One year older

SF Mistressworks has now been up and running for just over a year. The first review was posted here on 3 June 2011 – it was Maureen F McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang. In the twelve months since then, SF Mistressworks has posted reviews by 24 reviewers of 96 books by 67 authors. It was also shortlisted for the BSFA Award for non-fiction (but lost out to the SF Encyclopedia). That’s a year to be proud of.

When I started SF Mistressworks, I had no idea how long it would run. I had no intention of doing it for a short while to prove a point, and then packing it in. I still plan to keep it going as long as there are eligible books to review. For the past six months, I’ve been posting two reviews a week, and I’d like to keep to that schedule. I have about a month’s worth in hand, but I need more. I always need more. If I can’t get them, I may have to drop to one review a week. I’d sooner not, of course. Reviews don’t have to be new or original to SF Mistressworks. I’m quite happy to reprint old reviews of suitable books, and link back to the original review. I’ve even posted some of my old reviews from Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. (And if anyone who reviews/reviewed for that magazine would like to pass on any reviews they did for eligible books…)

I’d like to thank all those who have contributed reviews – Cheryl Morgan, Joachim Boaz, Admiral Ironbombs, Martin Wisse, Niall Harrison, Kev Mcveigh, Martin Lewis, Jenni Scott, Richard Palmer, Shannon Turlington, Adam Roberts, Blue Tyson, Cara Murphy, Larry Nolen, Aishwarya Subramanian, Ian J Simpson, Kathryn Allen, Michaela Staton, Paul Charles Smith, Paul Graham Raven, Sam Kelly, Sandy M, Shaun Duke, SueCCCP – and I hope they’ll continue to contribute.

For those who would like to contribute but have only read books published this century there’s Daughters of Prometheus, a sister site of SF Mistressworks. It’s a shame nothing came of the Fantasy Masterworks site, but Daughters of Prometheus is definitely alive and kicking. If you can’t contribute here, by all means contribute there.

Finally, it’s been a good year for SF Mistressworks. Here’s hoping the next twelve months will be just as good (we’re still eligible for that award, you know…).

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We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1977)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

The classic science fiction story of the 1950’s tells how bold space travellers suffer misfortune out in the void but, through application of scientific skills and raw human courage, they triumph over adversity. Joanna Russ, who has built an entire career out of puncturing stupidity, could hardly let a target like that go begging. Thus her novel, We Who Are About To…, newly re-released by Wesleyan University Press. Samuel Delany, in his introduction to the new edition, explains the set-up far better than I could.

When, in the real world, 95 percent of all commercial airline crashes are one hundred percent fatal and we live in a solar system in which presumably only one planet can support any life at all, from the thirties through the fifties science fiction was nevertheless full of spaceship crashes (!) in which everyone gets up and walks away from the wreckage unscathed — and usually out onto a planet with breathable atmosphere, amenable weather, and a high tech civilization in wait near-by to provide twists in subsequent adventures.

The same, of course, could be said of Star Trek, except that the guys in the red suits often didn’t long survive the crash.

Of course there would not be much of a story if Russ’s space travellers had all been killed in the crash, so let us suppose that some sort of lifeboat system was available and that our heroes somehow manage to land safely on an inhabitable planet. Now all they have to do is survive. To do so they have to come to understand their environment, adapt to it, and most importantly conquer that terrible threat to survival, human nature.

Whereas the typical science fiction story will feature a cast made up of military and scientific types, all convinced of the virtues of order, disciple and cooperation, and possessed of exactly the combination of skills required to allow them to thrive in an alien environment, Russ postulates that her shipwrecked travellers are merely passengers. The crew has bravely gone down with the ship, frantically making last minute attempts to save it before something terminal happens to the engines. Those that are left are rather too used to having things done for them.

The majority of Russ’s characters start out exactly as you would expect from a traditional SF story. They make plans, they talk grandly of colonizing the planet on which they find themselves. They dream of rescue. Only the narrator of the story actually understands just how little they know, and how much trouble they are in. Her attempts to explain the hopelessness of their predicament to her fellow castaways merely get her marked down as a troublemaker who needs to be disciplined by the rapidly developing community.

Then the men sit down and decide that what the colony really needs is more hands. The only way to get that is for the women to have babies, and therefore the women must all agree to allow themselves to be made pregnant as quickly as possible, regardless of the potential risks in the absence of medical facilities, and whether they like it or not. Things go rapidly downhill from there.

No matter how you dress it up, We Who Are About To… is not a pleasant book. The narrator is not at all a nice person, and she very clearly cracks up under the strain of understanding the reality of her situation. Most of the other characters are fairly unpleasant too. And everyone comes to a bad but believable end. There is no happy ending, nor should there be one. It is a book that needed to be written, and Russ did a fine job of producing it. What is more she managed to say what needed to be said in a little over 100 pages. This is, I think, a book that all science fiction fans should read, just to encourage them to ask questions about other books. Once again, well done to Wesleyan for helping it stay in print.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

Time Future, Maxine McArthur

Time Future, Maxine McArthur (1999)
Review by Ian Sales

The space station Jocasta lies far from Earth and is much more important in the galactic scale of things than those aboard it realise. Head of Station Halley is having enough trouble managing the station’s overloaded facilities, not to mention difficulties “negotiating” with the mysterious aliens who have blockaded Jocasta, or interpreting the gnomic utterances of a powerful alien resident who lives in the station’s non-oxygen-atmosphere section, or commanding her team of officers, including a gruff security chief, a cynical medical chief, plus handling the demands of assorted alien races, each with their own agenda. If all this sounds familiar, it should. Time Future reads like Babylon 5 fanfic.

This is not say it’s badly put-together. In the narrator, Commander Halley, McArthur has created an engaging heroine, and she relates the story with a readable combination of driven curiosity and pushed-past-the-brink weariness. Unfortunately, the world of the novel is furnished almost entirely from Central Casting, and there’s nothing in it that stands out as especially original. In the universe of Time Future, Earth was contacted by the Invidi during the late twenty-first century. These engimatic aliens helped humanity clean up its act, and then sponsored its membership in the Confederacy of Allied Worlds. Which is not really a confederacy, inasmuch as four alien races have FTL, and the remaining nine (which includes humanity) get to piggyback on their travels about the galaxy.

All this is relevant to the situation on Jocasta, which has found itself in an unenviable and untenable position – for reasons that never quite come clear in the plot. All that does seem understandable is that the space station will be admirably suited to be a B5-type neutral station once the aliens besieging it have been defeated. But no member of the Confederacy seems to be willing to do that.

Just to complicate matters, the first ever interstellar mission from Earth to Alpha Centauri, which was launched secretly ninety-five years earlier with Invidi help, has just turned up in the Jocasta system… which makes it thousands of light-years off course, nearly half a century late, and as it’s not FTL-capable its appearance is impossible anyway… The crew are no help: they were in cryostasis for the entire trip, and only three survived after the ship triggered a “jump mine” on its arrival in the Jocasta system.

Oh, and there’s also an alien killing machine loose on the station. It’s a member of a genetically-engineered warrior caste of one of the Four, which has supposedly been extinct for more than fifty years, and which the members of that race aboard Jocasta seem to know nothing about…

McArthur throws so many problems and puzzles at Halley, it’s no wonder her heroine seems to have trouble figuring out what’s going on. Not that McArthur helps, since she only doles out information as and when the plot requires it. The besieging aliens, for example, could have been resolved much sooner in the story, if Halley had had her wits about her. And that whole situation is a result of something which happened off-stage anyway, and is never actually resolved. Time Future is a story driven by secrets, all of which are supposed to intersect but all they really do is over-complicate the story. There are events in the past as well which reflect on the situation aboard Jocasta, and not all of them are relevant or resolved. It makes for a somewhat muddled novel.

Time Future won the George Turner Prize for Best Novel in McArthur’s native Australia. It was followed by a sequel, Time Past, in 2002. An unrelated near-future sf novel set in Japan, Less Than Human, was published in 2004. Since then McArthur appears to have had a few short stories published, but little else. That does seem a shame. Though it’s an eminently readable novel, Time Future is too busy and too familiar to feel like it really deserved its win.

Singer from the Sea, Sheri S Tepper

Singer from the Sea, Sheri S Tepper (1999)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

These days, a Sheri Tepper novel has a lot in common with an episode of Star Trek. The characters are familiar, though Sheri insists on keeping giving them different names, the plot is predictable, and there the moralising which becomes increasingly trite as each new episode is produced. There are even the comic asides which, since Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, have transformed Sheri’s work from strident and depressing to comfortably entertaining. But, like one of my mother’s cakes, each one turns out just as perfectly crafted, and just the same, as the last.

Their belief system was called Hestonism, a homocentric faith with a god who looked and acted like the best among them, fair minded and honourable and masculine in his approach to problems. If asked, any Aresian would have said that God was an honourable competitor, a good shot, and comfortable on the playing field… Aresians felt that there was no challenge that could not be met by well-toned muscle augmented by superior fire power under the approving eye of a deity who kept His omniscient eye on the target and His omnipresent hand on the trigger.

Singer from the Sea is, so her interview in SF Chronicle tells us, the book that Sheri was writing during the last Wiscon. At the time it was called The Covenants of Haven, Haven being the planet on which it is set, and said Covenants being the latest set of rules by which Sheri’s heroines are oppressed by a bunch of wicked, selfish and exploitative old men. Naturally the bad guys are overthrown. As expected, loads of people, many of them apparently fairly innocent, die in the process. Sheri still believes that mankind’s crimes are a collective responsibility, but these days she is at least prepared to allow a few of the better of us of us to survive.

What was fresh about the previous book, Six Moon Dance, was that Sheri started playing with gender and began to be prepared to admit that, shock, horror, Not All Men Are Evil. Singer from the Sea tries to continue in the same vein, but does so half-heartedly. The heroine is, for once, allowed a handsome, competent and caring lover, though he is required to make an idiot of himself at the end to show that all men, no matter how good they might seem, fall apart in a crisis.

For most of the rest of the good men Sheri relies upon the gay community but can’t bring herself to write about them. A transvestite character is introduced but never used, the heroine is helped by a presumably gay and dreadfully clichéd dressmaker. Later in the book the heroine has to make a long journey without feminine company to the dressmaker finds her a “womanly” man who loves babies to help tend her child. Again this character, although around for quite a while, does not speak, and doesn’t even rate a name.

None of which is to say that the book wasn’t enjoyable. It reads easily enough and I romped through it very quickly. But it doesn’t look like any effort was put into it (an impression which is augmented by a particularly sloppy job by the publishers). To anyone picking up a Tepper book for the first time it will probably come as a very nasty shock, but for the rest of us it is the same, predictable and increasingly tired formula. This was a hack job, Sheri. You can do better.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Grace Troxel

Ursula K Le Guin is phenomenal. A few months ago, I read her novel The Telling and loved the anthropological manner in which she describes the culture of her sci-fi worlds. I had heard good things about The Left Hand of Darkness, and was not disappointed. It is now one of my favourite books of all time.

In a futuristic world, Earth has joined other planets in a collaboration known as the Ekumen, an intergalactic group facilitating diplomacy and trade between worlds. The Ekumen contacts new planets by sending a lone representative to try to convince them of the merits of joining, on the principle that one person is somewhat innocuous, whereas two people could be interpreted as an invasion.

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, a man from Earth who is sent to the planet Winter as the first representative of the Ekumen. The people on Winter don’t have the same gender divisions that we do, but rather are completely androgynous. They are only capable of sex during a short period each month known as kemmer, at which point they assume either masculine or feminine genitalia. On Winter, normal humans such as ourselves are considered to be perverts, because their sexual instincts are never able to be turned off, and they are confined to one gender. Because of these differences, the social climate of Winter is vastly different than that of Earth. Rather than viewing the world as a dichotomy, denizens of Winter choose to live in the moment and focus on the greater whole. Le Guin makes us question the role of gender in shaping society and culture, while at the same time questioning how much of Winter’s culture is instead shaped by the planet’s harsh climate.

Genly Ai must navigate the subtleties and politics of the countries of Winter in order to convince its leaders to join the Ekumen. While doing so, he must to put aside his own preconceived notions of society and learn to adapt to a new planet, which is easier said than done, as Winter is still in the middle of an ice age.

Le Guin does a masterful job of worldbuilding, creating an entire mythology and history for the planet. Her descriptions of the icy world are vivid and breathtaking.

I’d highly recommend this book. Le Guin is the kind of author who can tell a beautiful story while at the same time constantly make you think about your own perceptions of reality. If you get the Ace edition published in 2000, I’d also suggest reading the author’s introduction to the novel, as it’s quite good. It describes her own views on science fiction, and is interesting to keep in mind while reading.

This review originally appeared on Books Without Any Pictures.

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

Children of God, Mary Doria Russell

The Children of God, Mary Doria Russell (1998)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

The Sparrow is probably the best SF novel never to be nominated for a Hugo. The publishers promoted it as mainstream and we didn’t find out about it in time. It did get the BSFA Award at Intuition, and hopefully Mary Doria Russell will walk away with this year’s Campbell Award. There’s a Mythopoeic Society Award up for grabs too, not to mention the already won Tiptree. But now there is a sequel out. Is it, perhaps, next year’s Hugo winner?

From an SF point of view, perhaps not. Children of God adds very little to the world created in The Sparrow. The emphasis of the book is more on morality, on religion and on politics then on science. Nevertheless, it is every bit as good as we have come to expect. I laughed, I cried, I was in awe. Russell is very, very good indeed.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Emilio Sandoz gets to go back to Rakhat. What he finds there is a telling lesson for anyone looking forward to first contact with an alien species. Cleverly, Russell makes excellent use of relativity to allow an awful lot to happen in the life span of a single character. Other than The Forever War, it is the only SF novel I can think of that makes good use of time debt rather than bending over backwards to avoid it.

But, as you might expect, the central question of the book is Sandoz’s faith. Does he get it back again? Does he forgive God for what happened to him? Does he convert to Judaism? Are all Jesuits as stupid as Russell made them out to be in The Sparrow? Ah, that would be telling.

In my review of The Sparrow I said that I thought Russell was deliberately making the Catholics look stupid as part of her justification for her own conversion to Judaism. I now think I was wrong. Russell doesn’t seem to have converted because she thinks that Judaism is a better or more moral religion, just a more honest one. The God of the Jews is, after all, a capricious, jealous, arrogant chap who never, ever explains what he is up to nor apologises for the shit he puts his creations through. He ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, He hounded Jonah mercilessly, and He stood by and allowed the Holocaust to happen. Christianity supposedly provided the apology. Russell, it would seem, thinks that that apology was insincere, and wants to go back to a more honest relationship with her deity.

The problem with this, of course, is that, if you continue with an anthropomorphic view of God, you have to come to the conclusion that he is a thoroughly unpleasant old git who deserves our contempt rather than our worship. Therefore we find God disappearing into the machinery of his creation and Russell’s religion starting to have rather a lot in common with my own. Creation is indeed miraculous and beautiful, but don’t expect it to step in and grant you salvation. It is far more likely to kick you in the teeth. The trick is that if you believe in a merciful, compassionate God you are going to be disappointed, but if you don’t you can still find beauty, love and hope.

And you can find all three, and the obligatory Chicago Cubs joke, in Children of God. Read it, it is splendid.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt, Joan D Vinge

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt, Joan D Vinge (1978)
Review by Joachim Boaz

The title of Joan D Vinge’s first novel, The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978), is an homage to The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1869) by the turn of the century western writer and poet Bret Harte. He is famous for his depictions of resourceful women in California pioneer settlements. Vinge creates a resourceful female captain of a powerful but weaponless spaceship who finds herself beset – with only a depleted crew – by a series of challenges in the decadent, grasping, and fractured pioneer societies of Heaven Belt. Although the often less than amicable conflict between the egalitarian society with powerful women and the male-focused pioneer cultures could be the focus of the novel, Vinge is less interested in exploring the social ramifications (à la Le Guin and other works of the previous decade – the 1960s). Instead, this conflict provides a suitable world-building backdrop for a traditional space opera – a bedraggled but technologically sophisticated spaceship beset by numerous factions which wish to take it by force.

Vinge is at her best evoking the decadent world of Heaven Belt but her attempts to create convincing characters/motivations/tension is less sophisticated. The Outcasts of Heaven Belt is an uneven but readable first effort – masterpieces such as the Hugo-winning The Snow Queen (1980) and Hugo-nominated The Summer Queen (1991) were to follow.

In the far future pioneers from earth, after a nameless period of political upheaval, settled less than perfect astroid belts and planets of the galaxy. Heaven Belt, a series of astroids, is considered by the settlements on marginal planets nearer to earth as an utopian expanse replete with natural resources. Betha, the captain of the Ranger and her crew (her husbands and wives), set out from Morningside to settle in the Heaven Belt. Little do they know that the region was previous beset by a devastating civil war. The few remaning survivors huddle in the wreckage of the astroid settlements with dilapidated ships, failing technology, and severe radiation poisoning which creates stratified societies dependent on preserving the few remaining fertile women.

The Ranger is immediately attacked by the Ringers. Most of the crew (Betha’s family) is killed. Soon afterwards they gain new members – Shadow Jack and Bird Alyn, young pirates of the crumbling Lansing settlement who attempt to capture the vessel. Eventually they come into contact with the Demarchy, a “pure democracy”. This society utilizes the remaining communication network surviving from the civil war to voice the opinions of all Demarchs. Swarms of newspeople follow everyone around but charisma and show dominate the politics. Ideas are seldom discussed in length before they are immediately voted on. I was intrigued by Vinge’s discussion of this unusual political environment.

In short, each society is in an advanced state of collapse. They are no longer self-sufficient and depend on each other for necessities (water, etc). However, the crumbling wrecks of spaceships prevent efficient trade. The inhabitants of Lansing astroid huddle under their tent canopy. Those who are not plagued by deformities caused by radiation stay underground while the deformed tend the remaining gardens on the surface and are prevented from marrying or producing children. The Demarchy proclaims to follow the rule of the people but in reality, the intensely charismatic and the news agencies are the real political motivators. Other astroid settlements are blessed with ice and supply the rest with water but choose their customers, effectively killing their rivals. For each society capturing Betha’s spaceship with its production facilities is a tangible way to emerge triumphant from the wreckage of the war.

The societies Vinge creates are vividly realized. Unfortunately, the novel contains little tension. Despite numerous attempts to capture Betha’s vessel, the decayed state of the societies encountered cannot challenge the vessel even without weapons and a limited crew. Also, Vinge frequently resorts to ineffective melodramatic moments replete with clichéd prose (“there are more stars in the galaxy than there are droplets of water in the Boreal Sea”) and stilted poetry (“Understanding comes from learning / no one ever changed a world”). Betha’s clan-based society which defines who is allowed to marry who, modeled on Native American cultures (Vinge was educated as an anthropologist), is too obviously “perfect” and “utopian”. Why would anyone leave to settle a bunch of asteroids out in the wilds of space?

The world of Heaven Belt is admirably realized setting the stage for a moving work of space opera. However, the parts do not combine effectively. It lacks emotional depth and effective characterization. An intriguing first novel by an author finding her footing. I suggest tracking down her 80s and early 90s classics first.