Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress

beggarsBeggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (1991)
Review by Shannon Turlington

“A man’s worth to society and to himself doesn’t rest on what he thinks other people should do or be or feel, but on himself. On what he can actually do, and do well. People trade what they do well, and everyone benefits. The basic tool of civilization is the contract. Contracts are voluntary and mutually beneficial. As opposed to coercion, which is wrong.”

This review has spoilers and political content. You have been warned.

In the near future, Leisha is one of the first generation of children genetically engineered not to need sleep, and finds herself hated and feared because of the advantages that gives her.

I first read this novel long ago, and I just reread the novella it was based on to refresh my memory, so this review will focus on the novella, which is the opening section of the longer novel. I have seen this book on many libertarian book lists, but it is my opinion that it considers but ultimately refutes libertarian ideals, at least those ideals that we often associate with Ayn Rand.

Like most of the Sleepers, Leisha subscribes to a philosophy popularized by Kenzo Yagai, who also invented the cheap energy source that is transforming the world. In that philosophy, a person’s greatest dignity comes from being able to do what they do well, freely and without coercion, and to trade that skill with others. This is symbolized by the contract. If a person is not allowed to achieve or must operate under coercion, then that robs them of their spiritual dignity.

However, there is the problem of the so-called beggars in Spain, who have nothing to give and want what you have – and may be willing to do violence to get it. They cannot live on their own merits, and they aren’t willing to abide by the rules of civilization. What does the world owe them? The libertarians, or Yagaiists, would argue, the world owes them nothing. Leisha feels there is something wrong with this, but it takes her a while to realize what.

The Sleepless are superior in nearly every way to the Sleepers, and that is why they come to be hated and feared. They cannot engage with the rest of the world in equal trade because they are not born equal. They come to the conclusion that their only recourse is to withdraw from society into an isolated refuge called Sanctuary. Again, Leisha does not think this is the right move.

Finally, as she and her twin sister Alice (who is not a Sleepless) rescue a Sleepless child from an abusive home – and Alice basically saves everybody, much to Leisha’s surprise – she realizes the truth. This is where the refutation happens. Trade is not linear. It is more like a web. A “beggar in Spain” is not fated to permanently be a beggar; they may have something of value to give that only becomes apparent later, like Alice. Human society is an ecology, so you give what you can when you can, not knowing whether you will receive something in return now or later, or even if the person you benefit will go on to benefit someone else. However, by giving when it is needed, and not expecting something in return immediately, the whole ecology benefits–including the so-called elite.

This is where we get stuck when we consider libertarianism in the political arena today. There is often the attitude of “what’s in it for me?” The benefit may not be immediately apparent, but there is a benefit to us all. We are not individuals free-floating out there, tethered to no one, reliant only on ourselves. We are part of an ecology, and all of us are necessary parts of that ecology. Even the beggars.

To Kenzo Yagai she said, Trade isn’t always linear. You missed that. If Stewart gives me something, and I give Stella something, and ten years from now Stella is a different person because of that and gives something to someone else as yet unknown – it’s an ecology. An ecology of trade, yes, each niche needed, even if they’re not contractually bound. Does a horse need a fish? Yes.

To Tony she said, Yes, there are beggars in Spain who trade nothing, give nothing, do nothing. But there are more than beggars in Spain. Withdraw from the beggars, you withdraw from the whole damn country. And you withdraw from the possibility of the ecology of help.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

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Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh

downbelowDownbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Review by M Fenn

For some reason, I haven’t read much CJ Cherryh. In fact, before starting Downbelow Station, I can only remember reading one other of hers, and I don’t even remember what it was. It’s been a while.

Thanks to this Hugo-winning book, I’ll be amending that.

Downbelow Station is the first novel (not including the prequels) of Cherryh’s Company Wars series and takes part in her Union-Alliance universe. Published in 1981, it’s a complicated story, setting up a universe where a giant corporation (Earth Company) has become wealthy exploring the stars, building space stations around uninhabitable planets, all except for Pell’s World, a planet inhabited by the Hisa (called Downers by the humans who inhabit Pell Station, which orbits the planet).

When the novel begins, war has been raging between the Company and the Union, a group of colonists who have chosen to declare independence from Earth and the Company. The Union augments its military strength with clones. The Company has a fleet of warships commanded by Conrad Mazian. There is also a loose confederation of Merchanter ships involved in all this. Pell tries to maintain its neutrality and do business with all three groups: the Company, the Union, and the Merchanters. A crisis point starts the narrative of the novel, with one of the Company warships (led by Signy Mallory) unloading hundreds of refugees from another space station that’s been attacked by Union forces, causing the disruption of the people living on Pell.

There’s a lot more to the novel than that, but if I give you the whole synopsis, you’ll be reading for hours before even getting to my opinion of all that plot. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of political intrigue amongst all the groups and within them, except for the Hisa, who act more as observers than anything else. Or so it would seem.

I really enjoyed Downbelow Station. It took a while to get into as there is a lot of world-building/info-dumping in the first chapter or so, all of which is necessary to give the reader any idea of where they are. The book is a slow read, as well, because Cherryh’s prose is occasionally plodding and there’s just so much going on.

But I think the story makes up for those problems, and it eventually becomes an exciting read. Cherryh does a fine job establishing her universe and the conflicts therein. She also succeeds when working on the smaller scale of Pell Station and Downbelow (as the stationers call Pell’s World), translating the bigger conflicts to a more personal level, with stationers fighting for control of Pell against Union and the Mazianni (the Earth warships) alike. Her characters are decently drawn and she made me care about them.

The Hisa definitely fall into the “noble savage” trope of so much fiction. They’re sentient primate-like folks, assumed to be childlike by the humans that deal with them, but then surprisingly deep when they need to be. While reading, I went back and forth in liking them and not. Ended up settling into the liking them box, mainly because of Satin (Sky-sees-her) and her journey up to Pell to meet “the Dreamer” and see her planet’s sun, something the Hisa on-planet can’t do, because their skies are always overcast.

Another thing I liked about the book was that both men and women were in positions of authority without any sexist weirdness. I loved Elene Quen, a former Merchanter married to Damon Konstantin, one of the leaders of Pell. She finds herself back in space aboard another Merchanter ship (hers was destroyed by the Union) and ends up doing significant work to bring about peace talks. This announcement of hers made me bust out crying, because I’m just a dork that way.

This is Quen of Estelle. We’re coming in.

Signy Mallory, the commander of the warship Norway, is also incredibly bad-ass and I would love to see Sigourney Weaver play her, if a movie was ever made of Downbelow Station. It would be a fun film, for a lot of reasons. I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t happened yet.

This review originally appeared on Skinnier than it is Wide.

The Mountains of Mourning, Lois McMaster Bujold

Mountains of MourningThe Mountains of Mourning, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Miles Vorkosigan, home on leave from the Barrayar Academy, is given a job by his father: to adjudicate a case of infanticide in a farming community. Aral Vorkosigan has pioneered laws designed to protect ill and deformed young babies from being killed out of hand, as has been the custom for centuries, and wants to see the law enforced. Miles reluctantly heads for the village… only to find a seething morass of secrets and local intrigue which makes finding the real killer more difficult than he thought possible.

The Mountains of Mourning is a short (80 page or so) novella set in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosgian universe. It’s a slight work but an interesting one, showing the changing face of Barrayar society due to the reforms introduced by Aral Vorkosigan after the events of Shards of Honour and Barrayar, the first two novels in the sequence.

The writing is pretty good, with Bujold pulling out some interesting twists to overcome the superior technology of Miles’s investigating team (who are armed with instant truth drugs). On a character level, it shows Miles growing and taking more responsibility. It’s a much more serious story than the previous (chronologically) novel in the series, The Warrior’s Apprentice, and Bujold handles the change in tone quite well. Bujold also does reasonably well to avoid the worst clichés of the “high-minded folk from the city telling the country bumpkins what to do” trope, with the villagers turning out to be smarter and less primitive than they are initially set out to be.

The Mountains of Mourning is a fine novella, but it’s not really worthwhile purchasing this as a separate volume. Fortunately it can be found conveniently packaged alongside The Warrior’s Apprentice and the succeeding novel, The Vor Game, in the Young Miles.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Doomsday Morning, CL Moore

powers_doomsday-morningDoomsday Morning, CL Moore (1957)
Review by Joachim Boaz

CL Moore’s Doomsday Morning – she’s best known for her revolutionary 1930s works including ‘Shambleau’ (1934) and the Jirel of Joiry sequence – is perhaps her most ruminative and traditional SF novel (she tended to write more fantastical SF and fantasy). Unfortunately, she quit writing around the time of the death of her husband and frequent collaborator Henry Kuttner (they often published under the pseudonym Lewis Padgett). And her second husband forbid her to write altogether…

Moore creates a finely wrought dystopic vision where an oppressive future government utilizes communication networks to spread its tentacles across the United States. Against this backdrop intriguing characters come to life. Her descriptions of the political backdrop remain minimalistic which is surprising for SF of the 1950s which often resorts to lengthy descriptive lectures. Instead, the true extent of the government’s influence on everyone’s lives is only slowly uncovered via our main character’s experiences. The first person narrative is perfectly deployed to slowly immerse us in the world. Doomsday Morning is not populated by your normal heroes, and Moore is careful to point out that not all rebels are heroic.

Comus (derived from COMmunications US) rules America but details about how exactly it functions and how it was created are kept at a minimum. Clearly a reference to Communism (Moore is writing in the post-Mccarthyism era), Comus is controlled by the dictator Raleigh who is slowly dying. Vague references are interspersed throughout that allude to a devastating Five Days’ War that resulted in Raleigh creating Comus. Comus maintains power by an adept use of the media – propagandistic plays, movies transformed into plays, control of the actual communication networks. Also, the use of “pyscho-polling” and automated police Prowlers keep the state aware of the moods and seditious inclinations of their populace. A large percentage of the workforce that keeps everyone fed and happy are indentured Croppers. They sign lengthy contracts and receive food, alcohol, housing, and transportation between worksites all of which is deducted from their pay. However, by the time their contracts are up they are deeply in debt and have to sign new contracts.

Howard Rohan, the main character, is a onetime actor and theater director who led a successful theater troop. However after the death of his wife Miranda, who acted his plays and movie adaptations of his plays, Rohan fell on hard times and joined the Croppers. A wonderful sequence opens the novel – a drunk and depressed Rohan gazing across the plane where he sees a movie screen with a scene of his wife and himself:

“I watched the young Rohan of four years ago come up behind his wife and rest his hands on her waist, one on each side, like a belt. She laid her head back on his shoulder. It was like watching two gods make love, beautiful, gigantic, more vivid than life, and a long way off in space and time.” (p 8)

Soon Rohan is summoned by Ted Nye, who rules Comus from behind the scenes, with a proposition. Rohan is to restart his career and head to California which has separated from Comus and perform a play. The play itself seems innocent and even non-propagandistic. The troop he selects, The Swann Players are second rate and there’s a Comus spy in in the mix. As Rohan slowly emerges from his self-induced haze of despair and alcoholism he seems to be guided by a series of cryptic messages (how exactly he received them is one of the main mysteries) about what is actually happening in California. Rohan’s self-transformation is generally believable. Also, Rohan’s egotism matches the type of character he is meant to represent. Initially he is solely motivated for selfish reasons, but soon, he is forced to pick a side when Comus’ reason for funding the play is revealed.

What is remarkable about the work is the thematic core that explores the intersection of performance, the powers of media, and state control. The most transfixing portions of the novel describe the play that is almost a character within the narrative. The novel revolves the forces that ordered the play to be performed, the story the play itself relates, the characters within the play, and the actors performing the play’s characters. Beautiful touches abound. For example Comus, the “benevolent” dictatorship that rules America, translates existing plays into movies to control the masses. Also, our hero often cannot distinguish between the reality of Miranda whom Rohan once loved and the ideal constructed via her screen presence – even her name, Miranda, ie, “the one who ought to be gazed at” reflects Rohan’s struggle.

CL Moore’s Doomsday Morning is one of the more intriguing dystopic visions from the 1950s. Highly recommended all fans of classic SF. However, the slow pace and lack of immersive action (until the end) might not satisfy all readers.

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

We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

wewhoareWe Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Ian Sales

The first realistic novel in the English language is generally reckoned to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719. In the three hundred years since, stories of marooned travellers have proven very popular – so much so the term “Robinsonade” was coined to describe them. When science fiction came into being in the first decades of the twentieth century, the Robinsonade effortlessly colonised the new genre. Alien worlds replaced desert islands, but little else changed – except, of course, the tools at the marooned person’s disposal. Ingenuity, leading either to rescue or a more comfortable existence, was a perfect fit for sf. And for much of the genre’s history, the Robinsonade remained pretty much unchanged, with perhaps one or two exceptions – such as Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday, in which an astronaut marooned on Mars survives with the help of the local fauna.

But if there’s a common shape to Robinsonades, Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… deliberately – perversely, even – subverts it. Because Russ is not interested in ingenuity in the face of adversity, or the perils hardy survivors must overcome, she’s interested in the group dynamics which come into play when a group of people find themselves shipwrecked. Especially a group containing both men and women…

A group of five women and three men crash-land on an uninhabited planet – although it does handily possess a survival shelter which they can use until rescued.  However, it’s not entirely clear when they will be rescued, and the narrator – the novel is framed as an audio diary by one of the marooned women – is doubtful they will ever be found. She is also doubtful they will survive very long, even though the planet seems relatively benign. For a start, they’re not entirely sure they can eat any of the local flora, and they only have supplies for about five weeks…

None of the group have useful skills: there’s a bureaucrat, a couple of academics, a retired couple and their young teen daughter, and a young man and a young woman… But the one thing they all do possess is opinions. And they’re not afraid to share them with the rest of the group. The three men want to start a colony, and so insist the women must consent to become breeding chattel. They even set up a kangaroo court to try and add legitimacy to this decision. The narrator, however, is having none of this. She disagrees with every suggestion because she doesn’t see the point of it. Unsurprisingly, this brings her into conflict with the rest of the group – not just the men, but also a couple of the women who have aligned themselves with the men. She tries running away, but they find her. So she escalates the conflict, kills the others one by one, but eventually succumbs to hunger herself.

There’s nothing in We Who Are About To…, other than the initial set-up, which remotely maps onto a Robinsonade. This is a novel driven by despair, not hope. The narrator is realistic enough to realise the chance of rescue is not just slim but non-existent, which means that any strategies for extending the survivors’ lives are pointless. This is an alien world, its habitability is an illusion… And though the narrator repeatedly points this out, she is ignored. This is clearly because the long-term viability of the group is less important to some of its members than the opportunity to wield power over the others – cf the kangaroo court mentioned earlier – especially the men over the women. And there’s a clear sense of entitlement from the male characters, as if the women’s biology gives the men leave to take control… It works in their favour that the narrator is a person they can easily turn the rest against – not only is she female, she is also outspoken, cynical, has an occupation the others do no understand (she’s a musicologist), proves to possess a useful pharmacopoeia she refuses to share, and is revealed to be a member of a religious group considered irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst.

Russ had a distinctive voice and it’s present in We Who Are About To… just as much as it is in her other works. Framing the novel as an audio-diary makes a strength of that voice. Because this is not a cheerful novel, it is an angry novel – told by someone who has good cause to be angry. We Who Are About To… is an important science fiction novel, but, as seems to be the case for many sf novels of the 1970s and many sf novels by women writers, it does not have half the reputation it deserves. Currently, only the 2010 Wesleyan University Press edition is in print. Let’s have less of Robert Heinlein’s unpublished manuscripts in print, please, and more of these overlooked, perhaps even deliberately forgotten, important sf novels by women back in book shops – with the logo of a major imprint on their spine, of course. In fact, doesn’t We Who Are About To… belong in the SF Masterwork series?

The Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge

snowqueenThe Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge (1980)
Review by Shannon Turlington

The Snow Queen is an epic story set on a distant planet, about the fall of one queen and the rise of another. The novel is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson and tackles such weighty themes as immortality and the power of knowledge.

The strength of this novel lies in its world building. The planet of Tiamat is a fully realized world, an ocean-covered planet orbiting twin suns. Two tribes live there: the sea-going, island-dwelling Summers, characterized by a fear of technology and a superstitious worship of their sea goddess, the Lady; and the Winters, who live in the Northern regions and the shell-shaped city of Carbuncle, embrace technology and freely trade with the Offworlders.

Tiamat’s culture and history are shaped by the oddities of its planetary and solar system orbits. Every 150 years, it moves closest to one of its suns, bringing a long summer to the planet. This signals a complete power shift, as the Summers move north from the equatorial regions and the Snow Queen abdicates to the Summer Queen. In fact, the Snow Queen and her consort are sacrificed to the sea in a paganistic ritual following a multi-day festival similar to Carnivale or Mardi Gras.

During the same period, the planet orbits close to and then away from a black hole that enables interstellar travel to other planets in an empire called the Hegemony. While Tiamat is close to the black hole, the Hegemony maintains a presence there, sharing technology with the ruling Winters. When the planet starts to orbit away, the Offworlders must leave, and they destroy all technology before they go to keep Tiamat from advancing too much without their influence and perhaps declaring independence. The Offworlders’ interest in Tiamat comes down to the planet’s one valuable asset: immortal sea creatures called Mers. The Mers’ blood, called the Water of Life, can be harvested to provide ever-lasting youth.

The Snow Queen takes place at the cusp of this great Change. The 150-year-old Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has been scheming to maintain her power after the Summers take over. Her plan involves cloning herself, producing her Summer twin, Moon. But even though the two look alike, they are diametric opposites in personality. Arienrhod is self-absorbed and power-hungry, emotionless in her extreme age, a manipulator of everyone she meets. Her young twin Moon is compassionate and empathetic, someone who inspires adulation and devotion in everyone she comes across.

Moon has become a sibyl, a prophetess who can answer any question. Through this power she taps into an ancient network of knowledge and discovers the true significance of the Mers and why they must be protected. This prompts her to compete for the mask of the Summer Queen and the power to, as she puts it, change the Change.

Moon and Arienrhod are both in love with Moon’s cousin, Sparks. His character is probably the novel’s biggest flaw, because it seems implausible that these two strong women would go to such lengths for him. Sparks is narcissistic, petulant and tends to make rash decisions or sulk when things don’t go his way. His character doesn’t improve or change much over the course of the story. He commits atrocious crimes, witnessed by Moon, who still wants to be with him even when much more attractive options are available to her.

This is a long novel that probably could have been a good deal shorter, but there is enough action and interesting dynamics to keep the reader involved. In fact, I would like to know more – about the ruling planet of Kharamough, for instance, and its rigid class structure, which we visit only briefly. Clearly, the novel is setting up for a sequel, since many conflicts are left open-ended and the resolution is not quite satisfying as a result.

The Snow Queen won the Hugo Award in 1981. The sequel, The Summer Queen, was published in 1991, and a third novel in the trilogy, Tangled Up in Blue, was published in 2000. Vinge also published a novella, ‘World’s End’ (1984), set in the same universe.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

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

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin

latheofheavenThe Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin (1976)
Review by M Fenn

Ursula K Le Guin‘s The Lathe of Heaven is the story of George Orr, a man whose dreams can change reality. He tries to prevent this by drugging himself dreamless, but that doesn’t work and he ends up in “voluntary” therapy. His therapist, Dr Haber, is at first suspicious of Orr’s claims, but when he experiences what Orr’s dreams can do first hand, he chooses to use George instead of help him, claiming he’s working for the greater good of humankind. We all know how that kind of thing usually plays out, don’t we?

Concerned about how Dr Haber is treating him, George seeks out the assistance of an attorney, Heather LeLache, who then becomes involved in his life and his dreams.

What do I love about this book? Not sure where to begin. I fell in love part way through the first paragraph and was sad when it ended. Now, I just want to start over and read the book again and again until I memorize it.

There isn’t just one thing that stands out. Le Guin’s prose is delicious: heartwrenching, beautiful, and sharply funny.I love the way she plays with language, the words she makes up, the ones she borrows from other works, and the humour she finds in language itself. (Oh, the French diseases of the soul.)

The story itself is strong: dark and creepy, a mix of George Orwell and Philip K Dick (I know I’m not the first person to come up with that combination). The characters Le Guin creates are wonderful and stick with me, the two I adore and the one I detest, as well. Orr himself is such a strong person for all his quiet fear and insecurity. At one point in the novel, LeLache describes him as such:

It was more than dignity. Integrity? Wholeness? Like a block of wood not carved.

The infinite possibility, the unlimited and unqualified wholeness of being of the uncommitted, the nonacting, the uncarved: the being who, being nothing but himself, is everything.

…He was the strongest person she had ever known, because he could not be moved away from the center.

And then there are the turtles. I won’t say anything more of them, but they are a special part of the book.

I do wonder at the changes that happen to one character’s persona as the book progresses, and Le Guin even brings this up at the end of the story. Why does George change this one person in his dreams and not the other person who’s truly hurting him, and what do those choices mean, if they are his choices?

So much to think about. One of the many reasons I need to reread The Lathe of Heaven. Brilliant book. I love it.

This review originally appeared on Skinnier Than It Is Wide.