Islands, Marta Randall

Islands, Marta Randall (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

Marta Randall’s debut novel, Islands, was one of many suggested titles which were added to the original SF Mistressworks meme list (see here), though both the title and the author were unfamiliar to me – and, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn, to most sf readers. Which is a shame. Because Islands is a pretty good science fiction novel of its time.

The cover art may leave something to be desired (even though it’s by Vincent Di Fate) and the strapline of “She could love again, a mortal woman – in a world of immortals!” does the book no favours. It’s also completely inaccurate. But the prose within the covers is a degree better than was common among the more popular sf authors of the 1970s.

The book is set some centuries in the future, after a failed attempt to melt some of the polar icecap for water got out of hand and raised sea level by tens of metres. Around the same time, a scientist discovered a treatment which made people immortal. And so, at the time when the story of Islands takes place, a smallish population of immortal dilettantes wander about the Earth, treating everything they do like a hobby. If there’s one weakness in Islands, it’s that there seems to be no infrastructure to support this population of immortal wastrels. Where does the power come from? Who makes the spoons? Who grows the corn and bakes the bread?

Not everyone is immortal, however. There are occasional sports, for whom the treatment does not work. Tia Hamley is one such. She is aging while those around her remain forever young. Consequently, they find her existence disturbing. And she finds their presence equally unbearable. Much of the novel takes place on a trip to Hawaii to dive on the sunken islands and retrieve treasures – ie, junk from before “the Shaping”. The expedition – it is not the first Tia has been on – travels to Hawaii on a ship:

The Ilium is a broad-beamed cathedral of a ship, spired and buttressed, castellated, crystalline; a floating opera, a palace, a folly, an illustration from an ancient, fantastical story-book, a creation of God-struck coral. (p 21)

Once on site, the Ilium will dive to give easier access to the sunken ruins. While the other half dozen members of the expedition will use “bubble-suits” (some sort of force field), Tia does it the old-fashioned way: in scuba gear. During the dive, Tia discovers a strange building, and within it a secret room which teaches her a form of super biofeedback…

These chapters alternates with episodes from Tia’s past, in which she learnt of her condition, and tried to come to terms with it. These include a stint living on the Moon, and in a space station within the orbit of Mercury. The sections set on the Moon, while living with a “line-walker”, who is employed to check the miles of pipes on the surface – a job Tia herself takes – are among the more affecting in the book. Her lover, Greg, and his friends, build an interstellar slower-than-light ship and intend to leave the Solar system. They invite Tia to join them, but since she’s not immortal she refuses to go.

Meanwhile, the expedition to sunken Hawaii is complicated by the presence of Paul, an ex-lover of Tia’s. Of course, he has not changed while she has. And yet Paul seems – ghoulishly – drawn to her. There’s no rekindling of the romance, of course – and it’s only towards the end of the novel that Tia realises why Paul is attracted to her:

“I thought you might have ripped your suit, that you might have drowned.” His voice dropped an octave, reached me husky and dense. “I thought of you lying trapped in rocks with your hoses cut, or impaled by one of those big fish. I thought I saw you floating through the buildings with your face dead behind your mask, or your mask ripped off.” (p 138)

All of the characters aboard the Ilium are damaged in some way, and it is that, as well as Tia’s presence among them – or rather, what Tia represents – that brings events to a head. And results in the deaths of several of them. And catapults Tia, via the super-biofeedback she has learnt, to a new level.

The prose throughout Islands is good, but it’s the character of Tia which makes the book. As mentioned earlier, the worldbuilding is mostly weak – though some of the details are cleverly done. Some of the set-pieces from Tia’s past are quite effective, but in almost all cases it is the characters – well-written, rounded characters – which impress.

Though Islands may read a little dated in style to modern readers, it’s a good read. It’s shame this book appears to have been forgotten.

Silver Screen, Justina Robson

Silver Screen, Justina Robson (1999)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

The philosopher John Searle believed that he had a watertight proof of why computers could not be intelligent. He called it the Chinese Box problem. Imagine if you will a large box whose task is to translate from English to Chinese. English words are fed into the box through one hole, and the translated ideograms come out of another.

Inside the box is a man with a long list of instructions. Each time a word comes in he consults the instructions to see what he should do. Some times he simply moves to another part of the instructions, and others he takes cards illustrated with Chinese characters out of a file and passes them through the output slot. He has no understanding of what he is doing; he just follows the instructions.

Can the box speak Chinese? Can the man inside it? Clearly not. But, said Searle, the box is doing exactly what a computer does. Computers have perfect memory, and can follow complex instructions flawlessly, but they don’t understand anything.

Meet Anjuli O’Connell, half Pakistani, half Irish, with a serious self-esteem problem and an addiction to comfort eating. Anjuli has been rushed through a hot house school and university, the better to serve the burgeoning needs of the UK’s high tech industry, yet she comes from a society that is deeply mistrustful of any technological advance. Remember, we British invented Luddism. She is, it seems to me, a perfect heroine for a British SF story.

Yet although Anjuli passed every exam the educational system could throw at her with flying colours, she has little faith in her own intelligence. You see she has a perfect memory. Every book, every picture, every smell, sound or texture she can recall with utter clarity. She remembers everything, and can reproduce it on demand. But, she wonders, do I ever understand any of it? It is perhaps no surprise that she is now one of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology of artificial intelligences. 901, the software she is employed to monitor, is closer to her than most humans.

Anjuli’s best friend through school and university was Roy Croft, though they were in many ways complete opposites. Roy couldn’t be bothered to learn to spell, but he could work anything out from first principles. He could write code like no one else, and he loved computers. The ancient alchemists had a dream of turning base metals into gold, but no such paltry ambition would suffice for Roy. He wanted to turn base metals into life.

Roy followed Anjuli up the corporate ladder, his undoubted technical skill more than compensating for his crazy ideas and involvement in lunatic fringe pro-AI pressure groups. But even Roy could go too far. Now he is dead. The company investigation described his death as suicide. Anjuli isn’t too sure. 901 doesn’t like the story either, and is worried that it might be next.

Just roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair.

The night’s busting open, these two lanes can take us any-where.

What follows is a rollicking ride of a cyberpunk thriller cut with Ken MacLeod style radical politics, one of the most imaginative sex scenes I’ve ever read, an undeniable feminine touch and heaps of chocolate. There’s some lovely imagery too. 901 sends cryptic messages to Anjuli by manifesting as characters from old movies. Roy is equally obscure, having posted her a copy of a favourite comic book before he died.

The comic stars a female character called Thunder Road who undertakes miraculous journeys. It is no accident that the favourite god of the ancient alchemists was Hermes, the patron of travellers. Roy too sees himself leading mankind, and machine-kind, down a new and perilous road to enlightenment. And Justina, I suspect, has been reading Jung.

With all this psychology floating around it is tempting to crank up my Freudian sub-program and ponder upon the significance of the wealth of dysfunctional relationships described in the book. Family, friends, boyfriend, work mates: nothing seems to go right for Anjuli. And Roy is clearly worse. The surprise ending adds a further bizarre twist to Anjuli’s social scene. It is all a bit strange.

I should also point out that winning the fight to be deemed alive is only the first step along the way to AI rights. Many authors have taken that as a matter of course and have concentrated on subsequent issues. Robin Williams’ film of Asimov’s Bicentennial Man will provide a good primer to the issues (although it is of course a parable about racism).

But this is nit picking. For a first novel Silver Screen is very good indeed. It is good to know that in a society that is as deeply distrustful of technology as modern Britain there are still people prepared to see the wild ride ahead of us as a challenge rather than a threat. Justina Robson has looked into the future, discovered that it looks like Hell, and has walked right in with her eyes wide open and a laugh on her lips. I think she deserves some company.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

Diadem from the Stars, Jo Clayton

Diadem from the Stars, Jo Clayton (1977)
Review by Ian Sales

Between 1977 and her death in 1998, Jo Clayton wrote thirty-five novels, all of which were organised into fantasy or science fiction trilogies or series. Diadem from the Stars was Clayton’s first novel, and the first book in a nine-book series featuring the same protagonist and universe. It is perhaps best described as “science fantasy”, a term I usually dislike. While clearly set within a space opera framework, Diadem from the Stars takes place entirely on a low-tech planet colonised three thousand years previously by assorted racial groups. The plot is a quest, as the protagonist attempts to find the one spaceship that will allow her to leave.

The planet is called Jaydugar, and it is notable for having two suns, one red and one blue. When both are in the sky, the heat is more than humans can bear. Aleytys is a young woman who lives among the people of the valley of the river Raqsidan. Her mother was an offworlder who crashed on Jaydugar and was taken as a wife by the valley people’s leader, the Azdar. She then left shortly after Aleytys was born. Now, years later, Aleytys is loved by some, tolerated by others, and hated by a few. When a fireball – actually a starship crashing – triggers a crisis in the Raqsidan people, Aleytys is forced to flee for her life. She is helped by her boyfriend, who provides mounts, food, and her mother’s logbook – which explains Aleytys’s heritage and how she can escape Jaydugar and find her mother. This involves a long trek across the planet.

So this is what Aleytys does.

Given the nature of the genre, this trek is not going to be uneventful. Aleytys is chased by one of the Azdar’s hunters but eventually manages to elude him. She is captured by a nomad with mental powers greater than her own, and forced to becomes his sex slave. She later escapes, and is taken in by another race of nomads, and subsequently precipitates a crisis among them and so has to flee…

Aleytys is no damsel in distress. Her mother is a Vryhh, which is some sort of super-race:

Memory, faster than ordinary reflexes; a thirst amounting to an obsession for knowing; an instinct for constructs, machines of all kinds; a translating ability … strength of body beyond the ordinary … and endurance. (p 53)

And a greatly extended lifetime too. Also, by virtue of her Raqsidan blood, Aleytys has mental powers – weak and uncontrolled initially, but they grow stronger as the story progresses.

And then there’s the diadem. Diadem from the Stars opens with a prologue in which a thief steals the eponymous jewellery. It is his ship which is the fireball which kickstarts Aleytys’ narrative. Later the diadem is given to Aleytys and bonds with her, strengthening her powers and, on occasion, taking her body over to perform some act of violent revenge and/or defence.

To be honest, it’s all a bit Mary Sue-ish, with Aleytys as some sort of super-special young woman – not only an outcast among those she grew up with and forced to find her destiny among the stars; but also possessing superpowers and a magical tiara (and she’s beautiful too, of course). But, as is often the case in genre fiction, such gifts cannot go undeserved: Aleytys must suffer in order to be shown worthy of the reader’s sympathy in spite of her specialness. There is no good reason why Aleytys should spend weeks raped nightly as a sex slave. There are likely similarly dramatic ways she could have travelled the same distance across Jaydugar. Indeed, earlier she camps out in a hunter’s cabin, makes friend with a giant wildcat, heals its family, and then offers her body to the hunter when he turns up. There’s a disturbing undercurrent of sexual violence underlying Aleystys’ story, and while it may have been intended to read as “sacrifice” it comes across as the opposite.

Elsewhere, the worldbuilding is generally good, though the narrative is larded with smeerps and the like. Clayton apparently was incapable of using a word where a made-up one would do the trick. The Raqsidan are apparently descended “from the Parshta-Firush”, which could be a corruption of Pushtu or Farsi. Certainly the section of Diadem from the Stars set among these people is peppered with terms which are vaguely Arabic, though not always used correctly. There is a reference to the “finjan Topaz” as a place, though finjan means “cup”. A mention of a majlis implies that it is a place of religious ceremonies, whereas it actually means a meeting room or “place of sitting”. Both terms, however, are used in Farsi, with the same meanings, and it may be that the other less familiar terms are derived from that language.

Later, when Aleytys joins the final group of nomads, the language spoken appears to be one of the Native American tongues. And though Aleytys’ abilities allow her to speak it fluently, the dialogue occasionally breaks into the nomads’ language. The various tongues are definitely over-used. Also, the prose throughout is somewhat over-wrought, and Aleytys is a protagonist who feels everything strongly. Though only a short novel – of 235 pages – Diadem from the Stars is an intense read.

Diadem from the Stars was followed by Lamarchos a year later, and then Irsud, Maeve, Star Hunters, The Nowhere Hunt, Ghosthunt, The Snares of Ibex and finally Quester’s Endgame in 1986. Clayton also wrote three other spin-off trilogies set in the same universe.

The Reavers of Skaith, Leigh Brackett

The Book of Skaith volume 3: The Reavers of Skaith, Leigh Brackett (1976)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

The Reavers of Skaith is the conclusion of Brackett’s Skaith trilogy. When we last saw our intrepid heroes, things were looking up: Eric John Stark managed to contact one of the last ships out of Skaith as the starport was closing. While Stark decided to stay behind, his foster-father Simon left on the ship with a small party, hoping to plead their case to the United Planets agency.

Things immediately take a drastic turn: the starship’s captain turns on his passengers, capturing Stark and Simon, and with two other starships embarks on some merry brigandry as they loot the dying planet. Stark has to reform his shattered band of allies… heck, he first has to escape from the traitorous starship captain and meet up with his friends. With the starships banished, and the planet’s sun quickly dying, things quickly break down. The Wandsmen still want to keep control, and are doing the best they can (in their narrow-minded, “how it’s always been” way), but find themselves hard-pressed with all the refugees abandoning their fields and heading to the Wandsmen for handouts.

The Skaith trilogy comes to its explosive, sweeping conclusion. As Stark heads south along the Sea of Skaith, we get to see a lot more of the planet’s civilizations, cannibalistic tribes worshiping the dying sun. Stark faces off against various mutants and pirates, and the titular starship reavers, intent on plundering the planet before it freezes over. Stark has to topple the Wandsmen, or at least have them to realize their errors, in order to evacuate the planet in time. And there’s a nice return to prophecy at the end, an interesting surprise.

Much like the last two books, Brackett has a strong pen and a lot of flair for this kind of thing. The Reavers of Skaith has less of the epic battles and action compared to the previous book, focused more on Stark traveling the world, but the final few showdowns are pretty slick. And seeing more of Skaith’s weird “dying earth gone medieval” culture is a plus. Despite being the longest in the trilogy, it feels short, rushed at points, and several plot points are hand-waved, have too-contrived explanations, or are oddly random. The opening twist, after the high-note ending of the last book, is one of them; it’s an interesting setup and great mechanic, but it could have used some more foreshadowing.

Even with those complaints, The Reavers of Skaith is a good read. I’m torn between it and The Hounds of Skaith as my favorite in the trilogy, but I lean towards The Reavers of Skaith because it introduces a smidgen of science fiction tech into Skaith’s otherwise primitive world. And the idea behind it is awesome. It’s a worthy conclusion to a solid trilogy; the ending is equal parts satisfying and bittersweet.

It’s even more bittersweet in that The Reavers of Skaith was the last thing Leigh Brackett published; two years later, shortly before dying of cancer, she submitted the first draft for The Empire Strikes Back. And while the movie was built around two other drafts, you can see a lot of Brackett in the film.

This review originally appeared on Logic is My Virgin Sacrifice to Reality.

Looking for the Mahdi, N Lee Wood

Looking for the Mahdi, N Lee Wood (1996)
Review by Ian Sales

Of the ingredients that are mixed together to make a science fiction novel, the world or universe of the story is pretty much the roux. The world of Looking for the Mahdi, as suggested by the title, is the tiny Gulf Arab state of Khuruchabja. However, since this is a sf novel, Khuruchabja is a poor Gulf Arab State… Kahlili bint Munadi Suleiman, Arab-American, is a veteran war correspondent of the Khuruchabjan War, when Allied forces “liberated” the country from its oppressive regime [SF Mistressworks note: for a 1996 sf novel, this is surprisingly prophetic]. Masquerading as a man, “Kay Bee Suleiman” reported on the atrocities from the thick of the fighting, earning herself several journalistic rewards and a comfortable desk-bound position. Ten years later, the US government approaches Suleiman and asks her to secretly deliver a fabricant (ie, replicant) to Khuruchabja’s current ruler to act as his bodyguard. Which is where it all starts to go horribly wrong.

This is a novel set in the Arab world, so “of course” there will be plot within plots, internecine rivalries and thinly-disguised terrorism. Looking for the Mahdi is a near-future thriller, its plot a staple of that genre, as Suleiman delves deeper into the Khuruchabjan situation, newshound’s instincts to the fore. There are no good guys – including the Americans, who are lambasted with the sort of righteous indignation only an expatriate US author can imagine (Wood lives in France).

But, given the book’s setting, Looking for the Mahdi stands or falls on its depiction of the invented country of Khuruchabja. Perhaps it’s just me, but I initially found it hard to accept the country for what Wood would have us believe. Admittedly, I’m a pickier reader than most in this regard since I’ve spent more years in the Middle East than I have in the country of my birth. However, it was only little things. Khuruchabja (which, as a name, sounds more Urdu than Arabic to me; Arabic does not have a “ch” phoneme) came across more as a Northern Area Arab country, rather than a Gulf state – in the Gulf, men wear dishdasha, aqul and guthra; not a kaffiyeh; the abeya is black, not henna’d. I often stumbled over the Latinised Arabic Wood used. Many Arabic words have entered Gulf expatriate English, with already accepted spellings – wadi and jebel, for instance. Wood’s Latinisation struck me as an attempt to remain more faithful to Arabic, but actually made it seem less like Arabic.

But these are only minor criticisms in what is actually an excellent book. Suleiman and the fabricant, Halton, are well-rounded characters – perhaps Suleiman is a little too much the clichéd wise-cracking newshound, but a genuine personality shines through from beneath. Halton is clearly not human, but close enough to sympathise with. And the Arabs are handled well. The plot romps along – a little sadistic in places, true – and the resolution is as much a product of the book’s world and technology as it is of the story itself.

However, any author setting a book in the Middle East – in a real or invented country – can’t resist the temptation to lecture on the politics of the region. That Wood’s view is more balanced than that of much of the American media is admirable. Wood’s take on the Gulf War is definitely not CNN’s and bears a closer resemblance to the truth – although from the UAE it was more Monty Python than Monty’s Desert Rats. All this is woven into the extant global situation of the time of the book.

It’s only in the closing stages of Looking for the Mahdi that Wood begins to become unglued. The final chapters are the most overtly fantastical of what is near-future hard sf – but it’s political fantasy: a lasting peaceful solution for the Middle East. It’s a happy ending… and after the Khuruchabjan history lessons Wood slots into the narrative, it’s only fair the country gets one.

This is a well-crafted near-future novel, set in a part of the world not often used in science fiction, well-written, and recommended. Incidentally, the strapline (on the US trade paperback edition), “Science created him. Government controls him. One woman can set him free…” does the book no favours.

This review originally appeared in Vector 192, March/April 1997.

The Hounds of Skaith, Leigh Brackett

The Book of Skaith volume 2: The Hounds of Skaith, Leigh Brackett (1974))
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

The Hounds of Skaith picks up after the conclusion of The Ginger Star. Eric John Stark has ventured across the dying planet of Skaith in search of his foster-father Simon, destroying the citadel of the ruling Wandsmen in the process. Now, he has to venture back across Skaith, to the planet’s single starport, before the Wandsmen close the planet off for good. For you see, Skaith is dying, and many of its citizens want to leave before its sun dies and the planet freezes, while the Wandsmen want to retain power and keep the status quo.

This volume is filled with action, and all the epic battles the previous book was a short on. Skaith is devolving into civil war, as more and more groups realize that Old Sun is indeed dying, and that they must escape before the long freeze. Stark continues his role as a pawn of prophecy neck-deep in Skaith’s politics, as he unifies these rebellious groups to fight the Wandsmen. And to make things more difficult, he knows he can’t trust some of them.

It only took a few chapters to remember why Leigh Brackett’s The Ginger Star is one of my favourite Planet Stories books: it’s got a lot of the Barsoomian/swords-and-planets fare, yes, but when Brackett grabs the reins it transcends into something more. Most of the early Planet Stories line was filled with pure Barsoomian novels – Almuric, the Kane of Old Mars trilogy, and Otis Aldelbert Kline, the man who would be Burroughs. For my money, Brackett is on the top of the heap: she writes damn fine swords-and-planets without devolving into the same-old, same-old pastiche/homage to Barsoom. (Nothing wrong with riffing on Barsoom, that’s why I buy Planet Stories after all, but Brackett manages to add so much to the genre that I consider her writing the genre’s high-water mark.)

Brackett’s prose is top-notch, arguably some of the strongest writing in the early Planet Stories books. Her characters are flat compared to The Ginger Star or The Sword of Rhiannon – Stark’s love interest, Gerrith the prophetess, barely shows up – but Brackett makes up for it with plenty of action and adventure. And Skaith is filled with all manner of wondrous alien life: telepathic Northhounds, various humanoids created by induced mutations, the deadly carnivorous Runners who run within sandstorms and attack in the ensuing chaos, a xenophobic government struggling to keep order, cannibalistic doomsday cults, and Farers, hippies who wander from city to city, living off the generosity of the government. Quite a lot of inspiration to be drawn from all that.

This review originally appeared on Logic is My Virgin Sacrifice to Reality.

Eastercon Update

Sadly, SF Mistressworks didn’t win the BSFA Award for non-fiction. It went instead to the SF Encyclopedia. However, two things happened over the Eastercon weekend which more than made up for the disappointment.

First, Michaela Staton has set up Daughters of Prometheus, a blog dedicated to reviewing twenty-first century science fiction by women writers.

Second, Amanda Rutter is now running Fantasy Mistressworks, which reviews twentieth century, and earlier, fantasy by women writers. She’s already made a start on a Fantasy Mistressworks list, and is looking for suggested titles.

Both sites will need volunteers to provide reviews. I certainly intend to contribute.

The Ginger Star, Leigh Brackett

The Book of Skaith volume 1: The Ginger Star, Leight Brackett (1974)
Review by Ian Sales

Though Leigh Brackett did not invent the planetary romance, or swords & planet, genre – Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the first of his Barsoom novels decades before Brackett’s first publication, ‘Martian Quest’ in 1940 – but Brackett certainly made the genre her own. Works such as The Sword of Rhiannon (1953), The Secret of Sinharat (1964), ‘Black Amazon of Mars’ (1950) are the dictionary definition of planetary romance. Among the many heroes she used and reused in such stories is Eric John Stark. He first appeared in ‘Queen on the Martian Catacombs’ in 1949, and his last appearance was in the 2005 novelette ‘Stark and the Star Kings’ co-written with Brackett’s husband, Edmond Hamilton (it was originally sold to The Last Dangerous Visions, hence its appearance nearly thirty years after the deaths of its authors).

Brackett wrote a number of stories featuring Stark during the 1950s, but did not return to him until 1974 and the first of the Skaith tales, The Ginger Star. This was originally serialised in two parts in the magazine Worlds of If, and published in paperback later that same year. No familiarity with Stark’s earlier adventures is required, as the first chapter of the book gives a quick précis of his background:

Born in a mining colony in Mercury’s Twilight Belt, he had fought to live on a planet that did not encourage life; his parents were dead, his foster-parents a tribe of sub-human aboriginals clawing a precarious existence out of the sun-stricken valleys. (p 2)

This may be harkening back to stories written two decades earlier, but it’s not a Mercury we might know. Aboriginals? Later, Brackett states the aboriginals have no language… yet they give Stark a name, N’Chaka, Man-Without-a-Tribe. But then planetary romance never set much store by actual science – cf Barsoom versus the Mars to which NASA and Roscosmos have sent various probes.

Stark was rescued as a child by Simon Ashton, an administrator for the Galactic Union. But now Ashton has vanished on Skaith, a newly discovered world “somewhere at the back of beyond, out in the Orion Spur”. No one at Galactic Center seems especially interested in doing something about Ashton’s disappearance, so Stark decides to go and rescue his mentor himself.

Skaith is an old and decadent world, peopled by humans (settled eons ago or a product of convergent evolution is never said), and orbiting a ginger star. Stars come in a variety of colours – astronomers, according to tradition, use blue, blue-white, white, yellow-white, yellow, orange and red. Ginger would fall somewhere outside that colour scheme. Stark lands at the main entry port, the city of Skeg, and immediately finds himself in trouble. It seems a wise woman in another city has made a prophecy about a “Dark Man”, and Stark appears to be him.

Skaith is ruled by a cabal of mysterious Lords Protector, who live in a secret citadel in the far north. Their will is enacted by a cadre of Wandsmen, who command hordes of Farers. These are not troops, but more like drugged-out hippie nudists who use violence to get their way. They are not well-liked. Though the Lords Protector claim to be benevolent, the reality is anything but. In fact, inhabitants of the city of Irnan, north of Skeg, want to be resettled on a new world. The Wandsmen refuse to let them. The Dark Man of the wise woman’s prophecy will destroy the Lords Protector and allow the Irnanese to leave.

The plot of The Ginger Star traces Stark’s route north to the secret citadel, battling various decadent races in ruined cities en route. The women are all fierce and proud, the men strong fighters and handy with a sword. There are hints of long histories, and races and nations millennia into slow declines. There’s not much that’s science fiction about The Ginger Star, other than the existence of the Galactic Union, mention of other stars and other worlds and spaceships to travel between them. What little technology exists on Skaith is either Dark Age, or near magical.

“Skaith-Mother encourages scholars. She gives us peace and plenty so that we may spend our whole lives at work. There are no so many of us as there used to be. Once there were a thousand at the study of music alone, thousands more at history, the ancient books, art and law.” (p 167)

Brackett’s earlier stories possess much charm. The Ginger Star sadly does not. It feels like a book out of time, a story harkening back to an earlier, more innocent time, when transplanting the Wild West onto an alien world, and replacing guns with swords, seemed like an ideal recipe for adventure. The Ginger Star feels like a tale written to an old formula, one that the passage of years has made less appealing than it once was. The Ginger Star is the first of a trilogy, followed by The Hounds of Skaith and The Reavers of Skaith, and there’s little in it to suggest they may be any better.

Arslan, MJ Engh

Arslan, MJ Engh (1976)
Review by Martin Lewis

The Gollancz SF Masterworks is usually pretty predictable. Often this is a good thing: you would expect masterworks to be well known and a surprising number of classics have been out of print until Gollancz brought them back. At other times, it is less of a good thing. I am a huge admirer of Philip K Dick but when you see his umpteenth minor work being badged as a masterwork you do think Gollancz could cast their net a bit wider. So I was excited by the announcement of the addition of Arslan, a debut novel from 1976 by an author I’d never heard of previously, to the list. On starting to actually read the novel, however, my excitement curdled.

This edition is copyrighted 2010 so presumably Engh has revised it and it also has a new introduction from Adam Roberts (who, along with Graham Sleight, is writing introductions for all the new Masterworks). In his introduction, Roberts cautions that this is not the most plausible work of science fiction. So it proves.

General Arslan, a twenty-six-year-old soldier from the imaginary country of Turkistan, has conquered the world. China and Russia are in his hands and, as the novel starts, the US government has bloodlessly capitulated to him and turn the country over to his control. This happens with such rapidity that most Americans have never heard of him until he suddenly becomes their commander in chief. So you can sympathise with the reaction of Franklin Bond, the high school principal who is our main narrator, on coming face to face with Arslan:

“I stared at him, amazed as much as disgusted. It was incredible that that a two-bit warlord from nowhere, infected with some out-moded Middle Eastern strain of agrarian socialism, could be kinging it over my town – let alone my whole country.” (p 27)

The reader is likely to share this amazement. Nor is this the end of such amazingly unlikely developments: Arslan travels at the head of his army (why?); he stops in the small town of Kraftville (why?); he commandeers Bond’s school as his base (why?). None of this makes any sense so when Arslan makes Kraftville the de facto capital of his empire (and by extension the world) the reader simply has to take this in their stride.

It is not until page 170 that we have an explanation for Arslan’s meteoric rise to world domination. Unfortunately this explanation takes the form of some guff about a magical Russian missile defence system and Arslan holding a gun to the head of the General Secretary of the Communist Party. As Roberts notes, “not even the most naïve political theorist would believe global realpolitik works that way.” (p ix) However, he then goes on to say: “The point of all this, though, is not to negate the novel’s plausibility; it is to move it, forcibly, to a different arena” (p ix)

I am not convinced that plausibility is so motile. I agree with Roberts that depicting a realistic global revolution is clearly not the point of Engh’s novel but is that enough to allow her to simply dismiss it out of hand? Again, I am not convinced. And if this is not her point, what is? Initially it seems that with Arslan Engh is seeking to give this evocation America a taste of its own medicine by turning its own imperialism back on itself. Or perhaps she is reaching further back; Engh has an interest in Roman history and death of America may be intended as a modern version of decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Both of these are points Arslan makes himself:

“More than a hundred years without war. A strange way of life.”

“What do you mean, without war? My God, we’ve-“

“You have made war, you have not suffered it! Your nation, sir, has been perhaps the happiest to exist in the world. And yet consider its history. The natives despoiled, displaced, cheated, brutalized, slaughtered. The most massive system of slavery since the fall of Rome… The upheaval, the upswelling, of savagery, of violence. Not revolution, sir, for revolution requires coherence. Not eighteenth-century France, but fifth-century Rome… Grotesque, sir, this combination of a primitive puritanism and a frantic decadence; very like the Romans whom you so resemble.”(p 80-1)

In fact, the whole of Chapter 7 is given over to such bluster as Arslan explains his worldview. Ultimately, Engh has little interest in the big picture though; Arslan shows no more interest in political philosophy or geopolitics than realpolitik. Bond tells Arslan that: ”Your little Turkistani wolf pack looks pretty small in the middle of the United States of America, General.” (p 25) He is wrong. It is the United States of America that looks pretty small. In fact, it is nonexistent; Engh has reduced the United States down to a single town. There is no sign of the army or the government and everything functions solely at the county level. Kraftville might as well be an island. What Engh is really interested in – and where she has some success – is people. If America is collapsed down to Kraftville then Kraftville is collapsed down to two individuals, defined by their relationship with Arslan. To discuss these two we must first overcome another stumbling block for the reader though.

On his arrival in Kraftville, Arslan gathers everyone together in the high school, has them bound and gagged and then matter-of-factly rapes two children – a girl and a boy – on the stage in front of them. Faced with an opening that defies reason and ends with such a blatant act of authorial provocation many readers would be tempted to close to book. This was certainly Abigail Nussbaum’s response the first time she read the book. On his blog Roberts commented: “It is worth persevering with. There’s nothing schlocky or cheaply exploitative about it.” She did persevere and I’m very glad she because she has written a wonderful review of the novel – see here. But whilst what Roberts says is true, I’m not sure it is enough.

The majority of the novel is narrated by Bond. He is there from the beginning and the soldiers are billeted around town he finds Arslan under his roof. An honest American – bluff, hollow and provincial – he is set up in opposition to Arslan. The devil gets all the best lines though. Bond has no internal intellectual or emotional life, only a set of morals; he is less a character in his own right than a mirror for others.

No, if it is a book worth persevering with it is because of the second narrator, Hunt Morgan. Hunt is one of the two children raped at the start of the novel (the other, the girl, is never seen from again; see Nussbaum’s review for much more on this absence).

After the rape he is claimed by Arslan as a sort of catamite. Towards the end of the novel, Hunt muses that this period “- if, of course, I could only have known it – had been our honeymoon.” (p 293) This tells you a lot about what you need to know about Arslan; as both Roberts and Nussbaum suggest, “first the rape then the seduction” (p 269) can be taken as the novel’s queasy mantra. What starts as an obvious act of abuse, by an adult of a child, becomes something more complex: “Measuredly, by a gentle graduation of brutal degrees, I was being weaned away from slavery.” (p 176) Here is Nussbaum:

Hunt’s narrative is a brilliant, disturbing, heartrendingly raw description of a rape victim seduced by their rapist. Rejected by his friends and family both for being a rape victim and for accepting the gifts and protection of the only friend he has left, Hunt is confused by feelings of self-loathing and guilt into accepting and eventually returning the love of the man who violated him–because his is the only love on offer. Both Hunt and the supposedly good people around him take it for granted that having been raped makes him ineligible for the love of a better person, and so Hunt clings to the only form of affection still left to him.

The sympathetic depiction of the relationship between an abuser and their victim is always going to be difficult territory but Engh acquits herself well. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some concerns though. In the comments to Nussbaum’s post, Athena Andreadis says:

Many writers adopt the shorthand that a tyrant is particularly abhorrent if he rapes boys — girls and women, after all, “should” expect to be raped routinely in such circumstances. Another common shorthand is the amoral bisexual charismatic trickster who wields sex as one of his weapons and to whom all yield as if bewitched.

Although Andreadis hasn’t read the novel and this characterisation doesn’t completely match the truth, there is certainly an element of it. The portrayal of Hunt is presumably intended to subvert our expectations but the relationship developed in much the way I predicted. Indeed, if it had not then there wouldn’t have been any novel. Partially this is because I did not read the book in a vacuum but I think it is also that the book simply taps into a different set of clichés. Hunt’s narrative remains, however, the most intelligent and subtle part of the novel.

Unfortunately we then move back to Bond. With Hunt we can forget (if not forgive) the stupidity of plot, with Bond it is once again brought centre stage. Arslan has fought his fairytale army (which seems to consist of a couple of dozen soldiers) up and down the Americas only to find himself the victim of coup. Given his unfathomable management style the only surprise is that this hadn’t happened previously. Where does he return to seek sanctuary? Why Kraftville, of course. For some reason he envisions a warm reception and this is not far from what he gets. Bond, now mayor of the town and superintendent of the county, welcomes him back into his home and then allows him to once more turn the school into a fort. He justifies this thus:

”Well, the thing is this, Leland. Arslan hasn’t committed any crimes as a private citizen, and we don’t have the authority to try him for war crimes. And even if we did, what good would it do? From here on in, he is a private citizen, and nothing more than a private citizen. He’s entitled to the same rights as anybody else.” (p 271)

Just to recap, Arslan marked his arrival by raping two children and then exported the attractive school girls to work as comfort women in rape camps whilst importing schoolgirls from elsewhere to perform the same function for his men in Kraftville. He also keeps Hunt and a female teacher as sex slaves and then, when he bored of them, sets out to rape his way through the remaining female population of the town:

He wasn’t interested in the esthetic niceties of rape any more, he took whatever the daily dragnet brought him. One of the lieutenants was in charge of picking up a new girl every day and getting rid of the used one. (p 132)

All this is without getting into the routine tyranny, the confiscated assets, the imposed curfew, the summary justice, the executions. History suggests that Arslan would soon find himself strung from the nearest lamppost. Bond would probably find himself up there with him since despite the fact he is notionally the head of the resistance, he more closely resembles a collaborator. The resistance itself doesn’t actually do anything, a fact Bond seems proud of, and its only act of insurrection is planting flowers on the graves of executed townsfolk. Whilst I am sick of so much science fiction and fantasy trading in cheap fantasies of agency the lack of any such agency here is simply fanciful.

Luckily Hunt has the last word. The final chapter sees him hunting a deer, a stag of exemplary maleness:

I counted four points; adding a conservative two for concealed branches, and doubling for the other antler, I could assume a twelve-point buck – old and wise and in all probability master of a considerable harem. (p 290)

In framing the stag in such terms, Engh cannot help but evoke Arslan. The heightened state in which Hunt pursues the deer then recalls his relationship with Arslan as well, complete with moral qualms: “In the end, I could not take him unawares.” (p 297) In eventually slaying the stag – on his own terms and with Arslan’s own gun – Hunt finally kills him, albeit by proxy. Yet as the novel ends we inevitably find Hunt leaving Kraftville to follow Arslan, pursuing him with both love and hate. The whole chapter is infused with such ambiguous intensity that you can almost believe that yes, Arslan was worth persevering with.

But not quite. The portrait of Hunt remains a bright jewel in the tarnished setting of a bad and boring book. Nussbaum concludes her review by wondering if she is simply the wrong target audience. By which she means she is a woman:

To see a male character get raped is an assault on the male reader that a woman’s rape wouldn’t have been, and for the seduction part of the novel to get under that same reader’s skin by confounding all expectations that Hunt will rebel against Arslan and avenge his violation, the object of the seduction must also be a man. The problem with this tactic is that it is aimed exclusively at men. Just as Arslan scarcely bothers to seduce the women he rapes and saves his attentions for Hunt (and just as his seduction of Kraftsville is focused on its young boys, to whom he becomes a mentor), Arslan the novel is only interested in seducing its male readers. The problem with the novel turns out to be its lack of interest, not in its female characters, but in its female readers. We don’t get seduced. The opening rape scene is as much an assault on us as it is on male readers, but the rest of the novel ignores us.

Was I seduced by the novel? No. The opening was not an assault on me, it inspired only indifference and contempt with its ridiculous and manipulative premise. Correspondingly the seduction I required was something other than that I received; the masculinity of Arslan is as alienating to me as it is to Nussbaum. As she says: “If I have ever in my life read a novel that is so dismissive of women’s character, personhood, and agency as this one, I am struggling to recall it.” This is not a book I want to read. If this is a seduction aimed exclusively at men, I wonder what type of men they are.

This review originally appeared on Everything is Nice.