Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold

mirror_danceMirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold (1994)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Mark is one of the most resourceful men alive: smart, cunning and trained in combat and subterfuge with a brilliant talent for information analysis. He is also weighed down by the knowledge that he is a clone of a more famous and more effective military commander: Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. Infiltrating the Dendarii mercenaries by posing as his “brother”, Mark embarks on a vengeful attack on the genetic laboratories on Jackson’s Whole. This sets in motion a chain of events that will change his life, and that of his brother, forever.

Mirror Dance is, chronologically, the ninth novel in the Vorkosigan Saga and one of the most vitally important in terms of both the metaplot and character. It starts off in a rather traditional way for the series, with a mission for the Dendarii that appears to be straightforward and then rapidly becomes complicated. The difference here is that it is Mark who has set up the mission and it becomes painfully obvious that, for all his gifts, he is not Miles. Bujold plays a clever game here, since it would be implausible for the Dendarii (who know that Miles has a clone) to fall for Mark’s deception so easily, so she has to set up a situation where they would plausibly go along with the plan in any case. Some dangling plot elements established as long ago as The Warrior’s Apprentice are exploited ingeniously to do this.

The book opens with a structure that reflects the book’s title. Chapters alternate between Mark trying to pull off his crazy scheme and Miles getting wind of it and trying to stop him. Events collide on Jackson’s Whole, at which point the story takes a left-field turn that I don’t think many readers were expecting. The scale of the book suddenly explodes, incorporating a return to Barryar, our first encounter with Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan for many novels and some expert commentary on the changing state of Barrayaran society. Then there is a sprint for the finish, taking in explosive action sequences and an extraordinarily disturbing torture sequence that might even make Scott Bakker flinch (okay, probably not).

Mirror Dance is certainly the most epic book in the series to date, revisiting past plot points, characters and events on a scale not before seen (contributing to its unusual length compared to the previous volumes). But Bujold maintains a tight reign on the narrative and backs up the expanded canvas with some impressively nuanced character development. Around for the opening and finale, Miles sits out a large chunk of the novel as Bujold explores Mark’s character in impressive depth. Even more remarkably, Bujold uses Mark to develop Miles and his shifting cover identities despite him not being around for a good third of the novel, and also to catch up on some characters we haven’t seen for a while.

There’s also the feeling of change in this book. The political situation on Barrayar, simmering in the background of many volumes, feels like it is now coming to a head with events in this novel confirming that the new generation – that of Gregor, Miles, Elena and Ivan – is coming into its own. The events of this novel seem to shake Miles’s position as commander of the Dendarii, whilst the explosive changes on Jackson’s Whole could reverberate across the galaxy. There’s a feeling of Bujold loosening things up in this book, essential for any long-running series, and ensuring that readers will want to proceed into this book’s direct sequel, Memory, immediately.

Mirror Dance is a remarkable book and easily the best in the series to date, more than deserving of its Hugo Award. It starts as another military SF adventure, turns into a combination of mystery and political thriller and then skews briefly into action overdrive before concluding with a bleak moment of horror that – apparently – is turned into a positive outcome. Bujold’s enviable skills with writing and character make it all seem natural. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.


Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress

beggarsBeggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (1993)
Review by Megan AM

It’s an endless battle between me and sleep. There is always something better to do.

Nancy Kress must share that sentiment, because her Hugo award-winning novella, ‘Beggars in Spain’, and her subsequent novel of the same name, is an exploration of society in which parents can choose to endow their children with more time and productivity through genetic modification to never need sleep.

Before she was born, Leisha Camden’s life was already determined for her. Her wealthy parents purchased genetic modifications to make her beautiful, intelligent, and to never require sleep, while her unexpected twin sister received none of these traits. Being Sleepless provides Leisha with more time to devote to studies and contribute to society, but it also causes resentment and distrust among the Sleeper majority, and tensions between the two communities boil over into violence, segregation, and systematic oppression. Leisha is one of the few Sleepless who chooses to remain living among the Sleepers, and works tirelessly to improve relations. But when an influential Sleepless is murdered in jail, the Sleepless make plans to leave Earth, and ostracize Leisha from their community. Defeated, Leisha finds herself alone among Sleepers, and a stranger within her own family.

Oh, and one other thing. Nobody goes to Spain. This is not a cultural fiction novel that will have your mouth watering for tapas. I was kind of disappointed about that.

Despite the premise’s reliance on genetic science, Beggars in Spain is best classified as sociological SF, or even political SF, where the sociopolitical and socioeconomic ramifications of transhumanism are explored. Less personal than most sociological SF like Le Guin or Butler, Kress keeps her characters at arms-length – they’re fully-fleshed, yet unemotional, but that fits with Kress’ world of the mid- to late-21st century in the United States. The science is still there, with the first chapters preoccupied with realistic-sounding explanations about raphe nuclei and neurotransmitters, but it sounds legit, and is quickly dumped for the actual meat of the story. Kress develops an evolving, pulsing society, driven by pseudo-economic self-help messages, divisive intolerance, a decadent lower class, and a judgmental upper class. This is what true speculative fiction should be: a thought experiment based upon a change, and a speculation of the impact of that change from all angles of society, as demonstrated through the characters’ varying perspectives. Kress does this very, very well.

Just as fascinating as the Sleeplessness, an undercurrent of economic philosophy drives the plot, where Yagaism, a pop-economic theory that sounds more appropriate for a self-help book, rather than a peer-reviewed journal, molds the global economy into a meritocracy based on individual determinism. That sounds exactly like our current economic system, sure, yet in Yagaism, the value of work ethic outweighs the value of the dollar. The brain is the means of production, and leisure is the enemy.

Yagaism sounds a bit like Rousseau’s social contract, subverted by Ayn Rand-ian economic egoism:

… a man’s worth to society and to himself doesn’t rest on what he thinks other people should do or be or feel, but on himself. On what he can actually do, and do well. People trade what they do well, and everyone benefits. The basic tool of civilization is the contract. Contracts are voluntary and mutually beneficial. As opposed to coercion, which is wrong. (p. 29)

It’s a blend of American ambition with a mystic belief that all people will prosper if the best get better (and richer). Like a psychic form of Reagan’s trickledown economics. (And we all know how that worked out.)

So, what the hell does this have to do with the beggars in Spain? The Sleepless call the Sleepers “Beggars,” a derogatory name inspired by their murdered friend, whose analogy about going to Spain and giving a dollar to one beggar versus giving a dollar to one hundred beggars becomes the Sleepless’ mantra to help only themselves, because the futility of helping one beggar neglects hundreds of other beggars, and helping all of the beggars is too overwhelming, and drags down society. But the philosophy cannibalizes itself when the Sanctuary community quickly euthanizes any person with questionable medical problems, and aborts any fetuses that indicate Sleeper brain patterns, all because “no one has a right to make claims on the strong and productive because he is weak and useless. To set a higher value on weakness than on ability is morally obscene” (p. 364). With those beliefs, paranoia infects the dwindling Sleepless community.

Yagaism, beggarism… it all sounds like fuzzy logic, but Kress explores each tangle through her diverse and complex characters. The economic arguments are too complex to be a straightforward capitalism vs. communism caricature. Even Kress’s characters’ opinions change throughout their lives, which makes it difficult identify Kress’s own views within the knotted philosophical turmoil of Leisha and her friends. Socialist sensibilities might bristle at Leisha’s Yagaist messages, which often sound like an assortment of Rand Paul election ads, but Leisha evolves, as does Yagaism.

But it’s not all philosophical pontificating! The story itself is interesting and well-plotted, with a great assortment of sterile, yet intriguing, characters. The first novella about Leisha’s childhood blows away the following chapters, but it’s still a worthwhile read. I hear the later books drag, but Kress’ final chapter sets up the sequel, Beggars and Choosers (1994), in a tantalizing way.

As much as I desire extra hours in a day, I think I would miss the pleasure of sleep. Even the Sleepless characters in Beggars in Spain discover the importance of rest and dreaming for their mental health.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, Lee Killough

monitor_miners_shreeThe Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, Lee Killough (1980)
Review by Ian Sales

Science fiction has in the decades since the first issue of Amazing Stories appeared published some books with cringe-inducing titles. Lee Killough’s The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, while very descriptive, is by no means the worse… but it’s still a bit of a toecurler. The monitor is the official leading an expedition to study the Shree, the race native to the world of Nira – it is the monitor’s job to ensure the researchers do not reveal themselves to the primitive Shree. Unfortunately, they soon discover that the eponymous miners have already made a deal with the natives…

I have to wonder if the Star Trek movie Insurrection was not in part inspired by Killough’s novel, since the idea of secret research establishment spying on unsophisticated natives as protrayed here predates the movie. But there all resemblance ends. Because shortly after arrival on Nira, the research station is attacked, its staff gassed and abducted by a security team from the miners. But monitor Chemel Krar manages to escape. She is taken in by a tribe of Shree, who can fly and live in large caves in cliffs, and slowly learns their language… and what is really going on.

The miners struck a deal with the Shree a couple of centuries before, and have even fed them one or two ideas and items beyond the Shree’s current level of sophistication. But the Shree seemed to have accepted all this with equanimity, and have just been getting on with their lives. Their view of themselves and their place in the universe has not been adversely affected – mostly thanks to their reverence for Shishi’ka, a godlike figure (there are, incidentally, a few too many apostrophes in this novel). Krar learns that Shishi’ka is a real person – and works for the miners. He’s a member of a long-lived race, and was a member of the first mining party to land on Nira.

In and of itself, this isn’t that much of a surprise to Krar. Because every character in The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree is an alien. There are no humans. Krar herself is a Cheolon, and one of her researchers was a Mianai, a race who routinely live for almost a millennium. And yet the aliens themselves are not especially, well, alien. There are references to their physiologies – Krar is fond of rubbing “a brow tuft”, for example. While this does make the characters symapthetic to the reader, there is disappointingly little strangeness on display.

And it’s not just a lack of strangness. There seems to be remarkably little jeopardy too. Though two of the researchers are killed early in the novel, and the rest are stranded among the Shree – Krar is separated from them quite early, and so is worried over their fate, but there’s no real sense they might be in danger. The source of their trouble proves to be a rogue agent of the mining company – those two earlier deaths were his fault, and now he’s afraid of the consequences should they be discovered.

All of this means The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree is, well, a nice novel. Which is damning it with faint praise, and quite possibly unfair. It’s an enjoyable novel, although not as appealing as Killough’s earlier A Voice Out of Ramah. In some respects, it feels like a novella stretched to novel length, since many of its beats and reveals are somewhat leisurely paced. The final chapter sees the status of the miners, and of the Shree and the planet Nira, regularised, and everything finishes on a happy note. So despite the events on Nira, this is essentially an optimistic sf novel. And that’s certainly something we need more of.

A fun, if lightweight, read.

Dreamships, Melissa Scott

dreamshipsDreamships, Melissa Scott (1992)
Review by Ian Sales

Judging by the gazeteer extract which precedes the opening of Dreamships, and which gives details of the world of Persephone, this novel is set in the same universe as Scott’s The Kindly Ones (1987), which also features a register entry on the world of its story. That, however, is all the two novels have in common as, while an interstellar civilisation is mentioned, the events of Dreamships take place on only two worlds.

Reverdy Jian is a pilot, contracted by the company she works for to fly a private starship from Persephone to Refuge and back again. The client, Medelia Mitexi, is looking for her brother, a gifted construct (sophisticated computer programs) designer who had a severe breakdown some years previously. Mitexi’s starship, however, is experimental – Jian and her crew only discover how experimental when they board it to begin their journey. The ship’s construct is borderline, if not actual, AI. And this is a problem because there is an ongoing campaign on Persephone by an organisation called Dreampeace to give AIs full rights. This is unpopular with most of the world’s residents as it would mean AIs have more rights than they do. (The obvious answer would, of course, be to campaign for more rights for humans as well as rights for AIs, rather than deny rights for AIs… but this is a US science fiction novel.)

During the journey to Refuge, Jian – and her two crew members Imre and Red – learn more about Manfred, the ship’s construct. Jian is soon convinced it is an AI. Which puts her in a quandary – she’s not a supporter of Dreampeace, on the contrary she opposes its aims, but she has been persuaded that Manfred doesn’t deserve to be treated like a computer program. Matters are only made worse when on the return journey from Refuge, Mitexi’s brother commits suicide in his cabin. This death gets the Persephone authorities involved and that, plus Dreampeace’s activism, requires Jian and her crew to sneak back into the city (Persephone’s only habited city is entirely underground).

Dreamships was Scott’s first novel to be released in hardback – as the ARC backcover blurb has it: “after a rapid string of successes in paperback, Melissa Scott … escalates into hardcover…” So it’s a bit of shame this novel isn’t a strong as the other two by her I’ve read. Much is made of the underground city, and the first few chapters are little more than travelogue, with Jian walking from one place to the other and so introducing the reader to her world. Jian is a strong and well-drawn protagonist, which unfortunately cannot be said of the rest of the cast (and Red, who is presented as mysterious for no good reason, seems to have been parachuted in from a Samuel Delany novel – not in itself a bad thing, of course).

Nor do the politics driving the plot make a great deal of sense. To some extent, this likely a consequence of American science fiction’s predilection for libertarian futures, a complete misrepresentation, if not a total romanticisation, of the pioneering days of the nation’s history. Even in settings where such a political situation would be unsustainable, such as those deeply reliant on life-sustaining technology, US sf novels continue to present neoliberal, libertarian, unegalitarian societies – which promptly forces the plot to jump through a series of increasingly implausible economic and political hoops in order to reach the desired conclusion. Dreamships frequently falls prey to this, trying to display a gritty realistic future which often comes across as more like the worst excesses of the present. This is not helped by the story’s continually shifting focus – is it about Jian? Dreamscape? the Mitexis? Or Manfred?

The Kindly Ones suffered from a lack of narrative cohesion, as if it were several stories poorly welded together, and so to does Dreamships suffer from the same flaw. It benefit in having a likeable protagonist, an interesting world, and some good ideas… but it doesn’t quite hang together with sufficient rigour – and nor does it make a virtue of its lack of rigour. I still like Scott’s novel and I’ll continue to read them, but I’ve yet to find one that really makes good on her evident promise.