Star Rider, Doris Piserchia

Piserchia - Star RiderStar Rider, Doris Piserchia (1974)
Review by Ian Sales

There is a tradition in science fiction of the fix-up novel, in which a writer cobbles together a novel out of several short stories, often adding linking text to create a single narrative out of the lot. Doris Piserchia’s second novel, Star Rider, is as far as I can determine not a fix-up novel. But it reads like one.

The novel breaks down more or less into three sections which, while they may share the same cast and setting, appear to have entirely separate focuses. In the first, the reader is introduced to Lone – later called Jade – a young female jak, and her mount, Hinx. Jaks are humans with the ability to travel the stars using some sort of mental power. They can only do this when they are riding a mount. (The cover art may show Hinx as a horse, but the text makes clear mounts are descended from dogs. Nor does Jade appear fifteen-years-old on the cover.) Using D-2, the jaks travel about the D-3 universe, searching for the mythical planet of Doubleluck. They are as a race fiercely independent and hedonistic. Jade is neither unusual nor – initially – exceptional. Piserchia presents the jaks much like riders of the old Wild West, even down to the debased English they use.

Jade and Hinx are followed and caught by Big Jak and his mount, Volcano. He has determined that she is potentially dangerous – and she proves it by discovering Doubleluck… Or rather, she discovers Earth, the origin of humanity, which is now a dead and ruined planet. So he traps her on a world with himself and mount-less jak called Shaper. The latter spends most of his time making hats out of metal, which block the jaks’ mental powers. Jade tries on one of the hats, but cannot remove it. She asks Big Jak to take her to Earth, which he does. She then spends several chapters trying to survive on the dead world…

But when Big Jak comes to rescue her, and uses a device from an Earth museum to destroy the hat she is wearing, they are attacked by dreens. Jade is captured, taken to the world of Gibraltar and put in an insane asylum. Apparently, the people of Gibraltar think the jaks should be “cured”, and so send their guardians and police, the dreens, out to capture them. Jade has been separated from Hinx but, unusually, she does not go mad as a result. Eventually, she is permitted to leave the asylum and enter Gibraltar society. Although the world has no government or leadership, it does not appear to be free or anarchic. Jade is educated and learns much of the world… and the dreens, who are its secret rulers. She also discovers that the dreens are spreading a rumour among the jaks that Doubleluck has been found. Without that to search for, they are committing suicide.

In the final third of the book, Jade steals a dreen mount and escapes Gibraltar. She finds Hinx and the two are reunited. They head for Earth, where Jade is convinced Doubleluck exists and is hidden. She finds it – a fantastic jewelled city inside a mountain. But the dreens have tracked her there, and with their leader Rulon – who wants to take Jade as his consort – they occupy the city. During her escape, Jade had found Hinx on the planet of the varks. These are creatures which appear to be part jet-engine, and much as mounts do they can telepathically communicate with jaks.

Eventually, the dreens come a cropper, Jade admits Doubleluck does not exist, but offers the jaks something better – she knows how to leave the galaxy, something jaks have been trying to do for millennia.

I’m not entirely sure a plot précis can quite get across the strange flavour of this novel. The weird swerves in emphasis during each of the three sections take some getting used to. And the opening section, with its varmintest varmints jaks and mounts reads like some bizarre pastiche of the Wild West for no good reason. In all other respects, Star Rider is very much a book of its time. Much of the story is carried in dialogue, the cast is entirely male but for Jade, and she is so exceptional she actually saves the universe. While Piserchia’s prose may be a little better than, say, Heinlein’s, and her imagination a great deal stranger, this is very much a heartland science fiction novel of the early 1970s. It’s an interesting read, but I’m not sure it would ever be called a good one.

Incidentally, while the cover art on this review shows the original Bantam paperback, it was later republished by The Women’s Press in 1987.

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Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold

BarrayarBarrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold (1991)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony has married Aral Vorkosigan, the Imperial Regent, and is now living on Barrayar, the homeworld of her former enemies. Cordelia is bewildered by Barrayaran society, which is militaristic, elitist, feudal and unforgiving of physical infirmity or weakness. As she sets out to try to make a fairer life for her family and friends, they are all swept up in political intrigue and civil war when Vorkosigan’s regency is challenged.

Barrayar is less the sequel to than the direction continuation of Shards of Honour, the first novel in The Vorkosigan Saga. This is understandable, as Bujold wrote them as one one long novel, but broke off before Barrayar was very far underway and ended up writing a whole bunch of other novels before getting back to this one. This sabbatical was for the good, as Barrayar is a significant improvement over the lacklustre Shards of Honour, featuring much more interesting characterisation and a more a gripping plot.

As before, the book is told from the POV of Cordelia and the book is focused heavily on her characterisation as she adjusts to life on a new world. Exploring Barrayar from the outside is a good idea, as Cordelia gets to express the reader’s disbelief that such a techno-feudal society could even exist. There are some great moments as well where natives of Barrayar try to ‘shock’ Cordelia (such as with rumours of a gay affair between two male lords) with scandals only for her to find them bafflingly ordinary and inoffensive. It would be easy for Bujold to make Cordelia arrogant and superior about such things, but she plays fair and on one or two occasions Cordelia has to admit where her own world has gotten things wrong, and where Barrayar may have better ideas (though the reverse situation is much frequent).

In the first novel, Cordelia was stoic to the point of being emotionally inert, but in the sequel she is a much better-nuanced character who reacts more believably to events. Bujold never lets us forget that Cordelia is a trained and professional military officer, so her crisis-management skills and tendency to personally take part in dangerous missions herself are well-founded. The theme of motherhood is also explored, as Cordelia falls pregnant only for her unborn child to suffer injuries in an attempted assassination attempt. Barrayaran tradition would be to have the child aborted, but Cordelia causes a scandal by using imported Betan technology to save his life at the cost of leaving him crippled, to the fury of her father-in-law. The resulting tension may be obvious (‘baby in danger’ is a bit old-school for an SF trope) but it works quite well.

In the latter part of the novel, when open civil war erupts, Bujold’s decision to stick with Cordelia as the POV character pays dividends. Normally in a big SF novel, the author would adopt a multi-POV approach, or stick with the characters in the thick of the action. Instead, Cordelia is cut off from the outside world and has to lie low in the countryside without a clue as to how things are progressing or where her husband is. This approach is purposefully frustrating, as we share Cordelia’s annoyance at not knowing what’s happening and it works quite well.

On the negative side of things, the focus on Cordelia compromises the characterisation of secondary characters. Aral Vorkosigan himself remains a fairly distant figure and Cordelia’s staff get mixed treatment. Bothari is a sympathetic-but-tragic character with an edge of unpleasantness to him, making him a fairly complex and interesting character for the ‘badass big arse-kicker’ trope. Droushnakovi and Koudelka are likable characters but their inability to progress their relationship and their comedy of manners of constantly misunderstanding what the other person is doing briefly made me think I’d picked up one of the weaker Wheel of Time novels. Cordelia serving as counsellor and den-mother to her staff is an interesting idea, but it slows down the pacing at critical junctures. There’s also the bigger problem that Barrayar is not really convincing as an SF society and is rather unpleasant. Though this gives us empathy with Cordelia, it also means that the intricacies and court politics of Barrayaran society come across as being rather flat. And probably the less said about the cliched villain, the better.

Barrayar is a huge improvement over its forebear, featuring a far more interesting storyline, some accomplished worldbuilding (although of an unpleasant and unlikable world) and better characterisation of the protagonist, despite some more mixed results for the secondary cast.
This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

A Spaceship Built of Stone, Lisa Tuttle

tuttleA Spaceship Built of Stone, Lisa Tuttle (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

Back in 1975, two authors who had yet to have novels published collaborated on a novella. It was published in Analog, was shortlisted for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and placed first in the Locus Poll for novellas. Two more novellas followed, in 1980 and 1981, the bulk of the work apparently done by only one of the authors. The other writer, however, had since had a collection and a novel published. In 1981, a fix-up novel of the three novellas was published, the debut novel of one of the pair. In the decades since… one author had nine novel in a variety of genres and six collections published, while the other wrote a further three novels, edited a successful series of shared-world anthologies, before turning his hand to epic fantasy and becoming one of the best-selling writers in genre fiction. That 1981 fix-up novel was Windhaven and, obviously, one of its authors was Lisa Tuttle. The other was George RR Martin. And it’s a shame Tuttle’s career has not followed the same trajectory as Martin’s because she’s plainly the better of the two writers… as this collection, A Spaceship Built of Stone, plainly shows.

While the stories in this collection are all science fiction, not all of them read like science fiction – they skirt the edge of genre, they flirt with genre tropes, they make use of science fiction’s toolbox but refuse to place themselves firmly in the genre landscape. And that is perhaps their greatest strength.

In opening story ‘No Regrets’, a published poet returns to the university town in which she once lived fifteen years before to take up a post as a visiting lecturer. She had not been a student at the university, but her boyfriend had and she’d moved to the town to be with him. He wanted her to marry him, but she wanted to be a poet… so she left him. She is lent a house owned by the university in which to stay… and it proves to be the one she’d shared with that boyfriend of years before. Who is still at the university, but now a lecturer. The house proves to be haunted – not by ghosts, but by echoes of the life the poet might have led had she chosen to stay with her boyfriend all those years ago. And when she gets to meet her ex-boyfriend – now married, with two children of his own – and they discuss the life they might have lived had she stayed… Well, there’s a superb deconstruction of the ex-boyfriend’s perception of what might have happened had they actually married. Read this story not for its central premise but for the excellent way Tuttle uses it to interrogate women’s roles.

Women’s roles are also central to ‘Wives’… except the wives of the title are not human, but the natives of some alien world that has been conquered by humans. The “wives” use techniques unique to their alien nature, as well as those used by human women, so as to effect the appearance their husbands desire. But Susie begins to question the role she has been forced to play:

She thought about going back to her house in the settlement and wrapping herself in a new skintight and then selecting the proper dress and shoes to make a good impression on the returning Jack; she thought about painting her face and putting rings on her fingers. (p 29)

She thinks the wives should reject the parts they are playing, throw off their disguises, and return to the lives they led before the humans came. She is persuaded against this by the other wives because all that would happen… is what has already happened. It’s perhaps not the subtlest of allegories, but it makes its point forcefully and intelligently.

‘The Family Monkey’ is one of the longest stories in the collection. An alien crashlands in Texas in the nineteenth century and is taken in by a nearby family. The alien cannot talk, and its telepathy has been severely restricted by injuries sustained during the crash. Over the generations – the story is told in the voice of one member from each generation – the alien remains with the family, and at least one member can communicate emotionally with it. Until the present day, when its fellows contact Earth and arrived to take it home. But the alien’s presence in the family has led to changes in the women – they have become more independent. One goes off to New York to study, and on her return finds the courage to stand up to her father. And another in the present day doesn’t want to go away with the alien because her telepathy makes her a freak. ‘The Family Monkey’ feels a little like two stories welded together – one set in the nineteenth century and one set in the present day – and suffers as a result.

The wrasse, a brightly-coloured fish found in on the Great Barrier Reef, apparently exhibits unusual social behaviour. Each male has a harem of up to six female fish, but when the male dies, one of the female takes over his role and biologically changes sex to do so. This is the central premise of ‘Mrs T’, in which a journalist visits a woman who has discovered something important. There’s no much that is unexpected in this story, and though the writing is good its predictability makes it seem a lighter read than it is.

Though the title might suggest otherwise, ‘The Bone Flute’ is one of only a few stories in A Spaceship Built of Stone which inhabits genre heartland. It is set in a sketchily-described interstellar civilisation, and involves a trip to a world that has been cut off from the mainstream of humanity for several centuries. The protagonist is a trader and has taken her toy boy, Venn, with on her trip to the world of Habille. The world is notable for the fact its inhabitants form life-long attachments – in direct contrast to the trader and Vann. While visiting a small village, the two witness a man playing haunting music on a flute, and he later explains that the flute was made from a bone of his dead, and still much-loved, wife. Venn then falls in love with a local woman and decides to stay on Habille, despite being warned by the trader that he must remain committed to his new lover for the rest of his life (and she knows he’s incapable of doing so). A decade later, on another world, the trader is present at a recital given by a bone flute player from Habille – and it is the woman her boyfriend left her for. Venn is also present. But the flute player tells the trader that the flute is made from the bone of her dead lover… Apparently, there was some controversy around this story and its Nebula Award nomination – see here.

The title story is based on one of those superb premises every genre writer wishes they had. Tuttle only skims lightly across the top of the premise, rather than interrogates it rigorously, and while she uses the same approach in some of the other stories in A Spaceship Built of Stone, here it demonstrates its effectiveness. A teaching assistant at a university is using dreams as a topic for discussion, and himself dreams of visiting a ruined city in a desert, beneath which the inhabitants are hiding in tunnels. On the bus to the university, he sits beside a young woman he finds attractive and sees that she has doodled in her sketchbook a design he remembers from his dream. They discover their dreams matched… as do a further five of his students in his class. Some time later, a new Anasazi ruin is discovered in New Mexico, and it resembles the ruined city the teaching assistant and the other dreamt. And then the Anasazi are among them, as if they had never died out, and they petition the US government for their ruined city… No one seems surprised or puzzled by this except the protagonist, who theorises about a people who use dreams to prepare their way before peacefully infiltrating Earth and becoming just one more culture on the planet.

‘The Cure’ refers to an injection designed “to stimulate and strengthen the body’s own defences against microscopic invaders” (p 128). But babies born to women who have taken the Cure prove to be without language. A woman has given birth to such a son and she appears to have lost language in sympathy. The story is addressed to the woman by her lover, who wonders if she too might end up the same but wlecomes it if it means saving their relationship.

Ron has died but Felicia has paid for him to be “revived”, but in ‘The Hollow Man’ the husband who comes home from the hospital is not the man she remembers. As the title suggests, there is something missing inside him – and this is apparently true of all of those who have been revived, though their loved ones may refuse to see it. Ron originally committed suicide, but since being revived he can’t even care enough to do it again. He will go on living as a revived person because to do anything would require some sort of commitment. Again, the shape of story is hardly unexpected once the set-up has been described, but Tuttle’s story is not about Ron and his struggle to survive, it’s about Felicia and her relationship with the person she knows to be her husband.

If ‘The Other Kind’ feels a little old-fashioned in plot, the sort of story that might not have looked out of place in a 1960s or 1970s sf magazine, the way the story is told certainly owes more to the New Wave. The humans on the world of Ederra live lives of plenty, waited on hand on foot by the native Ederrans, or Teddies. The aliens are not slaves, the humans tell themselves, because they work for the humans out of love. The narrator is a young man who feels at odds with his fellows humans, and is increasingly drawn to the Ederrans – even sexually. He explores his new feelings, enters into a relationship with an Ederran, and discovers that it is possible, through surgery, to become a Teddy. Except what he learns as he undergoes his transformation is not what he had believed. Perhaps the final revelation is not exactly a surprise,

The final story, ‘Birds of the Moon’, is the most overtly fantastical of the stories in the collection. Amalie dreams of cold birds on the Moon, and has done since her husband Jim, an Apollo astronaut, returned from there. He is also having an affair, but when Amalie is confronted by her husband’s lover in the supermarket she knows the affair is not serious. Meanwhile, her daughter Carmen is – autistic? Amalie has lost her husband – not physically but certainly emotionally, a result of his lunar mission. Nor can her daughter connect emotionally to her, or indeed anyone else. This is what the birds are. Stories featuring astronauts, especially ones from real space programmes, I feel need to be solidly grounded in detail, because there is something extraordinary in the profession and to treat it like any other fails to make use of that. While Jim’s experiences have created the situation described in ‘Birds of the Moon’, his background doesn’t really impinge, other than providing the central metaphor and some of the imagery used to describe it. This is a story that bears rereading, but I would have preferred it be better earthed, so to speak.

For a collection published in 1987 and containing stories published between 1976 and 1985, A Spaceship Built of Stone is very strong. The title story alone is worth the price of admission. Some of the others perhaps feel a little well-worn these days, though there’s no denying they’re written in classy prose and several still have power. ‘No Regrets’, ‘Wives’ and ‘Birds of the Moon’ are good, the ending of ‘The Bone Flute’ lifts it above other stories of its type, and ‘The Hollow Man’ works really well because it is not about the titular character.

Jo Fletcher Books is apparently in the process of republishing Lisa Tuttle’s back-catalogue, and A Spaceship Built of Stone is already available as an ebook. I don’t know if a paperback edition is planned, but if you have an ereader then this is certainly a collection worth buying.