The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer

The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

While many of the books published by The Women’s Press under their science fiction label were reprints, some were original. The Planet Dweller by Jane Palmer was one such. As were two of her later novels, The Watcher (1986), and a sequel to The Planet Dweller, Moving Moosevan (1990).

Diana works for an Iron Age village museum. She lives nearby. Next to the museum is a radio observatory, where Jane’s childhood friend Eva works. Also close by is Yuri, a Russian astronomer who spends most of his time drunk and at the telescope in his overgrown garden. He is convinced something strange is happening in the heavens: asteroids and other small celestial objects are moving in some strange pattern which will soon see them come together to form a planet-sized mass. But there is one piece left in this heavenly puzzle, and Yuri’s calculations suggest it is inside the Earth.

No one, of course, takes Yuri seriously, least of all Diana. She has enough on with her job, her own rapidly approaching menopause, her young daughter, Julia, and a local Tory lady of the manor. But when Julia and some of the local kids witness a strange and ethereal manifestation inside a fairy ring, it seems Yuri might be onto something…

Meanwhile, the Mott, a member of an imperialistic alien race, is trying to drive the planet dweller Moosevan from its planetary home so it can then colonise the planet. with the help of evil alien genius Kulp and his two sidekicks, Jannu and Tolt. In order to survive its eviction, Moosevan has set in motion the accretion engine which is causing objects in the Solar System to come together… and which will destroy the Earth when it completes. Fortunately, on hand are Dax and Reniola, whose bodies have actually been occupied by a two members of a race which has transcended from the universe and have only returned in response to the original Dax and Reniola’s plea for help.

Moosevan’s accretion engine involves a gateway of some sort – the manifestation in the fairy ring – which drags Yuri and Diana across to Moosevan’s home. Where they meet Kulp, Jannu and Tolt, and Dax and Reniola. And together they manage to prevent the Mott from ousting Moosevan and so destroying the Earth.

The Planet Dweller is a typical example of that sort of science fiction in which a comic novel is married with a fantastical element which vaguely resembles science fiction. Yes, the Mott, the other aliens, the concept of the planet dweller and all that, are from science fiction’s toy-box. But there’s no rigour in their deployment, no attempt at presenting a convincing universe. This is science fiction as literary tool, not as setting or enabler of plots. So it’s just as well that in Diana, Eva and Yuri, Palmer has created a well-drawn trio of characters.

In fact, The Planet Dweller is at its most engaging before the the science-fictional element kicks into gear. The opening chapters introduce Diana, her life, tribulations and environs, and they make for an entertaining read. The Mott and its machinations only seem to complicate matters that are in little need of complication. And even then, the narrative seems to skip and jump, making leaps of causality and logic that occasionally baffle. Not to mention the lack of rigour also leading to bafflement – such as, why does Moosevan, a planet-sized being, have human-sized control equipment for its accretion machine? And what are “conscience cells”? Morality as biology? Further, Dax and Reniola are effectively omnipotent, though not so powerful they don’t have to work to resolve the situation. Which is nonetheless sorted, with little or no input from Diana, the protagonist of the novel.

There are some nice turns of phrase in The Planet Dweller. There is, somewhere inside it, a nicely entertaining story. But this is not a novel that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Trouble and Her Friends, Melissa Scott

Trouble and Her Friends, Melissa Scott (1994)
Review by Martin Wisse

Trouble and Her Friends is the tenth book I’ve read in my Year of Reading Women project and the first and only cyberpunk novel in the bunch. It’s a book I’ve long wanted to read, having heard nothing but praise for it over the years and seeing it compared to e.g. Pat Cadigan’s cyberpunk novels. As I started reading it, there were two minor things that disappointed me: the first was the publication date, 1994, was much later than I thought, the second was the tendency of the covers to flake, something it has in common with other Tor books of that period. I’d always assumed Trouble and Her Friends had been published in the mid-eighties; certainly the setting is very eighties.

This matters because it means that not only is its future dated now, but it was already obsolete when it was first published. Trouble and Her Friends‘ vision of cyberspace is essentially an eighties one, where it’s important but largely unused by regular people, divided into discrete blocks owned by huge multinationals and hidden behind ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures (Electronic)) to ward off hackers, who seem to be the only people behind corporate drones to use cyberspace. It’s obviously inspired by the BBS scenes of the eighties and indeed the main hacker hangout is called the BBS. Yet 1994 was the year the internet fully broke into the public consciousness, when it should’ve become clear that it’s the openness of the internet and interaction with other people on it that are its greatest strengths, far removed from the lonely adventures of isolated hackers battling in virtual reality with faceless corporate ICE software that most cyberpunk, including Trouble and Her Friends, offers — it’s probably no coincidence that it largely died as a subgenre in the mid nineties. What saves Trouble and Her Friends from complete obsolescence can be summed up in one word: politics.

Most cyberpunk writers sort of took their politics from Neuromancer, which never was much concerned with plausible future politics (indeed, science fiction as a whole has always been a bit weak in this regard). So you got a lot of adolescent posturing of the heroic hacking underground versus the big bad megacorps out to rule the world. What Trouble and Her Friends does that few other cyberpunk novels do is to look at the internal politics of that hacking underground itself. And by doing so Melissa Scott is the only cyberpunk author that actually understood and anticipated the dynamics of online groups, of how even in groups that define themselves as outsiders there can be people who are outside the group as well, because for one reason or another they are different from the dominating members of a given group. Not a new dynamic of course, as any veteran of a socialist or anarchist splinter group can confirm. Even in progressive groups race, gender and sexuality play a role, but most cyberpunk authors assumed that in the bodiless worlds of cyberspace these things would no longer matter. Melissa Scott was clever enough to know that this is naive at best.

Her heroines — Trouble and Cerise — therefore because they are female, lesbian and use the brainworm implant disdained by the overwhelmingly male straight old programmable elite, are low on the totem pole in the semi-legal hacking scene and hence vulnerable once new US legislation outlaws hacking outright. Trouble flees and moves deeper underground, while Cerise goes legit but is still vulnerable because of her questionable past, which her immediate superior at the company she works for uses to manipulate her. Trouble herself is not safe either, hiding behind an alias that if it would come to the wrong people’s attention would not last long.

And then a new Trouble appears on the ‘net, who is not just doing all sorts of highly illegal things, but boasting about it as well. Which is enough to bring Trouble out of retirement and Cerise back to her old life to bring this newby to heel. The old gunslingers return to fight it out one more time with the cocky new bravo….

Despite Trouble and Her Friends‘ outdated even at time of publication view of what cyberspace would look like, what Melissa Scott was better in than even many respectable non-fiction authors writing about the internet at the time, in that she saw that cyberspace would not stay an unregulated jungle forever. The plot of the novel is largely driven by the introduction of harsh, bad law that made most of what Trouble and her friends did on the net illegal overnight, something a lot of Wired were convinced off would never happen in real life, despite warning signs like Operation Sundevil back in 1990.

This combination of realistic gender and sexual politics and being clueful enough to realise that yes Virginia, governments can regulate cyberspace make Trouble and Her Friends worth reading. It helps that Scott can write well too, which keeps you reading though the plot is a bit thin.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

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

Mission Child, Maureen F McHugh

Mission, Child, Maureen F McHugh (1998)
Review by Martin Lewis

Before I discuss Mission Child I would like to begin by mentioning Maureen F McHugh’s debut novel, China Mount Zhang, published in 1992. This is a wonderful novel, easily a contender for one of the twenty best science fiction novels of the last twenty years. It won the Locus Award for best first novel, the Tiptree and the Lambda and was also nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula. It is out of print. McHugh’s third novel, Mission Child, published five years later in 1998, is also out of print. This issue, the disappearance of the midlist, is right at the heart of the reason why we don’t see more science fiction by woman. We don’t see it because it has vanished.

Janna is the mission child of the title. Her home is the village of the Hamra clan which has formed around a pair of offworld missionaries (ie, charity workers from Earth). At one point, Janna’s ancestors were offworlders too; however so much time has passed since their arrival on this alien planet that they now consider themselves to be the indigenous people and McHugh draws deliberate parallels between their way of life and those of real world indigenous peoples such as the Inuit and Sammi. An interest in colonisation is signalled by this but, to begin with, the fact that Janna is a child is much more important than the fact she lives in a mission. The first part of the novel takes the form of a compressed, brutal Bildungsroman.

The very first sentence of the novel announces the arrival of another clan, the Tekse. Notionally they are there to trade with the Hamra; more accurately, they are there to rob the Hamra; ultimately, fuelled by whiskey and resentment, they end up massacring the village. Janna is one of the few survivors and flees with her boyfriend, Aslak. This is a physical and emotional journey for her but it is also almost immediately a journey into womanhood.

I slid my leggings down around my knees and the cold brushed fingers across my privates until he covered me with his own weight. He fumbled and he couldn’t find where to put it in me, and when he raised up the cold came between us. It hurt when he finally put it in me, and I didn’t like it but didn’t say anything.

When he was done I was empty and alone and the only thing I could think to ask was, “Are you my husband now.”

“Yeah,” he said. (p 42 )

Janna soon becomes pregnant, the baby is born prematurely, it lives, she lives but doesn’t grow, she dies. Janna negotiates motherhood and bereavement whilst also attempting merely to survive. By know they have joined a new clan, one led by Aslak’s grandmother, but their lack of possessions (particularly reindeer) makes them a burden and they find little kinship. Janna experiences a coldness she had not known in her own village (this chapter is evocatively called ‘The Great Cold Room Of The World’).

The Tekse attack on the Hamra was not an isolated incident and the clans start to band together. There is talk of retaliation. However, when confrontation comes, it is utterly one-sided. The Tekse possess rifles and offworld technology and they lay waste to the clans’ camp. Janna and Aslak again flee but this time they are already weakened, food is even scarcer and there is no clan, however unwelcoming, for them to join. They journey through a wasteland and the narrative takes on aspects of the post-apocalyptic story but also of the refugee story (I was reminded of Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When?).

As they travel, Aslak slows and eventually stops. Janna continues on and eventually reaches a refugee camp. She has lost her parents, her sister, her clan, her child and her husband. At the gates of the camp, she is forced to hand over her rifle. Janna is sixteen years old and now officially has nothing.

In fact, it becomes clear that she has even lost her identity. Having learnt to be an adult in the world of the clans, she finds that becoming a refugee reduces her once more to a child. Not only is she dependent on others for survival but as a mission child she is ignorant of the culture in which she finds herself immersed. Although the camp is full of clan folk, the town it abuts is populated by town folk almost as alien as the offworlders. When she leaves the camp and walks to the nearest city, this is only amplified. (This also highlights the cultural differences: when Janna wants to go somewhere, she walks, even if it takes days; it is only later that the concept of a bus is explained to her.)

In the city, she finds her mission-learnt English is an asset and lands a job as a trainee technician. Here McHugh moves from interrogating the life of a refugee to the life of an immigrant: the paternalism of the public sector, the indifference of the private sector and the chaotic, compromised support of other people like her. At the same time, Janna must negotiate the radically different levels of technology and spirituality between the world she inhabits and her own upbringing. She adapts quickly to the AI and VR technology used to teach her but still feels the need for the guidance of the camp’s shaman (a spectacularly irritating man). In negotiating the conflict between them, she ends up estranged from both.

At the same time as wrestling with her cultural identity, she is also struggling with her gender identity. When she arrives at the camp, malnourished and wearing men’s clothes, she is mistaken for a boy. Fearing the predations of the camp, she perpetuates the mistake. Janna of Hamra clan becomes Jan of no clan. (“A lot of us are kin to that clan,” she is told.) Once the need for such subterfuge becomes less pressing, however, she finds it impossible to drop the disguise:

My stomach tightened and ached, and I felt myself breathing. I felt myself draw breath instead and it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be a girl and I didn’t know why, but the thought was terrible. I could not be a girl again. Something would not let me be a girl again. If I was a girl again something terrible would happen to me, I was sure of it. (p 169)

At the camp she makes friends with a boy. Once he discovers her sex, their relationship is completely altered as he tries to impose a girl-boy dynamic on their friendship. Fearing that he will reveal her secret after she refuses his advances, she flees from the town. In the city, she makes friends with a man. This time, despite also enjoying the same platonic relationship as before, she starts to fantasise about having a sexual relationship with him. She reveals herself to him and they do indeed consummate their relationship. But Janna continues to dress and act as Jan. Whilst he is tolerant, he does not understand it, a confusion multiplied by the cultural differences between the pair. He presses her to assert her femininity:

“You don’t look like a boy,” he said. “You’re trying the implant thing to be a boy. Just once why don’t you try to be a girl? You might like it.”

“I don’t like it.”

“You haven’t tried,” he said. “Never with me. Except for sex. You like sex, Jan.”

I did like sex. “The counsellor says my gender is my choice.”

“What is that word,” the shaman asked, “gender?” (p 228)

That last sentence alludes to an area of the book that I found slightly problematic. At a compulsory work medical assessment (conveniently held some time after she started), her sex is finally discovered. The doctor immediately assumes she is trans and refers her to a gender counsellor. Two days later she gets her appointment. The counsellor is equally blithe and briskly outlines the physiological changes she can make. On the one hand, this demonstrates a society more accepting of gender issues; on the other hand, the speed of the process trivialises these issues. This reads like an authorial intervention from McHugh to force Janna’s hand and progress the novel. As that quote makes clear though, Janna maintains her ambiguity. She is adamant that she does not want to be a boy or a girl but rather both. So the second act of Mission Child sees Janna trying to reconcile the different facets of her identity. She is unsuccessful, overwhelmed, and once again flees.

She ends up, several years later, on an island whose inhabitants are descended from Indian and Chinese settlers. Now Janna is ethnically different, as well as culturally different; her blonde and blue eyes mark her out as a barbarous foreigner. This allows McHugh to subvert traditional stereotypes:

“I was supposedly good at soccer, for one thing, because sometimes a foreign team would come and play on the big island. They were foreign, they played soccer. I was foreign, therefore I played soccer, too. I didn’t even know the rules. (p 291)

At the same time, she is much more comfortable in her own skin. For example, early on in the chapter, Janna winks at another character. It is a shocking event for the reader because it represents the emergence of a confidence we have not previously seen. (The many gaps in the chronology of the story allow McHugh to cunningly make these paradigm shifts.) As well as learning herself, she has also learnt the world and she now knows enough to be angry:

She was doing what offworlders did to all of us. It was offworlders who had created the Mission. Offworlders who had made the guns available that killed us. It was offworlders who put us in refugee camps and fed us like pets… Here was an offworlder, faced with a problem, and all she could think to do was throw me a piece of silver. (p 257)

But she also knows enough to be accepting. In the third and final act, Janna finally finds a reconciliation with identity and peace with her life. The final word of the novel is “home”.

Jo Walton concludes her review of the novel at by saying: “I don’t love it like I love China Mountain Zhang, but I admire it.” My view is much the same. It is only in the final section that my love for it emerged as Janna’s personality emerged fully. But, of course, this could exist without the preceding parts and perhaps I am also falling into the trap of privileging active over passive characters here.

Mission Child remains a fascinating novel; a novel of “chewy ideas rather than shiny ones”, as Walton puts it. It is also not the sort of science fiction novel you see very often. Perhaps that explains the hilariously inaccurate blurb on the back of my copy in which the Orbit sub tries to twist the story into a conventional SF narrative. This is not a story in which a special individual shapes the world, it is a story in which the world shapes an ordinary individual. Mission Child is not the sort of science fiction novel you see very often but I’d like to more of them. It’d like to see new ones but I’d also like it to be easier to see the old ones; where is the Orbit Masterworks list?

This review originally appeared on Everything is Nice.

White Queen, Gwyneth Jones

White Queen, Gwyneth Jones (1991)
Review by Ian Sales

If there is a common factor in Gwyneth Jones’ novels it is that the main character in the opening narrative is an outsider who offers us an objective focus for the story as it unfolds. The outsider in White Queen is Johnny Gugliogi, exiled electronic journalist. Johnny is a carrier of QV, a petrovirus that affects coralin, the 2038CE answer to the silicon chip. He maintains he is not infected, believing it all to be some political conspiracy, and dreams of returning to his wife and child in the USA.

However, despite the commonality of an outsider, the plots and settings of Jones’ novels themselves have been anything but similar – from the near-fantasy of Divine Endurance to the acronymic science fiction of Escape Plans to the Thatcherite nightmare of Kairos. And now we have the near-future “aliens have landed” scenario of White Queen, although to say White Queen is about an alien invasion is to miss most of the book.

The story opens in Asabaland in West Africa, where Johnny meets one of the alien Aleutians. At this point, they are observing humanity incognito. Johnny also meets Braemar Wilson, a British media personality. It is the relationship between Braemar and Johnny – predicated on the relationship between Johnny and one of the Aleutians – and the relationship between the revealed Aleutians and Earth’s chosen representative body (a conference on women’s affairs that seems to be going nowhere slowly), that forms the backbone of White Queen. The title refers to a group of anti-Aleutians led by Braemar. White Queen’s, and Braemar’s, motives for opposition to the aliens are complex and revealed to us piece by piece. Braemar sets out to recruit Johnny into White Queen, but he initially rejects the group, its reason for being, and her. As Johnny comes to accept his situation, including the fact he is indeed QV-positive and has no hope of a return to his family, so he becomes an active member of the group, if not the most active member…

White Queen is an intensely political novel – as, in fact, are most of Gwyneth Jones’ adult novels. The aliens’ arrival naturally has severe political repercussions throughout the world – partly a result of their actions, and partly a result of the existing world situation. Some things are profoundly different – Japan, for instance, disappeared beneath the waves during a global environmental catastrophe in 2004; but some things don’t appear to have changed at all – “The English Prime Minister, that utter nonentity…” (p 152).

This is a book that takes time to read. The Aleutians are not humans in rubber suits. It is difficult to understand them at first, and it is not until we begin to learn more about their society and origins that we can even start to comprehend them. The human characters, on the other hand, are impressively three-dimensional. White Queen is no book of the 1980s as Kairos was, but is it a book for the 1990s? What it is, is a textbook example of that intelligent, thought-provoking and involving brand of science fiction that has been eclipsed in recent years by cyberpunk. Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared in Vector 168, August/September 1992.

Sea Siege, Andre Norton

Sea Siege, Andre Norton (1957)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

You could debate back and forth whether CL Moore or Leigh Brackett was the true queen of the pulps, but the undisputed queen of the paperback age was Alice Mary Norton, under her Andre Norton nom-de-plume. Norton was one of the most prolific authors under the Ace banner; she has to her credit a large number of doubles—the fifth most-doubled author, with fifteen halves spread over twelve books, plus a reissue including two of those halves—and an even larger number of singles.

Norton spent most of the 1940s as a librarian and then bookseller, before turning writer in 1951: the historical fantasy Huon of the Horn, and the science fiction tale Star Man’s Son (better known under its Ace title of Daybreak – 2250 AD). Her output exploded through the ’60s and ’70s, and included a dozen or more linked series. The most famous is Witch World and its spin-offs, notable for its blend of John Carter-style sword-and-sorcery with early romantic fantasy, playing off both ends of the spectrum (boys and girls).

Most of Norton’s output is “juvenile” fare; that is, aimed at younger readers (what we’d label Young Adult today). To be honest, whenever I pick up an Ace Double or pulp, I expect it to lean closer to young adult—or at least, be somewhat more campy or action-packed—than the average Campbellian Hard SF or philosophical introspection of the New Wave. That’s part of the charm: the sometimes campy, often action-heavy little stories bound back to back. What they lack in complexity they often make up for with entertainment.

Sea Siege is divided into two halves, which makes the book somewhat disjointed. The first deals with Griff Gunston, son of a scientist who’s relocated to San Isadore in the West Indies to study aquatic wildlife. Griff wants to be a jet pilot; his dad refuses to let him leave the island because he’s immature (or something). There’s a strange plague of radioactive red algae that’s killing lots of fish, and Dr Dad is busy working on that. Set 20-25 years after World War II, there’s a Red Menace subplot about a mysterious Soviet submarine, boat disappearances and missing crews, and footnotes about the sorry state of world affairs.

Most of this half involves Griff wandering around, introducing us to the island’s inhabitants (with more than a little casual racism thrown in, thank you 1950s). He also goes exploring, and finds a group of nearby octopuses, and bumps into a group of Navy Seabees who showed up to start construction of a naval base. Not a whole lot happens but setup, and the most “science fiction” is when the Seabees use robots in their construction duties. (We all know how pervasive Combat Construction Robots were in the ’70s.) I know there was a big boom in scuba diving, nautical research and the Caribbean at the time—Jacques Cousteau, Doctor No, Sea Hunt, um, Flipper, … all those episodes of Johnny Quest where they go scuba diving—but I’m not sure the novel uses this to its full potential.

The second half picks up the pace: the world is blown up in a fiery apocalypse, causing great upheaval, volcanoes and earthquakes and changing landmasses. It’s also when the sea monsters show up, but we never get a good look at one: it’s always “resembling the sea serpents of yore” or “it was like an octopus, but smarter”. Herein lies the rub: by dividing the book in half, there’s a distinct difference between the halves. Most of the characters we met in the first half are gone, which eliminates some of the plots we’d been following. Instead, things focus on survival: collecting refugees and fighting back the strange new sea creatures which emerge.

Of her writing style, I have good things to say. Andre Norton was no small fry when it came to writing, and it is very readable, if on the simplistic side. (It does have a distinct juvenile flair.) Her writing is strong but smooth; she’s capable of some quality writing, which this book shows. However, it rings shallow: it never incites emotion, the characters too bland to identify with or root for, the monsters too understated for them to be… well, monstrous. Most of the criticism I have is about the ratio of description (too little) to exposition (too much). You could chalk this up to its juvenile nature, I guess. I knew this one wasn’t her best book going in, but I’d hoped it would be fun.

The pieces of this book are great: Cold War paranoia and the Red Menace, lurking tentacle-creatures and sea serpents, tropical island paradise, the apocalypse. And a “kid with overbearing parent won’t let them follow their dreams” plot. (What, those were obligatory in Young Adult books even then?) Yet somehow these amazing but disparate concepts aren’t pulled to the surface, even when they are connected. None of the plot threads are developed far before they’re cast aside, unfinished, for something else. The worst part was at the end: it’s as if Norton ran out of page space and ended it as it was, abruptly and without resolving anything. Since it was a Harcourt Books hardcover before it was an Ace Double, there’s no “length constraints” excuse, so I’m kind of curious.

Sea Siege is a book suffering from severe balance issues. It has a lot of interesting plot threads, which are undeveloped. At one point I had the realization that since the book was almost over, the plots weren’t going to work themselves out. Norton doesn’t do anything to make the book stick out… a shame, because any novel about post-apocalyptic Cold War sea monsters should stick out damn well. While it’s not a bad adventure tale, Sea Siege isn’t something to go out of your way for. It’s fun for its unique scuba diving sea monster Cold War apocalypse blend, but it isn’t overly impressive. The writing is good, the ideas are slick, but the end result isn’t tied together very well.

In hindsight, it makes me think of it as the first book in a series, constructing a setting and cast of characters for future novels. Which it isn’t. Another shame, because the world has such potential—volcanoes jutting out of the ocean, new landmasses rising while others sink, human refugees fighting back the onslaught of the octo-men and their sea serpent hordes.

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

Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin

Native, Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Review by Ian Sales

“The natural limitations of women being a clear and present danger to the national welfare when not constrained by the careful and constant supervision of a responsible male citizen, all citizens of the United States of the female gender shall be deemed legally minors, regardless of their chronological age…” (p 7)

In the future of Native Tongue, a series of amendments to the US Constitution in 1991 have repealed all rights for women. By 2179, this situation appears to have become global, though no good explanation for such a practice being adopted by other nations is presented. Earth also has colonies on other worlds, and is in contact with an unspecified number of alien races. In order to communicate with these aliens, several groups of linguists have come into being. Known as the Lines, these are extended families in which every member is trained from birth to be fluent in at least one alien language and a handful of human languages, as well as have working knowledge in many more languages. Nazareth is perhaps the most gifted linguist in Chornyak House, a Line located in North America. At an early age, she displays a talent for “Encoding”, ie, identifying concepts which do not exist as single words in any earthly language. A few samples are given at the end of Native Tongue in an appendix – ralaheb: something utterly spiceless, ‘like warm spit’, repulsively bland and blah” or wonewith: to be socially dyslexic; uncomprehending of the social signals of others”. These Encodings are important because they are the building blocks of a secret language called Láadan the women of the Lines are creating. The men know nothing of Láadan: they think the language the women are working on is Langlish, but that’s a smokescreen. The development and introduction of Láadan is the end point of the narrative of Native Tongue.

Most of the novel is concerned with describing a world in which Láadan’s creation both occurs and betters things for its speakers. And since those speakers are women… It’s not enough that females are second-class citizens, Nazareth is also married to a man she despises. A monstrous secret government project to train a baby to speak a “non-humanoid” alien language – run entirely by men – repeatedly results in the horrible deaths of its subjects. Michaela Landry murders her obnoxious husband and, working as a nurse, becomes a serial killer of old men… but changes her ways on meeting the old women of Chornyak Barren House. A “barren house” is just as the name suggests, a retirement home for women who can no longer bear children. And Chornyak Barren House is also where most of the work on Láadan is being done.

“…never for an instant, lose track of the knowledge that when you interact with a woman you interact with an organism that is essentially just a rather sophisticated child suffering from delusions of grandeur” (p 110)

The true aliens in Native Tongue are the men. There is a disconnect between what we are told the male characters believe women to be – ie, sophisticated children – and how they actually interact with them. Though they denigrate Langlish, and protest at women’s inability to think, in many situations in the book their behaviour towards their wives is no different to how it is to each other. Yes, they are patronising, and arrogant, and in a number of scenes talk as though they had been lifted direct from a Robert Heinlein novel… And yet the paternalism suggested by the above quote never really manifests in their behaviour.

Which is, I suppose, part of the point of Native Tongue. Turning up the chauvinism to eleven, so to speak, renders the male characters less than human, which in turn highlights the plight of the female characters, and so demonstrates the importance of Láadan. In part, this might also explain the thinness of the background. The world of 2179 is assumed to be little different to that of North America, which itself seems mostly unchanged from the USA of 1984. Though colonies on other worlds are mentioned, no explanation for their existence, or indeed how they are reached, is given. Technology does not appear to be much advanced from the mid-1980s.

As Native Tongue builds towards its reveal of Láadan, it remains adamant that the language will improve the lives of women, but never quite says how it will do so. Certainly there is room for improvement – and not simply from a legal standpoint (something, of course, which Láadan cannot affect). Elgin paints a picture of a society in which the treatment of women is criminal, and hints at a solution without actually revealing it. But then Native Tongue is only the first book of a trilogy – it was followed in 1987 by The Judas Rose, and Earthsong in 1993.

There are many things to like Native Tongue. Michaela Landry is a very likable character, despite being a serial killer. The society of Chornyak Barren House is portrayed well (not all of its inhabitants are sympathetic or admirable). The linguistics around which the story is based provides a number of fascinating ideas. And yet… The story all feels a little one-sided, a little too much like an attack against an uncharacteristically token defence. It feels unbalanced thematically and in its world-building. Native Tongue is a book, I think, that needs rereading, and then its sequels need to be read.

Note: Elgin did actually create Láadan – see here.

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey(1968)
Review by Martin Wisse

Because I’ve been running my booklog since 2001 I know it’s at least a decade or more since I’d last cracked open an Anne McCaffrey novel, yet once upon a time her The Dragonriders of Pern series was very important to me. Like so much science fiction and fantasy I discovered the Pern books through the local library, first reading them in Dutch, then continuing in English after I discovered the later books were only available that way. Over the years I devoured everything of McCaffrey I could lay my hands on, but I got less and less enjoyment out of her later novels, until I stopped reading them all together. Which is why I hadn’t read her in more than a decade and why it took her death to get me to reread the Pern novels. Which is a shame, as rereading them now makes clear how good McCaffrey at her best really was.

And Dragonflight was the best story she ever wrote. The two novellas that form the first two-thirds of it, ‘Weyr Search’ and ‘Dragonflight’ were rewarded with a Hugo and a Nebula Award respectively and are worth it. I had remembered Dragonflight as a fairly light novel, but it actually starts out quite dark, with Lessa, its heroine being the sole survivor of a coup against her family, plotting revenge as a kitchen drudge against the evil lord Fax who had taken over her hold. She’s not a nice person at all at the start of the story, completely focused on getting her own back and on making the hold as miserable as possible. But she also has a secret, a bond with the watch wher, a telepathic reptile like animal used as a watchdog. Little does she know that this is a hint to a much greater destiny for her…

Meanwhile F’Lar, a wingleader at Benden Weyr, where the last remaining dragonriders of Pern live. Once upon a time there were six Weyrs, to defend Pern from the dangers of Threadfall, spores drifting in from Pern’s sister planet the Red Star, but the last threadfall was hundreds of Turns ago, five of the Weyrs have been abandoned and the Holds, where the bulk of population lives have forgotten their obligations to the Weyrs, while the Weyr itself has forgotten its duty to Pern and nobody longer believes in Thread. Nobody but F’lar that is, and his brother F’Nor, who still keep the old traditions in honour. And now F’lar is visiting Ruantha Hold, Lessa’s Hold, looking for candidates for Impression, for young girls to bond with newly born dragons as the next generation of dragonriders. Three guesses who becomes one of the candidates…

But this is just the start of Lessa’s and F’lar’s adventures. There’s still the menace of Threadfall to overcome, the resistance of the Holds to the Weyr and the continuing problem of how one small Weyr of dragonriders can protect the entire planet when it needed six much bigger Weyrs in the past, with much more experienced and better prepared riders… Both Lessa and F’lar have their roles to play in resolving this, but Dragonflight is largely Lessa’s story.

Dragonflight was written in 1968/69, long before the fantasy boom of the seventies, when fantasy was still very much an offshoot of science fiction. A lot of the tropes and clichés of epic fantasy can be seen in embryonic form here and I suspect Ann McCaffrey’s dragons have had just as much influence on the shaping of genre fantasy as Tolkien’s hobbits have, even if it’s less recognised. But Dragonflight isn’t quite fantasy, even if it has fire-breathing flying dragons, a medievaloid society and a fight against unreasoning evil at the heart of its story.

Because the dragons are genetically engineered from the fire lizard indigenous to Pern, the unreasoning evil is just an alien lifeform doing what it must do to survive and spread itself, while the medievaloid society is the descendant of colonists from Earth who had to abandon most of their high technology because Pern wasn’t suited for it combined with the pressures of Threadfall, which explains why there are Holds but no cities: Thread can’t burn stone so people live in cages and other rocky places. What’s more, these explanations for the dragons et all aren’t there just as handwaving: scientific curiosity plays a huge part in the plot of Dragonflight and its sequels as the Pernians rediscover the world they’re living on. That’s part of the appeal of The Dragonriders of Pern for me, that process of discovery, though it would get a bit silly in the later novels.

Another part of what made Dragonflight and the other dragon novels so popular and important for so many people for such a long time is Anne McCaffrey’s ability as a writer to suck you into the story, what Jo Walton called readability when discussing John Wyndham: “the ability to write a sentence that makes you want to keep reading the next sentence and so on and on”. McCaffrey had that in spades, where no sooner have you finished the first novel, you want to start the next one.

Which is just what I did.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy

Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy (1976)
Review by Martin Lewis

In a series of escalating scenes, Marge Piercy plunges the reader into a horror story. Consuelo is a Mexican-American woman in her late thirties living in genteel poverty, haunted by a past trauma but determined to live a just life. Connie’s niece, Dolly, bangs on her door. She has been beaten by her boyfriend, Geraldo, who is also her pimp, because she has fallen pregnant (ironically, this was a deliberate tactic by Dolly to protect herself). Geraldo shows up at Connie’s door with one of his enforcers and a backstreet abortionist. They argue, they fight, Connie breaks Geraldo’s nose with a wine bottle. In response, she is burnt and beaten unconscious. She comes round in the car as they are making their way to the hospital and is brutally beaten again. When they arrive Geraldo’s injuries are treated but hers are ignored and she is held responsible for both; Dolly lies to protect her pimp and condemns the aunt who tried to protect her. Connie is treated as a criminal, drugged, restrained and imprisoned in a mental asylum. The final words of the chapter are: “She was human garbage carried to the dump.” (p32)

It is a harrowingly unfair opening that plugs directly into a deep human fear: complete powerlessness. Connie has done nothing wrong, she is a victim of circumstances, systems and history. The trauma in her past (which she has been fruitlessly trying to atone for ever since) is the fact she once beat her daughter whilst coming down off a drink and drug binge following the incarceration of her husband. As a result her daughter was taken into care and she was sectioned. She therefore fits a profile and that is enough to remove her humanity. Her pleas of innocence fall on deaf ears. After all: “The authority of the physician is undermined if the patient presumes to make a diagnostic statement.” (p19)

In a very real sense Piercy has located a dystopia in Seventies America. What in other circumstances we might think of as the welfare state is here presented as an inflexible, illogical, patriarchal, authoritarian bureaucracy. Now, there is no doubting that the state can be all those things, even in supposedly developed countries, and was undoubtedly more likely to be so forty years ago. Equally it is true that mental health provision has had a long and sordid history of failing those it has notionally existed to help. This is particularly true of its failures towards the already marginalised: women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals and the poor as well as the mentally ill themselves. At the same time, it is hard not to think that (as with so many other dystopias) Piercy has her thumb on the scales to make her point.

Everyone is against Connie: her family, her community, her doctor, her social worker, her nurse. Even her ex-employer, a professor of romance languages at CUNY who was also her lover, is against her: “He called them all Chiquita, like bananas.” (p50) It is so one-sided that eventually the barrage of oppression produces not anger but disbelief. Again, there are many documented examples of horrendous abuses of power within the system but in seeking to dramatise them Piercy has perhaps strayed too far into didacticism. Here is Connie remember her last encounter with her social worker:

The social worker had given her that human-to-cockroach look. Most people hit kids. But if you were on welfare and on probation and the whole social-pigeonholing establishment had the right to trek regularly through your kitchens looking in the closets and under the bed, counting the bedbugs and your shoes, you had better not hit your kid once. (p26)

This does not sound much like Connie’s voice to me, it sounds a lot more like an authorial insertion of Piercy’s. The immediate “human-to-cockroach look”, fine but the more objective “whole social-pigeonholing establishment”? What is elsewhere a tight third person perspective seems to expand outwards to another, more distant narrator. Connie analyses her situation to a remarkable degree without enacting this analysis in any other way. She is noticeable sharper and more intelligent when reflecting in these passages than elsewhere in the novel, particularly the dialogue. Here is another example of the same thing:

She too, she was sprayed. They had taken out her womb at Metropolitan when she had come in bleeding after that abortion and the beating from Eddie. Unnecessarily they had done a complete hysterectomy because the residents wanted practice. (p.45)

I’ve deliberately chosen this passage because of the unfortunate typo in the first sentence. Woman On The Edge Of Time was originally published in the US in 1976 and was published by Women’s Press in this country in 1979. They re-printed it every year following that until they issued it as a Women’s Press Classic in 2000. Yet despite this honour they do not appear to have re-typeset since it was originally published and the text is blurred and contains more than a few typos. This is no way to treat a classic.

Returning to the meaning rather than the appearance of the text, I believe the angry immediacy of her identification as being spayed but not the detached, final sentence. As I mentioned, this also stands in contrast to the dialogue which is frequently terrible but also far less articulate and reflective:

“I won’t grow up like you Mama! To suffer and serve. Never to live my own life! I won’t.”

“You’ll do what women do. You’ll pay your debt to your family for your blood. May you love your children as much as I love mine.”

“You don’t love us girls the way you love the boys! It’s everything for Luis and nothing for me and it’s always been that way.”

“Never raise your voice to me. I’ll tell your father. You sound like the daughters of the gangsters here.”

“I’m good in school. I’m going to college. You’ll see!” (p46)

And so on. This is a good example of the schematic argument that often replaces attempted verisimilitude in the conversations that take place in the novel. It is perhaps unfair to contrast the words of a girl with those of the woman she becomes but, child or adult, her words share a similar register. The tone and texture of this voice is absent from the inner reflections and so I struggle to associate them with Connie. There are, however, suggestions that this is deliberate, that her interior and exterior are radically different, that her personality is not unified:

“Anyhow, in a way I’ve always had three names inside me. Consuelo, my given name. Consuelo’s a Mexican woman, a servant of servants, silent as clay. The woman who suffers. Who bears and endures. Then I’m Connie, who managed to get two years of college – till Consuelo got pregnant.” (p122)

Inner and outer life need not mesh and much great literature has inhabited this gap but I find this example problematic on several levels. First, the poetry of the description of Consuelo does not match any of the facets we see of her and again seems to stem directly from Piercy. Similarly, this suggestion of compartmentalisation is another manifestation of a disassociated, intellectualised objectivity that never convinces. Finally, there is the danger of using such a metaphor in the context of a character who is wrongly believed to be suffering mental illness and is punished for this. Connie isn’t sure who she is but I’m not sure if Piercy is any clearer and to open up the question of Connie’s mental state seems ill-advised (she proceeds further down this path as the book progresses).

It turns out that Connie is a special snowflake. She is an “extraordinary top catcher” (p42) or at least so Luciente, a visitor from the future of 2137 tells her. This is notionally the point where Woman On The Edge Of Time reveals itself to be a science fiction novel but even considering the general difficulties of treating time travel as SF, this is a particularly weak example; Luciente has essentially used astral projection to reach the past. Piercy wants to present a utopia to contrast with her dystopia but has no interest in the mechanisms of presenting such a contrast. Nor is this contrast subtly presented:

“Where you go to study. To get a degree,” Connie snapped.

“A degree of heat? No… as a hierarchal society, you have degrees of rank? Like lords and counts?” Luciente looked miserable. “Study I understand. Myself, I studied under Rose of Ithaca!” He paused for her appreciation, then shrugged, a little crestfallen. “Of course, the name means nothing to you.” (p.53)

Luciente doesn’t seem particularly well briefed. Perhaps she went to the same time travel school as Connie Willis’s character. She does recognise a few of our quaint 20th Century customs though:

Connie lit a cigarette.

Luciente leaped up and backed away. “I know what that is! I beg you, put it out. It’s poisonous, don’t you know that?” (p53)

Let’s make no bones about this, it is bad writing. This embarrassing false culture-shock continues for several more pages before going on to become a defining feature of the novel. Because not only is Connie an extraordinary top catcher, she can also project herself into the future and interact with all Luciente’s friends. This allows Piercy to walk us through her utopia, its intricacy described through exchanges every bit as hammy, forced and tedious as those found in the granddaddy of all these books: The Socratic Dialogues by Plato.

Piercy’s utopia is a frustrating place (and not just because of the prose). Our world is obviously a deeply unjust place and she has created an alternative world founded on the principles of equality and sustainability with admirable rigour and pragmatism. But it is also liberally dosed with hippy woo. In the future, for example, everyone will apparently realise that cats can talk through sign language. Then there is the astral project, the conquering of illness through mind over matter, the divine revelation of calling: “Those positions are not chosen strictly by lot, but by dream. Ever spring some people dream they are the new Animal Advocate or Earth Advocate.” (p151)

The frustration continues when Piercy attempts to inject some ambiguity into the novel without fully committing to it. For the majority of the book, the 20th Century of Connie’s captivity serves chiefly as a frame for the philosophy of the future. We still get quite a bit of the mundane battles of everyday life but the novel (like Connie herself) constantly escapes to tomorrow. Into this is gradually salted the idea that the future is not necessarily The Future: “Yours is a crux-time. Alternate universes co-exist. Probabilities clash and possibilities wink out forever.” (p177) If alternate universes exist then by their very nature they are infinite; to suggest that the Seventies are a special crux-time simply because that is when Piercy is writing suggests an enormous lack of perspective. It also once more moves the book from the realm of speculation to that of woo. But Piercy goes further than this by suggesting that maybe Connie really is mad and that her future world takes place only in her head. It is the obvious direction to take the story but even given this still manages to disappoint in its execution.

Hinted at throughout, towards the end of the novel we finally get to witness the idealogical war that is taking place in the future. It is a deeply unconvincing war so this could be evidence that we are not supposed to believe it is real or it could be evidence of a paucity of talent on Piercy’s part. This war then becomes a metaphor for Connie’s external struggle against the jailers. Or does it become a metaphor for Connie’s internal struggle against her mental illness? “War, she thought, I’m at war. No more fantasies, no more hopes. War.” (p338) I can’t find any coherent way of reconciling these readings of the novel with what we know of Connie. The question of her sanity is imposed rather than arising from the text; the ambiguity here is careless rather than enticing. Is she mad, in a coma or back in time? To which I can only answer: who cares?

This review originally appeared on Everything is Nice.

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

Leigh Brackett has a rightfully earned reputation as the “queen of the pulps”. Back in the 1940s, she dominated the publications of small repute, such as Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Tales, with her yarns of a Mars that never was. Most of her work was in the planetary romance/swords-and-planets vein, but she had a strong writing style, beautiful at times, always action-packed, never a dull moment. In the 1950s and 1960s, she was still a highly reputable author in the field, and by the 1970s she had taken her brand of swashbuckling planetary romance to its logical (and awesome) extreme with her Skaith trilogy.

Nowadays, she’s known (if at all) for her screenplays, including Rio Bravo, The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and the original draft of The Empire Strikes Back. That, in a nutshell, defines her style: combine the hardboiled-noir edge of Raymond Chandler films with the action and cinematography of the Howard Hawks westerns and give it the pulp-nostalgia feel and epic space opera backdrop of Empire and you’ve got Brackett. Actually, that comes pretty close to describing her short ‘The Halfling’. Her writing has some real moments of beauty, and she can spin some mean action scenes as well.

In post-holocaust America, technology is non-existent, having been blamed for the nuclear war which wrecked the world. Technology is actively opposed, set in stone by the 30th Amendment to the US Constitution; even cities are banned, with population limits set and rigorously enforced by neighboring villages. Fire-and-brimstone religion has come to dominate the countryside, with traveling old-time religion preachers roving the countryside to heap Hell’s damnation upon the wicked dream of technology.

Enter Len Colter and his cousin Esau, New Mennonite youngsters dreaming of the past glories retold to them by Len’s elderly grandmother. Against their fathers’ wishes, they sneak off to a revival meeting, where the preacher incites a mob to stone a trader to death on charges of trading in technology. Tech, we are told, comes from a secretive bastion known as Bartorstown… a name synonymous to Hell for most of the world, extending its scientific tentacles against the wishes of Godly men, which will undoubtedly destroy the world yet again.

The two kids are shocked by seeing the brutal death, but fascinated with the idea of Bartorstown, so they decide to run away and find its mythical technology. The middle half of the book is their travelogue en route to the mythical Bartorstown, with the final act occurring when they come as close to their dream as reality allows.

The first half of the book is fascinating, revolving around post-holocaust old-time religious fanaticism and Tom Sawyer-esque pastoral life. It is damn well written, believable and compelling at points. The middle and the end, however, quickly break down, after the speculative aspects show up. The charm is lost, and instead of focusing in on a point or vision, the book dims instead, unsure of how the ending will tie everything together.

Things start to build up around the idea of Bartorstown, which itself is kind of a letdown. Hype aside, the book gets too technical near the end. “Technical” probably isn’t the right word for it; instead of the first half’s subdued pastoral life and wide-eyed hope for the long-lost technical marvels, the second half gets oddly fascinated with the world’s religious mindset, and then the grim reality of Bartorstown. Oh, and the ending doesn’t really go anywhere; it makes sense, being the book’s message and all, but it’s not very satisfying.

For my money, Leigh Brackett is the best science fiction writer of her time, namely the pulp era. And according to many reviewers – including the blurbs on the cover – this book was her best work, “awfully close” to being a great novel. I can see what they mean; part of the book is of the right quality and strength to be considered literary, but when the genre parts come in, the literary values collapse. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing – most people who read SF are there to read SF, not esteemed literary fiction – but even the genre bits feel awkward and underdeveloped.

The book is still pretty solid, even 60+ years later. There are a few quibbles with the setting: for example, the damage of a nuclear war some three generations ago is largely psychological, as there are still plenty of functioning, non-mutant humans around, and no radiation hotspots or anything. I chalk this up to the fact it was written in the early-mid 1950s, back before the reality of nuclear war had set in. If you can get over the book’s biggest leap of logic – people outlawing technology and cities because of a nuclear holocaust – then the book probably doesn’t have anything to bother you with.

So. Is this book worth it?

Sadly, for most readers, I’d say no. If you’re a die-hard Brackett fan, or like old/retro science fiction, or are fond of post-apocalyptic tales, it’s worth picking up. It is a damn good read (at times), and I still have fond memories of the book, even though it disappointed me. (It says a lot about Brackett when I’m disappointed by her, yet the book rates pretty good. I’m convinced Brackett can’t write a terrible book.) It’s still an enjoyable book, all these years later, if you’re willing to take it warts and all.

Still, this is not the work to sell newbies on Brackett, retro science fiction, or the post-apocalypse; it’s front-loaded, the second half sags with a lack of focus, and the last few chapters are kind of a mess. A lot of people love this one, a few hate it. I’m somewhere in the middle: it’s not god-awful, but nowhere near as good as it could have been, making it something of a disappointment that’s still strangely compelling. Brackett manages to pull off a lot of strong writing in the first half, but compared to her other work, this one is just left lacking. The Sword of Rhiannon and the Skaith trilogy are better Brackett introductions.

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