Forty Thousand in Gehenna, CJ Cherryh

gehennaForty Thousand in Gehenna, CJ Cherryh (1983)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Forty Thousand in Gehenna is set in Cherryh’s sprawling Alliance-Union universe, sometime after the events of Downbelow Station, so a little history first. Through the Earth Company, humanity explored space ever outward from Sol, first building stations and then finding habitable planets. After some centuries of exploration and trade, the farthest colony-planets formed Union and went to war with the Earth Company. Caught in the middle were the spacefaring traders and cargo-haulers, the merchanters. This Company War ended with the forming of the merchanter Alliance, a neutral third-power interested in freedom of movement and controlling trade, leaving Union to its space and abandoning the destitute Earth to its meager Sol system.

Now, Alliance and Union live in an uneasy peace; Union seeds colony worlds with its genetically engineered, psychologically conditioned clones known as azi, claiming ground for when Alliance pushes into Union space. The planet Gehenna II is one such colony planet: over forty thousand azi and a few hundred “born-man” humans are dispatched to form a colony, given the supplies needed to establish a foothold. The planet is primitive, but habitable; the most advanced native species are a range of mound-building reptilians that display limited intelligence – dinosaur-like behemoths called caliban, and graceful smaller lizards termed ariels.

The plan is that the colonists will have three years to establish their settlement, at which point ships will return to resupply and prepare for the installation of birth-labs, the cloning facilities that produce azi. For political reasons unknown to the inhabitants, the ships never return, leaving them to struggle along. As their equipment breaks down, their electronics are eroded by the weather, and the azi fail to undergo their conditioning tapes, the colony must learn to make do with what they have, the forty-thousand azi forming their own civilization and culture out of their own shared experiences. And it turns out the resident caliban are not as unintelligent as believed…

Cherryh does not write easy or simple books; her narratives are rich in characters with multiple points-of-view, with deep, twisting plots that demand a reader’s attention. Forty Thousand in Gehenna is even moreso than usual, because it follows the colony’s development across generations. It’s fascinating to see the colony begin with high hopes and lofty ideals, then see the civilization of Newport along the Forbes River break down into the anarchy of primitive Gehenna Base along the river Styx. The novel tells the story of numerous born-man and azi characters and their descendants, progressing along the major stages of the colony’s life as it evolves and adapts.

Failing to force Gehenna to accept Terran standards of civilization, the colonists adapt and remold themselves over the generations to fit their environment. The theme is clearest with the first generation of azi workers, attempting to understand events beyond their comprehension. While not stupid, they are simple-minded in their obedient programming, and move forward believing that their labour is serving a greater purpose they just can’t see. Meanwhile, the azi struggle at becoming authority figures themselves, and their undisciplined children run wild. Gehenna’s second generation moves away from the hard-working obedience of their parents, moving closer towards the caliban. Some even flee the failing base and live in the caliban burrows, and the azi line begins to evolve and grow.

The azi are fascinating characters to follow. Industrious but lacking free will, the novel shows the growth of azi self-determination, the evolution of vat-grown labour as it’s left to its own devices. I pity the elder azi who arrived at the colony’s founding, as they fail to comprehend that everything they’d ever been taught has come crashing down around them, as they fail to understand the thought-process of their children. The later generations regress into a neolithic society, around the time Alliance gains control of Gehenna and is forced to initiate first contact with its own species.

The novel uses an expansive sense of scale, following some twelve generations of azi-born and mixed human-azi ancestry. We follow some four or five major events in Gehenna’s history, from the founding up through the establishment of a dominant culture, seeing how the generations (and their actions) shape the planet’s later history, learning more about the strange caliban. The azi tend to name their descendants after those who have came before, leading to a dozen Jins and several variants on the same names (Elly/Ellai/Elai, Dean/Dain/Din); a realistic choice as the azi gain a sense of ancestry, but a minor reading annoyance. The progression of time is also bittersweet, in the sheer number of characters who grow old and die – hopefully in that order.

And it’s not just the use of time that gives the novel that sense of scale. Cherryh tells the story in traditional narrative, and bits and fragments from the characters’ world – journal entries, memos, notes, orders and directives. Things like maps, personnel lists, and genealogical lineages start each chapter, marking the dead and the newly born, tracking the growth (or decline, or re-growth) of the colony and its environs. There’s a lot of material here, but not a lot of wasted space; every piece is used with purpose, something that becomes clearer a generation or two later when we see how Gehenna’s civilization progresses.

Forty Thousand in Gehenna is an ambitious work from a writer who does not shy away from complex narratives. Most writers would take the concept – “the first 300 years of an abandoned colony world” – and make it into a 600+ page novel, a trilogy, a series. Cherryh did it in 440 pages, and aside from a few hiccups, succeeds with style. The major theme – following a group of programmed clones over the centuries, bereft of their programming and forced to create their own culture that adapts to their alien environment – continued to impress me with its brilliance. It’s one of the most expansive works in science fiction I’ve read, and highly recommended because of that.

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

Aurora: Beyond Equality, Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson

auroraAurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

I was in two minds whether or not to review this for SF Mistressworks, despite it being one of the first feminist science fiction anthologies to be published. This was because three of the contributors – Dave Skal, Craig Strete and PJ Plauger – are male, and this website is about women science fiction writers. But mention of Aurora: Beyond Equality in Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon, persuaded me otherwise. Not only was Strete a confident of “Tip” (as Tiptree was known before “his” unmasking), but Tip was also very supportive of McIntyre and Anderson as they were putting the book together – so much so, in fact, that he recommended a “friend” of his, Raccoona Sheldon. As a result, Sheldon appears in Aurora: Beyond Equality in both of her published disguises.

It’s probably also worth noting that not every story in Aurora: Beyond Equality is science fiction – some are fantasy. Which is another reason it’s not entirely relevant to SF Mistressworks. But never mind. All stories, incidentally, were original to the anthology.

‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!’, Raccoona Sheldon. While I’ve read a couple of dozen Tiptree stories, I suspect I’ve read only a handful as by Raccoona Sheldon. Perhaps if I’d not known they were the same person, I might have considered their writing styles very different. As it is, knowing both were Alice Sheldon I see more similarities than I do differences. Having said that, ‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!’ is written in the present tense, which I don’t recall Tiptree ever using. It’s also a more stream-of-conciousness type narrative, rather than Tiptree’s more considered prose. The protagonist is a young woman. She is a messenger in a post-apocalyptic USA, but as she travels through a ruined travel she finds people friendly and helpful – although she knows to avoid areas where danger lurks. Except, she isn’t a messenger a post-apocalyptic USA, she’s a young woman with a mental health condition who has not taken her meds and is currently wandering around the city – and who eventually comes to harm. It’s a bitter and pessimistic story, more so, I think, than anything Tiptree wrote.

‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is arguably James Tiptree Jr’s best-known story. It’s certainly emblematic of his fiction, with its dry, caustic tone, its somewhat caricatured male characters, and its ambivalence toward feminism – or at the very least toward a feminist or women-only utopia. A  mission to orbit the Sun comes a cropper when the spacecraft is unknowingly thrown into the future – a future which, the astronauts discover after being rescued by a nearby spacecraft, turns out to be women-only… The men react badly, the women inadvertently reveal a few details about their world which do not bode well. As on previous reads, the story feels hamstrung by its caricatured male characters – while the women are well-drawn, more nuanced men might have made the resolution more powerful. Tiptree was certainly capable of writing well-drawn male characters, and did so in other of his stories.

‘The Mothers, the Mothers, How Eerily It Sounds’ by Dave Skal is set in the future after some unidentified disaster. A man and a woman are studying Digger, a mutant, and his people, perhaps in order to use their genetic material – shades of Tiptree’s ‘The Snows are Melted, the Snows are Gone’ – as well as to heal Digger’s people of their mutations. To be honest, there’s not much about this story that sticks in the memory.

‘The Antrim Hills’, Mildred Downey Broxon, is one of the anthology’s few fantasies. The author was apparently a “student of Irish history”, which explains the setting. Maire’s husband, a harpist, has been taken by the Sídhe, and she determines to rescue him. The Sídhe live in a place at the bottom of a lake and, with the help of a magical trout, Maire sets off to win back her husband, Tadhg. But she too ends up trapped up the faery folk, and when the pair do finally escape they discover they are now in the present day. Despite being little more than a string of Irish/Sídhe clichés, the story has plenty of charm, and I rather liked it.

‘Is Gender Necessary?’, Ursula K Le Guin, is actually an essay. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness has been criticised because, among other things, Le Guin used the male pronoun throughout… which somewhat undercuts its point regarding the mostly genderless Gethenians. Asa a result, Le Guin wrote this essay to address some of those criticisms. In part it reads like a defence of the decisions she made writing the novel – expressed through a potted history of the Gethenians, and her thinking behind that fictional history – and yet it also is an apologia, an acknowledgement that perhaps if she were to tackle something similar she would do it differently.

‘Corruption’ by Joanna Russ is an odd story, and feels uncharacteristic of her work. On an alien and inhospitable world, people live in small sealed arcologies. Their occupations are indicated by the colour of their clothing. Alpha, however, is not who he appears to be. He has infiltrated the world in order to destroy it. There is a dystopian uniformity to the world Russ paints, which is reinforced by the commentary embedded in the prose.

Although PJ PLauger has written two novels, both have only appeared in magazines and not book form. He also appears to be more of an Analog writer, which makes him  a strange choice for Aurora: Beyond Equality. And his story, ‘Here Be Dragons’, while enjoyable, isn’t noticeably feminist. It’s set on a colony world some centuries after landfall. The colonists have settled one continent and maintain a low-tech agrarian civilisation. The descendants of the crew, however, occupy another continent, and use legends and rumours of monsters – as well as a motor boat tricked out to look like a fire-breathing dragon – to keep the colonists away. But the crew’s civilisation is stagnating and no longer understands how its technology works. The colonists, on the other hand, are slowly discovering science and technology – as is embodied in an encounter between a newly-designed colonist sailing boat and the aforementioned “dragon” motor boat.

‘Why Has the Virgin Mary Never Entered the Wigwam of Standing Bear?’ by Craig Strete is a monologue by a Native American woman about Standing Bear, a warrior, and about white people and what they mean to her and her people. But the woman might also be a goddess, and she revenges herself on those who have mistreated her people – “I am the chief, the warrior who killed Hugh Hefner. I killed him very poetically. I gave him the most beautful body a girl ever had. It was his own.” (p 180).

‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, Marge Piercy, is an extract from the novel of the same title, described as “in progress, soon to be published by Knopf”. Consuelo is a woman of our own time who “hallucinates” her way to some future time. The extract describes a couple of her visits and basically consists of her horrified reactions to the way the near-utopians of the future do things, while they explain to her how everything works.

According to Phillips, McIntyre and Anderson “wanted fiction that explored what the world might look like after equality between the sexes had been achieved” (p 352, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon). In that respect, the anthology fails badly. And yet the editors admit they had trouble finding suitable material: as Anderson writes in the introduction:

As stories began arriving, we soon realized what a difficult assignment we had given writers. Some, alas, hadn’t quite understood our theme. By no stretch of the imagination does a mutated squash story qualify as nonsexist sf. (p 14)

While Aurora: Beyond Equality contains some very good fiction, few of the stories actually meet the theme. Sheldon’s has men being violent toward women, Tiptree’s has the same but in a women-only world. In Skal’s, Broxon’s, Russ’s and Plauger’s stories, gender equality feels incidental to the plots. Le Guin’s essay is about the Gethenians, who have no gender when not in “kemmer”. Strete’s is about a Native American woman revenging herself on white people. Only Piercy’s novel extract is on point – and that has no discernible plot and drops the reader straight into the novel’s world.

Despite that, Aurora: Beyond Equality is not a bad anthology. Its stories are not especially dated – the Broxon almost certainly might appear today, although its premise has been done to death in the decades since 1976. The Plauger too feels somewhat timeless, although its concerns probably wouldn’t interest a twenty-first century reader. Then there’s the Sheldon and the Tiptree, both making their original appearances, which are worth the price of entry alone. And Woman on the Edge of Time the novel, of course, is still in print. Which is a problem – the best stories have been subsequently collected elsewhere, and there’s nothing unique to Aurora: Beyond Equality which makes the book worth tracking down.


The Crystal Ship, Randall, Vinge & McIntyre

crystalThe Crystal Ship, edited by Robert Silverberg (1976)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Only a handful of SF anthologies have hit print solely featuring women authors – none were published before 1972 and, surprisingly, few after 1980 (there seems to be a resurgence in the last few years). The Crystal Ship (1976) is one of these. It contains the three novellas by three important SF authors who got their start in the 70s: Marta Randall, Joan D Vinge, and Vonda N McIntyre. The latter two achieved critical success: Joan D Vinge won the Hugo for her novel The Snow Queen (1980) and Vonda N McIntyre won the Hugo for her novel Dreamsnake (1978). Marta Randall, on the other hand, despite her Nebula nomination for the intriguing Islands (1976) remains to this day lesser known.

All three of the novellas feature impressive female protagonists and narratives that subvert many of SF’s traditional clichés. All three protagonists are outcasts, striving against worlds characterized in turn by decadence, colonialism, and sadistic prison systems. Tarawassie in Vinge’s ‘The Crystal Ship’ is cast in the vein of Alvin in Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956). She takes on the mantel of “the one who knows how the world really is”. The eponymous heroine of Randall’s ‘Megan’s World’ is shunned by her fellow humankind due to her mechanical and strangely-coloured body. She is accepted by the natives of a soon to be exploited planet and feels compelled to fight, in the final confrontation, against her own. It takes all mental and physical strength of Kylis in McIntyre’s ‘Screwtop’ – imprisoned for minor infractions including “stealing passage” on a spaceship – to not succumb the hellish environment of the world and the sinister whims of a particularly disturbed guard.

‘Screwtop’ is the highlight of The Crystal Ship. Neither Randall or Vinge can match the raw psychological power, evocative world building, and solid storytelling of McIntyre.

‘The Crystal Ship’ Joan D Vinge: In the past I have found Vinge’s works from the late 70s deeply flawed – for example, Fireship (1978) and The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978). She would refine her style/characterizations in The Snow Queen Cycle of novels from the 80s and 90s. In a far future environ, a vast (mostly empty) crystal spaceship orbits a distant planet. The occupants of the vessel lived a drugged and satiated existence where they end their lives by jumping into a mysterious contraption called a “wishing well” (p 14). Like Alvin in The City and the Stars, Tarawassie sees the sad state of the world after her mother, who lives on the planet’s surface and refuses the life of the crystal ship, seeks to end her life in the wishing well. Tarawassie escapes the “Loom’s catch-spell of light/music” (p 19) and strikes off for the planet’s surface.

On the surface she encounters the “real humans”, ie some new strain of humanity (mixed with the native population?) with pouches, telepathy, and tails. These rat-like creatures believe themselves superior to the inhabitants of the spaceship. With the help of a native named Moon Shadow (*wince*), Tarawassie learns the true history of their peoples, and reason for the strange crystal ship.

‘The Crystal Ship’ is an inarticulate allegory with an intriguing premise but a flawed delivery. Moon Shadow’s “‘What it’ – he grimaced, concentrating – ‘what it – mean?’” (p 29) attempts at dialogue are beyond frustrating for the reader. The unease generated by the world and the hints of past cataclysmic confrontation are the most praiseworthy elements of the story. For die-hard Joan D Vinge fans only.

‘Megan’s World’ Marta Randall: Randall’s novella is on the surface a traditional SF narrative. Engineer Padric Angelo, whose past is filled with ignominy, lands on an alien planet in search of natural resources with an inept ethnologist who knows little about dealing with aliens. The ethnologist believes that it will be easy to convince the natives to desecrate their planet, ie just speak into the universal translator and they will think that the Terrans are gods and thus get whatever they want with superior technology.

And then Randall subverts the paradigm: the feline aliens are far from simplistic naturalistic aliens who are one with nature. Rather, they worship bloodthirsty gods and are stricken with internal political and social dissension. The biggest realignment concerns Padric’s sister, whom he encounters on the planet. Megan is “thin and immensely tall; has gray hair; a second and transparent set of eyelids set above liquid crystal irises that shift colors with changes in temperature and pulse in time to her heartbeat. Her bones are formed of high-impact, stress-resistant biosteel allow, and her bluntly shaped finger- and toe-nails are of a dully gray metal” (p 95). Megan was developed as an experiment in spaceship construction (integration of human with machine) – however, the experiment was a failure. She escaped the ridicule she faced by her fellow Terrans and fled via a stolen yacht. In part because she is accepted by the natives of the planet, she feels closely for their plight and the danger her brother represents.

The story is somewhat bogged down with needless exposition. Most frustrating is the lack of nuance dealing with the key themes of the novel – alienation, colonialism, etc. The frustratingly abrupt ending does little to ram home the more intriguing elements. Recommended with reservations.

‘Screwtop’ Vonda N McIntyre: is by far the most satisfying and evocative novella in the collection. Kylis, a spaceport “rat” who spent her childhood at spaceports stowing aboard ships, is captured for stealing passage and is imprisoned on the planet Redsun. A perpetually hot planet filled with strange parasites, fern plants, and volcanoes, Redsun is powered by some form of geothermal energy (how exactly this works is not altogether clear). Kylis spends her day working with other prisoners removing vegetation and drilling into the planet’s crust. She encounters two disparate characters who become her friends: Jason, an writer, arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy; and a tetraparental, ie a designed super-intelligent individual culled from the DNA of four parents, named Gryf. However, the prison guard named Lizard is commanded to force Gryf to return to the life he escaped and uses Kylis affection for Gryf and Jason as leverage.

There are indications throughout of non-traditional relationships – for example, group living and non-monogamous relationships such as Kylis, Gryf, and Jason. McIntyre’s avoids info-dumps and only carefully reveals each character’s back-story. The narrative is well-told and ultimately, downright heart-rending.

McIntyre’s Dreamsnake is the only Hugo-winning novel published between 1960 and 1980 I have yet to read. After experiencing the refined and psychological power of ‘Screwtop’, I desperately want to get my hands on a copy. Highly recommended.

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

The Incomer, Margaret Elphinstone

incomerThe Incomer, Margaret Elphinstone (1987)
Review by Jack Deighton

I picked this one up in a second hand bookshop in Edinburgh a few months ago. For two reasons. One, it was a Women’s Press SF publication I hadn’t bought at the time so it filled a gap and two, it fitted the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge. The book has the impeccably Scottish word “incomer” as part of its title. Though born in Kent, author Margaret Elphinstone has lived extensively in Scotland – in Galloway when the book was published – and has a professional academic interest in Scottish literature, especially of the islands. (She does have a character say, “Aren’t I?” though.)

As dark is falling a human figure falters through a vaguely menacing forest to a crossroads with a village on its north side. The village has several ruined houses but we are given to understand this is by no means unusual for the times. (Almost incidentally we find out some sort of change has reduced the human population compared to our time and advanced technology is conspicuous by its absence. Despite this, familiar things such as flower pots, nappies and sheep crop up from time to time. Heat is provided by burning wood, which seems to be a precious resource despite the surrounding forest. The North Sea is dangerous, referred to as dead, in contrast to the reviving Irish Sea.)

The figure, a travelling musician named Naomi, finds room at the inn. Her fiddle playing at a gathering a day or so later ensures her acceptance to stay for the rest of the winter. The village is called Clachanpluck (the novel has been republished as The Incomer or Clachanpluck) and holds a secret. A path through the forest leads to an entry into the earth hidden behind a waterfall. (No spoilers.)

Naomi’s presence has an impact on the relationships within the village but the main theme of the novel is mutual incomprehension, the lack of understanding Naomi has of the local norms, the assumed knowledge she doesn’t have, the care with which she has to tread. Her main driving force is her music but during her stay in the village she nevertheless – if somewhat unconvincingly – throws off her long-maintained celibacy in a relationship with fellow fiddle player Davey to whom she teaches tunes that she learned on her travels in Europe. Old, powerful music, written by Beethoven. Despite the almost unspoken matriarchy in Clachanpluck human nature hasn’t much changed. Other misunderstandings take place among those who have lived there all their lives.

This is a quiet, understated novel whose depiction of a restrained, unfussy, reticent lifestyle where people no longer exploit nature unsustainably and have a deep attachment to the land may be nostalgic and idealistic yet resists being idyllic.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

The Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg

revolvingThe Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg (1966)
Review by Ian Sales

According to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Gertrude Friedberg published only a single sf novel and three sf short stories (one in an original anthology and two in F&SF). Her novel, The Revolving Boy, was not, I’d been told, especially good. So I was somewhat surprised to discover it was a nicely-written, slightly whimsical, but very much science fiction, novel, with an engaging protagonist and an appealing voice.

Derv Nagy is the boy of the title. He was conceived in orbit during a space mission – one of the novel least convincing elements, it must be said; it’s passed off and hand-waved away with little or no attempt made at plausibility. Initially, Derv’s strangeness exhibits itself in a desire to face in a specific direction whenever possible, or to take routes, or move his body, in such a way as to maintain some sort of specific heading. As he grows older, so the urge becomes stronger, until he is only comfortable when facing in the “Direction”… and this is taking into account the rotation of the Earth, the movement of the Earth about the Sun, and so on. Of course, this makes life difficult for him. Which is not helped by the fact that he and his parents are pretty much in hiding – they fled the publicity and notoriety generated by their space mission, and are now living under assumed identities.

For much of The Revolving Boy, Friedberg describes the development of Derv’s strange talent, and how he learns to fit his life around it. And how his parents learn how to cope with it. He grows up, marries, begins on a career as a chemical engineer… But then the signal, whatever it is that indicates the Direction to him, stops. Derv falls ill as a result, but the only condition the medical establishment seems to think fits his symptoms is a brain tumour. So they schedule exploratory surgery. In desperation, Derv’s wife, Prin, visits Green Bank, a renowned radio telescope facility. They had been listening to a signal from somewhere out in space, origin and purpose unknown but, they suspect, the product of intelligence. Except the project had fallen out of favour years before, and the signal had not been listened to since. Prin’s visit prompts a young radio-astronomer to check the signal, and he discovers it has returned.

Meanwhile, Derv miraculously recovers from his “brain tumour” and discharges himself from hospital. The Green Bank astronomers – who were aware of Derv and his ability – now want his help in conforming the direction and source of the signal. But they can’t find him, as he has been living under a different name for decades…

The SF Encyclopedia describes The Revolving Boy as “a minor classic in the field”. I don’t think I would go quite far, but it’s certainly a novel which doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Friedberg’s prose is good throughout, and while the central premise – ie, SETI – is a real thing and so very much plausible, the story elements wrapped around it are a little too hand-wavey for comfort. Derv’s difference is handled sensitively, and makes for an interesting metaphor. But the lack of explanation, or the feebleness of the explanations which are offered, often work against it.

Read The Revolving Boy for Friedberg’s writing, for Derv’s story… but don’t read it necessarily as heartland science fiction. It works better in the areas peripheral to its central conceit, in the adjustments its cast must make to that conceit, in the way it affects them and their lives. It’s not a classic, but it does deserve a fresh audience.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia E Butler

parableParable of the Sower, Octavia E Butler (1993)
Review by Nicolette Stewart

Parable of the Sower begins on July 20th, 2024 – narrator Lauren Olamina’s birthday and what will be, assuming I manage to live that long, my own 42nd birthday. This coincidence gave me a head start – I felt connected with the narrator before Butler had lifted more than a couple of fingers, felt the chill of how close this future could be to our own.

On my 42nd birthday America could be going to shit (let’s forget for a second that I don’t live there). On my 42nd birthday I could find that a group of drugged out Robin Hoods who thought I was rich had broken into my community, killed my neighbuors, and burned down my house. I could be forced to take to the road and fight to survive. To steal, to starve, to endure rape, to bury my friends and family, to learn to shoot, to learn to kill. It isn’t just the date that makes Parable of the Sower feel so close, but the disturbing normality of the situation. There are more and more poor, more and more homeless. People squat houses, the police are corrupt, public schools are all but extinct, and clean water will cost you. This isn’t The Road, with its mysterious, unexplained circumstances. This isn’t an epic plague story like The Stand or a whacked out King Arthur mash-up like SM Stirling’s Emberverse series or a suspenseful (and racist) “will the asteroid hit the Earth?” thriller like Lucifer’s Hammer. This is plausible to a banally horrible degree. This is already happening. Open up today’s paper and you will see the signs there already, and it is these signs that, according to the interview in the back of my book, Butler decided to follow to one of their possible conclusions in writing this.

It takes almost half of the book for the chaos to creep over Olamina’s community’s gated wall. And when it does she flees, meeting people along the way, gathering them to her as allies and disciples. Because this book isn’t just about survival in a crisis situation, it is about the religion that Olamina has created: Earthseed. A quick browse of other internet reviews of the book tell me that Earthseed was a disturbing element for many readers. I loved it. This collection of verses are an expression of the truths Olamina has seen in the world and written down, and their basis is that change is the most powerful force in the world:

“All that you touch

You Change.

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.


Is Change.”

The entire philosophy – and to me Earthseed is more of a philosophy than a religion – strikes me as rational, a way of thinking meant to help people describe the world as it really is and to successfully cope with those realities. I’ve never liked the “delay your happiness in this world to gain the eternal carrot in the next” fantasy that most religions are selling. Earthseed isn’t even about God (or gods). The point is that there is no God, not as anyone has ever imagined him/it/whatfuckingever before. (There is a moment in the text when Lauren admits to using the word God, even though that isn’t really what she means, to get people’s attention. This sentiment seems to fade in time, however.) There is the world and your participation in it can shape it and it can shape you. There is no anthropomorphic being in the sky who gives a single shit about what you or I do, loving or angry or indifferent. Prayer is a way of talking to yourself that helps you to focus your concentration on achieving certain goals. They are all thoughts I have had before. Not only that, but it is a philosophy, religion, whatever you want to call it, that encourages personal responsibility, something that seems to have leached out of most of the world and something that is incredibly important to me.

“Your God doesn’t care about you at all,” a skeptic tells Olamina after she has told him about Earthseed. And her reply? “All the more reason to care about myself and others.” To take care of the world. To feel responsible for taking care of the world. That’s the good shit.

If it weren’t for the fact that Earthseed was also based around humanity’s “destiny” to settle on other planets – not really my thing, though if it happens, neat – I would have been a ready convert in the universe of the book. See? Butler’s already got me joining a fictional cult. She’s that good.

All this to say that depending on your take on things, Earthseed will either be a slight irritant or a very enjoyable reading bonus. For me it was another delicious layer among other delicious layers: a story that I devoured; full, interesting characters and relationships; a complex world that felt intensely real for the lack of white- and hetero-washing; post-apocalyptic survival stuff (my favourite aspect of the genre); travel; and philosophy.

A few quotes to savour… Before her world ends, Olamina tries to convince a friend to learn about survival, to join her in preparing for the worst scenario. Sometimes it sounds like this in my head:

I’m trying to learn whatever I can that might help me survive out there. I think we should all study books like these. I think we should bury money and other necessities in the ground where thieves won’t find them. I think we should make emergency packs – grab and run packs – in case we have to get out of here in a hurry. Money, food, clothing, matches, a blanket… I think we should fix places outside where we can meet in case we get separated. Hell, I think a lot of things. And I know – I know! – that no matter how many things I think of, they won’t be enough. Every time I go outside, I try to imagine what it might be like to live out there without walls, and I realize I don’t know anything.

On being dirty (and this reminds me so much of punk, and how it integrates things like having holes in your clothes into fashion):

Fashion helps. You’re supposed to be dirty now. If you’re clean, you make a target of yourself. People think you’re showing off, trying to be better than they are. Among the younger kids, being clean is a great way to start a fight. Cory won’t let us stay dirty here in the neighborhood, but we all have filthy clothes to wear outside the walls. Even inside, my brothers throw dirt on themselves as soon as they get away from the house. It’s better than getting beaten up all the time.

This review originally appeared on Bookpunks.

Margaret and I, Kate Wilhelm

margretandiMargaret and I, Kate Wilhelm (1971)
Review by Joachim Boaz

The grayness swirled and became solid, a plain that was featureless at first, then with grotesque shapes emerging from it, obviously things growing, but things that shouldn’t have been. They looked like monstrous scabs, like leprous fingers curled obscenely in an attitude of prayer, like parts of bodies covered with a fungus or mold, misshapen and horrible. (p 73).

Margaret and I is a profoundly unsettling and hallucinatory exploration of a woman’s sexual and emotional self-realization. Or, to use the Jungian terms deployed by Wilhelm in her preliminary quotation, the novel charts the process of individuation where the conscious and unconscious “learn to know, respect and accommodate each other”.

The SF elements – a future political crisis where a third political party threatens to destabilize the country and a newly discovered knowledge that gives insight into the actions of time – are sprinkled throughout. They are not meant to be “descriptions of a future world” but rather carefully constructed metaphors of Margaret’s struggles. This struggled is apparent in the title for the “I” of the title is Margaret’s subconscious. Just as the external political environment is fragmenting, Margaret’s conscious and subconscious are not in unison.

Kate Wilhelm, famous for the masterpiece Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), produced a substantial catalogue of lesser known SF novels and large numbers of short stories that I have only recently started to investigate. Without doubt, her favorite form is the novella – and it is little surprise that her most successful novel is a fix-up work comprised of three novellas. An adept at the shorter form, Wilhelm weaves her trademark dark/claustrophobic ruminations characterized by substantial psychological tension.

Unfortunately, in Margaret and I the psychological tension conjured in the first third looses impetus by the end. However the characterization of Margaret and her subconscious who flits in and out is the most satisfying aspect of the work. Margaret’s slow realization, at the instigation of her subconscious, of her position as an extension of her husband and his desires is convincing and poignant. And, the narrator as the subconscious is more than a gimmick, but a fascinating window into a character.

Recommended for fans of psychological and feminist SF. Although, be aware that the SF elements are secondary to the novel’s aims – they are eluded to as external metaphors for Margaret’s internal struggles. Be aware, there are extensive autoerotic sequences and hallucinatory sexual visions that are not suitable for younger readers. Mature audiences will realize that they are necessary elements of the narrative and characterizations.

Margaret Oliver flees from her husband Barnett to the house of her sister-in-law Josie Oliver. In a strange sequence of decisions, Margaret decides that she rather take on the identity of Josie Oliver, who is absent, and hide her own. She is desperate, urged on by her subconscious who is narrating, to figure out where her life went wrong and what exactly about her husband is so repulsive to her. Also “she is still grappling from the problem of her sexuality and the senseless promise she had made herself” (p 21).

Josie Oliver, the owner of the house, is a well-known costume designer. Her husband, Paul Tyson, a physicist who was murdered…. And whose secret discoveries are locked away in journals in a safe. Various forces conspire to access the safe and uncover its secrets. Including Dr. Bok and his assistant Morris Stein who studies “Perception Distortions in Various Psychological States” (p 63).

Swirling at the edges is the figure of Barnett, Margaret’s husband. Barnett treats her as a object, he believes “buying her pretties” will satiate all her desires (which he never bothers to ask about). Barnett is involved with the sinister politician Arnold Greenley. Greenley wants Margaret to join Barnett on his campaign because she is pretty and speaks like Midwesterners do. His motives at first glance seem obscure, he does not have a distinct political platform but rather lusts after power: “all he can hope for, as he well knows, is to create a schism in the two major parties and wield a power bloc that will make demands and have enough votes on hand to reward whoever promises to meet those demands…” (p 61).

The house itself – where all these characters’ paths intersect at various points in the narrative – seems to spurn hallucinations. It, with the turbulent ocean nearby, is almost a nexus – a point of intersection…. Greenley and Barnett seek to force Margaret to follow a certain path against the will of her subconscious. The subconscious desires to get at Paul’s journals to learn how to persuade Margaret to chart her own way.

Wilhelm adeptly weaves metaphors and images of fragmentation and individuation: the quests for hidden knowledge (the journals/the subconscious/sexual awareness), masquerading as another (costume designer/Margaret as Josie/Margaret as wife rather than individual), and interior searching (Margaret and her subconscious merging/choices vs societal expectation).

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

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Shannon Turlington

You shall not go down twice to the same river, nor can you go home again. That he knew; indeed it was the basis of his view of the world. Yet from that acceptance of transience he evolved his vast theory, wherein what is most changeable is shown to be fullest of eternity, and your relationship to the river, and the river’s relationship to you and to itself, turns out to be at once more complex and more reassuring than a mere lack of identity. You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.

Long after I closed this book for the night and lay waiting for sleep to catch up with me, I thought about what I’d read, about the ideas posed by the novel’s premise and characters, and the implications for my own life and our society. That’s a sign of a book that’s definitely worth reading.

The story is set in the future on a distant planet, Urras, and its moon, Anarres. The culture on Urras is similar to ours: capitalist, competitive, with a huge gap between haves and have-nots. One hundred and fifty years ago in Urras’ history, a group of anarchists rebelled against this way of life. They settled on — or were exiled to, depending on your point of view — Anarres, a desert world where they built a subsistence society based on the premises of no government and no ownership of private property.

Despite the difficulties of their environment, life on Anarres is like a simple Eden. No one goes hungry while others eat. No one goes without a sheltered place to sleep at night. People work and study at what they enjoy, travel where and when they want, and everyone communally shares the necessary but non-glamorous jobs. Without commercialism to occupy them, people spend their time working, learning and socializing. Even an eight-hour workday is considered unusually long.

Of course, there are problems in this utopia, which have at their root the conflict between the continued survival of the society and the human drive to assert ourselves as individuals, to push the boundaries and explore new ideas. Without a government, Anarres is ruled by societal approval. Challenges to the status quo are unwelcome, and the challenger is often shunned.

This is the situation that the main character, a physicist named Shevek, finds himself in. He is on the cutting edge of theoretical physics but unable to progress in a society that does not want his work. So he begins communicating with physicists on Urras, and becomes convinced that he needs to be the first Anarresti to travel back to Urras in order to shake up his own society and return them to their anarchist roots.

The Dispossessed plays on the theme of time in many ways. The narrative is divided into two timelines: the present, when Shevek is living on Urras, contrasted with the Shevek’s past life on Anarres and growing discontent with his own society. Shevek’s physics are also concerned with time; applications of his theories could make possible faster-than-light space travel and instantaneous communication across space to other known worlds, including our Earth (called Terra).

The four cultures of humans portrayed in the novel — Urras, Anarres, Terra and another planet called Hain — also represent four possible timelines of the human species. Urras is most like modern-day culture, if exaggerated; consumption, possessions and power are all highly valued. Terra’s future warns of the consequences of such excess, a planet made desert by the waste of previous generations, now trying only to survive. Contrasted with these outcomes are the alternate paths proposed by Hain and Anarres. We are not told much about Hain, only that it is a very advanced civilization, which helped save the Terrans. It seems only fitting that when Shevek finally returns to Anarres, the only person who wants to accompany him and learn from him is Hainish.

This novel is rich and meaty, full of ideas and keen observations of human nature. Like the dusty plains of Anarres, it takes some time to get used to Le Guin’s dry writing style, which incorporates hard science and spare prose. But give it time and you will find many fascinating landscapes to explore.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.