The Luck of Brin’s Five, Cherry Wilder

brins5The Luck of Brin’s Five, Cherry Wilder (1977)
Review by Ian Sales

Another science fiction novel that seems to have bounced from adult sf to Young Adult and back again. The Luck of Brin’s Five was published as adult sf in the US, but as children’s fiction in Australia (Wilder is from New Zealand). In truth, the book can pass as either. It’s a simple story, told simply, but its alien world is well-evoked and well-rendered. There are other sf novels less sophisticated than this that have never been considered children’s fiction or YA.

On the world of Torin, orbiting 70 Ophiuchi, the native Moruians organise themselves into family’s of five – three adults (either two male and one female, or two female and one male), an Ancient (the parent of one of the adults) and a Luck (a disapled person, either by injury or from birth). There are also usually children – the Moruians are marsupials, so some may be “hidden”, ie, still in the mother’s pouch. Brin’s Five – Brin, Mamor, Harper Roy and Old Gwin – have just lost their Luck, Odd-Eyes (so called because his eyes were different colours), to old age. But as they lay Odd-Eyes to rest, a spacecraft crashes into Warm Lake, and the Five manage to rescue its pilot. This is Scott Gale, a human male, one of four scientists studying the planet unbeknownst to the Moruians from their base on a distant island. The Moruians are humanoid – their chief differences from humans are larger eyes that stretch up to the temples, a slighter build, and less differences between the two genders (so much so that Moruians often can’t immediately tell the sex of another Moruian). Brin’s Five adopts Gale as their Luck, and gives him the name Diver.

Gale’s arrival, however, has not gone unnoticed. The Great Elder – the chief of the ruling council of five – manages to retrieve Gale’s spacecraft, but he also wants the pilot. Fortunately, Gale can pass as a Moruian if he wraps up well and he wears goggles. He also picks up the Moruian language very quickly (so quickly, in fact, that no one remarks on any accent or strangenesses produced by the human larynx). The Moruian society is peaceful, war has not been known for many centuries, and is technologically on the cusp of an industrial revolution. Some industrial processes are known, though most industries are still cottage-based and much of the population is agrarian. They do have flight, however – pedal-powered gliders, balloons, and perhaps even some steam-powered craft. Brin’s Five are weavers, pretty much country yokels, and at the moment of the social order. There are also townees, and an aristocracy, grandees.

Brin’s Five agree to take Gale to Rintoul, the capital, to meet the Maker of Engines, a Moruian scientist currently at odds with the Great Elder. En route, they discover an abandoned glider, Gale uses the batteries from some of his devices to power propellers on it, and they decide to enter it into the Bird Clan, an annual air race. Which Gale then wins. By this point, they’re making a poor effort at hiding their human Luck. And the Great Elder’s minions have made several attempts to take Gale from them. When the family does reach Rintoul, Gale is captured, a meeting of the council is held, but the Great Elder is defeated on a point of law, and Gale is allowed to join his family.

The story of The Luck of Brin’s Five is told by Dorn, the eldest of Brin’s Five three children. Perhaps this is why the Australian publisher chose to publish the book as children’s fiction. Certainly, Dorn is an unsophisticated narrator. But he’s also a clever choice, because he’s young enough to be happy to explain things he already knows to the alien Gale. The world of Torin may not be entirely convincing, but it’s one with bags of charm. Even the villains are nice. Despite a couple of violent set-pieces, Gale never really seems to be in much jeopardy – and even at the dénouement, the Great Elder backs down with suspicious ease.

But, for all that, The Luck of Brin’s Five is a breezy read. Novels set in alien societies and told from the alien point of view are difficult to pull off. Make the viewpoint too alien, and readers cannot sympathise; make them too human, and suspension of disbelief is lost. Wilder manages her balancing trick with ease and, not only that, even succeeds in making Gale seem somewhat alien to the reader. This is a light book, but quite a fun one. Although complete in and of itself, The Luck of Brin’s Five spawned a pair of sequels: The Nearest Fire (1980) and The Tapestry Warriors (1983). I am tempted to track down copies.


Barryar, Lois McMaster Bujold

BarrayarBarryar, Lois McMaster Bujold (1991)
Review by Martin Wisse

Barrayar was actually the first ever Bujold story I ever read and I hated it. That’s because it was the last part of its serialisation in Analog that I read and I had no idea of what was going. Coming back to it now, after having read all the Miles Vorkosigan books at least once, I enjoyed it much more. Like any prequel Barrayar depends for some of its impact on the reader’s knowledge of the main series. If you don’t know who Miles Vorkosigan is and why he is the incredibly determined little mutant runt that he is when we first met him in The Warrior’s Apprentice, the details of how he got to be that way won’t matter all that much.

Chronologically, Barrayar takes place almost immediately after Shards of Honor and is the second and so far last novel to star Cordelia Vorkosigan/Ransom. Cordelia and Aral are settling in to newly married live on Barrayar, with Cordelia pregnant with Miles. Then the old emperor dies and Aral becomes regent to his young grandson and he and Cordelia are soon plunged into the dangerous, still very medieval politics of the Barrayaran court and nobility. How dangerous Cordelia only realises when they’re the victims of an assassination attempt, with poison gas grenades thrown into their house.

They survive, but the antidote Cordelia has to take to counteract the poison gas has a very bad side effect, acting as a teratogenic agent on the fetus she is carrying, posing a real risk to its bone development. Normally there would be nothing for it but to abort the fetus or risk a stillbirth, but Cordelia is not the type of woman to just give up. On a more civilised planet, where medical science was more advanced, there would be chance for the baby, as it could be put into an uterine replicator and treated outside the womb. But Barrayar doesn’t have any of them, or does it?

There are after all still the uterine replicators which housed the children born of the rape of female prisoners of war taken in Barrayar’s last war, which had been forgotten about after they served their purposes. Cordelia manages to track them down, get Miles installed in one and get a bone strengthening programme going on. It takes all her strength but she gets her way and everything looks to be on the up and then the civil war breaks out.

And Miles is behind enemy lines, in the capital, trapped with the rebels. So Cordelia decides to go and get him to safety. Which is sort of where I came in the first time I read this, in the last third of the story. No wonder I was confused.

In retrospect, Barrayar is a turning point in the Vorkosigan series. The novels before it had been cleverly written, more intelligent than they needed to be, light science fiction adventure stories. With Barrayar the series took a leap in quality and became more serious and slightly darker, setting the tone for later entries like Mirror Dance and Memory.

Barrayar is also another reminder of how subtle Bujold can be in showing the effects of her science fictional technology. There isn’t any of the technogeekery or infodumping of some authors I could mention, but at the same time the plot is very much driven by a classic piece of science fiction kit, the artificial womb or uterine replicator. Here it is more of a macguffin of course, something for the protagonist to chase, but over the course of the series we slowly see the impact the introduction of uterine replicators has on Barrayaran society. And here is where it started.

Barrayar is not the best of the Vorkosigan series, but it is the best of the early part of the series. Don’t read it if you haven’t read the earlier published novels yet.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The Best of CL Moore, CL Moore

bestmooreThe Best of CL Moore, CL Moore (1975)
Review by Martin Wisse

In the mid seventies Ballantine Books, just before it renamed itself into Del Rey, launched a “Best of” series of short story collections by classic science fiction and fantasy authors which I personally think is perhaps the best such series ever produced. Just at a time when science fiction was switching from being a short story, magazine orientated genre to one in which the novel is supreme, here were collections by all the old masters who had made their name in the pulp magazines of the thirties, forties and fifties. The series offered a sense of history to the genre just when science fiction was in danger of losing touch with its roots. It offered both a reminder to old fans of what had attracted them to the genre in the first place and to new fans a sampling of authors they may have thought old-fashioned or perhaps never had the chance to read in the first place.

One of such authors must have been CL Moore, who had made her reputation writing science fantasy stories for Weird Tales in the 1930s. In the 1940s, after she met and married Henry Kuttner she almost completely stopped writing on her own, instead collaborating with him (often under the Lewis Padgett pseudonym) on a series of classic sf stories, then moving on to writing crime stories and for television, both of which unfortunately paid better, in the late 1950s. By the time The Best of CL Moore was published it had been the better part of two decades that she had written much new science fiction. Now that more than twice as much time has passed, this collection is still a great introduction to what CL Moore had to offer when not collaborating with her husband.

The story that first introduced me to CL Moore, ‘Vintage Season’, was however originally published under both her and Kuttner’s names. I first read it in a Dutch anthology of crime and detective stories written by women, which sort of made sense as it can be read as a detective puzzle story. For years that was the extent of my CL Moore reading, until I read this collection. It was enough to realise how great a writer she was.

The Best of CL Moore is a well balanced collection, with most of the stories from before she met and married Henry Kuttner. Both of her best known heroes, Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry are represented but do not dominate. In general the stories here vary from outright fantasy to pure science fiction, but what they have all in common is the human touch. Her characters are fully human, three dimensional in a way that was rare for pulp science fiction. She builds her stories around the characters of her protagonists, even in the science fantasy of her Northwest Smith and Jirel stories. There are no clunkers whatsoever in here, as we’ll see.

‘Shambleau’ (1933). This is the story that introduced both Northwest Smith and Moore herself to Weird Tales, her first published story. It’s space fantasy of the kind Leigh Brackett also wrote, with some of the clichés of that genre, but already with the same craft and power brought to all the stories here. It starts with a mixed race mob – Martians, Venusians, Earthmen – chasing a slim nutberry brown beauty in a radiant scarlet cloak down the streets of a Martian town and Northwest Smith rescuing her. But she’s shambleau and Smith does not know what this is and only finds out — almost too late.

‘Black Thirst’ (1934). Another Northwest Smith story, about a Venusian castle where they breed beauty and its master who feast on it. Almost as good as the first story.

‘The Bright Illusion’ (1934). A man dying of thirst in the great Saharan desert is set on a quest on a strange world by an intelligence so powerful it can only be described as a god, to meet this god’s priestess and fall in love with her, no matter her innate alienness. This should be schmaltzy as hell, but Moore’s skill as a writer makes this work.

‘Black God’s Kiss’ (1934). The first Jirel of Joiry story, a Medieval French swordswoman whose kingdom is taken over through sorcery, who manages to escape her captor, then has to travel much farther than she could’ve ever imagined for her vengeance. As with the first Northwest Smith story this has an immediate impact: everything Jirel is, is here fully formed.

‘Tryst in Time’ (1936). Another love story, where a man who has grown bored with everything the modern world has to offer, who has tasted all adventure and sensation that’s in it, volunteers to be the guinea pig for his genius friend’s time machine. He gradually realises that in all the historic scenes he witnesses one girl remains constant and falls in love with her – but does she know him and could they ever be together?

‘Greater Than Gods’ (1939). On one man’s decision which of the two women he loved he wanted to marry rested the faith of the future. Hinging on this decision, Earth would become either a slowly dying, rural idyllic paradise, or it would rule the universe but at the cost of human happiness. Which alternative is better and is there truly no other option? As a story it does depend on a certain gender essentialism we’ve largely grown out of, but if you can swallow this, this is a clever, sentimental story.

‘Fruit of Knowledge’ (1940). According to Jewish legend, before Eve Adam had another wife, Lilith, who refused to be dominated by him and therefore was cast aside. Normally I don’t like this kind of Biblical fantasy, but Moore manages to make this story interesting by making Lilith a sympathetic character without quite making either Adam or Eve into the villains of the piece.

‘No Woman Born’ (1944). A woman, the greatest dancer of her generation, is caught in a horrible accident and given an experimental cyborg body, her brain in a metal shell. The male scientists and psychologists responsible for her transformation worry about her and whether or not she can remain human living like this. An interesting psychological story.

‘Daemon’ (1946). A simple-minded Brazilian boy is shanghaied on a Yankee clipper as a cabin boy, but he has a secret: he can see the soul or daemon every person but he himself carries with him. It keeps him alone in a world full of people, until on a small remote island he discovers others like him…

‘Vintage Season’ (1946). The best story in the collection, this bittersweet tale of how a group of strange foreigners hiring a house at the edge of an unnamed American city slowly are revealed to be time-travelling tourists with a penchant for the horrible and tragic. In this way Moore shows us the mirror image of how we ourselves treat historical horrors as entertainment, where whatever tragedy we’re witnessing can be dismissed as destiny, just as these tourist from the future dismiss what happens to the narrator and his city and world as something that happened long ago in their past…

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

Skirmish, Melisa Michaels

skirmishSkirmish, Melisa Michaels (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

As a general rule, we prefer not to review books published as YA on SF Mistressworks although, of course, there has been a long tradition of “juveniles” in science fiction and many genre writers who wrote successful sf adult (ie, not YA) novels also wrote works aimed at a slightly younger audience. It might even be argued that, for example, the works of Andre Norton, although not published as such, qualify as juveniles. Indeed, some genre works originally published for an adult audience have in the past few years been re-released as YA – David and Leigh Edding’s Belgariad is a good example.

Skirmish, however, is the opposite. It was originally published in the US by Tor as a sf novel for adults, the first volume of the Skyrider quintet. In the UK, however, it was published by The Women’s Press science fiction YA imprint Livewire – which only ever published two books, Skirmish and Gwyneth Jones’s The Hidden Ones (which was written specifically for Livewire). Which makes for an odd YA line, as Skirmish is arguably not YA.

Melacha Rendell, AKA the Skyrider, is a pilot in the Belt. A recent war between the Company and the freelancers has left relations between the two somewhat strained. While Melacha, who is the best pilot in the Belt, works for the Company, she also smuggles supplies to freelancers. Nor did she fight during the war – a fact which some people hold against her. After a run-in with the Company’s Patrol, Melacha only just makes it back to Home Base in one piece, although her shuttle is wrecked on landing. She’s far from happy about this, especially since she might have made it if another shuttle hadn’t jumped the line to the launchpad. Melacha takes an immediate dislike to the pilot of that shuttle, Jamin… But the two are thrown together when the Company asks them to rescue a space liner with sabotaged engines currently falling into the Sun – Melacha because she’s the best pilot and the only one capable of docking with the runaway liner, and Jamin because he’s qualified to pilot a liner. Meanwhile, Melacha’s feelings toward Jamin have softened somewhat since she discovered that a) he’s a freefall mutant, who can only survive in a gravity environment thanks to a severe drug regimen, and b) he has a six-year-old son, Collis, who can’t survive in freefall.

Melacha demands a Falcon-class shuttle as payment, and in this spacecraft, newly named Defiance, Melacha and Jamin – and stowaway Collis – head off to save the liner. But a series of events threaten to sabotage the mission, and Defiance, and Melacha puts two and two together and realises that it’s not the Insurrectionists who sabotaged the liner as claimed…

While Melacha is an adult protagonist, and there’s little in Skirmish which is self-evidently YA, I can see why it might be seen as such since it really is quite simplistic. Melacha may be an engaging protagonist, but her love-hate relationship with Jamin runs on well-travelled lines. Her maternal feelings toward Collis, however, are a nice touch, and not so common among heroines of her ilk. The background, on the other hand, is a standard Wild West in space – the pilots even wear guns, although, bizarrely, despite only being stun guns it’s considered taboo to actually fire them. Otherwise, the politics are of the sort seen all too often in US heartland science fiction – bad Company, good pioneering freelancers, and the sort of “Rand lite” economic structures that are far too prevalent in the genre.

One piece of silliness in the book, however, involves those “freefall mutants”. In the universe of Skirmish, humans are split into three types: Fallers, Grounders and Floaters. Fallers have a gene which allows them to live in zero gravity, and they need drugs to survive in a 1G environment. Grounders, conversely, can live in zero-G for short periods, but need regular bouts in 1G. Floaters are equally at home in both, without penalty. Melacha is, of course, a Floater. It’s all complete nonsense, of course; and it was in 1985, when this book was originally published. The Asteroid Belt is also treated as though the asteroids were no more than a few thousand metres apart, rather than thousands of kilometres.

Skirmish is a light and quick read, and though Melacha is a likeable female protagonist with a great deal of agency, the science fiction furniture is a bit too well-worn for the book to stand out. The other YA novel published under the Livewire imprint, Gwyneth Jones’s The Hidden Ones, which was original to Livewire, is much the better book.

Picnic on Paradise, Joanna Russ

picnicPicnic on Paradise, Joanna Russ (1968)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Joanna Russ’ first published novel Picnic on Paradise delightfully subverts traditional SF pulp adventure tropes. Although not as finely wrought as The Female Man, And Chaos Died, or her masterpiece We Who Are About To…, Picnic on Paradise is worthwhile for all fans of feminist SF and the more radical visions of the 60s.

Unfortunately, the metafictional implications/literary possibilities of the Alyx sequence of short stories and novels – of which Picnic on Paradise is part – are not realized until the publication of the short story ‘The Second Inquisition’ (1970).

She was a soft-spoken, dark-haired, small-boned woman, not even coming up to their shoulders, like a kind of dwarf or miniature – but that was normal enough for a Mediterranean Greek of nearly four millennia ago, before super-diets and hybridization from seventy colonized planets had turned all humanity (so she had been told) into Scandinavian giants. (p 1).

And so Alyx enters the fray… She’s a Trans-Temporal Agent, snatched from a near death situation and her difficult past (abusive relationship, realities of childbirth in the ancient world, et) in the time of the Phoenicians for a dangerous mission. The mission, extricate a series of “rich tourists” and nuns from a rare surface war on the planet Paradise from point A to point B. Unlike normal wars where the entire surface of a planet would be blasted into oblivion and re-terraformed by the winning side, Paradise is a tourist resort with little financial value other than its gorgeous mountains and vistas. But, there is a hitch: “no fires […] no weapons, no transportation, no automatic heating, no food processing, nothing airborne” (p 10) are allowed as they would be picked up on an infra-red spectrum at levels higher than the local wildlife. Weapons would narrow in and kill them on the spot.

Alyx, from the ancient city of Tyre, would have no problem trekking across the dangerous planet without modern necessities, but the inhabitants of this sterile, technologically dependent, rather coddled future would most likely die within days. Her survival skills and “sheer ignorance” of the modern world is the reason Alyx is assigned to the mission.

She has to contend with an intriguing and varied cast of individuals whose interactions with her and each other critique a range of social/cultural issues. First, there’s Maudey who is obsessed with plastic surgery: “You ought to have cosmetic surgery […] I’ve had it on my face and breasts. It’s ingenious. […] And you have to be careful dying eyebrows and eyelashes, although the genetic alterations are usually pretty stable. But they might spread, you know. Can you imagine having a blue forehead?’” (p 31).

And Maudey’s daughter Iris, who is the rebellious teenager desperate to escape her mother. The nuns are adherents to some vaguely defined Buddha inspired religion using sex and drugs to access the religious experience. Gunnar, an amateur explorer, initially challenges Alyx doubting the diminutive woman has the requisite skills necessary to lead the expedition. He belittles her before she proves him otherwise, “they had never, she supposed, seen Gunnar on the ground before. Or anyone else. Then Maudey threw up” (p 22). Gunnar starts to admire her. The Machine, a normally mute teenager, hides from his past but shows interest in Alyx’s. And then there is Raydos, an artist and “intellectual.” And finally there is Gavrily, a man who holds great influence.

In the first part of the novel the journey from point A to point B goes mostly without a hitch: Alyx learns about each of tourists and reaches some understanding of the foreign world in which she has been plunged. But then they discover that point B has been abandoned, and they must trek into the mountains to find some other way to escape: and unfortunately, “Paradise was not well mapped” (p 44).

At the time of publication Picnic on Paradise was and continues to be a radical vision. Alyx, although 26, is an “middle-aged” in her original time who has seen and suffered more than anyone can in Russ’ future. Her body is prematurely old and in no way adheres to western conceptions of beauty. Those around her are shocked and deeply suspicious of her abilities. But Alyx possesses an incredible drive to survive – the antithesis of the 1960s clichéd pulp woman in distress.

An outsider inserted into a varied cast is one of Russ’s favorite techniques: it is most adeptly used in We Who Are About To…. Despite their unappealing angst and frustration with Alyx, we come to feel for them as Alyx molds them into a group able to survive the planet. Their initial childlike perspectives on the world are perfectly embodied by the following passage:

“I ran away from home,” said Iris, “at the age of fifteen and joined a Youth Core. Almost everyone has Youth Cores, although mine wasn’t a delinquent Youth Core and some people will tell you that doesn’t count. But let me tell you, it changed my life. It’s better than hypnotic psychotherapy. They call it a Core because it forms the core of your adolescent rebellion, don’t you see, and I would have been nobody without it, absolutely nobody, it changed my whole life and my values. Did you ever run away from home?”

Yes, said Alyx. “I starved” (p 31).

Picnic on Paradise is a dense, well-written, and moving adventure. The appealing polemic is neatly integrated into the plot and Russ dismembers some of the more pernicious clichés in SF. Russ continues to impress me. Pick up a copy.

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

Chanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh

chanursventureChanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh (1984)
Review by Ian Sales

The first novel in the Compact Space quintet, The Pride of Chanur, was shortlisted for the Hugo Award but lost out to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge. Chanur’s Venture, the second book of the series, did not even make the shortlist. Which is a shame, as it’s a better book than the first. It’s not a sequel per se to The Pride of Chanur – which likely was written as a standalone – but the start of a new story which picks up from that opening novel. The same characters appear, and the same backplot drives the story, but the narrative continues through three books to a fresh resolution. It’s almost as if The Pride of Chanur were the prototype for the three books which follow it: Chanur’s Venture, The Kif Strike Back and Chanur’s Homecoming. A fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, appeared some six years later and features the offspring of the previous books’ protagonist.

Compact Space is a small region of the galaxy populated by seven races, four oxygen-breathing and three methane-breathing, which trade with each other. There are the leonine hani, the ape-like mahendo’sat, the rat-like kif and the avian shto on the oxygen side; and the wyrm-like tc’a, “yellow sticklike” chi, and the “black nests of hair-snarl with spider legs” knnn (I have to wonder if the knnn were a major inspiration for the Shadows in Babylon 5). In The Pride of Chanur, a strange alien sneaked aboard Pyanfar Chanur’s merchant ship, after escaping from the kif. The alien proved to be a human being called Tully, the surviving member of a human expedition into Compact Space that had been ambushed by the kif. Various shenanigans ensued, Pyanfar Chanur managed to save the day, and Tully, and a future trading with humans seemed both likely and desirable.

Chanur’s Venture opens, as did the first book, on Meetpoint Station, a sort of interstellar Checkpoint Charlie for all seven races. The Pride of Chanur is docked, and Chanur herself is still under a cloud after the adventures of the first book. And then a mahendo’sat contact, Goldtooth, tells her that he has a “package” for her. It’s Tully, of course. Again. And the kif are after him. Again. It seems that after he returned to human space, his superiors put together a flotilla to start trading in Compact Space, but it too was ambushed – either by the kif or the knnn. But now the mahendo’sat are involved, and they’ve given Tully some documentation which shows kif and shto collusion in the whole affair. The Pride of Chanur must take Tully from Meetpoint Station to Maing Tol in mahendo’sat space, but she has kif on her tail… and at Kshshti, one of the stops en route, they attack and spirit away Tully…

If Cherryh’s prose is typically brusque and muscular, then in Chanur’s Venture it reaches Schwarzenegger proportions. The story is told entirely from Pyanfar’s perspective, but for one scene where her niece, Hilfy, is the point of view. So, of course, the prose does not explain anything which Pyanfar might reasonably know. Cherryh has never been one for exposition or editorialising, her USP has always been her ability to tell stories from firmly within her characters’ point of view. It means a lot of Chanur’s Venture must be taken on trust. When The Pride of Chanur suffers damage as a result of a fast transit through a dust-filled planetary system, there’s no explanation of how, or to what part of the ship, the dust did its damage. The same is true of the politics which drive the story. A handy glossary provides background on the seven races (the entry on the hani is, of course, the longest), and is especially useful as so many of the behind-the-scenes drivers for the narrative are predicated on the political systems in use by each of the races. There is, for example, a power struggle going on among the kif, and Tully is a pawn in this struggle. The mahendo’sat are governed by “Personages”, whose positions are precarious at best, and it transpires that some of Pyanfar’s mahendo’sat friends are higher up in the race’s chain of command than she had suspected. The shto also make much more of an appearance. (In The Pride of Chanur, I had formed the impression they were tortoise-like, but in this book they’re clearly avian.)

After reading The Pride of Chanur, I had formed the impression it was middling Cherryh – an enjoyable enough novel, not one of her best and not one that had survived the test of time unscathed. But I found I enjoyed Chanur’s Venture a whole lot more. Yet it’s little different to that first book – indeed, it pretty much recapitulates the earlier book’s plot, only in a more complicated form. It’s a pacey science fiction novel, set in an invented universe in which humans are the real aliens but in which everything hovers on the edge of familiarity. And yet… Pyanfar is a very sympathetic protagonist, and the narrative is equal parts the consequence of her actions and her being pushed here and there by events. The universe itself hangs together, the various races – especially given the glossary – are much more interesting than they initially seemed, and the story throughout hints at greater jeopardy and greater rewards. I still think you need to read The Pride of Chanur first, but the series definitely improves. Now I just need to get hold of a copy of The Kif Strike Back


Slow River, Nicola Griffith

slowriverSlow River, Nicola Griffith (1995)
Review by Martin Wisse

Everybody knows about the Bechdel test now, don’t they? Introduced in Dykes to Watch out For, it’s a test to see if a given story meets a minimum feminist standard: a) does it have at least two women, who b) talk to each other about c) something else than a man? It’s a good way to think differently about the movies you see or the books you read, to see how common it is for a story to have only male characters, or only a token female character, sometimes as prize for the hero. Having a story with only male characters is normal, having one with all or majority female characters is the outlier, can get you shoved into a women only ghetto like romance or feminist literature.

This is true in science fiction as well as mainstream literature, which made reading Nicola Griffith’s Slow River so interesting. It’s her second novel, also the second of her’s I’ve read and like the first, the cast is almost exlusively female. But where that one was set on a planet where men had died off due to some handwaved plague, this one takes place in near-future English city that for once isn’t London. I’m not sure whether Nicola Griffith made this choice of cast deliberately, or it just happened naturally because of the story she wanted to tell, but it works.

The story Griffiths wants to tell in Slow River is that of Lore, younger daughter of a wealthy Dutch family, who’ve made their fortune with building conservation and waste treatment plants. Lore has led a privileged and sheltered upbringing, up until the moment she’s kidnapped. That was three years ago, three years since Lore escaped from her kidnappers and found herself naked by the river that runs through the middle of the city and met the woman who called herself Spanner. Lore isn’t keen to go back to her family – why this is so is explained over the course of the story – and she moved in with Spanner, but now, three years after, she feels it’s time to stand on her own two feet and leave Spanner and her self destructive ways behind her.

Spanner you see is a small time criminal, somebody who steals information, can provide you with a trusthworthy fake identity and hacks reprogrammable slates in the best cyberpunk tradition, at the fringes of organised crime but a small fish in a big pound. She may have rescued Lore and Lore will always be grateful for that, but she herself isn’t a nice or particularly sane person and Lore could see that sooner or later it would catch up with her.

Lore herself is not quite healthy in her own skin either, otherwise she would’ve gone back to her family. But she neither wants to nor dares too, as too much has happened for her to go back. Instead she tries to build up a new life as a manual worker at a waste treatment plant in Hedon Road and gets involved with the day to day problems of being on the night shift of the conservation plant. The details of which, while the least dramatic, are also amongst the most interesting in the novel; Griffith has clearly done her homework and is good at dropping in convincing sounding details of the work.

The plant is also where we meet the third woman, Magyar in the “love” triangle between Lore, Spanner and Magyar. If it’s Spanner whose shadow Lore wants to get out under, than Magyar is who Lore wants to win the approval off. Tough, no-nonsense, she’s the shift leader at the waste treatment plant and almost from the start suspicious of Lore.

In between this main story, there are also the stories of Lore’s three years with Spanner, trading in the dependence on her family to a sort of independence, as well as the story of her youth up until the kidnap. What I only noticed about a quarter of the way in is that these three interwoven stories are actually written in three different viewpoints. There’s the first person point of view for the present, tight second person focus for the years with Spanner, while the chapters focusing on her family are in a much looser second person focus. The difference is that in the first form of second person focus we’re still inside Lore’s head most of the time, with the text refering her as “she”, while the second form, we see her from the outside, as “Lore”. It is of course symbolic for her growing up, maturing, going from what others see her as, to what she sees herself as. A coming of age story that is not nearly as obvious as most such are in science fiction.

In other words, Slow River is quite strange for a science fiction novel: a largely female cast with the plot driven by their individual concerns rather than outside concern driven, which is quite sophistically written with three different viewpoint styles and where the science on display is ecological, environment engineering. It’s no wonder it won a Nebula. A great, satisfying novel by a writer who should be much more well known than she is.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.