Aventine, Lee Killough

aventineAventine, Lee Killough (1982)
Review by Ian Sales

Short story collections set in a single locale are nothing new in science fiction – nor, indeed, in fiction as a whole. The same might also be said of stories set in an artists’ colony – whether it is St Ives, Cornwall, or Laguna Beach, California, or an entirely different planet altogether. The seven stories in Aventine are set in the eponymous town, located in the mountains an hour by “cabletrain” from Gateside, a galactic transport hub. An introduction expains how Aventine was once an artists’ colony but it is now chiefly populated by the rich and famous and reclusive – each story revolves around someone who is famous, although their narrators generally are not (all of the stories are in the first-person).

‘The Siren Garden’ is told by one of Aventine’s artisanal tradesmen. He specialises in “silicavitae”, singing gems, which are actually a crystalline lifeform. One day, the beautiful wife of a rich and pwoerful man walks into the narrator’s shop. She becomes fascinated with the gems, spending more and more time in the shop – and the narrator, of course, falls in love with her. She persuades him to design a garden of singing gems, and even finds a way to limit the gems’ sensitivity – as the sounds they make reflect the emotions of the people around them. Her motives, however, are not as pure as the narrator had believed… as he eventually discovers.

‘Tropic of Eden’ is also centred around a beautiful woman, and a narrator who falls in love with her. This woman is a famous actress, and the narrator is one of Aventine’s artists, a sculptor. She commissions a piece from him, a psychotropic sculpture. The more time he spends with her, the more he is puzzled by the actress’s young cousin – except, of course, she is not a cousin at all, as her close resemblance to the actress indicates.

‘A House Divided’ follows the same pattern of as the previous two stories: a beautiful woman moves to Aventine and one of Aventine’s male residents, who initially enters into a professional relationship with her, falls in love, and it all ends badly. The woman in this case has two distinct personalities – one which is in a fugue state when the other is dominant, while the other remains aware at all times. The first is frightened of the second, and although they have agreed to share their body, six months each per year, she is afraid the other is trying to take over permanently.

‘Broken Stairways, Walls of Time’ slightly reverses the pattern, inasmuch as the man is the visitor to Aventine and the woman the resident. However, they had been lovers years before – also in Aventine – and he has returned to record a holo symphony featuring some of the more indulgent architecture of the town’s wealthy homeowners. One of which is his ex-lover, once a famous singer but now a total recluse, who surrounds herself with holographic facsimiles of herself.

‘Shadow Dance’ returns to the template: the leader of a male dance troupe is commissioned to choreograph and stage a dance routine for a beautiful woman. The lead male dancer falls in love with the woman’s daughter, and the two decided to run away together. But once the mother learns of this, and accepts that her daughter’s life is her own, the romance is shown to be a sham (on the daughter’s part, that is) to provoke precisely that reaction. The troupe leader has artificial eyes, which can also see in the infra red, as can the mother, and the dance is designed to be seen at that wavelength as well as in visible light.

‘Ménage Outré’ features a famous novelist and his reclusive sister (she is, unlike all the other women in the collection, plain, and has not had “cosmetisculpture” or plastic surgery to remedy this, as is commonplace). A woman rents the property next door, and proves to be a famous cosmetisculpturer… who has surrounded herself with a coterie of grotesques – a hunchbacked dwarf, a snake lady, a lizard man, etc, people who have been surgically altered to be the opposite of standard ideals of beauty. Although the story is about them, they’re little more than ciphers, furniture agianst which the plot regarding the three main characters is played out.

Finally, in ‘Bête et Noir’, the roles are partly reversed – the narrator is a famous actor, who has come to Gateside to appear in a theatre verité play. She will play the lover of a trader who is forced to hand her over as hostage to his alien backer until he has sold a valuable cargo. Theatre verité uses no scripts, only rough notes on the plot, and detailed biographies. The actors take a pill, an “angel”, which creates the role’s personality. The director of the play, however, has more in mind than just impressing an audience.

As I read these stories, something about each one struck me as familiar. I’ve no memory of reading Aventine before – nor does it appear in my records, although I only began recording the books I read some two decades after starting to read science fiction. So it is possible I read this book sometime during the 1980s or earlier, and have since forgotten it. On the other hand, Eric Brown has written several stories, also set in an artists’ colony on another world, which are similar in tone and affect – and I know I’ve read those. But perhaps it’s simply that each story in Aventine seems to follow an established template – man meets beautiful woman (he’s usually a tradesman, she is someone famous), falls in love with her… only for it all to go horribly wrong. More than anything, the similarity of the stories makes the collection feel like a television series, one in which similar characters act out similar histories and so meet similar ends. And yet, despite that, Aventine is not a dull read. The prose is very readable, the individual situations different enough to be memorable, and the setting familiar enough to make the stories simple to parse. You could do much worse than read this book.

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Not By Bread Alone, Naomi Mitchison

notbybreadNot By Bread alone, Naomi Mitchison (1983)
Review by Kate Macdonald

This completely obscure eco-science-fiction novel by Naomi Mitchison from 1983 shares a title with another obscure novel, by Vladimir Dudintsev of 1956. Naomi Mitchison was not a Communist, but staunchly socialist, and had visited Russia in the 1930s. Both novels deal with the paradox of the individual’s intentions being devoured by the forces of the state (Dedintsov) or Big Business (Mitchison). Mitchison’s novel is about genetic manipulation and modification of plant cells to create wheat, rice and other crops that can be distributed free to the world’s hungry to get rid of world hunger for ever. It’s a utopian dream with a predictably dystopian result, since nothing comes from nothing, and nothing in life is ever free.

I could not get my head around the economic argument in this novel, since the premise of the plot is that when people have free food, they are able to work harder, learn faster, and generally pull themselves up by their bootstraps to a better standard of living. Not if they’re farmers or in any way involved in the food business, one would think, since who is paying for the free food? The big corporation who supplies it in the novel, and pays for the scientific research worldwide to produce these new superfoods, has what seems to be an inexhaustible income stream, and does very well with profits once free food has become the norm, but I really could not work out why.

Anyhow: that’s a detail. Not By Bread Alone is mainly concerned with the dangers of rampant scientific invention colliding with social processes, and feels even more relevant now than it was thirty years ago. If people do not have a relationship with the land and the food they grow on it, their food is worth less to them, emotionally and psychologically. Mitchison tells the story of scientists in India working on early GMOs, and contrasts this with traditional life on an invented Aboriginal autonomous territory in Australia’s North-West Territories, whose people refuse the FreeFood as well as alcohol. They nurture their spiritual growth and connections to the land, remaining a whole and healthy people. When a Sikh scientist joins them, his religious beliefs let him find commonality with their spirit-life, as do the ecological beliefs of Neil, the Australian farmer who has abandoned his FreeFood farming to escape the corporation’s clutches.

This novel gives a powerful sense of wide and varied representation at the centre of the world-wide struggle. The USA and North Americans are barely mentioned (this is so refreshing in a genre that the USA has dominated since its earliest years). There are as many female as male characters with speaking roles; there are more non-white protagonists than white. The two leading women characters – a scientist and a lobbyist – are lovers, and the leading Aboriginal character is a pilot and a mother. Naomi Mitchison was over 70 when she wrote this novel, totally in touch with ecocriticism and with gender politics. She wrote with a farmer’s understanding of food production (she’d farmed her land throughout the Second World War) and with a biologist’s understanding of the science (she trained as a geneticist before the First World War). Her narrative style is elliptical and assured, swooping from mind to mind to layer the free indirect speech with dialogue. Her technique is assured and very well-practiced (she published her first novel in 1923, fifty years earlier than this novel, so what she knew about delineating character was probably everything that could be known. Not By Bread Alone is more than an eco-critical curiosity, it’s a serious dystopic novel about a future of food uncertainty and terrifying consequences when the science goes wrong.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Cetaganda, Lois McMaster Bujold

CetagandaCetaganda, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Miles Vorkosigan visits Eta Ceta, the homeworld and capital of the empire that formerly ruled his own planet, as a diplomatic envoy. What starts off as a fairly routine job – representing his world at a state funeral – escalates into a clandestine battle of wits between Miles and an unknown Cetagandan enemy who is trying to frame Barrayar for a crime and reignite hostilities between their two empires. Miles has to find and defeat this foe without offending his hosts or shaming his own world.

Cetaganda is the fifth novel (by chronology) in the Vorkosigan Saga and the shortest to date, clocking in at only around 250 pages. It’s a slight story, and feels more like an expanded short story than a fully-fleshed out novel.

On the successful side of things, Bujold brings her trademark wit and readability to the story. To use a lazy reviewing tactic, if you liked the previous books in this series, you’ll probably like this one as well. However, Bujold is arguably unsuccessful in really making the Cetagandans (here making their first on-page appearance after many frequent mentions) an impressive, convincing society. The Cetagandan Empire is ruled under a bewildering array of rules relating to male/female relations, genetic engineering and social function, which is all fine until you realise it would be too easy to topple the whole thing if enough people decided they didn’t want to play along (as indeed almost happens in this novel).

More damaging is the fact that Bujold does not complicate Miles’s story enough. Every time something bad happens, Miles immediately shifts it to his advantage, and he is never on the back foot for more than a paragraph or two. With a long series based around one character you have to constantly be on the look-out for that character becoming too infallible or invulnerable, and that nearly happens to Miles here.

Still, even a sub-par Vorkosigan novel remains a fun, if lightweight, read.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper

grass-sheri-s-tepperGrass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Grass!

Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses — some high, some low, some feathered, some straight — making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quiet at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were. Commoners all, of course. No aristocrat would sit in the wild grass to dream. Aristocrats have gardens for that, if they dream at all.”

It was human overpopulation that drove the exploration of space, the great flight from Terra for other habitable planets with more living space. When all is said and done, the balance of power rests in the hands of Sanctity, a fundamentalist religion turned power bloc that promises its adherents will live forever in its genetic banks. But not even Sanctity and its cloned afterlife is safe from the plague that may doom the dispersed humanity: a roiling miasma of death that kills any human or animal it touches, with life wasting away in a haze of gray lesions and gooey decay. Rumors say that the planet Grass is free from the plague – Grass, named for its endless oceans of green prairie – and so Sanctity’s heirarch names his Catholic nephew Rigo Yrarier the ambassador to Grass, sending him and his family with a secret mission to investigate Grass for signs of plague – or, hopefully, signs of a cure.

Rigo and his wife Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier are both Olympic equestrians, and Sanctity hopes that their experience as riders may be an inroad to Grassian society. Grass has a strong classist system where the elite aristocracy – the Bons, descended from Europeans who fled Sanctity’s intrusion – live in grand estancias, their existence revolving around their near-continuous Hunt. They stay at arms-reach from the commoners huddled around the planet’s only port; nor do they care much for the “Green Brothers”, Sanctified monks all but banished to Grass, excavating the ruins of long-dead alien species called the Arbai. But with the Bons, what the Yrariers find is a dark mockery of a Terran fox-hunt: utilizing “native equivalents”, the Bons ride barbed Hippae alongside frothing Hounds, running down or harpooning the strange, wailing Foxen. To the Bons, a horse is but a common animal in front of the Hippae. And it’s the Hippae who hold the answers to Grass’s secrets, displaying a dark and malevolent intelligence behind their blood-red eyes.

Marjorie is the unlikely heroine: middle-aged, trapped in an unhappy marriage, and now stuck on a planet known for its bizarre rituals and distrust of outsiders. Her husband and daughter plan to ride Hippae and join the Hunt, not wanting to lose face in front of the Bons; when her daughter vanishes during the Hunt, Marjorie sets out to find her with a group of odd companions, including a plague survivor, an elderly Green Brother quite attuned to Grass’s ecosystem, and Sylvan bon Damfels, a striking young aristocrat who’s fallen for Marjorie. Thrust into this chaos, Marjorie often has her doubts, questioning her role in her family, her relationship with Rigo, and in several long sections, questions the strictures of her faith. Yet despite all adversity, she proves a capable and competent heroine, unraveling the planet’s deep mysteries.

Tepper’s writing is pretty good; she has flashes of sublime imagery, and can evoke pure dread in the early sections dealing with the Hippae. Tepper reminds me of CJ Cherryh from her mix of sociopolitical intrigue, alien culture and biology, and good old-fashioned thrills, along with some social commentary. With Grass, that commentary is mostly on religious and moral grounds – it’s clear Tepper has no love for extremists (as Sanctity shows), but Marjorie and her “Old Catholic” family offers up a fairly balanced religious dialogue, a rare sight in SF. Tepper’s plotting is strong, too; the first half of the novel moves at a slower pace, introducing the many characters and subplots and foreshadowing what’s to come. The novel’s pacing picks up around the middle, and the final third of the novel sees all the plots and subplots crash together. Covering all of them is a futile effort; suffice to say that even when it’s slow-going, the book is packed.

While a strong novel, Grass is not immaculate; the plague is a nice macguffin, but both it and the planet’s surprise biology end up suffering from a lack of believable science. There’s also a distinct feel that Tepper was making things up as she went along, as some of the twists feel neither plotted or natural: Rigo first appears as an intense but loving husband, until suddenly he has a secret mistress, who (later) Marjorie suddenly knew about all along, and Rigo descends to become a cartoonish caricature of a domineering patriarch. In another case, Sylvan bon Damfels shows up at the commoner town and is annoyed that the commoners ignore him and treat him as useless, and suddenly it’s as if his life-long desire has been to be welcomed by the common folk. The ending is rushed and lacks impact, some elements are too stereotypical, and several of the characters (Sylvan, for one) remain underdeveloped. And some readers may chafe against the religious and moral philosophizing.

Overall, though, I found Grass a fascinating read. It balances social, religious, and scientific ideas in a novel rich with intrigue and action and a dash of horror. Combined with the stellar world-building, Tepper impressed me with her storytelling, weaving a complex narrative with dozens of characters and a multi-layered plot; even if it’s wrapped up too neatly, it’s an impressive effort. Grass has its flaws and imperfections but it also does so many things right, and I have a hard time being too critical. What Tepper has written is a very ambitious novel; like most ambitious novels, there’s that whole “reach exceeds grasp” thing, but what is grasped is more than enough to make Grass successful. I’d recommend it to most SF readers as a worthwhile read, provided they don’t immediately flee from its religion or ecofeminism.

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

A NEW YEAR

SF Mistressworks has been reviewing science fiction novels by women writers published before 2001 since June 2011. That’s four and a half years. During that time, we’ve posted 346 reviews of 276 books by 128 authors. The reviews were contributed by 51 reviewers. Some were original to SF Mistressworks, many were not. From the end of February, we switched to posting one review a week, which is I think a sustainable frequency – although, of course, we’d like to be able to post more. Reviews of eligible books are always welcome. We’ve no plans to stop, since there are a number of women sf writers, and books written by them, we have yet to review – writers such as Alison Sinclair, Ann Tonsor Zeddies, Anne Gay, Barbara Paul, Carolyn Vesser, Cecelia Holland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Dana Stabenow, Deborah Christian, Denise Vitola, Denny Demartino, Diann Thornley, Doris Lessing, Eleanor Arnason, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Emily Devenport, Emma Bull, Helen Collins, Jane Emerson, Jane Yolen, Janet Kagan, Janet Morris, Joan Cox, Julie E Czernada, Karen Joy Fowler, Katherine Kerr, Kathleen M O’Neal, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kristine Smith, Lisa Goldstein, Lisa Mason, Liz Williams, Martha Soukup, Mary Rosenblum, Molly Gloss, Nancy Springer, Patricia Anthony, Pauline Ashwell, Rebecca Ore, Sage Walker, Severna Park, Sheila Finch, Stephanie Smith, Susan M Shwartz, Susan Torian Olan, Syne Mitchell, Wen Spencer and Wilhelmina Baird. (If you spot any missing names, please let us know – but remember: science fiction only, and twentieth century or earlier only.)

It’s traditional at this time to offer a few stats about SF Mistressworks. So here they are…

Most popular reviews in 2015:

  1. The Feminine Future, Mike Ashley, ed. (Jun 2015)
  2. The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K Le Guin (Jun 2011) – down from #1 last year
  3. The Passion of New Eve, Angela Carter (Jun 2011) – up from #4 last year
  4. The Female Man, Joanna Russ (Jun 2011) – up from #5 last year
  5. Passing for Human, Jody Scott (Jun 2011)

I’m not sure why reviews from the month SF Mistressworks first appeared have proven so popular, but it seems they are. Dropping off the list is Doris Piserchia’s Star Rider, which had been linked to by io9. As has The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been, and probably still is, a set text in schools.

Most popular reviews of 2015:

  1. The Feminine Future, Mike Ashley, ed. (Jun 2015)
  2. Shards of Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold (Feb 2015)
  3. The Highroad Trilogy, Kate Elliott (Apr 2015)
  4. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (Apr 2015)
  5. The Best of CL Moore, CL Moore (Jan 2015)

I’m not sure why The Feminine Future, an anthology of early sf by women writers, has proven so popular. Bujold is a popular author, so her presence is no surprise.

Most reviewed book in 2015:

  1. Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (twice)

The only book reviewed more than once during 2015.

Most reviewed authors

  1. Ursula K Le Guin (19)
  2. CJ Cherryh (17)
  3. Lois McMaster Bujold (16)
  4. Joanna Russ (15)

Le Guin keeps the top spot, but Cherryh overtakes Bujold to take second plac. Russ remains in the top five. There were three authors vying for seventh equal: Norton, Brackett and Wilhelm.

Most reviewed books

  1. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K LeGuin (6)
  2. Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (5)
  3. The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin; We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (4 each)

Again, The Left Hand of Darkness remains the most-reviewed book, but Where The Late Sweet Birds Sang moves up to second place. The remaining two books have been constants in the top five for the past few years. Competing for the next spot were ten books – Ammonite, China Mountain Zhang, Downbelow Station, Frankenstein, Kindred, Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Shards of Honor, The Female Man, The Ship Who Sang and The Sparrow – all of which have three reviews apiece.

It only remains for us to wish everyone a prosperous 2016, and don’t forget to spread the word about SF Mistressworks.