The Faded Sun Trilogy, CJ Cherryh

The Faded Sun Trilogy: Kesrith, Shon’jir and Kutath, CJ Cherryh (1978 – 1979)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

In the ’70s, Donald Wollheim left Ace Books to create a new imprint, DAW, devoted to the fantasy and science fiction genres. In his search for new authors, Wollheim contracted a number of good newcomers, of whom the most important was CJ Cherryh. She hit the scene with a number of impressive award-winners, many of which share the unified Alliance-Union universe as a backdrop. Such as this one, The Faded Sun Trilogy; first a serial in Galaxy (‘The Faded Sun: Kesrith’), then three books, now published as one volume.

Note that there are a number of spoilers in this review for the second two books, if only in that they reveal the cliffhangers or developments of the previous books. I did try not to reveal anything that wasn’t included in the books’ cover blurbs.

The Faded Sun books take place just after a forty-year interstellar war between the Terrans and the stunted alien Regul; since the Regul used another alien species, the mercenary Mri, to comprise their standing army, it was dubbed the Mri Wars. Humanity has been battered and embittered by conflict with the brutal Mri; after several planets were wiped out by Mri forces, the humans learned their enemies’ weaknesses. The Mri have a strict caste and honor-based systems steeped in ancient culture and tradition, which rendered them unable – sluggish, at best – to cope with changes in human tactics, such as preferring firearms and planetary bombardment to traditional, honorable solo combat.

Meanwhile, the mercantile Regul have an even different type of caste system, where elders of the race are valued far more than younglings; they cannot understand how humans will allow younglings to lead, contradict orders set by elders, and so forth. Thus, three totally alien races; the Mri and Regul are just as intelligent as humans, but none of the three can truly understand the others’ thought processes.

So, after forty years of war and bloodshed, the humans have forced the mercantile empires of the Regul into an uneasy peace, having obliterated most of the Mri. The decimated Mri are told to stand down, and for the first time in their ancient memory, they have no employer and no master. Then again, there’s only around 400 of them, plus a handful at the last Mri enclave on Kesrith; their inability to adapt to Terran tactics has left them a dying but still much-feared race on the political chessboard.

The Faded Sun: Kesrith
The profitable planet Kesrith is a bounty world, turned over to the Terrans as part of the peace process; it’s home to the last Mri enclave in the galaxy. The Regul are hoping to minimize its profitability by stripping of it materials, unhappy that the humans have acquired it, but are unwilling to put up much of a fight for a blasted desert world; the Regul are in the process of dismantling everything of value when the Mri survivors arrive at Kesrith, days after the human ambassador/overseer and his assistant, Sten Duncan, arrives. Awkward.

The Mri enclave is where the young Niun and his sister Melein are still in training. Niun is the last young Mri of the warrior caste; Melein, the last in the priestly caste. Together, they are the last gasp of a dying race. And when the Regul destroy the ship harboring the other Mri survivors, they’re the only survivors. They form an uneasy alliance with Sten Duncan; Sten’s fearful and bitter at the Mri, having seen first-hand their fighting capabilities and remorseless carnage on the front-lines, and the Mri are understandably distrustful of the first human they’ve ever encountered. It’s an uneasy peace, but trust begins to grow, and Sten starts to feel less hostility towards the Mri and more towards the Regul who just massacred their former warriors.

The novel starts laying out the pieces that will dominate the trilogy, and wraps a multi-layered game of intrigue around the narrative: the uneasy relations and apprehension between Human, Regul, and Mri. There is some, but not a whole lot of action, but there is a bucketful of fascinating world-building, cultural analysis, and strong character development. It works as an introduction to the three disparate cultures, their immediate history, and the varying main characters. Kesrith is a strange and hostile environment, reminding me of Arrakis from its harsh deserts and deadly fauna. It’s not a planet humans are really meant to survive on; I get the feeling it was chosen based on Regul profit statistics, sight unseen.

The Faded Sun: Shon’Jir
Following the last book’s cliffhanger, the only way to save Niun and Melein was for Duncan to take them to the human occupation force, where they face an uncertain fate; sedated, they’re kept alive by medicine they’d otherwise deny. The human commanders have a plan that might thwart the Regul’s genocide of the Mri: found in the holy relics of the Mri is a navigation tape that may lead to the Mri homeworld. Centuries ago, the Mri engaged in what they considered a journey of discovery, which put them as the warrior-mercenaries employed by a long line of alien species, and this homeworld might harbor Mri who did not undertake the exploration quest. Putting Niun and Melein aboard a ship, with Duncan as navigator and doctor, they’re sent off to return home.

But things may not be as they appear to be, as one Regul battlecraft and two powerful human warships follow along behind. The amount of distrust is immense, given the history between these three races; the Regul attempt to assume what the humans would do, while the humans try to figure out what the Regul are up to, and Duncan is worried that the humans and Regul are convinced the Mri are a threat and have teamed up to finish off the few remaining Mri once and for all. And Melein decrees that no non-Mri can set foot on the Mri homeworld, so Duncan must learn the stern rules of the Mri warrior-caste.

All told, this one was a lot slower than the first one; more introspective and analytical, as we see Duncan learning the ways of the Mri, becoming accepted despite his many mistakes. The voyage to Kutath is long, so the entire book is more or less Duncan’s cultural indoctrination. The Mri, like the Regul, fascinate me because of how foreign they are: they are smart, clever, logical beings, yet operate in ways incompatible with human logic. They are bound by their strict tradition, hierarchy, and culture; they refuse to perform any kind of manual labor, since it erodes their warrior mentality. Yet Niun and Melein are still sympathetic, fascinating characters; in part because they straddle the line between the dying old ways and the concepts they’ll have to adapt, and use, to survive in a universe of Regul and Terrans.

The Faded Sun: Kutath
The plot reaches crisis point as the various threads begin to unravel. The Regul arrived at Kutath before the Terran warships, blew up Duncan’s ship and his long-distance message of peace, and begin a planetary bombardment before the Terrans can stopped them. Angered, the Mri tribes march against those who brought this attack—Niun, who’s helped Melein establish herself with the Mri tribe living near the planet’s ancient computer system. A computer system that’s tied to the planet’s self-defense system, and could take out the offending ships, unless Duncan convinces Melein that peace is a valid option.

Niun must keep the remnants of the Mri held together, despite their distrust of him, Melein, and most of all the foreign creature Duncan. Meanwhile, Duncan has to trek back across the ruined deserts from his meeting with the Terrans, in order to preserve the fragile peace between the three races that’s already eroding. Heck, he has to get back before the Mri themselves collapse from infighting, either from the allied Mri tribes, or someone else challenging Niun/Melein’s right to rule their newly-acquired tribe. The action begins to ramp up; a new Regul elder is born to lead, filling the gap of the previous leader, but he’s not acting in a coherent manner. Distrust between the humans and Regul comes to a breaking point after learning of the attempted Mri genocide, and the destruction of Duncan’s ship.

After the first book’s promises, and the second book’s slow, slow buildup, I was wondering how the third book would fare: a slow burn like the first one, more sluggish development, a flare out, or what. I shouldn’t have worried; it was the promised rewards of the plotlines established and developed through the last two books. Tensions flare, conflicts come to a head, and with the development of a new Regul leader, things start spinning out of control. The first two books are buildup for the crashing crescendos of the third book’s finale, where the great game sees its final moves. With so much distrust, and everyone on-edge, the novel shapes into a climactic three-way struggle; the intrigues start as a slow-burn, and then makes a rapid descent into conflict that can only end with the destruction of (at least) one faction.

Cherryh is a master of world-building, and the first novel is an excellent example of this: the textured world, the foreign species which are as smart as humans, yet unable to think like them. The second book is much slower, as Duncan is indoctrinated into the Mri culture. It’s something of a slog, but it opens up a lot of cultural nuances with the Mri while Duncan goes native. The third book brings it all home; the uneasy truce finally shatters, new developments throw everything into a spin, and a cat and mouse game of intrigue erupts into all-out war on the fringe of a galaxy, with an entire species’ future in the balance.

I do have a few complaints. There’s a number of fidgety little details that irked me: crossing the listless void of space to find the ancient Mri homeworld speaks the same language as their long-lost descendants, for example. And if you haven’t picked up on this by now, The Faded Sun Trilogy is slow. There’s a lot of build up, and a lot of wandering around, and a lot of cultural/anthropological discourse; not a whole lot of action or tension. The final book is loaded with powerful dramatic scenes, and there are some great tense moments scattered across the first and last volumes, but these are not thrill-a-minute reads. They’re more an exercise in world-building and alien cultures.

While the trilogy has its Hard SF and Military SF edges, the core is a Soft SF approach, more of a sociological and anthropological track than anything else, which can make it dry and monotonous. I didn’t find it as problematic as others might—I thought it was stunning to see the detailed alien races up close – but I wouldn’t mind if some more tension showed up earlier in the novel, and ended skipping some of the dryer sections in the second volume.

The Faded Sun Trilogy has everything: well-defined alien cultures that are actually alien, some intriguing philosophical questions, a Soft SF look at cultural integration and extinction, a fluid struggle of political intrigue, developed planetary ecology, and a proper epic backdrop of intergalactic war for this amazing space opera. Cherryh does all this with masterful vision and passionate intensity, a terse sense of focus that keeps the book short, yet nuanced and flowing. In a nutshell, it’s my ideal science fiction novel. While sluggish, it builds steam near the end for a fantastic conclusion that’s more than worth the price of admission. Every SF fan should give this series a try. I promise – at least I really hope – it won’t disappoint. Highly recommended; I found it a breathtaking, immersive read, and despite numerous flaws, I loved this series.

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

Map of Power, Tess Williams

Map of Power, Tess Williams (1996)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

In the frozen wastes of Antarctica, Cheela and her tribe believe that they are the last people left on Earth. Their elders tell of the time long ago when the planet was poisoned and everything died. The tribal ancestors set out for the one place they felt would be safe from the spreading pollution. Now they live from hand to mouth, dependent for everything on penguin, fish and seal. But, clustered protectively in their summer camp in the shadow of the Dark Times building with the great towers, they are a community, they are alive.

Far out in an orbit almost as high as the Moon is the skywheel. No shuttle has come from Earth in centuries. As far as the crew know, there is no one left alive to send it. But there might be, and whilst there is hope, they cling to their duty. It is a military-scientific establishment, originally charged with finding cures for the viral plagues that ravaged a planet shorn of bio-diversity. There is little point in that work now, but the material they had to work with: DNA samples of every species they could salvage; that is worth preserving. It is monotonous work, and the uniform, grey, metallic environment of the two-kilometre-across wheel, adrift in the vast vacuum of space, is perfectly in tune with that work. Is it any wonder that some of the crew are starting to go a little loopy?

Amidst the half-drowned ruins of Perth, Western Australia, a small kingdom is growing. Morgan Welwyn is not exactly part of it. He is a sorcerer, an heretic, a dabbler in the black arts of the Dark Times. As such, he is invaluable to Piper, the ruler of this land. His discoveries could prove useful in the inevitable war with Isiah Barron’s people from the eastern lands. Weaponry will be the key. The skywheel, according to the plans Morgan found in the observatory, has lasers and a rail gun. And somewhere in the former Chilean-owned portion of Antartica is an experimental fast breeder reactor with a plentiful supply of plutonium.

High amongst the stars, Kass experiments with strange, green liquids that combine with and enhance the human nervous system. Research into mind-enhancement is illegal, but as deputy-commander of the station she is able to get away with it. Being the commander’s lover also helps keep her out of the clutches of Kagan, the station psychiatrist. For Kass is quite mad, and afflicted with terrible dreams in which all of mankind marches, hungry and barefoot, through a wasted land; a refugee column with nowhere to go. Those dreams, Kass might know if she were not mad, are shared by many of the crew, and even by Cheela far away on the ice. Madwomen, of course, have difficulty with reasoning. In any case, there is another question that Kass might ponder. She has visions and hears voices; Piper wants the station’s weapons and the plutonium; Commander Hovar, desperate to keep his fragile link with Earth, has agreed to help: which one of them is most crazy?

Like I said, powerful stuff. Tess Williams is another of the writers from She’s Fantastical to graduate into writing novels, and the talent she demonstrates should take her far. It isn’t perfect: her action scenes don’t seem nearly as well crafted as her character studies. But for a first book it is very good indeed.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart

The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

While science fiction has long included a tradition of feminist utopian fiction, it has been marginalised by predominantly male, white and middle-class American fans and readers. And yet the genre is ideally suited to such fictions, as they are both thought experiments and cautionary tales. It is almost certainly overly charitable to ascribe their low profile among the sf community to their frequent reluctance to explain their mechanism of change. And, while Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground may be a typical feminist utopian fiction in this regard, it also demonstrates the strength and appeal of such stories.

At some indeterminate point in 1978’s near-future, the Earth itself rebels, and as a result “men’s sexual erections, like the operation of all mechanical and electronic devices, are confined to densely populated metropolitan areas” (from Sally Miller Gearhart’s website). A group of women – the Hill Women – have successfully escaped from the cities and now live in the countryside, interacting with each other, with nature, and trying to assist the Earth in its healing.

The Hill Women possess the ability to converse with animals and plants, who appear to have gained sentience during Earth’s revolt. The women are also telepathic, telekinetic and can fly. It’s implied that all women – well, those who break from the cities and join the Hill Women – have the potential to exercise these powers, although the characters in The Wanderground each have them only to differing degrees. The hows and whys of all this are left unexplained – in fact, in a number of instances, these powers are little more than literary devices, used to enable the plot.

The Wanderground comprises a series of interlinked stories about the Hill Women. Gearhart makes no concessions to her readers, and right from the start uses vocabulary peculiar to their society. On the first page alone, “anger was being spoken”, the protagonist waits for a “mind invitation”, which does not come, and then checks “her listenspread”. The stories of The Wanderground are very much focused on the relationships and interactions between the Hill Women (and others) – there is no overall plot per se to the book. This very much works to its advantage.

There are in The Wanderground some especially nice touches. While many of the invented portmanteau words feel a little unnecessary and forced, I was particularly taken with the neologism “carjer”:

Ono remembered Egathese’s carjer, one of those personal bands of prejudice where hard things had to be worked out or at least understood. (p 36)

This is a word which should enter common usage.

The Wanderground reads a little dated during the sections set in the city – there seems to have been no progress in the world of men and everything feels very mid-twentieth century. This presents a cognitive mismatch with the timeless nature of the society of the Hill Women, though the familiarity of city society does emphasis men’s appalling treatment of women. Nevertheless, the book builds to an affecting finish. The chapter detailing the “Revolt of the Mother” as a vision experienced by a group of Hill Women is also especially effective.

It’s not hard to see why The Wanderground is a classic feminist utopia. Perhaps, as is inevitable, there is an element of wish-fulfilment to its scenario – all those magical powers! – but there’s also a great deal of charm. The chapters set in the city are justifiably angry, and Gearhart keeps the righteousness firmly on target. And yet all is not as perfect as the Hill Women would have it, and it’s Gearhart’s introduction of the “gentles” which demonstrates the strength of the book’s conceit. The presence of the gentles (men who have rejected the cities) allows Gearhart to show that factions exist within Hill Women society, which in turn demonstrates that no place can be a utopia to all its inhabitants, no matter what magical powers they may possess. Recommended.

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

Six Moon Dance, Sheri S Tepper

Six Moon Dance, Sheri S Tepper (1998)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

Six Moon Dance, I think, represents both a new departure and a retreat for Tepper. It is a new departure in that she finally admits that it is who you are, not what gender you are, that determines your quality as a person. It is a retreat in that it falls back on two standard Tepper themes that were so blessedly absent from The Family Tree. So far, so undecided. But is it any good, and, more importantly, does it have anything new to say?

Well, Tepper novels are always good, even when they are highly irritating. She does write well, she can tell a good story, and she is always inventive, particularly with societies. This time she chooses to play with an environment in which women are so rare that they have the majority of political power. It is a society in which it is boys whose families sell them into prostitution and men who are deemed excessively emotional and have to wear veils.

This does not mean, however, that the society is a mirror image of our own. For example, Tepper is well aware that women have different attitudes to sexuality than men. The young gigolos are rigorously trained to be everything that a romantic hero should be, not just a strutting cock. More interestingly, she has her women deliberately avoid the sordid power games of commerce, leaving that area free for men to compete in. This is a potential weakness in the female control of society, though Tepper assumes that most of the men will be too selfish, and too busy competing with each other, to provide a major threat.

Had she left it at that and just explored the implications of the world she had created it would have been a very interesting book. Unfortunately she could not resist bringing in the usual psychotic, male-dominated cult and the all-powerful natural force that enables her characters to combat the bad guys. This is standard Tepper stuff and it is beginning to get boring. Which is a shame because she does a lot in this book to break down the normal stereotypes of Tepper characters. It also contains a lot of other fascinating ideas.

The cast includes a sadistic old woman, a positively charming and somewhat effeminate young gigolo, a female ballet dancer who seems almost sexless and a transvestite actor. There is also an android who looks like a matronly woman but doesn’t really behave like one until she discovers where the brains making up her processing unit came from. There are also two fascinating alien races and a radical political philosophy on which human interplanetary society is based. Most importantly, the book once again ends with a message of hope, not of despair. Sadly there is nowhere near enough room in one novel to explore any of these things in any detail.

My guess is that Tepper’s view of the world is evolving at a fairly glacier-like pace. Slowly but surely she is managing to let go of the hatred and distrust that have marred her work over the past few years. But it is a painful process, and one not likely to be enhanced by her present withdrawal from the world.

Ah well, she writes entertaining, if irritating books. Maybe one day she’ll get her sense of perspective back and write something as good as Grass. Maybe she’ll get her sense of humour back and write something as good as A Gate to Women’s Country. In the meantime we wait, and have to settle for books which are merely good.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

Starshadows, Pamela Sargent

Starshadows, Pamela Sargent (1977)
Review by Ian Sales

Sargent’s first short story appeared in 1970 in F&SF, and by the time her first collection, Starshadows, was published, she had almost twenty stories, one novel, and the first of the Women of Wonder anthologies to her name. And yet Terry Carr, in his somewhat patronising introduction to Starshadows, implies that she owes her career almost entirely to him. He writes, “‘Hey, you can write! Both of these stories held my interest and made me want to know what was coming next. That’s a rare quality in writers.’ … But I rejected both stories, for flaws real or imagined.” You’d hope that holding a reader’s interest and making them “want to know what was coming next” would be pretty essential skills for a writer, and not “a rare quality”. But then if the stories in Starshadows, all of which Carr praises fulsomely, are any indication then perhaps in 1977 Carr’s eye wasn’t as sharp as his long career would suggest.

Because the ten short stories in Starshadows are hardly the sort to make you track down every other book written by the author. Some of them, in fact, are quite poor – despite originally appearing in respected sf markets, such as F&SF, New Worlds Quarterly or Universe. The opener, ‘Shadows’, Carr takes full credit for, as it was published in anthology he edited, Fellowship of the Stars. (Amusingly, the anthology was originally called Strange Brothers, but the publishers objected to the title; Carr played with a number of alternatives, including Manly Hands Across Space, before settling on the final one.) ‘Shadows’ is also one of the better stories in the collection, though I suspect Carr overstates his contribution. It is an alien invasion tale, in which the aliens and their motives remain mysterious. It is also feminist, and in some small way reminds me of L Timmel Duchamp’s excellent Marq’ssan Cycle.

‘Gather Blue Roses’ and ‘Oasis’ share the same central conceit: an empath who feels others’ physical and emotional pains. In the former, some slightly dodgy racial politics almost spoil a nicely-told story about a girl suffering from the same empathic condition as her mother. ‘Oasis’, by comparison, has a man hiding in a desert because of his emparthic suffering, and it’s really not a very good story.

However, ‘Julio 204’ which was originally published in New Worlds Quarterly, is worse. It’s set in the sort of New York Brunner described in his embarrassingly hip novel The Jagged Orbit, and is surprisingly sexist. ‘IMT’ reads like a much older sort of sf story – the acronym stands for “instantaneous matter transmitter”, but Lisa Fernandez, city manager for New York, refuses to let it be implemented. After much argument why she should not block it, she eventually reveals her motives: she’s thought through the ramifications. This sort of sf was popular in the 1940s and 1950s.

‘Desert Places’ and ‘The Other Perceiver’ both originally appeared in Universe. In ‘Desert Places’, a group of people appear to live in a depopulated city, forever on the move, but the wider world proves to be very different. There seemed something familiar about it. ‘The Other Perceiver’ certainly scores in terms of novelty value. A man collects samples of human shit for an alien houseguest, though given the end result he probably shouldn’t have done. I think this is the first sf story I’ve come across based on “farming”.

‘Bond and Free’ is very similar to ‘Desert Places’ – a group of oddballs appear to be alone in a deserted hospital, but after one leaves and travels far from their immediate surroundings, she discovers the reason for their isolation. ‘If Ever I Should Leave You’ reads like a précis of The Time Traveller’s Wife – a man uses a Time Station to visit various time periods, so his wife can then travel there throughout her lifetime in order to eke out her relationship with him. There’s something about the story logic which doesn’t quite add up, though it does possess a pleasing circularity.

‘Clone Sister’ was one of the stories which formed part of Sargent’s first novel, Cloned Lives, and is plainly the highlight of the collection. Jim is one of five clones – he has three “brothers” and one “sister”. When Jim’s girlfriend leaves him, he goes into a blue funk – only to be lifted out of it by entering into a sexual relationship with his clone sister. Though Jim comes across as far too self-analytic to be convincingly male and Kira, the female clone, seems perversely enigmatic, the story reads well and has happily not dated especially.

This at least leaves the reader on a high note, because if Starshadows suffers from a problem, it’s that its contents have not aged well. They are typical science fiction of the early 1970s, albeit atypical in their use of female protagonists, for which they should be applauded. But in style and content, they do seem very much of their period. Against some other writers active during that time, Sargent’s fiction does not compare well – not those authors who had been writing for several decades, as their simplistic brand of sf was long past its sell-by date; but other new writers, particularly those associated with the New Wave. However, Sargent clearly went on to do better, and it must be said that Carr’s praise for her writing in the introduction to this collection does feel a little premature.

Shadow’s End, Sheri S Tepper

Shadow’s End, Sheri S Tepper (1994)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

A few years ago there was a book called Grass. It was famous, it got nominated for things, it was very good. Since then its author has produced a stream of excellent, thoughtful novels. None of them have become famous, none of them have been nominated for anything, most of them are just as good.

There are two things that Tepper does very well. The first is to construct different environments and societies which work, which are interesting, and which have some sort of central mystery to them which teases and tantalises you through the story. She has a good imagination, and works the ideas through.

The other is to pose moral issues as part of the plot. She thinks about things, she cares. She is interested in questions such as the future role of mankind in the cosmos, and our relationship to other species. Will we evolve? If so, how? And how will our interaction with others affect this?

There has been a larger plot as well. Most of the novels since Grass have been following the same sort of theme. But even so I was surprised to see the whole thing come full circle at the end of Sideshow. There was some long term planning in there somewhere.

Of course in the middle of that lot came the excellent Gate to Women’s Country, which is a most wry and elegant commentary on the sex war. Believe me girls, it is a classic. Read this book, and from then on, every time some macho twit gets up your nose, just say “reindeer” to yourself and you will collapse into giggles. Recommended.

This particular article, however, was prompted by the arrival of Tepper’s latest offering, Shadow’s End. It bears all of the trappings of a traditional Tepper novel. There is a mystery planet with a strange social ecology that involves a mysterious alien species. There is an arrogant, intolerant religion – male-dominated, of course. In fact there are two, although one masquerades as social philosophy. There is a change on the way, and seemingly ordinary but fated people caught up in it. So far so good.

Unfortunately Tepper’s imagination seems to have failed her this time, and although the mystery unfolds with its customary elegance, the plot draws to a grinding halt in a discordant squeal of heavy Deus-ex-machina. And that capital D was deliberate. It is a shame, because she has some good points to make. This time, I’m sorry to say, she lost it.

Which is a shame, because the rest of the canon since Grass has been darned good. Some may find it offensive. After all, she is a feminist, and she does have a particular downer on intolerant, patriarchal religions. But personally I think they need all of the taking down a peg that they can get.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

Kindred, Octavia Butler

Kindred, Octavia Butler (1979)
Review by Grace Troxel

If I had to sum up Kindred in one phrase, I’d say that this book is Murphy’s law applied to time travel. Everything that can go wrong does, and at the worst possible time.

Kindred is technically classified as sci-fi, but it is a genre-bending novel that also incorporates elements of historical fiction. It tells the story of Dana, a modern black woman from California who is pulled back in time to the early 1800s in Maryland to rescue her distant white ancestor Rufus when his life is endangered. Dana makes six visits to the past during the course of the novel and is only able to return home when she believes that her own life is threatened.

Dana is forced to confront the horrors of slavery as she spends time in the past and struggles with her own identity as she is swept into life on the plantation. Meanwhile, she finds herself in the rather awkward (and completely f’ed up) position of having to make sure that Rufus has sex with a woman named Alice so that her ancestors would be born and she wouldn’t flicker out of existence à la Back to the Future.

Kindred is such a powerful story because Dana is so easy to identify with. She’s intelligent, resourceful, and a very much a product of modern life. When we see slavery from the eyes of someone from our own world it makes everything seem so much more real than it would in a typical historical fiction novel. We see Dana react to the past in a multitude of different ways, ranging from her initial realization that she wasn’t in 1976 anymore when kid-Rufus used a racial slur against her to the panic at realizing that medicine in the early 1800s could be downright scary (bloodletting? leeches? gross!). It’s extreme culture shock on a multitude of different levels, but Dana eventually finds herself adapting and learning to understand the mindset of surviving the violence and dehumanization that her ancestors faced.

One of the things that I also enjoyed about this book was seeing Dana’s relationship with her husband Kevin. She and Kevin are both writers and are very clearly soulmates. We see some of her backstory with Kevin, including the way that both of their families handled the fact that they were an interracial couple (badly, of course). However, the problems that Dana and Kevin face in the modern world pale in comparison to the harsh reality of life in the 1800s.

Dana discovers that anything she’s carrying when she gets pulled into the past goes with her, so she packs herself a bag and on one occasion even takes her husband with her. Kevin tries to use his social standing to protect her, but that doesn’t make Dana’s experience of the past any less dangerous.

I read Kindred in one sitting and was on the edge of my seat the entire time. Butler’s writing is articulate and powerful, and she is able to make readers not just see the past but also feel it. Kindred is one of the best books that I’ve ever read, and I’d highly recommend it.

This review originally appeared on Books Without Any Pictures.

Virtual Girl, Amy Thomson

Virtual Girl, Amy Thomson (1993)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

Virtual Girl is Amy Thomson’s first novel. The title is a bit of a misnomer because, unlike the software constructs in Otherland, Amy’s heroine is a full-blown android. Created as an AI, Molly is downloaded into an artificial body and the book is the story of her efforts to survive in human society. The book is, in effect, Data for grown-ups. Amy eschews the abstruse philosophical debates and cute jokes about emotion chips that beset Star Trek’s efforts to treat the question of artificial life seriously. Instead she focuses on immediate practical issues like how to learn which of the vast flood of inputs that the world presents are worth taking notice of. The only Star Trek like issue is Molly’s need to define her relationship with Arnold, the man who created her but who treats her like a possession. The book is as much an allegory of slavery as anything else.

Allegory indeed is a theme of the book. In an effort to keep his illegal research secret, Arnold lives as a hobo, doing everything he can to keep off official records. When she is accidentally separated from him, Molly knows no other life and continues to live amongst tramps and prostitutes. This automatically puts her amongst a bunch of other people who are on the edge of acceptable society. By now she is good at passing for human, but sooner or later her true nature will have to come out. Amy uses the setting to provide a perfect excuse: Molly’s landlady turns out to be a transvestite, so who is the bigger fake?

All in all, the book is a fine start. It could be better. If I ever write a novel I will make sure that I go back and re-write the first few chapters from scratch because I’ve seen so many first novels where the author takes a while to get the hang of things. But by the end Amy has established a confident control over the medium. There are two more books to go, and I’m looking forward to them.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.