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.