Sargasso of Space, Andre Norton

Sargasso of Space, Andre Norton (1955)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Andre Norton’s Sargasso of Space, the first installment of her Solar Queen sequence of novels, delivers everything a 1950s juvenile science fiction adventure should. Sargasso of Space is not only blessed with genuine tension, intriguing situations, heroic young adults, but also a multi-racial cast (an African-American apprentice engineer and two crew members of Asian descent). This is my first of Andre Norton’s massive body of work I’ve read and I will be looking to add more to my collection. There’s something so appealing in the classic archetypal trope of the young hero – with the help of loyal friends – solving an intriguing (and dangerous) puzzle.

Our young/intrepid hero Dane Thornson is an apprentice Cargo-Master recently graduated from the Training Pool that divvies out spacemen for the various large space companies and independent spaceships. There are multiple gradations of service: the big companies which have prestige and guaranteed profit, interstellar transports which offer little in the way of prestige or wealth, and the Free Traders – small ships which go where the companies will not go, ie the dangerous planets with big risk (and potentially great profit). The computer assigns our hero to a Free Trader named the Solar Queen.

The Solar Queen seeks to purchase trading rights to the Planet Limbo – charted by surveys, but, for mysterious reasons, deemed not worthwhile or too dangerous for one of the big companies. An auction is held and the Solar Queen wins the bid but the crew has to contribute their entire salaries for the voyage to table enough money. If the mission isn’t a success they’ll be unable to buy fuel yet alone restock for another trade mission. We also learn how infrequent it is for Free Traders to win trade rights to any planet – the crew is risking everything on this chance in a lifetime expedition. When the crew opens the sealed packet with the planet information, they learn that the planet, named Limbo due to its unknown status, appears completely worthless. The world is mostly burnt and wrecked due to a war waged by the Forerunners, a group of spacefaring people whose presence stretched across the galaxy before wars destroyed them. The crew feels dejected until a man named Dr Slazar Rich, who claims to be an archaeologist, asks for passage to the world. Also, they believe that there has to be something on the planet if the survey would have put it up for auction. Any Forerunner technology amongst the ruins would be a great boon.

Norton uses the time before the crew’s arrival on Limbo to discuss Dane Thornson’s job on board. He’s the apprentice to the Cargo Master who is in charge of stocking the vessel for long voyages, bringing all the trinkets and objects to initiate first contact (and trade) with potential alien beings. Dane’s interaction with the crew is not discussed at length. As with many juveniles, the main character is the only one who is developed to any degree. Dane does resent the spacemen of the more heroic movie-like mode, I assume due to his own more blue-collar position as an apprentice Cargo-Master.

Norton includes other interesting tidbits of societal information. For example, Free Traders of any mold are reluctant to wear weapons when they embark on a new planet. Only when they are confronted with danger do they break out the blasters. Norton clearly wants to present the Traders, although they bring trinkets and other worthless gifts for natives, as not engaging in trade at gunpoint as European explorers did with Native Americans, Africans, Indians, and other people they encountered.

When they land on Limbo, Rich and his assistants (who are all very suspicious) quickly depart for their camp. In exploring the planet, the crew discovers unknown vehicle tracks and a group of injured translucent globe-like aliens who have clearly been attacked. Adding to the mystery are the remains of many crashed spaceships, including the recent Federation survey ship! And Dr. Rich is nowhere to be found!

I read this in one sitting – while it rained, in a tent, after a long hike – and I couldn’t put it down. Not only does the final mystery resemble one of my favorite (conceptually) episodes of Star Trek Voyager (I won’t give away which one but it involves spaceships crashing on planets) but I found Norton’s inclusion of a multi-racial crew admirable. Remember, this is before Star Trek: the Original Series with Uhura and famous African American scientists… At first Dane does dislike the black crew member Ali Kamil (the apprentice engineer), but it’s because he is the “video idea of a spaceman” (p 13). The fact that Norton has a society where a black man is the ideal spaceman seems very progressive for the 1950s! In addition to Ali there is Frank Mura, the cook, who is of Japanese descent. Despite being a cook, Mura, like all the members of the Solar Queen’s crew, has a vast variety of skills and becomes one of the main characters in the second half of the novel. In addition, there’s the Com-tech Tang Ya, another of the more important members of the crew, who is of Asian descent. Clearly, Norton’s vision of the future includes men of all different races.

That said, there are no female characters. Unfortunately, juveniles from the 1950s rarely include women. If they do, they are the love interest of the youthful hero or an intrepid young news reporter-type figure.

If you are a fan of naive, but delightfully fun, 1950s science fiction adventures then Sargasso of Space is one of the best I’ve come across lately. Recommended.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

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Reclamation, Sarah Zettel

Reclamation, Sarah Zettel (1996)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Millenia ago, mankind seeded the galaxies with colonization “cradles,” forming a vast space presence. But as time passed, these colonies grew, interacted with alien races, developed, and Earth was lost to the mists of time. Now, two factions have emerged. The first are the Unifiers, hoping to bring all elements of the Human Family back together, and one day to find their Evolution Point. They’ve also taken over an ideal artificial world constructed by some forgotten precursors. Next are the Rhudolant Vitae, an ancient branch of humanity with a strict, static caste system which has come to dominate the galaxy through trade and political intrigue. The Vitae consider themselves humanity’s firstborn, and are looking for their Home Point, a planet which was lost to them back in their early years. The two sides are at odds, but are not in open conflict, restricting their agendas to intrigue and espionage.

Meanwhile. Protagonist Eric Born was a priest on one of the many colonization worlds, a primitive backwater named the Realm of Nameless Powers. This is a planet which has no open areas nor open skies between its craggy canyons—and has many creation myths surrounding evil, manipulative Skymen, the reason why the sky is blocked out and why its people have strange psionic-like powers. Thanks to outsider interference, Eric Born turned his back on his archaic religion; the heretic priest abandoned the primitive Realm and went off-world, becoming a smuggler and data pirate selling his unique talents to the highest bidder.

While operating for the Vitae, he’s brought in to help interrogate a prisoner captured from his former home – Arla Stone in the Wall, who was being lifted off-world to assist the Unifiers in bringing the Realm into the Human Family… until she was captured by the Vitae. As things turn out, they band together and escape; when Eric looks into this situation, he unravels a mystery far greater than anticipated. Arla – and himself – are genetic constructs, whose shortened DNA strands are linked to the Vitae’s. Their entire planet is an artificial creation dating back millenia, constructed by unknown engineers. Their creation myths may have a kernel of truth to them. And the Realm may reveal the origin of both the Human Evolution Point and the Vitae Home Ground.

The two key words here are “space opera.” The scale is enormous, the plot intense, the mysteries deep and complex, the world-building… well, a bit vague, but while there’s a lot painted in broad strokes, the detail work – such as the alien Shessel and the Vitae, the Unifer/Vitae agendas, the Realm’s culture and history and mythic creation story – is well-done. When so much is going on, some vagueness isn’t a bad thing, and there’s a ton of awesome concepts in the book. So, space opera. With a heavy undercurrent of mystery: not just the mystery behind the Realm and why everyone wants it, but Vitae espionage, and the intrigues of multiple factions, keep the plot complex. Allegiances are ever-shifting, and more often than not you’ll find that a character is a double-agent or has an agenda of their own.

This would be perfect, if only the author handled the plot, the characters, and their relationships with clarity. Zettel hits the ground running and doesn’t relent, and I found myself tangled in the novel’s web-like plot; Zettel throws more characters into the mix than is necessary, feeling like she was introducing new characters every chapter without any prior indication of who these people are. Their motives, goals, backgrounds, and relationships aren’t spelled out in the slightest – you learn these things by seeing what happens, not by the author telling you even after things have happened; it requires an attentive reader to parse out motives and relationships from the dialogue and the characters’ actions. For example, at least twice I was several pages into a new character before I realized they’d either shown up earlier, or that other characters had made oblique references to them. That lack of clarity was irritating; it made the book feel rushed when what it needed was room to catch its breath. A neat trick, since it also felt a little too long and slow to me.

There’s also a few nonsensical choices made later in the book – the worst deals with Arla’s family, who pop out of the ether two-thirds into the book without having been introduced or mentioned before. (I knew Arla had children after some early chapters, but I’m referring to her husband, a bunch of other children, and Arla’s divorce proceedings.) I’m not sure why they even exist other than to free her up legally to be Eric Born’s love interest, since they didn’t add much, came out of the blue, and most of their point was to pad out a book that was already bloated with complexity. And the ending leaves numerous plot-threads unfinished, which was a letdown – characters from earlier never reappear; the majority of the factional intrigues, and even entire factions, start to cease in the book’s fourth quarter.

Readers used to “harder” science fiction might balk at some the fantasy-esque leanings. After the first few chapters, the plot is focused at the Realm of the Nameless (since both the protagonists come from there); as a lost colony world stuck in primitive barbarism, with a mythic history, strict caste system, and baroque nomenclature, it reads more like fantasy. When the tech comes around, it’s pretty out there: the protagonists have some special powers tied to their genetics, which are extreme even considered against the psionic powers I’ve seen SF touch on. Eric Born can “interface” with machinery and run the deepest, most secure data-nets without any cyberpunk-style machine interfacing, has minor telekinesis-type powers, and can disable people with a mere touch. Arla is a human datastore who can interface with the far-future equivalent of USB flash drives.

There’s also a lot of post-cyberpunk technology running about – there’s a rogue AI who, because of the lack of real-time cross-galaxy communication systems, has to ride the branching data-flow from Point A to Point B to get to another computer – but while it feels like a product of the mid-1990s, it doesn’t feel as dated as it could be. In part, that’s because Zettel avoids the specifics Hard SF would lust over, because they would have been made obsolete before the end of the decade. Sure, characters use physical media, but at least it’s not floppy disks. (And if you talked about the glories of touchscreen tablets utilizing cloud computing back in 1996, they would have burned you for a witch.)

What we’ve got here is proper space opera: epic scale, sweeping scope, impressive setting ideas, complex and dominant mysteries waiting to be explored. The front cover sees Poul Anderson putting it “in the grand tradition of Asimov and Heinlein;” it is, at heart, an old-school science fiction adventure tale, albeit closer to Anderson’s works than the other two. Yet one inspired by the newer-generation of post-Star Wars space opera scribes—David Brin, CJ Cherryh, Vernor and Joan Vinge – with a heaping of post-cyberpunk techno-fetishism. If you’re a fan of any of those authors, space opera, or SF with mysteries attached, you should find Reclamation appealing. The flaws – uneven pacing, character bloat, dangling plot threads, rushed ending – are typical for a first novel, especially one this ambitious. It’s a mixed reading experience, and while I didn’t fall in love with it, I found a lot to like within its pages. An enjoyable if undistinguished space opera, conceptually savvy but lacking in its execution.

Sometimes I feel I’m being too harsh on a book, and this is one of those cases. Reclamation has a lot of first-novel-syndrome issues that detract from the reading experience. But when I got into it, the book breezed along, and I kept finding myself partway through a chapter well after I’d planned to stop reading for the night. Don’t expect a perfect novel, because that’s not what you’re going to get. You’ll need to overlook a number of flaws to truly enjoy it, and I could only get over some of them.

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

Voyager in Night, CJ Cherryh

Voyager in Night, CJ Cherryh (1984)
Review by Ian Sales

It takes real confidence to open a novel, even a science fiction novel, with the line, “Trishanamarandu-kepta was <>’s name, of shape subject to change and configurations of consciousness likewise mutable” – confidence in the writing and confidence in readers’ patience. Not to mention interspersing a timeline between sections on the first four pages. Carolyn Janice Cherry’s prose, of course, has always exuded confidence. From the start of her career, it has been notable for its terseness and muscularity; it was, if you will, her Unique Selling Point.

Sadly, Cherryh’s novels are not so popular now, but during the 1970s and 1980s they were almost ubiquitous in British book shops. And given that not all of her titles made it across the Atlantic, I should imagine the same held true in the US. She deserved that. She was very, very good at what she did. And if her popularity has waned in the past two decades, it’s not because she no longer is good, but because tastes have changed.

Cherryh’s other USP was the Alliance-Union universe in which she set a great many novels and stories – including her Hugo Award-winning novels Downbelow Station (1982) and Cyteen (1989). Though Cherryh did write some space opera, the Alliance-Union novels form a future history beginning around the mid-23rd century and ending millennia later. Most of the novels covering the earlier centuries are hard sf, and Voyager in Night, which takes place in 2355 CE, is a case in point.

A new planetary system has been settled and a new station, Endeavor Station, built there. In order to fully exploit the system’s riches, Endeavor Station has put out the call for prospectors and miners. The Lindy is one such ship. It is old and cobbled-together, and cost every penny possessed by its three owners/crew. They are Rafe Murray, his sister Jillan, and her husband Paul Gaines. They have been transported to Endeavor Station (their ship is not FTL-capable) to prospect for asteroids. However, several months after their arrival, while they are out prospecting, a huge alien ship arrives in the system and collides with them.

The three crew awake to find themselves aboard it. Except they’re not. They are simulations running inside the giant alien computer which operates the ship. Trishanamarandu-kepta, or <>, is the program in charge of it all. Unfortunately, at some point in the distant past – the alien ship is millennia old – it forked itself and one of those “children” is now threatening its control of the ship. “Kepta” needs the three human simulations to defeat its enemy, </>.

One of the humans, however, Rafe, survived the crash. So there are now four of them: VR versions of Rafe, Jillan and Paul, and the RL Rafe. At various points through the story, <> “backs up” the simulations to create “templates” which it can use to instantiate new simulations. Towards the end of the novel, these begin to multiply to such an extent it’s difficult to keep track of which is which – and it’s important to the plot at what time each individual back-up was taken.

The narrative switches between the viewpoints of the expanding human cast and that of <>. The sections featuring <> are peppered with symbols as it seems the alien ship contains “passengers”, which have names such as ==== and <*> and ((())) and []. It is not easy to read.

To find such a cyberpunk-ish scenario in a hard sf novel is certainly unexpected, and you can’t help feeling that Cherryh had recently read Neuromancer and been so taken with the idea of cyberspace that she chose to write a book featuring it. In order to make it fit, however, she had to disguise its nature for much of the story. Unfortunately, the trope is now so well-known it’s obvious from the very first chapter, and the slowness of the characters in realising their situation and what it means soon begins to annoy. Further, the story of Voyager in Night is actually quite thin – not much happens during its 221 pages. There are repeated incidents of squabbling between the various instantiations of the human characters, there are half-hearted attempts to discover their situation, and there are passages such as the following:

“Destroy all of them,” [] said, one of ten of []kind, one of a chorus of voices, hundreds of outraged protests which <> ignored, occupied as <> was … <> could not keep </> from the controls loge. There would be distractions. <> knew.

“Aaaaiiiiiiii!” ((())) wailed, irreverent of boundaries, passed <> and hid, pathetic in ((()))’s disturbance (p 134)

There is much in Voyager in Night which is typical of Cherryh’s fiction, and its prose amply displays how strong her writing is. Sadly, it’s married to a story that is both past its sell-by date and stretched beyond its natural length. Yet Voyager in Night, not one of Cherryh’s best, still manages to demonstrate why Cherryh was so popular and so good.

The Adventures of Alyx, Joanna Russ

The Adventures of Alyx, Joanna Russ (1983)
Review by Nic Clarke

The stories in The Adventures of Alyx are closely linked, although they remain distinct entities. All but one of them feature the same main character: “a neat, level-browed, governessy person called Alyx”, as she is described in the first story, ‘Bluestocking’ (1967); “among the wisest of a sex that is surpassingly wise”. She is – or becomes – a skilled, quick-witted, self-reliant thief and wandering adventurer in a land reminiscent of the late Bronze Age Mediterranean world. This is, in other words, Joanna Russ’ take on sword and sorcery – although, this being Russ, the adventures don’t stay in one genre for long.

Epic heroines were not completely unknown in sword and sorcery before Alyx, but they were hardly common, and Russ takes some care in finding in a place for her in an overwhelmingly male-dominated world. Alyx doesn’t have the preternatural combat prowess of Xena, but she does have many skills:

Now in Ourdh there is a common saying that if you have not strength, there are three things which will serve as well: deceit, surprise and speed. These are women’s natural weapons.

‘Bluestocking’ sets the (laconic) tone for much of what is to come. Alyx comes to the city of Ourdh (“‘this city, this paradise, this – swamp!'”) as part of a group of followers of the god Yp, the sort of faintly ridiculous religion that wouldn’t be out of place among the Discworld pantheon (its tenets include “the venomous hatred of inanimate objects for mankind”). Within two pages she has declared the whole thing nonsensical, and turned to picking pockets instead. Shortly thereafter she takes up with a rich brat of a young woman, Edarra, who wants help to flee both the city and an arranged marriage. The rest of the story follows their travels together downriver, as they get into the inevitable scrapes from which Alyx must save them (some likely, so less so: a brutal fight with some random men, a sea monster, the stove setting fire to their boat) and bicker about who’s going to do the cooking. Edarra even grows up a bit. It’s good fun, and Alyx is an appealingly tough, blunt, resourceful character.

The second piece here, ‘I Thought She Was Afeared Till She Stroked My Beard’ (1967), may or may not come before ‘Bluestocking’. It has the feel of an origin story, and Alyx seems to be younger in it, but precise chronology isn’t really one of the priorities of these tales. Like ‘Bluestocking’, it opens with detached generalities about women and their place in the world:

Many years ago, long before the world got into the state it is in today, young women were supposed to obey their husbands; but nobody knows if they did or not.

…and then spends the rest of the tale deconstructing them, through the person of Alyx, a young farmwife who has an abusive husband and “her head full of pirates”. She murders her husband, cuts off her hair and escapes her old life, finding someone to train her in the skills she’ll need before making her way to Ourdh:

Six weeks later she arrived – alone – at that queen among cities, that moon among stars, that noble, despicable, profound, simple-minded and altogether exasperating capital of the world: Ourdh.

Note the emphasis on “alone”, here; even from the start of her adventures, Alyx is above all self-sufficient, relying only on herself. Even her identity is self-made, and self-claimed: she isn’t named by the narration at any point in ‘I Thought…’ until, at the very end, she names herself (see the passage quoted at the head of this post).

Genre-bending starts in earnest with ‘The Barbarian’ (1968), which starts out as a sword and sorcery tale – Alyx versus an evil (apparent) wizard – but turns science fictional at the end. Alyx has become notorious now (“Alyx, the gray-eyed, the silent woman. Wit, arm, quick-kill for hire”), and has begun to make enemies. Her opponent is, as in the previous story, bigger, stronger and filled with the smug of conviction of his own superiority – as a man, and moreover, here, as a man from the future surrounded by his technology (the title comes from one of his many insults to her). But Alyx, although her physical training remains important to her (“In the dark she felt wolfish, her lips skinned back over her teeth; like another species she made her way with hands and ears”) uses logic and experimentation to find the loophole in a forcefield protecting the time traveller’s tower, and outwits his flashy toys the same way.

The ironically-named ‘Picnic on Paradise’ (1968) is full-blown science fiction. Alyx is now even more the alien outsider who makes those around her slightly uncomfortable with her intensity and sharp humour: she is “a soft-spoken, dark-haired, small-boned woman, not even coming up to their shoulders”, ‘their’ being a group of stranded tourists four millennia into Alyx’s future. She has been charged with escorting them from Station A to Station B (Russ having fun with the sketchiness of the premise, there) across a planet made somewhat inhospitable by war. Alyx, we learn, was accidentally scooped up – literally – by a time-travel device beloning to archaeologists from the future:

“One day they were fishing in the Bay of Tyre and they just happened to receive twenty-odd cubic metres of sea-water complete with a small, rather inept Greek thief who had just pinched an expensive chess set from the Prince of Tyre, who between ourselves is no gentleman. They tell me I was attached to a rope attached to knots attached to a rather large boulder…”

The Trans-Temp Agency apparently recognised talent when they saw it, however, and gave Alyx a job. What follows is arguably Alyx’s most trying adventure yet – and the most disconcerting to read, transplanting as it does an unreconstructed epic heroine, whom we earlier saw battling a sea monster, into such an archetypally sfnal setting. On the rare occasion when Alyx lets us in to her state of mind, it is made clear that this is a rather more than disconcerting experience for Alyx herself: being catapulted between such different worlds, but unable to forget the suffering she has left behind (shades, here, of Radegunde in ‘Souls’), carries with it horror.

It’s certainly the story where she displays the most agitation and even emotional involvement (albeit not, by and large, where the other characters can see). Capable and pragmatic almost to a fault, she is brisk to the point of rudeness in her efforts to rally the group and keep them alive, and can barely contain her frustration with their weaknesses and vanities:

“I have,” said Alyx, “just killed a bear. It was eleven feet high and could have eaten the lot of you. If anyone talks loud again, any time, for any reason, I shall ram his unspeakable teeth down his unspeakable throat.”

Maudey began to mutter, sobbing a little.

“Machine,” she said, “make that woman stop,” and she watched, dead tired, while Machine took something from his pack, pressed it to Maudey’s nose, and laid her gently on the floor. “She’ll sleep,” he said.

“That was not kindly done,” remarked one of the nuns.

Alyx bit her own hand; she bit it hard, leaving marks; she told Machine, Raydos, and Gunnar about the watch; she and they brought more snow into the cave to cushion the others.

As the journey wears on, though, the risk of becoming attached looms even larger than the frustration (“The more they liked her, the more they obeyed, the more they talked of “when we get back”, the more frightened she would have to become”). Looking back over this, I’m reminded of the narrator of We Who Are About To…, who similarly struggles to convince her companions of the fatal gravity of their situation – and faces similar challenges to her competence and her assessment of the situation from men certain they know better than a mere woman. Alyx, though, is more able, and more willing, to lead – and the situation, of course, is not quite so hopeless.

The collection is rounded off by ‘The Second Inquisition’ (1970), a beautifully elegiac tale about reading, imagination, escapism and the idealism we project onto our heroes, set – again an incongruous shift – in 1920s small town America. A teenage girl becomes fixated on the exciting life – half-real, half in her head – of a mysterious visitor who is staying in her parents’ house. The stranger is forthright, confident, strong, and has many skills (it’s a theme); she can, she says,

“kill a man barehanded or learn a new language in six weeks or slit a man’s jugular at fifteen yards with nothing but a pocketknife or climb the Greene County National Bank from the first story to the sixth with no equipment.”

She is apt to casually challenge the assumptions the family holds about her, about women, and about the world. She holds long conversations with the girl (our narrator), who is, not surprisingly, smitten – especially when it emerges that the woman is a time-traveller (a relative of Alyx, or a protegee), and a time war erupts into the middle of the quiet family home. The violence comes as both a shock and a liberation to the narrator, who has been reading HG Wells avidly: adventure has found her, and one she can participate in. But then, just as abruptly and unexpectedly as she arrived, the traveller leaves – turning down the narrator’s inevitable plea (“‘My dear, I wished to take you with me. But that’s impossible. I’m very sorry'”).

I found the ending especially poignant, as the narrator puts away the makeshift time-traveller “uniform” she made in a burst of fannish enthusiasm, returns to her more conventional “middy-blouse and skirt”, and resumes, with sadness, her old life:

Nothing came. Nothing good, nothing bad. I heard the lawnmower going on. I would have to face by myself my father’s red face, his heart disease, his temper, his nasty insistencies. I would have to face my mother’s sick smile, looking up from the flowerbed she was weeding, always on her knees somehow, saying before she was ever asked, “Oh the poor woman. Oh the poor woman.”

And quite alone.

No more stories.

In contrast to all the previous Alyx tales, which conclude with the refrain “But that’s another story”, ‘The Second Inquisition’ seems to signal an end. Yet Russ, in a 2007 interview with Samuel Delany, noted that,

I put a lot of autobiographical detail in that story: the town, the backyard, the little sort of couch or swing they sit on, stuff like that. The dance. All comes from stuff I’ve seen or lived through.

…which gives some support for Gary Wolfe’s reading, in his contribution to On Joanna Russ, of ‘The Second Inquisition’ as an origin story for a science fiction writer – the narrator, inspired by this episode in her life, will go on to write the Alyx stories, all that escapism tempered with experimentation and gender-bending. Delightfully recursive.

This review originally appeared on Eve’s Alexandria.

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin (1976)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

To go under a river: there’s a strange thing to do, a really weird idea.

To cross a river, ford it, wade it, swim it, use boat, ferry, bridge, airplane, to go upriver, to go downriver in the ceaseless renewal and beginning of current: all that makes sense. But in going under a river, something is involved which is, in the central meaning of the word, perverse.

File under “authors I should have more of by now, but haven’t.” Ursula K Le Guin is often touted as one of SF’s true geniuses; she rode in with the New Wave of science fiction in the mid-1960s, and was one of the primary voices expanding SF’s scope. Her earlier novels combine fantasy and science fiction to create a framework for Le Guin’s examinations within the social sciences. The daughter of a writer and anthropologist, the social sciences are a recurring focus in Le Guin’s works. Her best known (and later) works are The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, two powerful philosophical treatises that snagged Hugo and Nebula awards. The Lathe of Heaven was an Amazing Stories serial that was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, but pulled in just the 1972 Locus award; I got it in a box of paperbacks gifted from my parents, and it sounded interesting enough to read first.

George Orr is a man with a very unique problem: what happens in his dreams will change reality when he wakes, retroactively altering the past, leaving him the sole person aware of the changes. After he has a near-fatal overdose on drugs trying to prevent himself from sleeping, he’s assigned a behavioral psychologist specializing in sleep and dreams—the jovial and enthusiastic Dr William Haber. Of course, Haber is skeptical at first. But after discovering the fantastic truth to Orr’s claims, he uses this power to change the world for the better—something Orr doesn’t want to attempt, given that his dream-altering is wild and unpredictable, and each minor change is a butterfly-effect storm moving farther and farther from the way things should be. But Haber is dead set on righting the world’s wrongs, and if that involves using Orr to play God, so be it.

Le Guin’s world is a fantastic construct, one with a lot of depth and texture, and plenty of verisimilitude. Compared to most of the other SF novels I read this year, this is the first one to have its backdrop come alive. Le Guin comments on pollution and environmentalism, overpopulation and the cyclical rise and fall of urban centers, ongoing war in the Near East, race issues, even changing social mores—issues of the 1970s, surprisingly still relevant in the 2010s—without interfering with the gradual progression of the plot. Orr’s reality-shaping dreams are the focus, but the setting is how we see the alterations; we see the backdrop changing as Orr’s dreams affect it, without needing details spelled out or reiterated. The string of changes Orr’s forced to make are gradual at first, allowing the reader to see the setting change in small steps, before see-sawing back and forth between a grim overpopulated dystopia, Haber’s breed of hopeful utopia, and apocalyptic visions: volcano eruptions, cancerous plague, alien invasion.

Ursula Le Guin has an esteemed reputation as a science-fiction writer, and The Lathe of Heaven – one of her lesser works, if she can have such a thing – is a delight to read; her writing is strong and smooth. The prose is both poetic and gripping; the concepts big, the characters sympathetic and humane, the pacing splendid. Le Guin managed to grab my attention and hold it, in the same way a good thriller dominates the reader’s focus and emotions, keeping the plot’s progression interesting enough that I didn’t want to let go. Reading the novel is a treat, as each shocking, surprising, or emotional moment is worth arriving at. Masterful writing, with strong, deep characters, wonderful atmosphere and an amazing setting.

I found a few things to complain about, problems ranging from annoying to glaring. The first chapter dives straight into the narrative without explanation, and starting with drugged-up Orr in-media-res is unclear. And between chapter breaks the plot jumps forward days or weeks at a time, which caught me off guard. George is a hard protagonist to empathize with because of how passive and… well, wimpy he is. (Granted, that passivity was the point of his character.) I’m more impressed by the book’s ability to hook me and demand my full attention, since Haber leans on the psycho-/techno-babble crutch to sway opinion. No, it’s not a perfect book, with flaws that detracted from the reading experience, but didn’t tarnish a masterful book with beautiful prose.

Above all else, The Lathe of Heaven is complex. Accessible, and readable, but complex. A deep look will reveal bitter condemnations of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, behaviorism, eugenics, a battle between Orr’s subdued and passive Taoist composure and Haber’s outward confidence in working for the greater good. The inherent perils of playing God, against the belief in letting fate run its course. Its questioning of reality can be read as a sort of homage to Philip K Dick, as the book’s concepts are entrenched in the surreal. This thought-provoking treatise is richly layered, and the interested, astute reader can no doubt find plenty to analyze within its pages.

At its best, science fiction has something important to say, and does so in a unique and exciting way. This is a genre of limitless potential, after all, but works that are both thought-provoking and gripping are less common than you’d think. That definition fits The Lathe of Heaven well: it’s one of those few SF books that’s intellectually stimulating and emotionally compelling at the same time. I could feel my mind exploding from the concepts presented, making me want to step aside and process the sheer cerebral brilliance I’d just experienced, but I couldn’t, wouldn’t, and didn’t want to put down because then I’d delay seeing what happened next: it’s an intense ride where the destruction of the protagonists – and Earth – rears its head more than once.

I’ve had a streak of great SF reads this year. And The Lathe of Heaven is close to the top of the list. No matter what part of science fiction you’re interested in, this book has something for you. If this is indicative of Le Guin’s less-famous works, I’m going to buy a lot more Le Guin. I give it the highest accolades and a vigorous recommendation.

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

Slow River, Nicola Griffith

Slow River, Nicola Griffith (1995)
Review by Nic Clarke

The hand I had dipped in the river was drying. It itched. I rubbed the web between my thumb and forefinger, the scar there. Tomorrow, if all went well, if Ruth would help me one last time, a tadpole-sized implant would be placed under the scar. And I would become someone else. Again. Only this time I hoped it would be permanent. Next time I dipped my hand in the river it would be as someone legitimate, reborn three years after arriving naked and nameless in the city.

Nicola Griffith’s Nebula and Lambda Award-winning second novel, Slow River, does a surprising amount in its 300 pages. It’s a science fictional lesbian picaresque whodunnit (try saying that five times fast) focused on a young woman’s search for identity, told across three different time frames and with a significant portion of its plot set in a water treatment works.

(A pithy introduction to this post was never going to come out of all that, really, even if I have just spent about half an hour in the attempt…).

Lore Van de Oest’s story begins in two places – in two times – at once. It begins with her trailing her hand in a river and contemplating a new life to come; it begins, also, three years earlier, amid the blood and terror of a desperate escape from nameless abductors. In both cases she begins alone, stripped – in the earlier instance by force and shame, in the later voluntarily, if not without pain – of a support network that has previously bolstered her, of the people and circumstances that have given her life meaning, and identity. Both threads, told side-by-side and intertwined, progress forwards in time from their starting-points. Thus we follow Lore’s stumbling efforts to rebuild her shattered life twice; we can see how she has changed, and how she has not, and above all we can watch her try to find an identity that comes from within, rather than without.

The first time round, Lore – hot-housed heiress to a financial empire built on canny management of next-gen water-treatment technology – is young, naive and sheltered. She grew up on the family’s private island, Ratnapida; she wanted for nothing. She is the poor little rich girl thrust into a world she doesn’t understand, that – even on the most basic level – she has never had to understand:

She was suddenly aware of the cold tile under her feet, of the cracks she could feel between her toes. It was not yet winter. She wondered what it would be like to be cold involuntarily.

But there are other cracks in her life, ones that she has only just begun to feel. She has been left shell-shocked both by her abduction and by her family’s response, or its lack – since, inexplicably, they refused to pay her ransom. The realisation that no-one was going to come for her – and the violence it provoked her to in her effort to escape – haunts Lore, making her even more vulnerable. When a saviour appears, in the form of decidedly amoral programmer Spanner, Lore clutches at her – and quickly becomes dependent on the other woman’s tender but capricious protection. Lore needs Spanner to teach her how to get by in an urban environment that is intrinsically hostile to a child of such privilege; and, if she wishes to hide from her family, she needs Spanner’s contacts to gain a new legal and economic identity, in the form of a forged implant in her hand to replace her existing one.

But instead of learning how to grow up and survive on her own, Lore (perhaps inevitably) uses Spanner to insulate her: from the world outside, and from the realities of how Spanner funds their life together:

It seemed to Lore on nights like this that she had no other life before right now, right here, every pore open to the wild night’s feel, every follicle attuned to changes in the air, every taste bud and nerve cell hot and fluttering. She knew that sometimes Spanner made money from other people’s suffering, but she did not have to see that, and she had suffered, too. Everyone suffered.

Spanner – herself somewhat closed-off, emotionally, pathologically averse to sharing anything of her past – also serves Lore as the perfect insulation against her own past, against the cracks in the perfect facade of her family life, and thus against the cracks in her own sense of self.

These cracks, together with the increasingly destructive turn taken by the relationship with Spanner, become apparent and then explicit only gradually; a process which is punctuated and emphasised by a series of flashbacks to Lore’s youth, and by her story in the novel’s present. The latter is the only strand narrated in the first person, reflecting, of course, Lore’s fledgling – and for her unprecedented – independence. (Likewise, the science fictional setting highlights the same theme in its own way; when Lore switches identity implant again, the metaphor is literalised through the novel’s world-building.)

Lore rents an apartment by herself and takes a job at a water treatment plant nearby. Water treatment is, of course, the only thing she knows how to do; indeed, she knows how to do it all too well, and she soon realises that all is not as it appears at the plant. But her precarious new life is threatened almost as soon as it has begun. If she reveals what she knows, she risks exposing her past identity to the world, and thus losing the hard-won autonomy that is so central to her new sense of who she is; furthermore, she will have to confront the truth of her family’s murkier dealings, and (last but not least) jeopardise a burgeoning relationship, with a woman who is altogether better for her than Spanner. Yet to refuse, to continue hiding, is in some senses to surrender to the image of her created by her family, and latterly by Spanner: self-protection through self-serving.

Reality at Ratnapida would more likely be the family sitting at the table, pretending not to see me, pretending that the kidnap and abuse had never happened, that they had not received, not watched – over and over – the tapes my abductors had made for the net. My reality and theirs were different. Looking back, they always had been.

All these details and developments are rolled out at a pace that mirrors Lore’s own journey to self-awareness and maturity. The flashbacks grow more pointed and painful as Lore herself delves deeper into the history of both her family and her own childhood. It is in the half-glimpsed, tragic story of Lore’s sister Stella (and Lore’s all-too-late understanding of it) where, at least for me, the novel’s real emotional impact lies – one flashback scene in particular is staggering, all the more starkly powerful for the fact that our perspective upon it is so partial, coming as it does from the uncomprehending young Lore.

It is a power that is lacking in the ‘present’ strand, which I never engaged with in quite the same was – but then, the aim of that part is different, and altogether quieter. Similarly, Lore’s new relationship never sparks in the way that things do with Spanner; but the new one is more equal, and eventually more real and honest, than the old, however captivating it was. Living life in the present may not have the drama of the past, but there are a host of challenges in learning how to simply live, afterwards.

The complex structure of the novel is both technically clever and thematically integral. The whole thing is woven together such that all these parallel narrative strands complement each other on numerous levels: as an intimate character study of Lore, as a tantalising puzzle to be pieced together, as an exploration of identity. On the latter count, in particular, there are times when Slow River truly soars – even when Lore is at her lowest, as a flashback at the end returns us to her abduction:

Lore looks inside herself and finds only a vast space. Who is she? Her father would recognize the Lore who goes with him to count fish in the bay, and talk about the silliness of their ancestors. Katerine, on the other hand, knows and cares only for the Project Deputy, the efficient young woman who designs huge systems and suavely courts the Minister for This and the Commissar of That.

But what of the girl who would lie in Anne’s arms and swim with Sarah, the child who dreams of monsters and still sometimes gets up in the middle of the night to check the lock on her door? Who will recognize her? No one but herself. She has shared none of these things, told them to no one. She has been so alone.

This review originally appeared on Eve’s Alexandria.

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

An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews

An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews (1997)
Review by Ian Sales

Andrej Kosciusko is a prince. Though he has qualified as a doctor at a prestigious university, his father has ordered him to join Fleet. Even worse, he has been told to serve as a Chief Medical Officer aboard a cruiserkiller-class warship. This means he will also have a Writ to Inquire – in other words, he will be a licensed torturer. Kosciusko, scion of a privileged family, a gifted doctor, rightly thinks this is morally abhorrent, but he has no choice. An Exchange of Hostages, the first of a trilogy featuring Kosciusko, and the first of a series of books set in the same universe, opens with Kosciusko arriving at Fleet Orientation Station Medical, about to begin his training.

An Exchange of Hostages – and its direct sequels Prisoner of Conscience and Hour of Judgment – takes place in an interstellar polity called the Jurisdiction. It is a lexocracy, ruled by a Bench comprising half a dozen Judges. The Bench makes the law and Fleet enforces it. As a regime, it is not very stable, and it’s hinted that rebellion and insurrection are common. There are also numerous mentions of “classes” of hominids. This universe may be populated by humans but they are not all the same.

A Writ to Inquire permits the holder to use torture – physical or pharmacological – in order to interrogate a suspect, to extract a confession or to punish an admitted felon. By law, all Inquirers must be medically trained. Except one of the Judges is trying to work his way round this and has sent a clerk of court to Fleet Orientation Station Medical to be trained. Mergau Noycannir is a nasty piece of work. She resents Kosciusko for his high birth, and she resents that fact she is only going to earn a Writ to Inquire because of politics. Unfortunately, her lack of medical training works against her – but for Fleet Orientation Station Medical to fail Noycannir would upset her patron, First Secretary Verlaine of Chilleau Judiciary, and that could have unfortunate consequences for the station and its personnel. However, Kosciusko’s tutor and the station administrator come up with a cunning plan. Kosciusko, it seems, has a side-speciality in pharmacology, and he can design a catalogue of drugs which Noycannir can use instead of more physical tools of torture.

Complicating matters are the presence of “bond-involuntaries”. In some cases, a Bench may in lieu of execution or imprisonment sentence a felon to indentured service with Fleet for thirty years. To ensure their commitment, they are fitted with “governors”, which strictly limit what they can think and do. Attempting to attack an officer, for example, would result in extreme pain. Each student torturer at the station has a bond-involuntary as batman/security guard. Kosciusko’s background as a prince of a powerful house in a feudal culture means his treamtent of bond-involuntaries leads to strong feelings of personal loyalty.

Despite being a torturer, Kosciusko does occasionally feel a little too good to be true. He is a gifted doctor and torturer, and his background means his servants love him. It seems there is little he can do wrong – despite a strong moral aversion to actually being a torturer. There are pages and pages of angst after his training sessions. But he continues because he possesses an unshakeable sense of duty. His father has ordered him to serve with Fleet as a Chief Medical Officer, and even if it means maiming and killing prisoners for information – which is often already known, so he’s after either confirmation or confession; even if he strongly believes that Bench punishments are often far more severe than the crime deserves… despite all this, he strives to overcome his personal feelings and complete his training. Further, his relationship with his bond-involuntaries (he gains a second one halfway through the book) does occasionally drift close to homo-eroticism. Despite all that, he’s a well-drawn and fascinating character, and it’s to Matthews’ credit that she has made him sympathetic – despite his career. The setting too is interesting, with just enough of a change to commonplace things to make it appear slightly alien.

The plot of An Exchange of Hostages is perhaps its weakest element – though, to be fair, this is not unexpected given that it describes Kosciusko’s studies to become a torturer. Matthews has livened it up a little with the aforementioned political shenanigans surrounding Noycannir, but the end result of that is never really in doubt. A second plot-thread concerns a secret Kosciusko inadvertently discovers about the training sessions. While this proves more satisfying, it is resolved some two-thirds of the way through the story. In effect, An Exchange of Hostages is extended set-up. But it’s well-drawn, well-written set-up, and makes for a fascinating read.

It continues to surprise me that Susan R Matthews’ novels are not better known. Between 1997 and 2002, she published five novels set in the Jurisdiction universe. There was then a four year gap before another appeared. Unfortunately, this last was published by Meisha Merlin, which subsequently went bust. Since then, there has been nothing – though Matthews’ website does say she has delivered the next book in the series to her agent. Her website also reveals that seven books were planned in the Kosciusko series. Three have yet to see print. I’ve been eagerly awaiting them for almost a decade.