Godsfire, Cynthia Felice

godsfireGodsfire, Cynthia Felice (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

It’s not all that often the cover art on a science fiction novel gives a good indication of what’s inside, but Godsfire‘s actually does a halfway decent job of setting out precisely what the reader can expect to find. To wit, a race of cat-people (who are not always naked, but never mind). And humans. But in Godsfire, the word “human” refers to the cat people, and homo sapiens are actually their slaves – in fact, a discussion of the “humanity” of the slaves is one of several themes driving the novel’s plot.

Heao is an academic, or rather, a member of Academe, a sort of philosophical and scientific thinktank which advises the ruling prince of the city, as well researching things simply for knowledge’s sake. She is also a gifted cartographer, so much so her nickname is “Pathfinder”. The highland town where she lives was recently conquered by a lowland “King-conqueror”, and now life is slowly returning to normal. Heao meets the enterprising merchant lowland Baltsar, and through him learns more about his slaves – which are rare in the highlands. She accompanies Baltsar to meet the King-conqueror, drawing a new map of the landscape as they travel from highlands through badlands to the lowlands, and even finds a quicker route. It transpires that Heao, the King-conqueror and the head of their religion, Tarana, have all had dreams which affect the destiny of the race and somewhow involve “godsfire”. And such dreams are taken very seriously…

Godsfire is essentially a sustained piece of world-building, but it’s a bravura piece. Felice handles her cat people with a remarkable degree of invention, and their physiology and society reads as surprisingly convincing. It’s the small details – their diet, their lack of distance vision, the way they use their tails to signal mood or add colour to their speech. It’s only halfway through the book, for example, during a conversation between Heao and her slave Teon that it becomes clear the characters are colour-blind. The physical details of Heao’s world are also cleverly constructed – the book’s blurb calls it the “shadowlands”, which refers to the land beneath the “skybridge”. Heao’s people believe this is used by the gods, one of which carries godsfire, the great heat that provides sufficient light to live beneath in the shadow beneath the skybridge. The land is limited by the Evernight Mountains to the north, the sea to the south, and there are apparently other peope lto east and west which prevent expansion up and down the coast. It’s not exactly hard to figure out the actual set-up, but Felice does an excellent job of remaining within the viewpoint of her creations.

The first half of the novel introduces the main cast and their world. It then leaps forward nineteen years. Heao is mated to Batlsar, and they have a daughter. She also believes the slaves (ie, homo sapiens) are as fully human as her people, which means by law they should not be enslaved. But to free them would destroy the economy, not to mention upset religious dogma. As a result Heao is shunned by the guardians of the temple, which means she is ostracised by the entire town. Eventually, she is forced to recant, after her mentor is poisoned. This leaves her free to lead an expedition through the Evernight Mountains, because she’s the only person who could so so. On the other side of the mountains, out from under the skybridge, she learns the truth about godsfire, and about the slaves.

Science fiction novels which tell their stories from the viewpoint of an alien are not unusual. Such novels in which humans feature as “alien” to the protagonists are perhaps less common. It’s a difficult trick to pull off – not only do the aliens have to seem sufficiently human for a reader to find them sympathetic, but the humans also have to appear sufficiently alien for the plot to work. Felice manages this successfully – and this despite the fact humans are there in the narrative from pretty much the first page. It’s true the world-building is the most impressive element of Godsfire – and that nineteen-year jump in the story does make the story feel a little disjointed – but it’s worth noting that Heao is a well-drawn protagonist. Perhaps she’s a little too special in some respects, but she’s a thoughtful and sympathetic viewpoint, and this without sacrificing her alien nature.

Worth reading.

Brothers in Arms, Lois McMaster Bujold

Brothers_in_ArmsBrothers in Arms, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Review by Adam Whitehead

The Dendarii Mercenary Fleet has pulled off its most audacious operation yet, a mass prison break that has liberated hundreds of enemies of the Cetagandan Empire. The furious Cetagandans have pursued the Dendarii across the known worlds, forcing them to take refuge and resupply at one world even the Cetagandans hesitate to cross: Earth. For Miles Vorkosigan it’s time to resupply his troops and check in with his day job as an officer in the Barrayaran military… but it also brings him into contact with rebels determined to destroy Barrayar and have a most unexpected way of doing it.

Brothers in Arms is the fifth novel by publication order (or eighth, chronologically) in the Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold’s award-festooned series following the misadventures of the genetically misshapen and crippled Miles Vorkosigan as he tries to rise through the ranks of the Barrayaran military. This latest novel expands on the Vorkosigan universe by taking us to humanity’s homeworld.

The novel is divided into two sections. In the first Miles has to confront the problems posed by his actual job as an officer for Barrayar’s navy and how this conflicts with his cover role as Admiral Naismith, commander of the Dendarii mercenaries. There not being too many prominent genetically-challenged dwarfs around, the rising fame of Vorkosigan in both these roles has led many to conclude they are the same person. With the value of the cover unravelling, Miles faces the unpleasant possibility of having to give up the Dendarii, a role he has come to thoroughly relish. Miles soon comes up with a bonkers plan to allow his cover to continue… which then becomes insanely complicated when it turns out that his randomly-conceived cover plan isn’t too far off from the truth. The wheels-within-wheels plans, deceptions and machinations that Vorkosigan comes up are hilariously over-complicated (to the befuddlement of his friends and crew) and it’s great to see them in action.

As well as the comedy and some very effective action set-pieces, including a memorable concluding battle at a supermassive SF version of the Thames Barrier, there’s also some major steps forward in character development in this book. Miles realises how much the Dendarii have come to mean to him and several moments where he genuinely trips up on what role he is supposed to be inhabiting are quite powerful. Maybe he’s in too deep? There’s also the anguish over Miles’s lack of immediate family, and when this appears to be rectified Miles latches onto it with horrifying lack of forethought, but moved by a powerful emotional need for peers to relate to. It’s fairly straightforward stuff, but Bujold’s ability to tell familiar stories through a fresh perspective serves the narrative well.

Brothers in Arms is a very solid novel, with some good action and laughs framing a more serious story that does a lot to advance Miles’s character and the overall storyline of the series. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by admiral ironbombs

I knew Wilhelm was the wife of famed editor-critic Damon Knight, I’ve seen other SF bloggers write glowing praise for her novels, and I’ve enjoyed a few of her short fiction in the not too distant past. But I’m actually more familiar with her work as a mystery writer – her début novel More Bitter Than Death was a mystery, as were most of the novels she’s written since the 1980s. Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is her most famous entry, winning a clutch of awards and earning nominations for several others upon release, so I decided it would be a good place to start.

As ecological catastrophe looms, David Sumner’s family takes humanity’s last gamble: in an attempt to preserve the human race in the face of global sterility, the Sumner clan holes up in a hospital-laboratory complex to clone a new generation. This proves to be something of a success with unintended consequences: only the first four clone generations are fertile. And worse, the clones seem to have different ideas than their human creators in how this new human race should grow: genetic diversity is not seen as a benefit but a hindrance. The same goes for diversity in individuals – the clones exist as a collective, where free thought and creativity are unheard of. The narrative jumps forward to follow a clone named Molly on a voyage to explore the ruins of Washington DC. On that trip, the clones make a discovery that will change the very fabric of their being – sowing seeds that come to fruition with the third point-of-view character, Molly’s son Mark, as he changes the clones’ society forever.

The novel examines the relationship between society, community and individual, and those themes form the backbone of the novel. The clones establish a society that follows their comprehension and belief for how this new humanity should be structured—alterations due to the ESP-like ability where batches of clones share emotions and feelings, an empathic link to other clones from the same genetic source. This causes them to form a collective society as individualism is beyond their comprehension; since everything they do and feel is shared within the group, isolation becomes akin to torture, and individuality is a frightening heresy. They are not selfish or petty, acting in the community’s best interest, but can enact great cruelties of compassion – they take great pains to keep the humans and fellow clones alive, but retain many of their fertile members as little more than breeding stock for artificial insemination, hoping to create an army of young clones to reclaim the cities of New England.

David realizes what he and his family have created is not humanity’s salvation but its replacement, though his attempts to alter the clones’ course fail; instead, it’s the great trauma that Molly faces that triggers a new awakening within the clone society. The clones become worried as she develops latent traits of individuality, thought long-lost and dormant by the clone leadership. And her son, Mark – the product of sexual/biological reproduction – lives on the fringe of their society. Learning from Molly and old books, he has traits that the community needs: the ability to survive and explore out in the wilderness, as the other clones grow terrified under the solemn trees. Mark is creative and self-sufficient, but he cannot exist on his own – without a community, without heirs, leaving the clone society will make him an evolutionary dead-end. He even tries to connect with the clones and breeders, looking for someone who can understand and befriend him, to no avail. His alien individuality and childish pranks make him into a danger to the collective’s way of life, and creates a tenuous link between the two groups: each finds the other incomprehensible, but both have something the other needs.

At one level, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang might be read as an allegory for libertarianism, railing against communism or “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” conformity, an overtly simplistic black-and-white comparison where the individual is good and the community is bad. If that was the author’s intent, I didn’t see it as that stark of a good-bad contrast. The clones and their society have serious flaws, and with each new generation it gets worse – with each successive generation, the clones lose more of their creativity and individuality. They are blind to their flaws, unable to see what they are missing for their lack of it, and many of them are presented in a humane way despite their limitations. And while Mark could escape the collective at any time, without a community of his own nothing will change, and nothing he’s learned would carry on to a new generation. The book investigates some prescient issues – what is the relationship of the individual to the community? How do the individual and collective interact, when both have something the other needs yet cannot comprehend? Can one person change the workings of an entire society?

I’m well acquainted other pastoral post-apocalyptic novels – The Long Tomorrow, Greybeard, City and other Simak stories – but I think Wilhelm pens it better than anyone else. Her prose sways gently like grass under a warm summer breeze, with a compelling elegance and a rich texture. She has an incredible ability to create fully realized and sympathetic characters, making them into living, breathing people who spring off the page. And this prose is underlined by raw power – emotion that pulls at your heartstrings. I’ve seen other reviews that criticize the novel as faulty science, finding many of the “clone society” ideas to be implausible. Let’s leave aside the fact that David’s family were not trained scientists and didn’t have time to perfect their cloning methodology, which seems a plausible enough reason to me. I think those criticisms overlook what the novel is saying – Wilhelm wrote a potent allegory with much pathos, a parable that investigates key elements of human society. This is a classic of Soft SF – a book about people and culture – not a textbook for how to clone a living organism.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a gripping novel that clings to your soul, a skillful and thought-provoking read written in beautiful prose. Her pastoral eco-apocalypse and clone society are rich in detail that gives great insight into the roles of the individual and the collective. While others may criticize the book’s science, I found the story near to perfection and give it a high recommendation. Wilhelm writes with impressive emotion and power in her work; Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is not only one of the most heartfelt SF books I’ve ever read, it also digs into some truths of the human condition with ringing authenticity. If you’re looking for a quality post-apocalyptic novel, or if you want a brilliant examination of family and the individual, or if you dislike SF because you think it is only about cold and detached science, read this book. Despite winning the Hugo and Locus, I don’t think this book gets the recognition it deserves, and every SF reader should consider reading it.

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

A Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough

voiceoutramahA Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

The world of Marah was settled by religious zealots some six hundred years ago, but shortly after founding their colony the men began to sicken and die. And so they discovered the world was home to a virus which kills nine out of ten boys when they reach puberty. And still does so. Now a small minority of men rules a much larger population of women, in a theocratic society spread across Marah’s single continent in a number of towns and ranches. As A Voice Out of Ramah opens, a starship has arrived at Marah, the first to visit the world since it was colonised. The starship is from a corporation which leases “shuttleboxes” to human colony worlds. These can be used to transport people and materials instantaneously from world to world – but, of course, there’s that virus, which must not be allowed to escape Marah…

Alesdra Pontokouros is the liaison officer for Intergalactic Communications ramjet Galactic Rose, and she has landed on Marah with a security officer. But then the security officer, a young man, is taken ill. The two of them are taken to the city of Gibeon, and handed over to Shepherd Jared, head of the local Temple and de facto head of the city. When the security officer dies of the virus, Jared is very much shaken by the death. So much so, in fact, that he rebels against the one thing that holds together Marahn society, its greatest secret – that the men developed a resistance to the virus within a handful of generations and now, six hundred years later, the Shepherds and their Deacons in the Temples deliberately, and randomly, poison ninety percent of the male children when they reach puberty.

Some authors might have made this annual near-genocide the point of their story, the horrible mystery at the heart of a repressive religious regime, committed solely in order to keep the men in charge. But Killough is telling a different tale. A Voice Out of Ramah is about Shepherd Jared, not Pontokouros – she is sent off to the capital, Eridu, to meet the Bishop, who delays his decision regarding the shuttlebox for no apparent reason. Jared decides it is time to stop the Trial, the killing of the boys, and he plans to do this by blackmailing the Bishop: he will tell Pontokouros the truth if the poisoning does not stop. Unfortunately, one of Jared’s Deacons has long been a rival, is in fact busy working to unseat the Shephard, and as soon as he realises Jared’s intentions, he seizes control and imprisons him. But Jared manages to escape. However, in order to confront the Bishop he has to travel several hundred kilometres across the continent to Eridu. The only way he can do this is to disguise himself as a woman (a not implausible disguise – Killough has laid sufficient groundwork for it to be physically believable). Of course, during his journey Jared learns the true nature of Marahn society – that the women may defer to the men in all things but they pretty much do everything they want anyway and the men’s power is mostly an illusion.

Having said that, the novel is not without its faults. That six hundred years, for one, feels too long an interval to be entirely plausible. Religious zealotry, and the theocracies it all too often generates, is a soft target and one at which science fiction has often taken potshots; but even so a society that has progressed so little over six centuries is not entirely believable. And, while Jared’s wish to end the Trial after witnessing the security officer’s death from the virus is an understandable change of heart, he overthrows his upbringing a little too readily when disguised as a woman during his journey to Eridu. There is a particularly well-drawn scene when the group of women with which Jared has taken refuge – they are driving some rapas (saurian riding animals) to market at a town several days’ ride away – and who are unaware of his masquerade, are visited by the male head of a local ranch. The man is arrogant, ignorant, and convinced of the sagacity of the advice he gives – it’s a classic case of “mansplaining”. It is this sort of behaviour we are expected to accept Jared dropped the moment he went into hiding.

And yet… The fact Killough has chosen to focus her story on the women-run society of Marah in order to show up the delusion under which the men rule, rather than make a meal of the Trial, the horrible secret at the society’s heart… this makes A Voice Out of Ramah a surprisingly fun and charming read. More than that, it’s a story about women and a society run by women – even if the chief protagonist is male – and it handles its social dimension with an appealing confidence and matter-of-factness. I had not really expected to like this novel as much as I did; but the more I read, the less important the somewhat simplistic theocratic framework became… the less of a hurdle the easy acceptance of the Trial became… the more I wanted Jared to succeed no matter the consequences – and Killough is very clear on the likely outcome of his plan. In fact, it’s the easy camaraderie of Marahn society outside the Temples that is one of the novel’s chief attractions. There are other elements which also appeal, such as the references to a “pre-Marahn” society, and even a visit to a city of ruins by Pontokouros and a Marahn guide.

For all its theocratic setting, A Voice Out of Ramah is  a very likeable science fiction novel. I don’t know if Killough has written more novels in the same universe, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for her other books.

Once A Hero, Elizabeth Moon

onceaheroOnce A Hero, Elizabeth Moon (1997)
Review by Kate Macdonald

Elizabeth Moon writes sf about the space navy, making combat and military command truly gender-neutral. I first came across Moon when she co-wrote volumes 1 and 3 of a space trilogy with Anne McCaffrey, called Sassinak and Generation Warriors. I was powerfully struck by these novels because (a) they were a rejuvenation in quality from anything McCaffrey had done on her own, and (b) they brought into being a whole new space navy universe that I really wanted to read more about. I did try one of Moon’s fantasy novels once, from the Paksworld series, but couldn’t be bothered with it: medievalised multi-volume fantasy epics bore me. The depth of Moon’s science fiction imagination is what makes her an outstanding novelist for me.

Once A Hero is the central novel of a sequence of seven, called the Serrano Legacy. The structure is a bit convoluted: bear with me here. The first three novels (Hunting Party (1993), Sporting Chance (1994) and Winning Colors (1995)) are about a cashiered space navy captain, Heris Serrano, who’s grimly creating a new career for herself captaining a rich old lady’s private yacht as they roam the galaxy looking for bloodstock for the old lady’s stable of racehorses. You’ll have noticed the key words in the book titles that suggest racing, chasing, sport and surviving. The plot thickens into a dark story of a human hunt by navy officers on planet leave. In the course of this, Serrano begins to realise that her cashiering and enforced departure from the Fleet was a set-up, naval security has been compromised, planet pirates are moving in, and it all gets very exciting as she shows her quality and takes command of a navy vessel to beat off the attack. During the last 20 pages of Winning Colors, we hear about a remarkable but unassuming junior lieutenant who got involved in a mutiny to prevent the ship’s captain turning over ship and crew to an enemy force, and ended up commanding the ship, demonstrating seriously effective tactical and strategic thinking on her feet, and destroying the enemy vessel.

This junior lieutenant is Esmay Suiza, and her story is told in the next novel, Once a Hero, and continues in three more novels. The Serrano characters take a back seat for these, but remain as a a dynasty of powerful and influential high-ranking space navy commanders and admirals (all women), plus one very junior male ensign. The Esmay Suiza novels are a long, leisurely read of high-tech weaponry, addictive storytelling and political intrigue in a military world that I find fascinating because I’ve never served in the military. I know almost nothing about real or plausible military protocol and etiquette, but I do find it interesting that in focusing the narrative on how people relate to each other within ranks, within services, in how they work together, Moon makes sure that we learn vast amounts about how the service works as a whole.

The factor that determines the shape of people’s careers and the sociology of Moon’s universe in Once A Hero, and the whole Serrano series, is the idea of extended life. In John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen, extending women’s lives caused men to sit up and take notice, because this meant a serious change in men’s social roles. In Once A Hero, extending life through biological rejuvenation is expensive and thus limited, but it is gender-neutral: anyone can do it, if they can afford it. It’s also a routine medical and cosmetic procedure. Socially speaking, its effect will be to freeze up career advancement through the institutions and the governing powers at the top end, and in Once A Hero it’s already having an economic effect, as an obvious marker of wealth, influence and power for those who need to make a living. Rejuv becomes an essential in the quality of life, which drives up its value, thus causing unnerving instability in the interplanetary economy, and in galactic politics. Even the barbarian hordes of Aethar’s World want longer life, despite their Viking tendencies to leap joyously into battle to embrace death. These sophisticated repercussions show Moon’s quality as a novelist, in creating wondrous, logic-based worlds by working out the social repercussions of an idea. The hardware of traditional space opera is merely an add-on in her worlds.

Moon puts the idea of a quick-fix physical rejuvenation to meaningful use by applying it to medicine, to rejuvenating the body after injury. In the story, the assurance of rejuvenation appears to discount the effects of serious damage done to characters, but that is when we only think about physical damage. There is hardly any violence in Once A Hero, but what there is, is pretty nasty. When characters receive wounds this is recounted neutrally, and constantly buttressed with reassurances, from the characters to each other, or implicitly to the reader, that the damage will be fixed: rejuv will mend the bones, and the internal organ damage will be repaired after a few weeks in the rejuv tanks. But after the bones have mended, Moon takes a lot of time to show how psychological damage as a result of combat or attack is affecting these serving soldiers, male and female. Rejuv can’t help this damage: this is a matter for the psychonannies, a kind of nurse therapist whom the soldiers regard with dismay and some shame while they’re still denying that they need help, but eventually go to freely. Since I haven’t read any modern war fiction I don’t know how common this is in stories about Iraq or Afghanistan. By setting war-related psychiatric trauma in a sf context Moon has freedom to explore the areas she wants, and to send feminist messages which wouldn’t work so well in a real-life war setting. Esmay is only able to open up about her trauma when she feels she can do good by her disclosure, so she offers her pain as a gift and as an example to a damaged junior colleague who is also struggling with male pride about being tough. Thus she demonstrates leadership, strength, empathy, and does not hang on to egotricity. Is this feminist? Not particularly, but it does show what a cracking good leader this female soldier will be, once she works out what she really wants in her life.

Esmay Suiza’s problem is that she is a phenomenally talented junior lieutenant who should be a command-track candidate, but she has inexplicably shunted herself into technical track service, as if she wanted to bury herself in a job where she would be good and useful but unseen. Why is this? She’s already suffered considerable violence that she is only just beginning to discover in her past, and the novel is largely concerned with her recovering memories, her readjustment of her relationships with those who lied to her, and how she will learn to think of herself from now on.

In the universe of Moon’s novels, most planetary civilisations allow the sexes to be equal (she does not mention intersexes, but maybe she will in the future). In Once A Hero and its sequels we get a closer look at two planetary civilisations where they are not, so we can compare them. The first is the really very ludicrous barbarian culture of Aethar’s World, which is nothing more than a high-tech Valhalla: their women are only for breeding and feeding. The other is Esmay Suiza’s own planet of Altiplano, a horse-breeding and agricultural society where women can hold office but are excluded from military role, and are expected to have total responsibility for the home. It’s fossilised, but not necessarily closed, and Esmay has run away from it. What makes Esmay such an interesting hero is that she is a woman excelling in military prowess against the tradition of her family. A woman who left her planet to specialise in technical-track military training, against cultural tradition. Hmm. Why would she do this? What made her leave? Any what has this to do with her very confused ideas about what she is, and what she can clearly do?

Elizabeth Moon’s two sf series, the Vatta’s War books and the Serrano Legacy series, have these characteristics in common: a woman commanding a military or armed force, in charge of teams of men and women; a woman with brilliant tactical and strategic planning skills; a woman happy to have relationships with men lower down the chain of command, but also not stupid enough to let these jeopardise any mission; a woman with empathy for the weak and vulnerable, and no time for the arrogant and stupid; a woman with a goal and a strong sense of her own worth. There will be extended scenes of fighting on- and off-board ship, of the unravelling of deceptions, of nail-biting bluff-heavy interviews, huge amounts of rich technical description that we don’t have to understand if we don’t want to, a strong sense of the bigness of space, and the eternal worry about the consequences of not having enough credit to fix the FTL drive when bits fall off. The economics of flying a space ship are uppermost in the minds of most of Moon’s female characters, because many of them have budget responsibility, as commercial traders, military commanders, or private contractors running their own businesses. This is extraordinarily refreshing (see my grumpy remark about medievalised fantasy epics, above). There is also a very good joke about a fruit cake, but you’ll need to look for it in the Vatta’s War series. Elizabeth Moon is a totally consistent novelist: her quality never falters. Go read her now.

This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading an publishing.