/was the eldritch nightmare what just got melted, at which point
  7. Smith and Yarol flee into the night/wander off, shaken, to get drunk/the story ends.

Congratulations, those are the elements of every single Northwest story Moore wrote. You can now write your own, following that brief outline. Each story is different, but it’s like playing mad libs with the specifics of the psychological madness, descriptions of the unspeakable horror, and the horrible trance/dream-world the horror puts Smith in. (Also, why it needed to stun Smith in the first place; in order to devour emotions or eat his past or drink blood or whatever.) Smith spends most tales not doing anything, and relies more on the girl and Yarol to pull his ass out of the fire; when he takes action, it’s to kill the monster to finish off the story, or pull Yarol out so they can kill it together. His main accomplishments in each story boil down to 1) meeting a femme fatale, 2) getting into some serious shit, and 3) not dying.

Needless to say, they wear thin quicker than you’d think. While this wouldn’t have been as noticeable back in the 1930s, when there were several months between stories, the modern edition makes their similarity quite clear by placing them end-upon-end. (Not that there’s any other way to go about reprinting them, unless you’re up for a dozen or so weird tale anthologies needed to spread them out.) Having the stories all together like this is more of a hindrance than an asset, considering they’re mostly identical, novella-length, and there’s around a dozen of them.

On the bright side, they all have beautiful writing dripping with lush description, lurid imagery, and a throbbing sensuality just beneath the surface. (Note that they can be pretty lurid and sensual, but sex is never explicit, in case you lean towards the prudish.) Moore is quite capable of painting the setting and characters, whether they be dreamy or nightmarish. When I chide other authors because their description was lacking, this is what I’m thinking of: Moore wins a gold star in every story on description alone. Her hand at writing was amazing, even if her pacing and sense of action needed work. They are works of art, some of the best writing of the pulp era, and if you don’t go overboard when reading them they will be damn enjoyable.

The setting is the standard Venus/Mars of the pulps, but there’s a limit to the “science fiction” in each story. With talk of gods and ancient star-monsters, these lean closest to science fantasy in the truest sense of that tag. (I read the gods as Lovecraft-style entities, powerful extraterrestrial beings rather than the deities in traditional fantasy fiction.) ‘Yvala’ is the only story in which our brave heroes even enter a starship; the rest may involve Martians, Venusians, segir-whiskey and heat-guns, but they’re science-light and pure action-adventure yarns.

For strong stories… ‘Shambleau’ is an obvious choice, being the first and best of the bunch; I’m a huge fan of that one. ‘Dust of Gods’ is one of the more science-fictional in the collection, reading like a game of Dungeons & Dragons in space: Smith and Yarol enter lost alien ruins to steal what’s said to be the dust of a lost god from an asteroid chunk. I love it for its strangeness and scale, and also that it involves Smith doing things instead of sitting around petrified. Most of the other ‘Shambleau’-clones were strong, if similar; ‘Black Thirst’ and ‘Scarlet Dream’ in particular, but also ‘The Cold Grey God’. ‘Lost Paradise’ reminds me of the great Lovecraft short ‘Polaris’, with the theme of stellar time-travel causing the downfall of an earlier civilization.

Bad ones? It took me until ‘Yvala’ to start getting bored with them. It might be the inundation with their repetition, even though I read about a half-dozen other books while I was reading Northwest of Earth (and had taken two weeks off between ‘Yvala’ and the previous one to boot), but ‘Yvala’ felt too long, dry, and dull. Dull in that I knew Smith wasn’t going to do anything; indeed he didn’t, and the story was another technicolour dream-fugue while Smith struggles to fight off the alien menace’s mental powers in order to stand up and shoot it. Was it bad? No. Was it better than the half-dozen previous stories in the same vein? Your mileage may vary.

It’s also worth mentioning ‘Quest of the Starstone’, the Jirel/Smith crossover Moore wrote with her husband. It’s a lot more action-packed than the others, and is a taut little tale of sorcery; for a crossover, it’s pretty damn good. The downside is that Moore’s vibrant prose isn’t on display here, instead reflecting Kuttner’s more workmanlike prose. My biggest problem with it is that Paizo also reprinted it in the Jirel of Joiry collection; I understand the desire to present each character series as a whole, but it’s not like this compilation needed any more length.

This was one I thought I’d be reading for my Halloween Horror Roundup; yeah, look at the size of this 400-page tome. I must have been buying the wrong Planet Stories, since this one’s twice as long as any of the Bracketts or Moorcocks or Gygaxes. Instead, I ended up reading it over the period of two months (plus change), one story a night for a few nights every week, while reading and finishing other novels at the same time, and I think I still managed to overdose on Northwest Smith. Amazing as they are, I’m not kidding when I say they’re identical: spread these out and pace yourself, otherwise you won’t make it through this book alive.

I really enjoyed most of these, even though many – ‘Juhli’, ‘The Cold Grey God’, ‘Black Thirst’, ‘Scarlet Dream’ – lean on the basics introduced in ‘Shambleau’. Northwest Smith is an underwhelming protagonist; I can see how he’s built up as a badass space outlaw with his background and character, but from these stories I can’t really see “the inspiration for Han Solo” / “the original space outlaw” other than the aesthetics. So they’re beautiful, with poetic prose, but somewhat identical and repetitive, with an inactive protagonist and little action, but have wonderful Lovecraftian horrors.

In the end I liked it enough to give it a hesitant recommendation… if you like Lovecraft’s style of eldritch nightmares and evil deific extraterrestrials, written with vibrant imagery, this is your book. If you’re expecting something else, you’re not going to get it. On an individual basis the stories are excellent; together, they wear thin from repetition. But they’re still so damn good as to put many modern writers to shame.

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

Golden Witchbreed, Mary Gentle

Golden Witchbreed, Mary Gentle (1983)
Review by Martin Lewis

In what will become a defining feature of the novel, as soon as one journey ends, another begins. Golden Witchbreed opens with Lynne de Lisle Christie arriving on the planet of Carrick V, know to its inhabitants as Orthe, but she must the take a week long journey by ship to reach the alien Court where she will take up the position of Earth envoy. This provides a sense of scale to the planet and allows Mary Gentle space to begin to reveal her world. Whatever complaints I have about the novel (and I have plenty), it is not thinly imagined; it is a detailed and fully committed world, groaning with geography, history and customs. Groaning, perhaps, to the degree it is over-stuffed.

Before the beginning of the novel proper, we are given a list of the “principal characters” (the scare quotes are because the majority of them are minor characters with only a handful of lines of dialogue). Starting with Christie herself, there follows the stoutly Anglo-Saxon names of the team of xenologists: Huxton, Elliot, Barrat, Thomas, Meredith. Then there are the aliens with whom they are making first contact: Dalzielle Kerys-Andrethe, T’An Suthani-Telestre, Crown of the Southlands, also called Suthafiori, Flower of the South; Sulis n’ri n’suth SuBassasen, T’An Melkathil; Gur’an Alahamu-te O’he-Oramu-te, a barbarian woman. And so on and so on. These two very different sets of names present two very different sets of problems for the reader and potential reader.

Firstly, there are those alien apostrophes. Gentle’s names are almost a parody of the attenuated names science fiction and fantasy so off-puttingly revels in. They all make sense (and are shortened) when introduced within the context of the novel itself but shoved up front they are, well, alienating. It is presumably there as an aid to the reader but not only it is totally unnecessary for this purpose but it can be an active barrier. I read Golden Witchbreed on holiday and a friend commented that given the cover and the character list she would never have given the book a chance. Usually I would blame the publisher for demanding this but the book also contains a wealth of appendices which suggest the author’s hand. Gentle includes a glossary-cum-encyclopaedia (which, as always, doesn’t contain the term you are searching for), the local calendar, instructions for an Orthean board game and not one but two maps. There is an embarrassment of worldbling on display and, even for those of us well-schooled in the protocols of science fiction, such gluttony can be hard to stomach.

Secondly, why are all the humans British? Christie introduces herself as being from the British Isles which makes a sort of sense in a culture which places so much emphasis on geographical heritage but even in 1985 when the book was first published this must have seemed a slightly archaic formulation. After all, Falklands fillip notwithstanding, Britannia didn’t rule the waves. She seems to be doing pretty well in Earth’s space-faring Dominion. At the same time we are cautioned: “The focus of the world has long since shifted east; Asia holds the twenty-first century’s future. Nothing of real importance happens in the declining West.” (p.31-32) Why then are Christie and the whole xeno-team British? And why is no other nationality ever mentioned again? It is evidence of a disharmony between Gentle’s strong interest in the world of Orthe and her weak interest in the universe of the Dominion.

The world of Orthe (or, at least, the two continents we see) is at a relatively uniform level of development, roughly equivalent to 16th Century Europe. Initially viewed as a pre-tech civilisation, it soon becomes clear it is post-tech and that Ortheans are very happy with this state of affairs. The Ortheans themselves are extremely humanoid to the extent that you could easily overlook their sixth digit or nictitating membrane.

The universe of the Dominion is presented with less clarity but we know it is a universe in which intelligent life is abundant. Humanity has discovered FTL and this has opened up extra-solar planets to us, all of which appear to be populated. The fact that Orthe is merely one of a hundred thousand civilisations perhaps explains why the faded empire of the British Isles is free to go off and explore but it doesn’t explain how they possess the ability to do so. Are resources really so little of an issue for the “declining West” that they can arrange for an interstellar spaceship to drop off a single passenger on another planet? Regardless of that, Gentle is at pains to tell us that the planet is, in fact, special. It is: “the first socially mobile pretech world on record” (p.47) Further more: “All societies do some division of labour according to sex – all but this one.” (p.47) But apparently no one but the Brits are interested.

The xeno-team are already in situ but have been forbidden from leaving the capital and so are awaiting the envoy’s arrival. Her role isn’t exactly clear but Christie is told that (unlike the people with actual qualifications) she is free to roam around, immersing herself in this society. So the journey begins again and the novel becomes a rather dull planetary romance. In this it resembles nothing so much as the worst type of epic fantasy: the longeurs, the endless travel, the sight-seeing and, of course, the idiot plotting. To facilitate this, Christie is remarkably ill-equipped for her mission: she is 26 and has little previous experience. We learn that her uncle is “minister for the department” – which reinforces the strange sense of parochialism, that first contact operations are directed out of Whitehall – and that he got her the job:

That was when I applied for the off-Earth postings… I’d always sworn never to use family influences… That noble resolution lasted until I realised how badly I wanted in to the ET department… Would I be off Earth without that influence? Yes. Would it have happened this soon? Ah, now, that’s another question.”(p.199-200)

It is question with a ready answer. She is not a politician or a sociologist, lacking both the aptitude and training. Her diplomatic style seems to be to go native at the first opportunity whilst retaining a casual bigotry about said natives: “He was a little mad, even for an Orthean.” (p.361) Nor does she seem very practical; she packs formal skirts and jackets but not a cagoule. A Goretex waterproof would be high on my list of items to bring to a pre-tech world. Worst of all, she is utterly incurious. Everything about the Ortheans is mysterious to her but she takes no interest in finding out about them and, even when she does, Gentle without holds this information. Halfway through the novel Christie suddenly discovers that all Ortheans possess psychic memories of their ancestors. “The more I did find out about Orthe, the more I was depressed by my total ignorance.” (p.209) And so she should be – how can she only now have discovered this? What on Earth have the xeno-team been doing? This authorial reticence has its ludicrous apogee when Christie has sex with an Orthean and the whole experience is glossed thus: “Any difficulties we had were habit and not physiological.” (p.129)

In another display of naivete, when she is summoned by a mysterious figure known as the Hexenmeister, she simply pootles off to see him without asking anyone about him. It is hard to begrudge her this though, since, finally, with Chapter 24 (299 pages into the novel) we start to make some narrative progress after the perpetual journeying by foot, beast and ship. Or so it at first appears.

The first reference to the Golden Witchbreed of the title comes in a typical lecture on geo-politics:

Peir-Dadeni and Ymir are pro-Earth. Rimon over the river… uncertain. Roehmonde’s never supported any contact with your Otherworld, nor has Melkathi; but then, nothing good ever came out of Melkathi. Morvren Freeport would trade with the Golden Witchbreeds themselves. (p.36)

Amongst the stodge of secondary world description the casual reference to the Witchbreed is rather thrilling and more is teased out over the course of the novel. They were the highly advanced civilisation whose empire on Orthe fell several millennia ago. (Despite leaving vast examples of technology that surpasses anything that humanity can produce they apparently never bothered with space flight.) They are reviled by the majority of Orthe as enslavers and destroyers but a few still claim ancestral links. It looks at first as if the interlude with the Hexenmeister is going to delve into this history but no, the witchbreed exist solely as an opportunity to slander Christie in a threadbare web of statecraft.

We are repeatedly told of the Orthean love of intrigue and duplicity but everyone is presented as essentially guileless. On page 266 Christie’s servant passes her a message which proves to be an attempt to set her up for the murder of a local dignitary. It is only page 342 that anyone decides to ask the servant who actually gave her the message to pass on. Once this is revealed – with enough drama to end the chapter on a cliffhanger – the named individual immediately confesses. Towards the end there is a shock revelation straight out of a whodunit where the person you least expect turns out to be the bad guy. It is all very tiresome.

In many ways it shares the same fundamental flaw as Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time: to have invented a richly imagined alternative culture and then failed to find a way to convert this into a novel. Niall Harrison calls the novel a “magisterial display of worldbuilding prowess” and it is but I’m not sure that is enough.

This review originally appeared on Everything is Nice.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.

Alpha Centauri or Die!, Leigh Brackett

Alpha Centauri -Or Die!, Leigh Brackett (1963)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

There were no more men in space. The dark ships strode the ways between the worlds, lightless, silent, needing no human mind to guide them. The R-ships, carrying the freight and the passengers, keeping order, keeping the law, taking the Pax Terrae to the limits of the Solar System and guarding there the boundary which was not now ever to be crossed.

No more men in space. No strong hands bridling the rockets, no eyes looking outward to the stars. But still upon the wide-flung worlds of Sol were old men who remembered, and young men who could dream.

Leigh Brackett is a name that every science fiction fan should know, but a name often relegated to the moldy back shelves of SF history. Brackett was a great pulp science fiction writer, combining beautiful prose with hardboiled noir, a wonderful imagination, and stock science fiction tropes to make amazing stories. Given her amazing prose, it’s no surprise to find she was a mentor of sorts to Ray Bradbury – when Brackett rushed off to screenwrite The Big Sleep, she passed the half-completed novella ‘Lorelei of the Red Mist’, stopped mid-sentence, to Bradbury to finish. She had an expansive list of works in the pulp era, which petered out when she went to work writing screenplays for Howard Hawks (El Dorado, Rio Bravo, Hatari!) and for Raymond Chandler films (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye). She also wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, revised after her untimely death from cancer in 1978. And she married Ed Hamilton, fellow forgotten pulp SF legend.

So, an interesting background and certified pedigree. Brackett is (rightly) coming back thanks to a resurgent interest in early SF (1930s-1950s), but she’ll always be more of a deep cut than a household name author.

In the 1960s, Ace Books ended up reprinting a good chunk of her pulp work; these were old novellas from Planet Stories, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Tales, either expanded to full novels, or combined together to form a longer work. Alpha Centauri –Or Die! is a fix-up of two earlier Brackett novellas from the Planet Stories magazine: ‘The Ark of Mars’ (September 1953) and ‘Teleportress of Alpha C’ (Winter 1955). I don’t have those, nor have I read them, so I can’t comment on specifics; the novel felt longer, and was well tied-together in plot… Though it’s easy to see where one work ends and the other begins, because of the change in tone.

In the far future, humanity’s space travel has been overtaken by robots. Humanity itself is too unpredictable and warlike to be left to its own devices, and so the government holds a monopoly on space travel with its robot spaceships. (Other forms of oppression may exist, who knows; this part felt so very 1950s in its “humanity’s manifest destiny unchained” plot.) Former starship pilot Kirby, and his Martian wife Shari, lead a bunch of other people in an uprising: they’re crammed aboard an old tramp freighter, the Lucy B Davenport, blast off from Mars, and set out to run the robot-ship blockades. Their goal is Alpha Centauri: a robot probe found the planet to be habitable and Earth-like, facts suppressed by the government. Possibly for a reason: after a harrowing pursuit and escape, and a five-year voyage to Alpha Centauri, the ship of refugees finds the planet to be inhabited by a strange species of psi-wielding creatures which can teleport matter…

The tension in the first section is great – evading patrols, leaving Mars, chased by robot ships – but the second half felt weaker, too noticeable a change in style: things become even more straightforward, without the tension-building techniques and literary flair of the first half. The material that used to be ‘Teleportress…’ was a weak second half. It fit into the established plot, sticking with the same characters and setup, and hearkening back to the oppressive robot-ship people, but it was jarring to go from the tension of “We must escape to Alpha C!” to the slow-burn mystery of “There’s something weird out there”. The flaws of using two novellas to make a novel: the novellas themselves have their own dramatic arc, so putting them side-by-side to make one long work feel weird. And though they’re tight, plot wise, they’re still novellas: even expanding them into a 130-page Ace Double half hardly satiates the urge for more.

It’s worth noting that while Brackett was female, most of her protagonists were strong, hardboiled men, and her female characters fit the stereotype of the time. Well, almost. See, Brackett could more than handle a strong, independent (but still feminine) female role, part of the reason Howard Hawks considered her his favorite screenwriter – hell, Brackett herself was more or less that character. In this case, it’s Kirby’s wife Shari; she’s strong, sticks up for herself, and won’t be bossed around, though is still feminine and can be emotionally overwhelmed. Contrast her with the many women in the Lucy B Davenport: mothers and housewives who don’t want to be there, don’t want to go home, and bitch about those facts to Edmund. Yet they pull together for the climax of ‘The Ark of Mars’, a battle with robotic pursuit ship RSS-1, and the male copilot points out that the women are tougher than the men in many ways. Gender dynamics in a Brackett novel are interesting.

Also worth noting: despite the short length, Kirby goes through some development in ‘The Ark of Mars’ as he realizes (and copes with) what he’s done, ripping frightened families out of their lives and cramming them together on a metal can for five years. ‘The Ark of Mars’ segments are really well done, between the tension and the development; the ‘Teleportress…’ part is a single-minded find-the-alien plot which ends up having relevance in the overall plot. Attaching it to ‘The Ark…’ made the overall plot muddled, and there’s no real sense of conclusion to the epic journey begun in ‘The Ark…’ at the end of ‘Teleportress…’.

The cover is a glorious example of both the 1960s and Ed Emsh. Let me describe it for the visually impaired. Four men and a women, in bubble-headed yellow-spectrum spacesuits with oversized gloves, float down one of those spinning tunnel funhouse rides made up of flat mechanical-looking things. Their target is a cross between a stained-glass sombrero and a piano. The colors and design is an embodiment of the 1960s, purple, blue and radioactive green. Emsh had a very specific art style, which emphasized weird technological-mechanical parts as a design element, and this cover is an embodiment of that as well. It’s not my favorite Emsh cover, but it depicts the best sequence in the book: the assault on the RSS-1. As does the better cover to Planet Stories Sept 1953, by Frank Kelly Freas.

To be honest, the novel is somewhat basic; Brackett’s strengths were her fantastic imagery, weird creations, and hardboiled trappings, which aren’t showcased here. It’s a straightforward science fiction adventure, without anything to set it apart or break the mold: a workmanlike concept that could use some of the wild and imaginative ideas Brackett came up for her Eric John Stark stories. That said, Alpha Centauri –Or Die! is still good. On a bad day, Brackett could outpace most of her competitors, hence why Haffner Press, Baen Books, and Paizo are reprinting her works. Hell, go read that intro quote again; it’s beautiful, almost poetic, and a solid example of the writing in ‘The Ark of Mars’. Quite ahead of her more-famous contemporaries, such as Clarke and Asimov. If the plot and writing was of that consistent quality throughout, the novel would have been a knockout. Instead, it’s merely passing-grade.

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

Glimmering, Elizabeth Hand

Glimmering, Elizabeth Hand (1997)
Review by Martin Lewis

This is not our world – not with roaming bands of fellahin and the Bronx a coyote haunted wasteland – but it is certainly something like the late-Nineties America we know. Then there is a true sundering: the glimmering.

In a brief two-page prologue (appropriately entitled ‘Rubic’), Hand lays out in dispassionate detail the steps that took us to this juncture. First, CFCs are replaced by seemingly benign bromotetrachlorides. Then an ocean floor avalanche releases huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere. This coincides with a massive solar storm. The confluence of all three permanently alters the Earth’s magnetic field, producing the aurora borealis on steroids that gives the book its title and re-configures society. Hand then moves from the omniscient to the personal and allows us to see the epoch-changing events of 26 March 1997 through the eyes of John Chanvers Finnegan.

Jack Finnegan is the publisher of a literary magazine and both are slowly dying: Finnegan from HIV, the magazine from a lack of interest in the written word. His appearance marks the start of the first section of three which make up the novel proper and makes it unfortunately clear that ‘Rubic’ will be our first and last moment of concision. My paperback is 413 pages of small type and Hand is in no hurry to reach her conclusion.

Finnegan lives in an ancestral pile called Lazyland. It is an appropriate name for an indolent setting; Finnegan wanders around aimlessly, exchanges the odd pleasantry with his grandmother and generally does very little. After an interminable amount of this, we are then introduced to our second protagonist, the implausibly named Trip Marlowe, in a long chapter with the shape of a novella but none of the heft. As with Finnegan, Hand is solely focused on mood and internal monologue but neither captured my imagination and I found it immensely tedious. Again, very little happens, although there is a bizarre scene in which the adult Marlowe loses his virginity to a barely pubescent girl in a planetarium. If you were being charitable, you could perhaps call the pace of these rambles dreamy but you might equally call it dreary. And, of course, there is nothing so boring as other people’s dreams.

The world-building has a dream-like quality but that means it is muddled, confusing and unable to withstand the light of day. At the headquarters of Golden Family International – a huge corporation which features prominently in the novel – Trip remarks that people are wearing clothes of “the kind you bought in LL Bean once upon a time” (p.50) That once upon time being a mere two years previously. Or is it? So much has changed that perhaps even before the glimmering this was a very different world to ours. There are new technologies and drugs which couldn’t possibly have been developed in the time since the glimmering began and the social landscape is radically different.

For example, the US depicted is more Christian than the real US (right down to having a national Christian motel network). Despite the libertine tone of Hand’s novel, the country seems correspondingly more prudish. Marlowe is the singer in a middle of the road Christian rock band but he is treated as a moral hazard on the scale of Elvis. God knows what they would make of Britney.

At the same time, the glimmering also left the world strangely unchanged. Hand paints a picture of a world with only intermittent electricity but gives no indication of how it could survive, never mind remain stable enough for Marlowe to put out hit records, receive rave reviews, go on a national tour and then be signed by a major label. (The answer? “Solar panels, some kind of plasma grid. Windmills. A champagne-effect reflexive waterfall. Supposedly they’ve got their own nuclear reactor, too.” (p.313) For the character being told this, the response is simply facetious; for the reader, it is outright insulting.) Only rarely does lack of power become anything more than a minor inconvenience:

They were stranded for a week. Power was disrupted across the entire northern hemisphere, knocking out computer networks, satellite links, airports from Greenland to Norfolk. (p.98)

What is surprising here is not the disruption but the fact air travel is still common, that computer networks still exist. Similarly, the scarcity of food is only casually acknowledged:

The electric range was covered with ancient outdoor gear dredged up from Lazyland’s sub-basements: a blackened Coleman stove and tiny white gas-driven heater that boiled water and scorched rice. The refrigerator was unplugged, the occult pantry with its folding doors and lazy Susans sadly underutilized. (p.164)

If any society is only three square meals away from revolution then America – not a country noticed for its abstinence and restraint – has magically avoided this fate. Instead it hangs in limbo. There is no anarchy but there is also no state; any sign of the government is noticeable in its absence. Of all literature’s apocalypses this must be the mildest. Where are we? When are we?

Part one starts with a flashback to Finnegan’s grandfather founding the family fortune with a canny investment a hundred years earlier in time when dreams were still lit by candles. It is a passage that initially seems to presage a move backwards into the pre-electric age. Instead Glimmering goes simultaneously backwards, forwards and sideways. It also sadly goes nowhere. Part one ends with Marlowe spending a whole chapter deciding whether or not to throw himself off a cliff. We are all relieved when he does.

By this point it has become clear that Glimmering isn’t really a science fiction novel, it is something more akin to slipstream. This is something that took a long time to dawn on me because, when the fantastic and the mimetic merge, it is rarely in a setting which purports to be the future.

When Marz, the mysterious girl who awakens Marlowe’s paedophile instincts at the beginning of the novel, improbably washes up at Lazyland, Finnegan’s grandmother greets her as a lunantishee. Is she literally a fairy? No, but at the same time she represents something very similar. Other figures start to appear; are they ghosts, holograms or hallucinations, literal or metaphorical? Whether this all makes you feel very strange or merely slightly bored is down to the reader. For me, it succumbs to the worse tendencies of slipstream, it becomes insubstantial and hence engenders ennui.

For the second section of the novel, not much (continues) to happen. For example, Hand spends pages 206 to 208 describing Finnegan opening a party invite. Marlowe washes up alive and is nursed back to health by another middle-aged recluse who is slowly succumbing to HIV and mental illness. This man, Martin Dionysos, not unreasonably wonders “if he had suffered brain damage in the wake of his accident, or even if he had been simpleminded to begin with.” (p.191) Marlowe may be intended to be a holy fool but he comes across as simply a fool. Nonetheless, Dionysos falls under his simpleton’s spell and they set sail for New York:

They saw strange things, journeying south… A creature like an immense brittle basket star, twice as large as the Wendameen, its central arms radiating outward like the sun before giving birth to an explosion of smaller arms, all writhing upon the surface of the sea as the omphalos turned slowly, counter-clockwise, and breathed forth a scent like apples. (p. 269)

We return to a blandly poetic sort of strangeness. Reading Hand’s ‘Cleopatra Brimston’, I suggested that “the prose splits between the acute and the purple”. Here the acute is crushed out by a weight of writing too bloodless to be purple. Hand has invented lilac prose.

In the third section, Hand finally realises that she is going to have to end the book at some point soon and therefore needs to come up with some plot sharpish. She does this by contriving to bring all the characters together in the same place for New Year’s Eve in Times Square. It almost seems that after so much whimpering, the end of the world will indeed end with a bang. But no, everyone returns to Lazyland and allows their malaise to carry them into the new millennium.

This review originally appeared on Everything is Nice.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ

The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Larry Nolen

When Janet Evason returned to the New Forest and the experimenters at the Pole Station were laughing their heads off (for it was not a dream) I sat in a cocktail party in mid-Manhattan. I had just changed into a man, me, Joanna. I mean a female man, of course; my body and soul were exactly the same.

So there’s me also.

Joanna Russ’ 1975 novel, The Female Man, still contains the power to provoke reflective thoughts and, in many cases, strong emotional responses thirty-six years after its initial release. Even today, many of the gender issues which she raises in this highly influential novel spark debates (as witnessed in last year’s round of debates over the role of female authors in SF and the perceived need for greater visibility; one such response leading to the creation of the “Russ Pledge” to discuss female SF writers more frequently) over female participation in fields that may formerly (or currently?) be seen as male domains. It is a touchy topic for some to approach the discussion of second-wave feminist critiques, particularly if the reviewer is male, but it is much worse for anyone, regardless of gender, to shy away from exploring a work that explodes discriminatory myths in a complex, wide-ranging narrative.

The Female Man fragments its narrative among four female narrators from parallel worlds: Janet, who comes from the all-female world of Whileaway (a portentous name) where men died from a plague 800 years prior to the events of the novel; Jeannie, a librarian who lives in an alt-US society where the Great Depression has never ended and where women are defined by their marriageability rather than by their talents; Joanna, a 1970s feminist who emulates certain “masculine” qualities in order to succeed in a chauvinist world as the titular “female man”; and Jael, a warrior in a world where men and women openly war with one another. As the story expands from Janet’s initial visit to Jeannine’s world and then Joanna’s, there begins to emerge a mosaic representation of the struggles that women have had to endure: from the catcalls to ingrained views of “feminine” and “masculine” roles to subconscious reactions to certain triggers found in quotidian life. Each character gives voice to these issues, sometimes in a direct fashion, such as the one Joanna gives in Part Six:

I live between worlds. Half the time I like doing housework. I care a lot about how I look, I warm up to men and flirt beautifully (I mean I really admire them, though I’d die before I took the initiative; that’s men’s business), I don’t press my point in conversations, and I enjoy cooking. I like to do things for other people, especially male people. I sleep well, wake up on the dot, and don’t dream. There’s only one thing wrong with me.

I’m frigid.

In my other incarnation I live out such a plethora of conflict that you wouldn’t think I’d survive, would you, but I do; I wake up enraged, go to sleep in numbed despair, face what I know perfectly well is condescension and abstract contempt, get into quarrels, shout, fret about people I don’t even know, live as if I were the only woman in the world trying to buck it all, work like a pig, strew my whole apartment with notes, articles, manuscripts, books, get frowsty, don’t care, become stridently contentious, sometimes laugh and weep within five minutes together out of pure frustration. It takes me two hours to get to sleep and an hour to wake up. I dream at my desk. I dream all over the place. I’m very badly dressed.

But O how I relish my victuals! And O how I fuck!

This quote, along with the first one, represents much of the conflict found within the novel. The Female Man works not only as an excellent SF novel of exploring female identity, but also it serves as an influential work of social commentary that takes as its base a fundamentally Marxist view of society, replete with superstructures and class conflict, and fuses it with second-wave feminist concerns about representation and social equality. It is not a cheery novel; fights rarely are graceful or polite. No, The Female Man stridently argues its points in short, sharp, angry bursts that shake readers’ preconceptions of gender roles.

This can generate confusion and awkwardness, as each gender group struggles to reconfigure their group views on what is “proper”. A male holding a door open for a woman might not be polite (unless he does this for fellow males, perhaps), but instead someone who is subconsciously reinforcing social views that hold women in an inferior, “delicate” role in which the males are to be the chivalrous protectors of feminine dignity. As the four narrators traverse their worlds and see the insidiousness of sexism in a variety of guides, a commonality begins to emerge that links their disparate roles and actions into a thematic whole.

The Female Man is not without its weak points, however. The stridency that makes its points vividly can also be construed as being too full of anger to reflect fully the range of social interactions between males and females and female responses to the world around them. Many readers, male and female alike, may find Russ’ approach to be too stark, too black-and-white for the early 21st century (indeed, third-wave feminism has moved away from several of the approaches championed by second-wave activists). This is said not to gainsay what Russ has created, but rather to note that powerful works often do create reactions against the work as well as those in favor of it. If anything, this is a greater testimony to the influence that The Female Man still possesses over people, female and male alike, and this makes The Female Man one of the most essential fictions ever produced in the late 20th century.

This review originally appeared on SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project.