The Vor Game, Lois McMaster Bujold

The Vor GameThe Vor Games, Lois McMaster Bujold (1990)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Miles Vorkosigan graduates from the Imperial Academy on Barrayar and is immediately assigned as a weather specialist on a remote arctic base. Given that he knows nothing about weather science and was expecting a space posting, Miles is unhappy with his assignment. However, what starts off as a minor job soon has Miles travelling to distant worlds, hooking up with some old friends (and enemies) and getting embroiled in a major interstellar incident. In other words, it’s business as usual.

The Vor Game is the fourth novel (by chronology) in The Vorkosigan Saga and the second to feature its signature character of Miles. The novel picks up after the events of The Warrior’s Apprentice (see here) with Miles now graduated from the Academy and ready to start his life of military service. As previously, Miles’s physical weaknesses (he suffers from brittle bones and is stunted due to a poison gas attack on his then-pregnant mother) both hinder his ability to get involved in the action and also act as an easy means for his enemies (and friends he’s trying to avoid) to identify him. Once again, Miles has to use his wits and intelligence to overcome obstacles and emerge on top.

This time around the obstacles include a psychotic military base commander, almost dying of exposure, being captured, being enslaved, almost being shot and being pursued by a lunatic femme fatale with delusions of becoming Empress of Barrayar. As with The Warrior’s Apprentice, the book starts simply enough and then snowballs, accumulating plot points, characters and complications with almost frenzied energy.

As with its forebear, the book is a highly readable, page-turning experience. Bujold knows how to pace even a complicated story (and between the bluffs and double-bluffs, this book has become fairly complex by the time it ends) well and combine it with action as well as character-building material. A key theme in this novel is that Miles has problems with subordination, which is a bit of a problem in a military hierarchy, and his way of dealing with the crisis in this novel provides an idea on how Barrayar can use him to further its goals despite his limitations.

As usual, Bujold mixes out-and-out moments of high comedy (though The Vor Game isn’t as much of a comedic romp as The Warrior’s Apprentice) with darker moments. Despite starting in a completely different place, it’s also very much a continuation of The Warrior’s Apprentice, with some character arcs continuing between the two novels. If The Vor Game has a major problem, it’s that it’s slightly too reminiscent of its forebear. This is very much The Further Adventures of Miles Vorkosigan and if you enjoyed the previous book, you’ll like this one too. Bujold knows how to tell a ripping yarn and keep the pages flying, but this novel lacks originality and it lacks the previous novel’s ability to spin on a dime between tragedy, comedy and drama. I was rather surprised to learn that The Vor Game is a Hugo Award-winning novel, both because it wasn’t as good as the competition (The Fall of Hyperion was a better novel in the same year, probably Earth as well) and it’s not quite as good as The Warrior’s Apprentice.

Still, The Vor Game is a fine, entertaining SF novel. It is available now as part of the Young Miles omnibus, along with The Warrior’s Apprentice and the novella ‘The Mountains of Mourning’.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton

queenofthestatesQueen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

Back in 1987, Queen of the States was shortlisted for both the Arthur C Clarke Award and the BSFA Award. It lost the former to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the latter to Gráinne by Keith Roberts. Had the book been published this century, I doubt it would have made either shortlist… which, I think, says more about the way the tastes of awards’ juries/electorates have changed than it does about the book itself. After all, the most overtly science-fictional thing about Queen of the States is the words “science fiction” on the front cover. While the Clarke may have a habit, even in the twenty-first century, of selecting works that are borderline genre, and publishing too has changed such that category science fiction novels tend to be immediately identifiable as genre… it’s hard to see where Queen of the States would comfortably sit in today’s market as a category science fiction novel. Which is, of course, no bad thing. And there was, after all, a reason why the book made it onto both of those shortlists.

Magdalen Hayward is the eponymous queen. Except she’s not really a queen, she’s the wife of Clive, a less-than-faithful university lecturer. But sometimes she’s the queen of the United States and resident in the White House, sometimes she’s a self-admitted patient at a private mental hospital, and sometimes she’s been abductee by insect-sized aliens and is being extremely well looked after by them. But the title does not just refer to the USA, as the aliens helpfully explain to Magdalen:

You have seven concentric selves, all interlocking, making forty-nine states of being, each with seven levels of intensity and each in contact with the original seven at all times and places, and a central consciousness which can freely move about to any point in this network at any one time. (p 39)

The Magdalen of Queen of the States‘ narrative is this “central consciousness” and her story does indeed move freely about, often in the middle of paragraphs, between one “state” and another. What carries this free-wheeling approach to narrative causality, this rejection of linearity, is Magdalen’s voice. It is beautifully presented. Magdalen is dissatisfied with her life and smart enough to know why – but not quite adventurous enough to break free… although, of course, her various states are in fact a form of escape. This is made clear right from the first page, since the story opens with a classic UFO abduction scene – “Elliptical, pearly and fiery, very beautiful … The sound stopped, and her consciousness waned as she was drawn upwards into the centre of the light” (p 2 – 3). And Magdalen stays in that flying saucer for several chapters before she begins to move from state to state, from UFO to White House to her home with Clive… a party in Edinburgh, even into Clive’s POV at times, such as the scene between Clive and one of his students and their discussion of Magdalen:

It did occur to him for a moment he might have been glad to know that Magdalen was alive and well enough to purchase tights in a department store. Instead, he rang two colleagues and suggested lunch out at a country pub renowned for its home-made pies. (p 82)

Although the opening chapters can’t help but remind of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5, Magdalen is a far more likeable protagonist. Queen of the States takes a few pages to get going – those initial scenes inside the UFO (or wherever it is the aliens are keeping her) are somewhat static, and though Magdalen seems to have trouble taking her predicament seriously, it’s all played with a remarkably straight face. It’s only later, as Magdalen skips forward and back through her memories, that Saxton hints there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Because the narrative of Queen of the States can be read in a number of ways. How real are Magdalen’s experiences? Some are plainly labelled as confabulations, some as wish-fulfilment, and some as signifiers of other events in her life. On the one hand, this makes the novel a book that welcomes rereading; on the other, the prose is so effortlessly smooth and witty that it feels so much easier a book to read than any summary might suggest.

It’s probably not hard to spot that Queen of the States is not an easy book to review. I will admit that the first few chapters suggested the novel might not be my sort of thing. I have an aversion of to UFO abductee narratives, especially ones that look no farther than western UFO mythology. But by the time I was a third of the way in, Queen of the States was definitely growing on me, and I finished it with a great deal of affection for the book. While those opening chapters suggested there might be the sort of vague literary science-fictional satire ahead, the novel proved to be something completely different – and it’s carried totally by the character of Magdalen Hayward, who is a marvellous literary creation.

I have previously found Saxton’s short fiction a bit hit and miss – I didn’t much like, for example, ‘The Power of Time’ (1971), but was quite taken with ‘The Triumphant Head’ (1970), from More Women of Wonder (see here) and The New Women of Wonder (see here) respectively. However, now that I’ve read and enjoyed Queen of the States, I find myself wanting to read more of Saxton’s fiction.

Lilith’s Brood, Octavia E Butler

lillithLilith’s Brood (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago), Octavia E Butler (1989)
Review by Shannon Turlington

Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis novels were first compiled into one volume in 1989, but that compilation is now out of print. As with Seed to Harvest, Grand Central Publishing has reissued the compilation in an attractive trade paperback to capture new readers. And I’m glad they did, because I probably wouldn’t have read these books otherwise.

When I finished Lilith’s Brood, I actually wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not, but I thought about it a great deal, which I think is a sign of a book worth reading. The underlying theme disturbed me, partly because I didn’t find much hope in it, partly because I found myself agreeing with the series’ assessment: that humankind is fated by our own biology to destroy ourselves.

Lilith’s Brood includes three novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago, which comprise the Xenogenesis series. The story starts 250 years after a devastating nuclear war. The few human survivors have been picked up by an alien spacecraft and kept in stasis while the aliens, the Oankali, study them. Lilith is one of the first to be awakened and to be integrated into an Oankali family. She is being trained to awaken others, to introduce them to their new reality and their alien hosts, and to reveal the Oankali’s plan: to produce Oankali-human offspring, a brand-new hybrid species.

The Oankali are genetic engineers and reproduce by genetic manipulation. They have no disease or old age, and they can communicate with one another at the cellular level. They survive by travelling through space and finding species with promising genetic traits to mate with, such as humans. However, this means that humans can no longer reproduce with one another; the Oankalis have disabled their fertility. Also, when the Oankali leave, they will consume the remainder of Earth’s resources for the journey.

Of course, there is rebellion. Many humans choose to live long, childless lives rather than join with the Oankali. Lilith does not, because having been integrated with an Oankali family, she has become physically dependent on them. The next two books follow the lives of two of her children, as the Oankali-human interbreeding progresses. I don’t think I would have been compelled to keep reading the second novel if it were a separate sequel; each book on its own seems somewhat incomplete.

Throughout all three novels, the humans – living in primitive conditions on Earth – are portrayed as without hope, a species that, if allowed to reproduce, would attempt to destroy itself again within a few generations. Humans are hierarchical and competitive, unlike Oankali. As individuals, they can be intelligent and compassionate. But as a group, they are violent, destructive and territorial. Even when the aliens allow some humans to start a new colony on Mars and have children, the Oankali hold out no hope for their future.

That’s what makes this series so disturbing. The only hope posited is essentially that a greater power from the outside will find us, cure all our diseases and create with us a better people than we can ever hope to be. We are unable to cure ourselves, doomed by our own biology to always be fighting and murdering one another. I look at the news every day and feel that this is true. But I don’t want it to be true. I want humans to be capable of evolving past whatever impulse causes us to want to destroy one another. I want us to save ourselves, not look to some alien or god to save us.

But if I’m looking for that kind of resolution, I won’t find it in Lilith’s Brood. Still, I’m glad I read it. Even if I don’t ultimately agree with Butler’s conclusions, her writing made me think about and question some of my own assumptions.

If you liked this book, you might also like Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler; Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson; Seed to Harvest by Octavia Butler; Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler; The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin; The Snow Queen by Joan D Vinge

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

Fireship, Joan D Vinge

fireshipFireship, Joan D Vinge (1978)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Like so many SF fans, my first exposure to Joan D Vinge’s work was via her wonderful Hugo-winning novel The Snow Queen (1980). Eventually I found a copy of her first published novel, The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978), which had an intriguing premise but a less than satisfactory delivery (poor characterizations, pacing, etc). The collection Fireship (1978) is comprised of two novellas: the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated ‘Fireship’ (1978) and one of her earlier works, ‘Mother and Child’ (1975).

The title story is the lesser of the two despite its (dare I say dubious) award nominations. It’s a light-hearted and unchallenging proto-cyperpunk novella. I would characterized the work as “popcorn SF”. Its plot is straight from the pulps with some late 1970s technological updates and told in a vigorous and readable manner.

The second novella – ‘Mother and Child’ – is more a product of 1970s anthropological science fiction. It attempts (with intermittent success) to develop a premise, a culture clash between humans groups and alien “observers,” which exudes social commentary. Although nowhere near as eloquent as Michael Bishop or Le Guin who are true proponents of literary prose and though-provoking scenarios, Vinge’s ‘Mother and Child’ is easily worth the price of the volume for any fans of her more famous work and 1970s social SF in general.

‘Fireship’: A single human body contains three distinct personas. First, there is Michael Yarrow, a generally unintelligent man with little ambition. The second is ETHANAC, a super computer whose entire circuitry is easily hidden in the structure of a portable case. When jacked into Yarrow’s body “his” voice “speaks”. When this machine/man conjunction occurs between Yarrow and ETHANAC a separate altogether different persona emerges, Ethan Ring. Yarrow was selected for this dangerous experiment because of his lack of ambition and disposable nature. However, Yarrow’s transformation – into the altogether more manly/intelligent/and ambitious Ethan Ring – allows him to escape from the confines of Earth to Mars. The settlers on Mars are comprised of a vast assortment of various cults and other renegade individuals like Ethan desperate to escape the increasing totalitarianism of Earth.

Post-WWIII, Russia and other superpowers have been mostly wiped out. Two forces gain hold sway in the changed world, the US and the Arab states due to their natural resources. The Arabs are one of the key proponents of investments in the Mars colony. Khorram Kabir is one of these “sheikh-like” investors who establishes a lavish and highly profitable casino, aptly named Xanadu. During an intensive bought of gambling where ETHANAC took over and acquired vast sums of money, Ring encounters the luscious Hanalore Takhashi. Little does Ring know that she works for a shadowy organization that seeks to blackmail him unless he hacks Kabir’s computer network!

I enjoyed the idea of the Arab states taking an active role in colonization (just think of all the massive building projects and investments in Manchester City and other teams in the EPL princes and sheikhs from the region are engaged in). This reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars) where one of the main groups of colonists are from the Middle East. The shifts between the weakly Michael Yarrow, the more manly Ethan Ring, and the super computer ETHANAC are effectively done. The proto-cyperpunk premise filled with computer hacking, portable super computers, man-machine hybrids is entertaining but forgettable.

‘“Mother and Child’: A three-part novella where each section is told from the perspective of male character whose life becomes increasingly intertwined with Etaa, a human “priestess” of Mother (ie, the personification of the planet). It is slowly revealed that the humans are not on Earth but some planet colonized long before. A mutation causing plague wiped out the majority of the colonists and destroyed many of their senses. Etaa’s people, who placed the mother as the center of the society, hold priestess with “special abilities” (ie, hearing) in high regard.

The first portion of the novella follow’s Hywel, Etaa’s mate, and his childhood and the events leading up to a disaster. Etaa’s people, the Kotaane (“Mother’s children”) are bordered by the Neaane (“Motherless ones”). The Neaane king Merton steals Etaa from her spouse and rapes her. His society is a more traditional male-centric one – with pseudo-medieval inspired social systems – where an hair is of paramount importance. Merton himself the narrator of the second portion. He does not believe in his “gods” who take for the form of humans and physically wander among the Neaane… Despite his initial treatment of Etaa, whom he wants to bear his heir, he begins to feel for her. And, in her own way, Etaa does as well (she thinks that Hywel has been killed). Vinge’s characterization of Etaa, who despite her rape/imprisonment/and Merton’s less than honourable intentions, begins to see virtue in her captor strikes me as odd. The third portion is from the perspective of one of the gods who in reality, is neither male nor female.

The most effective element of the novella is the shifting male narration on Etaa, the connecting character in all three parts. Hywel is clearly a good man yet his goals are simplistic, he seeks to recover Etaa who has been stolen from him rather than change resolve the culture clash between the Gods and the Neaane and Kotaane. King Merton is much more flawed although again, yet his beliefs (or lack thereof) about the Gods are instrumental in changing Etaa’s view of the world. The final “male” God who “rescues” has represents a people desperate to modify the make human society malleable and easy to “guide.” He too is transformed by his “friendship” with Etaa.

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

The Warrior’s Apprentice, Lois McMaster Bujold

The Warrior's ApprenticeThe Warrior’s Apprentice, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Miles Vorkosigan is the son of one of the most powerful men on Barrayar, but is also a cripple, cursed with fragile bones and occasional hubris. When his pride overrides his good sense and leaves him too injured to take part in entrance examinations to the Barrayaran academy, Miles is washed up and left without a future. Intrigued by a mystery involving his bodyguard, Bothari, Miles decides to take an offworld trip… but nothing goes to plan and before long Miles’s fast-talking has earned him the command of a fleet of starships, thousands of mercenaries and involvement in a civil war which is none of his business. Miles has some explaining to do.

Whilst chronologically The Warrior’s Apprentice is the third volume in the Vorkosigan Saga, for most people it’s where the series really begins. This is the book where the main character of the series, Miles, debuts as an adult character and it also represents a notable tonal shift from the previous two volumes, Shards of Honour and Barrayar. Whilst those two books were fairly serious (aside from brief comedy-of-manners episodes), The Warrior’s Apprentice is more rambunctious. It’s a bit of a romp, actually, with Miles’ fast-talking mouth and off-the-cuff inventiveness (ie, lying his head off) getting him in and out of trouble so quickly readers may experience whiplash trying to keep up with it.

It’s a novel which can be firmly filed under “fun”, although there is a tragic core to the novel involving the character of Bothrai. Bujold writes this mystery so it works from two angles: if you’ve read Shards of Honour and Barrayar, you know what’s going on long before Miles does and Bujold milks the tension effectively as Miles investigates the matter. If you haven’t read those books and are as much in the dark as Miles, it works just as well. The tragic interlude (and the finale, which involves a brief dash of political intrigue) are a bit out-of-keeping with the book’s overall tone, but Bujold shows impressive mastery of pacing in allowing the narrative to organically shift to integrate them before moving back to a less serious feel.

The result is a novel that is often quite funny, but also reflects the central character very well. Miles is a ball of energy that tends to drag people along behind him into various crazy schemes they’d never normally want to be a part of, but his momentum somehow keeps everything afloat. The novel works this way as well, with the plot taking increasingly ludicrous turns but it not mattering because Bujold infuses the novel with so much energy and verve you just want to read along and find out what happens next. Bujold’s skills with characterisation also help define the book’s setting much more clearly, with even briefly-appearing secondary characters getting fleshed out into three-dimensional people within just a few paragraphs.

Negatives? The narrative sometimes feels a little too silly for a book that actually isn’t an out-and-out comedy. The concluding section on Barrayar is also perhaps a little too neat and tidy, and there seems to be a narrative disconnect between Cordelia’s treatment by her own people on Beta Colony in the first two books (where she was treated as a criminal) and her well-regarded position here. But there are fairly minor issues.

The Warrior’s Apprentice isn’t high art or hard SF, but it is entertaining, fast-paced and well-characterised, with just enough pathos and tragedy to add some depth to it. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Young Miles omnibus, along with the novella ‘The Mountains of Mourning’ and the novel The Vor Game.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin

NativeTongueElginNative Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Review by M Fenn

Suzette Haden Elgin published Native Tongue, the first book in this eponymous trilogy, in 1984. I was 22 in 1984.

I remember Reagan’s election and how many of us on the left (I was already quite at home way over on the left wing) were frightened by the possibilities, many of which have come to pass. I also remember the beginnings of the backlash on feminism, a backlash that just keeps growing 30 years later. So, I get where Elgin’s coming from with her story of a dystopian future USA where women have lost all their rights and are now the property of men in worse ways then they were before the second wave of feminism. My 22 year-old self would have eaten this book up and looked for more.

I’m sad to report, however, that the book didn’t really do much for my 51 year-old self. The story immediately irked me with the premise that the constitutional amendments revoking the 19th amendment and turning women into minors under the law would have happened by 1991. I mean, okay, Reagan and his ilk scared me, too, but 1991? That seems awfully premature.

That’s always a risk writers take, putting events in the super-near future. I’m still miffed that 2001 came and it was nothing like the movie. There was a 33-year gap there. To predict something this cataclysmic happening less than 10 years from when you’re publishing? Might have wanted to think that through a little more.

So, I had to try to push that aside as I read further. Fortunately the rest of the book takes place centuries in the future, the 22nd to be exact. There we discover that not only do women still not have any rights, but society has been divided up into two antagonistic groups: the Linguists and everyone else. The Linguists are the only people capable of communicating with all the alien societies humans have met, so they’re necessary as translators to make all the treaties and do all the negotiating. Regular people hate them, so the Linguist families (the Lines) live in large communal houses buried in the earth away from prying eyes and violent reaction.

One of the reasons that regular folk hate the Linguists is that Linguist women are allowed to work outside the home as translators because, apparently, there’s so much translating that needs to be done, they have to. Then we have all the stuff happening with babies blowing up because they can’t fathom non-humanoid alien languages (no, really). I haven’t even gotten to the Linguist women’s work on creating a language that allows women to express their thoughts better than standard English, French, German, whatever. This, one might argue, is really the point of the book, but it gets lost, to me, amidst all the other stuff.

Oh, and there’s a serial killer. (Who’s actually my favorite part of the novel; her first murder? That chapter would make a great Tales from the Crypt of something.)

I hate to say this, because Elgin’s short story ‘Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me’ remains one of my favorite short stories (Top 10, no question. It’s awesome. And hard to find. I have it in Dick Allen’s Science Fiction: The Future (1983 edition).), but I found Native Tongue to be too bloated and ponderous, too preachy and heavy-handed. While not all the women are saints, by any means (see: serial killer), most of them are and there isn’t one kind man in the whole thing. They’re all stupid, misogynistic assholes, every one of them, which is just bullshit. Even in 1984, I had allies. Still do.

None of the characters are really developed at all; they’re all just game pieces for Elgin’s philosophical/linguistic chess board. And there are so many plot holes. What do the aliens in the Interface do all day when they’re not communicating with (and occasionally destroying) the babies? And what happened to all the kids who’d been fed hallucinogens in an attempt to keep them from blowing up after they were taken to the orphanage? The list goes on.

Things I liked? The serial killer character, as I said. She’s really the only person whose character evolved (however slightly) over the course of the novel. I also enjoyed Elgin’s discussions of language and the linguistic “tricks” that one male linguist in particular would use to win arguments. Those were interesting. And I liked the notion that an academic field such as linguistics would become so powerful. But the negative outweighs the positive for me.

Biggest disappointment? The cover of the edition I read. Nothing like that image happens in the book. I wanted my motherly alien!

This review originally appeared on Skinnier Than It Is Wide.

Ark Baby, Liz Jensen

arkbabyArk Baby, Liz Jensen (1997)
Review by Ian Sales

Although not published as a science fiction writer, many of Jensen’s novels have been based on science-fictional conceits – My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time (2006) on time travel, The Rapture (2009) on the end of the world… and Ark Baby, whose plot is based an evolution, the “Missing Link”, an infertility epidemic and scientific methodology…

The story of Ark Baby runs in both 2005 and 1845. In the present-day narrative (although near-future, given when the book was originally published), vet Bobby Sullivan is sick of treating pet monkeys, which have become child substitutes since the UK is suffering from a “Fertility Crisis”, and the last monkey he treated he actually euthanised on the husband’s wishes, but the wife didn’t know and now she’s threatening legal action… So Sullivan heads north, re-inventing himself en route, and takes over as the only vet in a small village on the North East coast. Meanwhile, back in the nineteenth century, in the same village, Thunder Spit, the local parson finds a baby in his church, and takes it home and adopts it. He and his wife christen the baby Tobias, and he grows up to become a strangely hirsute young man with deformed feet. In London, also in 1845, Dr Ivanhoe Scrapie, a famed taxidermist, is putting together a zoo of stuffed animals for Queen Victoria, all of which are clothed. From the returned ship of an arch-rival, Scrapie rescues Cabillaud, the only surviving member of the crew, who is employed by Scrapie as a cook and develops a cuisine of exotic meats using the innards of the animals Scrapie is stuffing for the queen. Scrapie’s daughter, Violet, becomes a gourmand, thanks to Cabillaud; and Scrapie’s wife, nicknamed the Laudanum Empress because of her addiction to opium, dies and becomes a ghost. Back in 2005, Sullivan finds himself in a relationship with the Ball twins, who have more body hair than is normal and deformed feet. And it seems the twins have become pregnant, the first women in Britain to be in that state since the Fertility Crisis began…

Ark Baby‘s plot resists summarising because there’s so much going on in the book. The three main narratives are plainly linked and, while the links are not stated, they’re not hard to work out. It’s clear, for example, that the Balls are descended from Tobias Phelps (and Violet Scrapie). What is not said, but hardly constitutes a spoiler as the clues are obvious, is that Tobias’s father was actually a species of intelligent ape, known as the Gentleman Monkey. In fact, like the dodo, the Gentleman Apes have been hunted to extinction. But it takes Tobias most of the book to work this out for himself, and pretty much all of the book for Sullivan to do so.

What this somewhat glib plot précis fails to get across is that Ark Baby is very funny. Perhaps that’s obvious from the plot – it’s not, after all, as if its elements appear entirely serious. But Jensen writes with wit and humour, and still manages to make Tobias a sympathetic character. As the story jumps from narrative to narrative, Jensen keeps the level of invention high, successfully evokes the various periods, and peoples her story with a cast of amusing oddballs. As well as this, there are some serious points made – not least about the treatment of the Gentleman Apes, but also Cabillaud and his cuisine zoologique, the fate of Tobias’s mother, the Fertility Crisis (which is actually limited to the UK), and taxidermy.

Every time I read one of Liz Jensen’s novels, I tell myself I should read more of them. In that respect, Ark Baby was no different. Finishing it, I wanted to read one of her other books. For the meantime, however, I shall have to content myself with recommending this one.

Xenogenesis, Miriam Allen deFord

162 Miriam Allen deFord Xenogenesis Ballantine069Xenogenesis, Miriam Allen deFord (1969)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Miriam Allen deFord – one of the more prolific SF short story authors of the 50s – 70s whose works appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, If, Fantastic Universe, Galaxy, Worlds of Tomorrow, etc – deserves a Gollancz Masterworks volume. But, as has been pointed out, despite the number of prolific female SF authors in the 50s – 70s they were rarely republished and are perhaps the least read group of SF authors for modern audiences. There are some exceptions but few readers can name a female author pre-Ursula Le Guin. deFord’s shorts were collected in only two volumes, Xenogenesis (1969) and Elsewhere, Elsewhen, Elsehow (1971) and both print runs were limited to the first year of publication.

Informed by her feminist activism (she was an important campaigner for birth control) and her earlier career in the newspapers, deFord’s stories tackle themes such as overpopulation, racism, colonialism, gender issues, sexism, and alienation. Her works range from deceptively simple allegories to future histories vast in scope and complexity (for short stories). Her female characters are almost all individualistic, resourceful, and highly educated – they often struggle against increasingly regimented/mechanized/homogenized societies in order to raise families in addition to their careers. In short, deFord advocates forcefully the right to self-determination for her heroines.

Likewise, African American characters who are highly educated and in positions of power, the antithesis of the standard race clichés of the time, proliferate her short stories. I found the strong social activist streak rather surprising considering the 40s/50s providence of some of the works… The only contemporary female SF author who I have who that comes close to the radical nature of some of the tales is Judith Merril (most notably, ‘Daughters of Earth’). It is important to keep in mind how early she is writing.

Despite a few duds (a characteristic almost of all short story collections), the majority are highly recommended. Her work deserves to be reprinted.

‘The Daughter of the Tree’ (1951) Miriam Allen deFord’s second published short story, more fantasy than SF proper, is an intriguing allegory. In late 19th century Indian country a white boy wandering the woods learns about a girl of who looks to be of “white-blood” yet lives with the Indians and is supposedly the “daughter of the tree”. The story is filled with so-called Native American speech, ie, “I little boy, he bring me” and “sometimes he give big potlatch”. The vaguely fantasy premise becomes an allegory of emotional and physical absence – a settler woman is forced to find companionship in a sentient tree rather than her often absent husband.

‘The Superior Sex’ (1968) deFord deftly turns the standard SF trope where a (generally male) writer postulates a future where the women are in power in order to construct a “warning” narrative (or titillating tale) of some sort – à la Edmund Cooper’s Who Needs Men? (variant title: Gender Genocide) (1972) – on its head. A man wakes up to discover he’s a member of an all-male harem for a proud, ferocious, tall “Viking Woman” (p 13). But, add in some implanted visions, investigations of “hidden psychological impulses” a female scientist investigates her husband who might wish he didn’t volunteer.

‘The Ajeri Diary’ (1968) An allegory of sex and imperialism, or perhaps, more specifically, the “gaze” of the west. The exosociologis narrator, voyages via the “Patterson Differential” equation that allows mater transmission, to “virgin” territory. Where, instead of conducting more scientific anthropological studies, he gathers experiences (of all sorts, including lots of sleeping with native women) to write his populist and scandalous series entitled “With Our Galactic Neighbors”, i.e. lots of sex with our all our sexy up to this point very similar to us galactic neighbors. Unfortunately, the planet of Algol IV is not conducive to the narrator’s “research.” A world where the men are not really “men” and the women “reproduce parthenogenetically” and have no sexual interest in him. A fun, if polemical, allegory of societal clash–definitely reads as a product of the late 60s.

‘Quick to Haste’ (1969) As with ‘The Ajeri Diary’ the insatiable sexual desire explorers feel towards “native” women is the thematic focus. But, there’s an intriguing twist that perfectly serves deFord’s satirical purpose. The world is “Earth-like” and “like a dream”. A paradise filled with scenes from Greek vases, images of classical glory…. Scout ships filled men (and occasionally women) spew out into the stars to combat overpopulation – the men fall for the native women (perhaps it is the plan). But the women on this planet seem to age at remarkable speeds and produce children in mere days. The world is the perfect world for interplanetary explorers seeking sexual fulfillment – not only will you not have to deal with long term attachment but any children you might beget will be adults before you leave.

‘The Smiling Future’ (1965) In an overpopulated and computerized world where every scrap, including ocean chlorella, is harvested to feed to populace an unusual “embassy? army?” from the sea emerges on the shore in individual tanks. Mankind is perplexed because the ocean dwellers are sentient dolphins! But little does mankind know that the dolphins too have evolved, and just as man is destroying the oceans to support their growing numbers, the dolphins have an equally sinister plan. A somewhat lacking, but enjoyable nevertheless, satire with ecological themes…

‘Gathi’ (1958) Thematically similar to ‘The Daughter of the Tree’, ‘Gathi’ is a wonderful parable of sentient trees who are literally “rooted” together. Explores the forces that compel women to follow certain paths, the “root” with certain people, to avoid leaving what is dictated by traditionalist forces. Moving away is against “denroid behavior” – the young female trees ought to find rooting companions. A mysterious caretaker of the grove moves at the outskirts reinforcing with blights and sterility those who do not conform.

‘The Children’ (1952) The longest story in the collection is one of the lesser ones despite a its grand scope of future history… Using Time Travel a scientist, after a devastating accident that killed the rest of his family, develops an experiment that will yield him children in the future. The rather ridiculous (and forced) premise does ruminate on gender relations of the future.

‘Throwback’ (1952) Not only of the better stories of the collection but perhaps the most sinister. In the far overpopulated future where both men and women are highly educated and have careers, a female artist of ceramics wishes for a child. In this world where humans are counseled by machines and only pre-selected women produce children she considered atavistic in her longings for a stable relationship with children and realizes that an undocumented pregnancy would result in serious repercussions. So she hatches a plan to escape after an accidental pregnancy – but deFord constructs no happy ending.

‘One-Way Journey’ (1955) An elderly couple in an overpopulated future relate how their son, Hal, signed up for a controversial program that sends young girls and boys off to the stars. He leaves them, or so they think, without progeny–not only will the program transform their child into something unrecognizable yet suitable for travel into space, but the restrictions on childbearing mean that Hal was unable to have a child on earth. A rumination on the pangs of separation, on disconnect from a traditional past, on atavistic desires (to reproduce, to have families) that resurface despite rigid legislation. I found that the ending is all too easy and avoids the issues at stake weakening the grim impact.

‘The Season of the Babies’ (1959) A hilarious satire on the clash of cultures. An alien world wants to be admitted to a Federation of Planets started by Earth. The Earth delegates arrive, everything seems to be going well, until a baby cries… Soon the entire alien way of reproducing and eating and living is uncovered, to the horror of the Earthmen. Deftly deploying a mix of elements from Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ and Montaigne’s ‘On Cannibals’, deFord presents the aliens as a hyperbolic foil for humans who practice “traditional” practices that seem abhorrent upon closer examination. But the humans too can not look beyond what they believe is the one and only way.

‘Featherbed on Chlyntha’ (1957) 4.5/5 Easily the best story in the collection, ‘Featherbed on Chlyntha’ is the journal of an Earthman snatched from a colony of Mars and stuck in an alien cage in a zoo. Unfortunately, he lusts after the alien feathered “women” who looks after him – deFord subverts the standard conqueror who lusts after the conquered paradigm. However, as he learns about their complex gender-relations – until a certain age everyone is female and after a certain age they become male – he loses sexual interests but his human-knowledge helps them unravel the reason for his abduction. Thankfully, not everything works out in the end! It is hard not to believe that writers such as Le Guin were inspired by stories such as this one.

‘The Transit of Venus’ (1962) Archeologists from the future uncover new clues about a particular scandal during the “rite of the Buticontest” (beauty contest) of the 21st century. The Buticontest is the obsession of Earth and all its colonies. All women desire to enter, and only those who are PhDs in the sciences and who won’t shrug at parading around naked in front of judges and thousands watching will be considered. The scandal, covered up forcefully by the horrified Buticontest officials, involved a woman drugged and cast-off by her family for her slightly more traditional ways who entered the pageant with faked credentials and a plastic skin-like body suit. The real reason for her deception has been uncovered!

‘All in Good Time’ (1960) Graduate students of the future are the only ones taught by real humans–all earlier levels of education is mediated by machines. Law students are presented with a case by the professor involving time-travel and bigamy. Only a young female law student knows the reason for the ruling…

‘The Absolutely Perfect Murder’ (1965) In a media saturated future where evenings spent with ones spouse equates both individuals tapped into different programs, doped-up on Sensapills, with hearing-plugs and directional conversation-glasses “smelling, tasting, feeling their favorite telecasts” a man resorts to killing his wife… Fortunately, a time-travel device has recently been invented. The husband spends his savings and vacation money for a one-time trip into the past. And discovers his wife’s secret – a lie that might save her life. The “disconnect of 50s domesticity” rumination devolves in all the standard directions as the story unfolds.

‘Operation Cassandra’ (1958) Fascinating premise with an average delivery. Only three people wake up in a vast Hibernatorium. The purpose of the facility was to preserve humans in a state of deep sleep until the end of a world-wide disaster. Unfortunately, the staff died and the power ran out leaving on a few alive–an African American Havard educated man, a college educated woman, a Danish college educated farmer, and a hardworking self-educated Southerner who serves as the narrator. What sort of society will they create? What about nascent racism? Unfortunately, the discovery of other survivors means that all the difficult questions have easy, and rather less radical, answers.

‘The Last Generation?’ (1946) Way before Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964) or PD James’ The Children of Men (1992), deFord speculated along similar lines about the effects of mass sterility. An accident, presumably nuclear in nature, in New Mexico results in the inability for almost all of humanity to have children. First there’s panic and massive global searches for anyone who might be able to produce children and quacks take advantage and hawk “remedies.” Soon massive quantities of money is poured into the IARC (Ingrid Anderson Research Commissions), named after the youngest person on Earth, in order to find a cure. Even in this 40s vision, African Americans are scientists, and women are in positions of power… But, is it too late? Is this The Last Generation? But, we are left waiting, even the narrator does not know.

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

Metropolis, Thea von Harbou

Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1927)metropolis
Review by nawfalaq

I read some books. I review some books. But I think this will be among the most difficult of reviews to write. Metropolis – the novel and the movie – is no simple thing to be just dismissed. Also, it is difficult to explain any part of the plot without giving away the whole thing. Metropolis was published (I think) in 1926. Its author is Thea von Harbou (1888 – 1954), one time wife of Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976), the very famous German filmmaker. In a lot of ways, Thea’s life is just as fascinating as the author whom I read before this novel (Ernst Jünger) and I feel like reading that novel and then Metropolis was a good one-two punch.

I have decided to write this review as if I have never seen the film. As I was reading the novel, it did make me want to watch the movie again. Beyond that I kept comparing the two and it got slightly messy. So I think it best to just focus on the novel. However, if you have seen the movie, you should definitely still read the novel as it explains and fleshes out a lot of the movie. Let’s face it, the movie is not the most straight-forward and watchable movie ever made.

Anyway, I do not know if this is science fiction, romance (traditionally used), or propaganda. I also do not know if it fits in the category of “dystopia.” I have seen it referred to as “expressionist” and “fantastic.” I mention all of this to share with the reader that this is, from the start, a difficult novel to read and/or describe.

A lot of reviewers/critics have said that this is a futuristic story. An early science fiction dystopia, as it were. Something along the lines of 1984. I do not really agree with any of this. Sure, there are some “fantastic science” elements, but I would not classify this novel along those lines. I think that to do so really misunderstands the author and the story itself. I maintain that the author is very much a product of her times and as such is very connected with the political, social, and economic sensations rippling through the continent in these years. I believe, also, that she was an intuitive and creative person. Finally, reading this novel I got the feeling that Thea von Harbou was a “strong German woman.” This woman was ensnared in her country and in her times. And she made decisive movements within them.

I do not have a command of German, but there are sections in which I wished I could hear it in German – audio. Not written-English. Particularly the times in which von Harbou uses the technique of repetition and reiteration. I’ll be honest – the first time it occurred I just assumed it was because in vintage things, there is often poor editing and type-work. But after a while, I was able to recognize how this repetition really drills home the concepts von Harbou is working with.The novel is thoroughly saturated with a lofty Christianity; sometimes appearing as symbols, sometimes as apocalyptic themes, sometimes as blatant points (eg, Maria, Paternoster). Some of this is a little tedious and it gets a little bizarre at times. And the level of saturation makes me wonder if von Harbou did not impose a “romance” onto the structure of Christianity? In other words, did she start with a foundation of Christianity and then tack various fiction story bits onto it? Well, most of this makes the story somewhat cumbersome and not as accessible as it would be otherwise.

Metropolis is very much a story of redemption. But the author tries to pack a lot of other heavyweight concepts into the novel. There’s too much and the author does lose the reins several times. Is this a romance? A story of redemption? A novel of revolution? A vindication of the authority or a condemnation of the technocrat? Are we supporting revolution or denouncing it? Is this a warning? A call-to-arms? In other words, all these “themes” are expected in such a novel from that time period – but there’s a little too much going on here. At times, von Harbou steps back or does a 180°.

However, there are chapters and scenes of breathtaking awesome brilliance. In fact, I want to ask the author if she went back in time and actually witnessed nights of terror and the storming of the Bastille. She writes a scary, dark night in which Metropolis falls. She does not wimp out when she gets to this part. However, my favorite parts of the novel are chapters 12 and 13. In these chapters, we see the opposite of a militant, strong German revolutionary. In these chapters, the author writes love and emotion and loss and sorrow. Very emotive chapters – but without all the drippyness of current-day writers. Somehow the massive emotion and understanding of the human condition is transmitted without floppy words or annoying prose. These two chapters are exceedingly well done.

Overall, this is a very weird read. And it is not very accessible. It is not a perfect, lovely read – it has plenty of issues. Nevertheless, I think really, really well-rounded readers will want to take a look at this. And, of course, people who want to understand the film.

This review originally appeared on AQ’s Reviews.