Despatches from the Frontier of the Female Mind, Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu

jgslf_despatchDespatches from the Frontier of the Female Mind, Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (1985)
Review by Jack Deighton

This is an anthology from a time when it was thought there had to be a Women’s Press and a collection of SF stories by women writers only. Given the relative rarity, still, of published SF written by women – though the barriers are no longer so high and the practitioners are at least on a par with and often surpass their male counterparts – arguably the desideratum is as important now as it ever was. The avowedly feminist perspective, the didacticism, of a lot of these stories dates them though. Then again most SF from the 80s would be similarly dated.

‘Big Operation on Altair Three’ by Josephine Saxton
On a regressive colony world an advertising copywriter describes the unusual procedure devised to illustrate the extreme stability of a new car.

‘Spinning the Green’ by Margaret Elphinstone
A fairy tale. It even begins, “Once upon a time.” A treacle merchant on his way home from a convention encounters a group of green-clad women in a wood. They demand a price for the rose he has picked for his youngest daughter. Curiously this world has computers, televisions and round the world cruises but the merchant travels on horseback.

‘The Clichés from Outer Space’ by Joanna Russ
Satirises the portrayal of women in the typical slush-pile SF story of pre-enlightened times – like the 1980s – with four overwrought, overwritten examples. (As they no doubt were.)

‘The Intersection’ by Gwyneth Jones
Two space dwellers from an environment where privacy is impossible, “SERVE sees all, SERVE records all,” take a holiday to observe the indigs of the underworld. Bristling with acronyms and told rather than unfolded this is more an exercise in information dumping than a story as such. (And de rigeur ought to be spelled with a “u” after the “g”.)

‘Long Shift’ by Beverley Ireland
A woman who is employed to use her mind to demolish buildings safely is given a priority assignment monitoring a subsidence which turns out to be worse than expected.

‘Love Alters’ by Tanith Lee
Women only have babies with women, and men only with men. This is the right, the straight way to do it. Our female narrator is married to Jenny but then falls in love with someone else. A man.

‘Cyclops’ by Lannah Battley
A space-faring archaeologist discovers Earth was not the cradle of humanity by uncovering an ancient manuscript written by “Aeneas.” It has a clever explanation of why the Cyclops appeared to have one eye. The story’s balance is out of kilter, though.

‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ by Pamela Zoline
A remedy for the world’s ills involves the kidnapping, and resettlement, of children.

‘A Sun in the Attic’ by Mary Gentle
In Asaria, women take more than one husband. Roslin, head of House Mathury, is married to a pair of brothers one of whom has gone missing. The Port Council does not like his scientific investigations.

‘Atlantis 2045: no love between planets’ by Frances Gapper
In a repressive future society letters are too dangerous to write. Jene is a misfit, earning her family penalty points to the extent that they have her classified as a Social Invisible. Then one day her equally invisible aunt returns from being Ghosted.

‘From a Sinking Ship’ by Lisa Tuttle
Susannah works trying to communicate with dolphins. She is happier with them than with humans; so much so that she is unaware of the impending nuclear war. The dolphins understand the danger; and have an escape plan.

‘The Awakening’ by Pearlie McNeill
In a heavily polluted future world Lucy has doubts about her daughter’s participation in the Breeding Roster.

‘Words’ by Naomi Mitchison
Is about the inadequacy of language to describe new experiences – especially those induced by a device to stimulate brain synapses.

‘Relics’ by Zoë Fairbairns
A woman’s visit to a Greenham Common type peace camp is overtaken by the beginning of a nuclear war. She is placed in a freezing cabinet and woken decades later to be part of an exhibition illustrating her times. The future people get it hopelessly wrong of course.

‘Mab’ by Penny Castagli
A post-menopausal woman who takes a yoga class gives birth – from a lump on her head – to a tiny child. This apparently prefigures the demise of the male.

‘Morality Meat’ by Raccoona Sheldon*
A simple morality tale. Droughts and grain diseases have killed off the supply of meat but as always the rich still manage to get their share. Meanwhile every pregnancy is forced by law to go to full term. Adoption Centres provide a service for those who do not want or otherwise cannot keep their babies. But parents cannot be found for all the children.

*Raccoona Sheldon (Alice Sheldon) is also known as James Tiptree Jr.

‘Apples In Winter’ by Sue Thomason
People from another world interfere with a native culture.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

Sovereign, RM Meluch

sovereignSovereign, RM Meluch (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

It was 1985, a bunch of us had been clubbing in Nottingham, and then headed to the home of my sister’s boyfriend to kip over. I forget what triggered the conversation, but it was about science fiction, and my sister’s boyfriend handed me a book he recommended. It was Sovereign by RM Meluch. It was a year or two before I tracked down a copy and read it, but when I came to reread it for this review I realised I had no memory of its plot or setting. I think I know why. It’s not very good.

The setting is a mishmash of space opera, mixed mythologies and fantasy, with a cast of the special-est snowflakes in the galaxy, and from start to finish it plainly can’t decide where it’s going or what it plans to do when it gets there. Most of the story is thrown away so Meluch can spend pages having the protagonist angst about everything in his life and how it’s all gone horribly wrong – despite the fact he is near-immortal, so pretty and “fey” he would make a beautiful woman (or so we are repeatedly told), much stronger and fitter than humans, single-handedly saves the Earth from an alien attack, and has at least two deep romantic attachments…

Teal Ray Stewert is a Bay Royalist, which might well suggest some sort of Bonnie Prince Charlie in Spaaace story but, in fact, Royalist is the (extremely confusing) name of his race. The Royalists are long-lived, part-aquatic, can heal incredibly quickly (even regrowing their eyes after being blinded), and live among the islands of Arana, a world with two suns and extreme seasons. The Royalists are organised in families, ruled by a single king; and the Bay Royalists are those who have sired only one male child for 33 generations. This is part of a millennia-long breeding programme to create a Trieath, the end-result of 399 generations. The first Trieath, Akelan, has just been born. He is telepathic and charismatic. No other Bay Royalist family is close – most are stuck at the 33rd generation, the crisis generation – if they have girl children, they have to start over; or more than one child or twins, the line ends completely. Teal Ray Stewert is the 33rd of his line, and his father, Kaela, is king. But his father hates him because Teal’s birth resulted in the death of his mother.

It’s not entirely clear what sort of creature Bay Royalists are. Clearly they’re some sort of humanoid – as indeed are all the races in Sovereign. But Teal is described throughout as a very pretty young man, who looks much younger than his age. He is desired by both men and women – in fact, his first sexual experience is with a man, at age ten: “The affair continued awhile, till finally the Caucan bought his way out of Gordon Tras’ army and went home. He left a confused and desolate lover behind him … What Kaela discovered upset him worse. A trickle of blood ran down the back of Teal’s leg.” (p 27). The Caucans are descended from humans who settled the world thousands of years before. At periastron, when Arana is pulled from its circular orbit by its second sun, the climate in the north is either too cold or too hot for Caucans, so they descend on the Royalists’ lands in the southern hemisphere, killing them as if they were animals. Given the Royalists’ appearance, and the fact they live in houses, it’s not clear why the Caucans should refuse to admit they are human.

Except, Teal Ray Stewert might not be a young man. Later, he’s called a hermaphrodite, though it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it reference. Certainly, Teal is drawn to strong older male figures – and Meluch makes clear this is because he was not loved by his father, Kaela. In at least two such cases, Teal is effectively adopted by an older male and then becomes his lover. But Teal is characterised throughout Sovereign as male, and he also has sex with women – by the end of the book he has, in fact, two daughters.

Teal is estranged from his father and falls under the spell of Akelon, the Trieath. Akelon preaches peace and love, and takes his message first to Cauca (no inconsistency here then, with the Caucans thinking the Royalists are animals), and then to the overseas nation of Vakellan. But then the Caucans attack the Royalists again, and Akelon is killed (so the story is not about the Trieath…). Teal goes on a murderous rampage and then returns to Vakellan and joins its space force. Vakellan, for reasons which make no sense, has chosen to model its culture on that of the United States on Earth. Teal is one of a handful of special young people under the care of the space force’s commander. One of these special people designs and builds a supership, and Teal is given command of it. The alien Uelson attack Earth, and Teal flies to assist the Earth battlefleet. He single-handedly defeats the Uelson, but his ship is badly damaged and he is captured by the Uelson and held in their version of Gitmo.

Years later, he escapes and makes his way to Earth, where he pretends to be an officer in its space force. He draws the attention of a maverick admiral (as much for his prettyboy looks as his tactical genius or super-strength), and so rises up the ranks. Eventually he is given command of a dreadnaught, the Sovereign, designed by the same special young man from Vakellan who designed Teal’s first supership. Meanwhile, Teal has kept his origin secret – indeed, no one knows of the existence of the Royalists, or that Teal was the saviour of Earth during Armageddon I. And when he again saves the Earth during Armageddon II, it is as an Earth officer and the lover of the admiral.

The admiral dies, but Teal ends up in a relationship with one of the Sovereign‘s officers. There is another battle, and he is captured once again by the Uelson. But he’s rescued by his officers, and sort of has to admit who and what he really is. So he heads home to Arana to see if he can bury the hatchet with his father. Except it seems Akelon wasn’t killed after all, and he wants to marry Teal’s daughter (Teal is fifty but looks twenty-five, which he pretty much has for the entire novel). Teal reconciles with his father, and he even learns that his mother was the daughter of his father’s chief rival for the Royalist crown. But Teal has had enough, so he returns to Earth, but there’s some sort of emergency in the Taurus constellation, causing ships to disappear. They send in the Sovereign, but it’s destroyed by something unexplained. So Teal and his wounded-in-the-battle lover go off and retire on a backwater world of the Zhagaran Empire where everyone handily speaks English. Oh, and there was an Armageddon III in there somewhere as well.

It’s hard to describe quite how badly-structured Sovereign is. Teal is some sort of super-powered Mary Sue, but despite looking like a Justin Bieber-esque superman, he is treated like an animal on his home world. On Earth, he becomes a decorated officer without any experience or undergoing any training, and is given command of the space force’s flagship. Except for the explicit relationships with male lovers, and his alien origin, this could almost be JJ Abrams’ Kirk. The resemblance to the rebooted Star Trek does not end there – the plot of Sovereign is one event following another, few of which are actually connected or follow logically, much like in Abrams’ movies. Everyone in the book is a North American, even the aliens, and no effort is made to create anything like a believable world or universe. The various races are all humanoid, though clearly identifiable as alien – except the Royalists, who all resemble Greek gods and goddesses. None of it makes the slightest bit of sense.

Meluch’s Jerusalem Fire is a problematic novel, but it at least has a beginning, middle and end, and an identifiable plot. Sovereign does not. It comes as little surprise to discover it was Meluch’s first novel. Avoid.

Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith, CL Moore

nwelgNorthwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith, CL Moore (1933-1940)
Review by Paul Kincaid

When we first meet Northwest Smith, he is leaning in a doorway in a dusty frontier town. He is tall and lean and sunburned and dressed in old leather. A pistol is strapped low on his hip. He is, in other words, a cowboy. The fact that the brawling frontier town is on Mars and the pistol in his holster fires a heat ray does not alter the fact that he is a classic drifter, a man without ties who will ride into any lawless town looking for adventure and ride out again afterwards without a backward glance. We are told repeatedly that he is an Earthman, though it is only in the later stories that we actually see him on Earth; for all his sentimental attachment, Earth is a place to come from, not a place to be. He is subtly marked as an alien by his eyes, which are colourless. It is only a small step to see the colourless eyes of Northwest Smith turning into the albinoism of another wanderer from exotic adventure to exotic adventure, Michael Moorcock’s Elric.

In this, our very first glimpse of Northwest Smith on the very first page of CL Moore’s first published story, ‘Shambleau’ (1933), it is worth noting that he is in a doorway. Doors and doorways feature heavily in the 13 Northwest Smith stories that Moore wrote. Smith is forever passing through doorways into other planes and strange realms, or stepping through a door to meet an elder god or a vampiric woman.

Smith is an outlaw of the spaceways who breaks the law only in extremis (his association with the slavers in ‘Yvala’ (1936)), and is seen in a spaceship only once (again in ‘Yvala’). His natural habitat is the cheap bars, grungy hotels and dangerous alleyways of port towns on Mars and Venus. But this futuristic backwoods is only the stepping-off point for wild journeys of the imagination into exotic and erotic realms that always somehow open out from our base reality. From such dark and dusty starting points, the stories explode into colour; everything in these other realms is in scarlet or blue, purple or gold. Always bold primary colours, there are no tints, shades or pastels to be seen, for these are bold primary adventures.

Mars, as we encounter it here, is the planet as it was once imagined to be, a place of canals and deserts, while Venus is a world of seas and dense cloud cover. Earth, when we do briefly glimpse it, is that favourite future of crowded cities, soaring towers and high-level walkways, though it is more often presented as a sentimental memory of green hills. But we barely explore any of these primitive science-fictional settings, for the stories that begin here are certainly not science fiction. All but three of the stories gathered in this collection, subtitled The Complete Northwest Smith, first saw the light of day in Weird Tales (of the others, ‘Nymph of Darkness’ (1935), a collaboration with Forrest J Ackerman, was in Fantasy Magazine, while the brief and belated ‘Song in a Minor Key’ (1957) came from Fantastic Universe), and they conform to the creeping supernatural horror most closely associated with that magazine. Thus ‘Shambleau’ recounts a meeting with the medusa, ‘Black Thirst’ (1934) along with several others involves a form of vampirism, ‘Scarlet Dream’ (1934) takes Smith into a nightmarish land of dream, ‘Yvala’ brings him up against Circe, and so forth. The most commonly used adjective, cropping up a half dozen times or more in some of the stories, is “nameless”.

Sometimes, these confrontations with nameless horror are presented in a very straightforward way. ‘Dust of Gods’ (1934) is perhaps the most science-fictional tale in the collection. Smith and his occasional companion, Yarol the Venusian, are hired to undertake an expedition to the polar mountains of Mars. There they meet what seems to be a ghost and discover a lost city, beneath which they open up a vast chamber that is really a hollowed-out asteroid containing the dust of a god who once ruled the planet that used to orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Within this chamber they find light that ebbs and flows like water, one of the most breathtakingly science-fictional moments in this entire collection. In this case the elder god is dead and so hardly a supernatural player in the drama, which means that other than the ghostly guardian of the lost city there is little weird to be found in this tale.

More often, however, the story is not so straightforward in either structure or content, and the supernatural is the be-all and end-all of the tale, although a shot from the ray gun is often all it takes to bring about a satisfactory conclusion.

The stories, in the main, follow variations on a pattern. At the beginning (or close to the beginning in the case of ‘Scarlet Dream’ and ‘The Tree of Life’ (1936)), Northwest Smith rescues a beautiful girl who then acts as the agent through whom he encounters the nameless. Sometimes the girl herself is (or houses) the horror with whom he must contend (‘Shambleau’, ‘The Cold Grey God’ (1935), ‘Yvala’), though more usually she leads him to this horror, which may well take the form of an even more beautiful woman (‘Julhi’ (1935), ‘The Tree of Life’). The beauty of women is emphasised throughout these stories, which lay great stress on the sensuality of long hair and clinging skirts slit to the thigh; twice, in ‘Yvala’ and ‘The Tree of Life’, the woman is naked except for her incredibly long hair which is wrapped around her like a cloak. In all the stories beautiful women are manipulative, using their beauty as a form of power; though there is also an uneasy linking of beauty with slavery in both ‘Black Thirst’ and ‘Yvala’. Sex, never explicit, is often an implied part of these encounters (‘Shambleau’, ‘Scarlet Dream’), but be that as it may the visions, the sensory overload, the separation from self that Smith will invariably experience as he enters or is entered by the nameless being, has a distinctly orgasmic quality (‘Julhi’). Typical is the late story ‘Werewoman’ (1938), for instance, where “something quivered in answer within him, agonizingly… and then he leaped within himself in a sudden, ecstatic rush” (p 356) until “each time he reached the point… a shudder went over him and blankness clouded his mind” (p 366). The old identification of sexual climax with the “little death” is here expanded into the image underpinning the whole sequence. And at the end, the girl must die; either slaughtered by Smith or his male allies (‘Shambleau’, ‘Julhi’, ‘Werewoman’) or by sacrificing herself (‘Black Thirst’, ‘Scarlet Dream’) so that Smith might escape the entrapment of sexuality and move on to the next adventure released from the possibility of any emotional ties.

Sex, itself a “nameless” subject in the popular literature of the relatively straitlaced 1930s, was a fairly common subtext of those encounters with the mysterious that were related in the typical weird tale, and a suggestion of the erotic must have been a selling point in colourful popular magazines. But the sexual aspect of Moore’s Northwest Smith stories is hardly a subtext, the imagery is too potent, too central, too omnipresent for that. These are stories in which sex is death, beauty is a commodity independent of the person, and women are a danger and must be killed. Exceptionally, the Circe-figure remains alive at the end of ‘Yvala’, but that is because she is too powerful for Smith to defeat and he must be satisfied only with escaping. The unnamed girl in ‘Scarlet Dream’ is Smith’s guide and guardian in the world of dream, providing companionship, sex, food and trying to make him happy; yet in the end she must die, terribly and of her own volition, in order to allow Smith’s escape.

The sexual stories we are being told here are strange and disturbing, especially as they come from the most important female genre writer in the first half of the twentieth century. Catherine Moore stormed the all-male bastion of the pulp magazines; went on, alone and in collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner, to write some of the finest examples of mid-century fantasy and science fiction; and created the great feminist heroine, Jirel of Joiry (who re-appears here in ‘Quest of the Starstone’ (1937), co-written with Kuttner, which carries far less sexual innuendo than any other story in the book). Yet here, repeatedly, she writes of women as sexualised beings whose very sexuality makes them the embodiment of evil or its agent, and as such deserving of and indeed desirous of death. Was she trying to outdo in machismo her male confreres (significantly, when Kuttner first wrote a fan letter to the new writer CL Moore he thought he was writing to a man)? Or was this how she imagined the male mindset of a character like Northwest Smith, to be offset by the strength and independence of Jirel, whose stock in trade was that she could outfight any man? Whatever the truth of the matter, and regardless of the relative subtlety of their telling (Moore was one of the more accomplished writers to emerge from the pulp magazines of the 1930s), sex as a death struggle that can only lead to the rightful destruction of the woman is the abiding image left by these stories.

For all that, the Northwest Smith stories have a raw power that makes them enduringly readable. They represent the peak of 1930s pulp fiction, and if their plot lines and two-fisted hero seem out of place compared to today’s fiction, that also makes them fascinatingly different.

This review originally appeared on SF Site.

Arslan, MJ Engh

ArslanArslan, MJ Engh (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

It’s hard to know what to make of Arslan. It is, by reputation, a controversial novel, and it is in the SF Masterworks series. Engh was named Author Emerita by the SFWA in 2009, despite having only four novels – her last in 1993, twenty years ago – and some dozen short stories published. Plainly, Arslan is held in high regard, quite possibly because of its controversial nature – science fiction, after all, likes to value books which challenge mores and taboos. Unfortunately, such books often don’t so much challenge taboos as simply break them for effect… and in that regard Arslan is no exception. Its central premise is perhaps less challenging than it might have been in 1976, but one opening scene still has the capacity to shock – perhaps even more so now, and perhaps for the wrong reasons. Arslan is a deeply problematic novel and the passage of time has been far from kind to it. Please note that this novel features rape and in discussing it this review may contain triggers.

In the time of the book – the mid-1970s by inference – the young dictator of a Central Asian republic conquers the entire planet. He is a twentieth-century Genghis Khan. Arslan is set in the small town of Kraftsville, Illinois. General Arslan, after whom the book is titled, and his army stop there on their way from… Well, somewhere in the US to somewhere else. For whatever reason, General Arslan decides to stay in Kraftsville. He takes over the local high school and, in front of his soldiers and the school principal, Franklin Bond, rapes one girl and one boy.

There is no good reason for the rapes – they are meant to shock. As Arslan himself later says, “First the rape – then the seduction” – this is the technique Arslan uses to cow the citizens of Kraftsville. And Engh is deploying the same technique in her narrative: shocking them with the rapes, only to seduce the reader with a sympathetic portrait of Arslan. She does this through the two viewpoint characters of the novel: the aforementioned Franklin Bond, an upright and opinionated Jubal Harshaw-like figure; and Hunt Morgan, the boy raped by Arslan.

Not only do the rapes raise questions about authorial intent, but their presentation is problematical. First, little is made of the young age of the victims – it is their “innocence” which horrifies Bond and the people of Kraftsville. Second, given the casual way rape is treated throughout the rest of the novel, the shock those initial assaults generate is badly undermined, which renders them ineffective as a dramatic tool (and to treat rape as such is often deeply offensive). Thirdly, while the male victim is a major character of the novel, the female victim disappears from the narrative. And finally, Hunt Morgan finds himself in love with Arslan and subsequently self-identifies as queer, as a result of the rape and… argh… wrong.

Arslan himself states, “When a woman is raped, then she is perhaps by so much more a woman – do you understand? But when a boy is raped, he is by so much less a man.” (p 60). There is so much wrong with this it’s impossible to know where to begin. Rape is in no way enabling or ennobling, it is a violation. To treat it any other way in fiction is to trivialise it and its effect on its victims. But then it’s not as if Arslan treats its women characters with any degree of sensitivity – the girl who is raped by Arslan, for instance, is not the only female to disappear from the narrative. Pretty much all the women do. They are either victims, prostitutes, or wives and mothers. Few are named, almost all are defined in reference to their male partners. A female teacher from the high school is kept by Arslan for a while as a sex slave, but Franklin Bond seems more concerned about Hunt Morgan than he does her. Even Arslan’s wife, when she turns up in Kraftsville later in the novel, is brutally murdered in revenge for Arslan’s presence. Arslan treats its female characters very very badly indeed.

And then there’s the character of General Arslan himself. He’s a Muslim, but he drinks copious amounts of vodka and eats ham. Not once does he pray, and the word Allah appears nowhere in the book. Nor does he apparently understand Arabic. But then Arslan is only Muslim because it others him. Engh makes much of Franklin Bond’s Christianity and his Christian morals. Bond even explains Christianity to Arslan – as if a Muslim would not know something about it in the first place. It’s all very well playing off Bond’s upright Christian character against the foreign invader, but it’s a one-sided fight as the opponent is defenceless because his religion is merely a label with a few misconceptions attached. It doesn’t help that Bond parades his ignorance like a badge, referring to one of Arslan’s officers as “Z” because he can’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce his name – “something that started with a sharp Z sound” (p 41).

General Arslan is from Turkistan, which is not an invented land, although it did not exist in 1976. It’s the name of the region in Central Asia inhabited by the Turkic peoples, and was a republic of the USSR between 1918 and 1924. Genghis Khan was also from somewhere near there… Well, no, he was actually from Mongolia, which is not Turkic. Perhaps Engh was relying on the ghost of Khan to add weight to Arslan and his achievements. Which are not actually all that plausible  – there’s some hand-waving about missile shields and using the Soviets to blackmail the USA in to accepting Arslan’s command of their military, but it doesn’t really convince and it’s clear Engh wasn’t concerned with it doing so.

Arslan doesn’t want to simply rule the world, he wants to heal it. By reducing its population and reliance on technology. Or perhaps, by removing humans all together. Kraftsville is quickly converted from a late twentieth-century American small town into one from a century earlier. Except… how? The town has its own powerplant and this is shut down. There are mentions of stoves and refrigerators no longer working, but no televisions or washing-machines or hair-dryers, etc. People quickly replace electric lights with kerosene lamps. Fuel for cars is withdrawn, and horses and carts become the chief mode of transport… In 1976? Really? Enough people in a small town keep horses so that total chaos does not follow when the petrol is cut off? People just carry on when 99% of the labour-saving devices in their homes no longer function? For the mid-1970s, it’s simply not credible…

And then you come to the line, “He settled his hat more firmly on his head…” (p 65), and things become clearer. Engh may have written this book as if it were set in the 1970s – and the mention of the missile shield and transport planes may suggest as much – but the only way the story can work is if it is set in a much earlier decade, the 1930s perhaps. A decade in which men routinely wore hats, women were routinely characterised in the media as wives and mothers, there were enough horses around to be used once cars no longer worked, and the only electrical devices in people’s houses were likely to be cookers and fridges…

I’d heard much that was good about Arslan before reading it, and its presence in the SF Masterwork series certainly argued it was considered a classic of the genre. Having now read it, I’m frankly mystified by the high regard in which it is held. Its prose is perhaps a little better than is common in science fiction – although the first-person narrative by Hunt Morgan often seems woefully over-written – and one or two of the scenes in the book do skilfully handle the emotional quagmire Engh has chosen for her plot. But. Its treatment of its Turkic antagonist is deeply racist, its treatment of its female cast is deeply sexist, its treatment of Hunt Morgan is offensive; and in Franklin Bond, Engh has created yet another in a long of American genre viewpoint characters whose authorially-imposed moral certainty cannot disguise a deeply problematic worldview.

So perhaps it’s not hard to know what to make of Arslan. It reads like a lament for a way of life lost to progress, but bizarrely transplanted to a decade in which people could not plausibly maintain their way of life without the fruits of that progress, and in which progress itself is personified by a villain who is little more than Yellow Peril. The hero of the book feels like Jimmy Stewart filtered through Robert Heinlein, losing the charm of the first but gaining all the rigidity of views of the second. And then there’s Hunt Morgan, who is raped by Arslan and subsequently becomes his biggest supporter…

Morgan is clearly intended to be the means by which we come to sympathise with Arslan and his aims. Later injuries suffered by Arslan only literalise the “sacrifices” he has made on behalf of the human race – and, tellingly, most of the depradations described which might justify Arslan’s “final solution” are committed by people imported into Kraftsville (violence by Kraftsville citizens is either in defence, retaliation, or revenge; but always with motive). Morgan, like Bond, is a product of particular mind-set, he is an embodiment of a worldview which sees Arslan as little more than a cardboard cutout, and Morgan’s attempt to see deeper into Arslan is little more than an exploration – and justification – of his relationship with him; which, despite its homosexual nature is presented as either uncritical hero-worship by Morgan or the sort of male companionship common in literature in the late nineteenth century.

There are too many reasons I could not like Arslan. Like far too many of science fiction’s “controversial” books, it fails to question the taboos it breaks and merely uses that breaking for effect. Disappointing.