Beggars and Choosers, Nancy Kress

beggars_choosersBeggars and Choosers, Nancy Kress (1994)
Review by Megan AM

Techno skepticism in a dystopian world controlled by a few genetically-modified humans, the second of the Beggars trilogy brings to mind Philip José Farmer’s ‘Riders of the Purple Wage’ (Dangerous Visions, 1967) where a society lives in trashy decadence on government-provided salaries upon the advent of fully-automated manufacturing and agricultural industries. Both stories share a crude, unenlightened vision of “The Welfare State”, but Kress breaks from Farmer’s negative characterizations of the lower classes by embedding her aloof, self-centered protagonists into the fold of thoughtful, questioning citizens who are confounded by regular breakdowns in technology and a growing sense of isolation from outside affairs.

And finally! After the first volume of bickering between the moderate Sleepless Leisha and her reactionary Sleepless foes, we finally get to see the social decay that Beggars in Spain often fuzzed about.

But first, let’s just come out and say it: The titles for these books are awful. “Beggars” looked ugly enough in the first volume, not to mention the weak reference fails at its geocultural point. (Why Spain?) And neither “beggars” nor “choosers” are even alluded to in the second installment because the analogy fits so poorly. The addition of the decadent “Livers” and public servant “donkeys” sound even worse… these aren’t realistic terms, they are derogatory slurs that not even Farmer’s absurdist society would willingly adopt for themselves. Besides that, these horrific social labels distract from the actual motif of this entire set up:

“Who should control radical technological advances and what impact will they have on society?”

More techno-fear than Red Scare, though the surface might suggest otherwise, it is a heavy-handed debate that is surprisingly engaging… even if you aren’t a political science major who grew up eating on the Lone Star Card and has to tie down her left knee to give others the floor. (Ahem, me).

Polemics aside, the most significant feature of the Beggars trilogy is Kress’s habit of writing women in non-gendered, unfeminized ways. Because of genetic enhancements, these women are viewed by society as the height of sexual attractiveness, yet their internal workings and external behaviors diverge from the standard genre characterization of women by conveying neutrality, logic, distance – what some people might call “cold”. They are not driven by romance, family attachments (although sometimes driven by parental trauma, which is, thankfully, only observed in the narrative, and not stated, so there is plenty to analyze), ambition, or passion. They just do. Much like how we often observe even the most “charismatic” of male leads. I find this divergence refreshing and subversive.

More specifically, Kress’s approach to writing rich, white women is interesting. We get plenty of rich, white women in fiction, from all kinds of authors, but not often with such familiar ambiguity. Flawed, almost to the point of contempt, yet intimate, as if manifesting from authorial-reflection. It’s disconcerting at first, especially because most of these rich, white characters are misleadingly positioned as protagonists. Some readers might interpret these characters as the established heroes of the narrative, and therefore the voices of reason, but Leisha’s moderate naiveté, Diana’s reactionary cynicism, and Drew’s (a male) self-centered obsessions will keep alert readers on their toes, especially as the lower classes they alternately condemn and (think they) defend rarely conform to their haughty worldviews. Things are just so simple for these elite characters, and within a text that highlights so many confused and complex perspectives, that’s the first clue that these lead characters are not heroes.

Genre readers have been trained on hero fiction for so long, some readers might fall into that pattern and misinterpret this tale. Kress is not the type of author to handhold readers away from that pattern, in fact, I think she relies on it to keep readers engaged (read: defensive or smug, depending on your POV). In Beggars in Spain, everyone is morally gray, but it might take the entire context of the book, with all of its table-tennis arguing, to see that. In Beggars and Choosers, the same applies, but this time, with the dive into “Liver” society, we see more of a distinct narrative distrust of all genetically modified people, while the “lazy” and “ignorant” “Livers”, the lower-class consumers of “Bread & Circuses”, reveal a more layered and nuanced existence.

But it’s not fair to dissect Kress’s characterization of the rich and elite without addressing the problematic portrayals of non-white characters. Each book contains at least one glaring instance of ethnic insensitivity that seems both unnecessary and offensive. In Beggars in Spain, I initially waved off the portrayal of an enemy Muslim character as an unfortunate consequence of a ‘90s unsophisticated attempt at diversifying a novella that, when following that character’s arc into the expanded novel, turned ugly. A sympathetic author would apologize upon being made aware of the misstep, but I stumbled upon an old interview in which Kress basically shrugged off the criticism as PC-oversensitivity. Beggars and Choosers continues the attitude during a very, very small scene, of which I am not going to describe because it relies on such a deeply embedded social stereotype, but hints at the same lack of sensitivity. Hopefully her perceptions have changed since then.

And there are other flaws. The “sleepless” element has long since run out of steam, to be replaced by a more general form of super-person. The prologue is unnecessary, and full of over-heightened dialogue. The final fifty pages unravel with a pointless cliffhanger to set up for the next novel. Some plot points seem too convenient, or unnecessary and over-complicated. Perhaps Kress is strongest in novella form.

But that said, I do appreciate Kress for creating books that I can think about, argue with, and that remain in the forefront of my mind long after I have read them. Like its predecessor, Beggars in Spain, I went into Beggars and Choosers expecting to be bored, but rediscovered the pleasure of what Kress does well: portraying unsympathetic characters in misleading and intimate ways, designing surprising, effective twists, and establishing a sense of narrative distrust by toying with the reader’s own sensibilities. Whenever I enter one of her novels, two things go through my mind: one, can she pull this off? Two, is she trying to piss me off? And it’s an everlasting game of ping-pong after that.

Kress is a difficult SF author to categorize because, while she’s not literary in any sense beyond a more complete form of characterization, she writes within mainstream science fiction conventions, but outside of formula constraints, all while embracing, challenging, and twisting the reader’s reactions. And, of course, I’ll never forgive her for introducing me to the idea of being Sleepless, as I damn her characters nightly for their sleepless virtues when I want to stay up and do anything other than sleep.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Bibblings, Barbara Paul

bibblingsBibblings, Barbara Paul (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

After nearly five years reviewing for SF Mistressworks, not to mention some of the research I’ve done for my own writing, I had thought I was reasonably well-informed on women science fiction writers of the twentieth century, especially those who had published novels. Even so, Barbara Paul was a name that had slipped me by, even though two of her novels – including Bibblings – were published in the UK. Having said that, she managed to produce five sf novels between 1978 and 1980, and a Star Trek novelisation in 1988, before turning to writing murder-mystery novels, which she continued to do until 1997.

Bibblings is Paul’s third sf novel, and it’s an entertaining mix of first contact, sf puzzle-story, and light humour, with a likeable narrator/protagonist and a central conceit that’s not at all difficult to figure out… although it does suffer from being somewhat lightweight. The narrator, Valerie Chester, is a member of a six-person team in the Diplomatic Corps of the Federation of United Worlds. Lodon-Kamaria is not in the Federation, but it does possess extensive deposits of alphidium, which the Federation wants. Unfortunately, the two nations of the planet, called, er, Lodon and Kamaria, have been in a perpetual state of war for generations. And the alphidium is beneath the mountain range which forms the spine of the continent they share, and the barrier between the two nations and the battleground on which they fight. Valerie’s team has been sent in to try and effect a peace between the two countries – or, failing that, to recommend which one the Federation should “assist” in defeating the other.

Unfortunately, a problem quickly presents itself when the team land in Lodon: the Lodonites are either insane or blind drunk, and when they’re not blind drunk they’re insane. Only the neuters, the race’s third gender, are unaffected – and they spend all their time looking after the others and keeping them topped up with the local whiskey. Not only does this make diplomatic relations difficult, but Valerie and the rest of the team cannot even understand how the Lodonites have managed to keep the Kamarians at bay for so long.

So they visit Kamaria… and it couldn’t be more of a contrast. The Kamarians are smart and well-organised, entirely sober and completely sane. However, they can’t remember what triggered the war between the two nations, but they do know the Lodonites cannot be trusted and any sort of peace is out of the question… Oh, and there are these small golden birds, the bibblings of the title, everywhere…

When the Kamarians make reference to a “time of strength” and a “time of weakness”, and the diplomats notice that all the Lodonites fighting in the mountains are neuters, whereas the Kamarian soldiers are male and female… And then the Kamarians start preparing for the impending migration across the mountains of the bibblings by laying in stores of food and jars of whiskey…

To be fair, the focus of Bibblings is never on solving the puzzle. Two of the diplomatic team are medical doctors, and they quickly discover the organism carried by the bibblings which causes the periods of madness and lucidity. And the fact it’s linked to fertility. While a medical solution is quickly proposed, getting the Lodonites and the Kamarians to cease hostilities once they will no longer each suffer a “time of weakness” each year proves somewhat harder to implement.

Paul’s prose is light and readable, she doesn’t make a nine-course banquet out of the relatively simple puzzle presented by Lodon-Kamaria, and she works through the political and diplomatic consequences of the solution with internal consistency and common sense. Perhaps the set-up is not entirely plausible – the fact the Lodonites and Kamarians have never progressed beyond a slow war of attrition in the mountains as a solution – and even the similarity of the two races to human beings is never commented upon (despite the presence of a neuter gender). As backgrounds go, it’s sketchy at best; Paul spends much more words on detailing the characters and biographies of her six diplomats. Which gives the odd impression that Valerie is telling this story to someone – but it’s never explained who. It is, to my mind, one of the chief failures of first-person narratives – they’re cheap story-telling because they’re easy to write, when they should only exist because the viewpoint is crucial to the plot. But, as they say, Your Mileage May Vary…

Bibblings is not a book which asks to be looked into too deeply, but that’s equally true of a vast proportion of the science fiction corpus. It’s an entertainingly light and fast read, and it has not appreciably dated. True, the neuters get short shrift, and a running joke about the diplomatic team being nicknamed the “Anglo-Saxon Invaders” really should have been avoided… But Paul’s prose is assured, her plotting doesn’t miss a beat, and though the novel is only 169 pages everything the plot needs is in there. Those were the days, when novels didn’t need to be the size of Zeppelin hangars in order to tell a story set in, or on, another world. Admittedly, authors often managed such short wordcounts by presenting the entire universe as little more than middle America in different coloured hats – and Paul is no less guilty here than others of her time. But size isn’t always a virtue. Nor, for that matter, is brevity. Bibblings is a fun read, but it’s not a book to set the genre alight, either back in 1979 or now. And, sometimes, we have to be content with that.

Polar City Blues, Katharine Kerr

polar-city-bluesPolar City Blues, Katharine Kerr (1990)
Review by admiral ironbombs

The universe is dominated by two gigantic factions, the Interstellar Confederation and the Coreward Alliance. Humans from Earth have created a small Republic, which finds itself – as its citizens like to joke – caught between the Cons and the ‘Lies, a pawn in the game of interstellar politics fighting to keep its independence. Polar City is also something of a joke, a provincial colony of the Republic on an isolated desert planet, its corrupt and bribable government playing host to embassies of the Republic’s neighbors. When one of the alien embassy staff is found dead, police chief Al Bates finds himself caught in the intrigues of the two great powers. When he makes use of local psychic Mulligan, only for Mulligan to suffer some psychic backlash that knocks him into an amnesic state after he tries to investigate the crime scene.

Bates is forced to turn to Bobbie Lacey, formerly a hotshot pilot with the Republic Navy and now the Polar City underworld’s best fixer – an information broker, hacker, and general jack-of-all-trades when it comes to criminal enterprises. Lacey begins her own investigation, with an advanced AI and her friend Mulligan in tow, going where the police can’t. And in the course of her search, she finds a lot more than she signed up for. A political assassin is in town, offing any potential witnesses before moving on to priority targets. A strange bacteria is unearthed, a deadly contagion which eats away skin and hair and may not have a cure. And Mulligan begins picking up psychic communication from a mysterious alien race, potentially the cause of the assassinations and political machinations…

I’ve read that Kerr wrote Polar City Blues as a tribute to the SF she read as a teenager, and there’s certainly a lot of SF elements shared with earlier works – I have to wonder if The Demolished Man was one, given the similarities between the two (SF crime novels with strong psychic/psionic elements). Given its place in time, it shouldn’t be surprising that it looks at first like cyberpunk, with the mystery-crime elements, the whores and pimps and gritty port-town atmosphere that would fit well in Gibson’s Chiba City. But aside from a few AIs, it doesn’t have many hard-edged cyberpunk gadgets or themes; psiberpunk, perhaps? Instead of the faux-code that some cyberpunk novels use to represent cyberspace, Polar City Blues uses a similar style to represent psychic mind-speak, complete with emotion tags:

Big brother >need me?
>Need talk Lacey> BUT| >cop goes away.
Okay\ BUT| >cop goes, Lacey goes>>
[aggravation] She can wait\not wait?
Not wait. Big brother, woman Sally name/Lacey friend\ real danger [fear] >>throat slashed open. >Lacey find/must find\ before then.

Other elements, though, flip the traditional narratives on their heads. Kerr’s future is one where Caucasians are a small minority within the Republic’s populace, where “black” characters are both the majority and the ruling class. It’s reflected by the snippets of Spanish and references to Islam that pepper the text, elements of a melting-pot culture with a heavy Latino influences. Most of the characters use a lower-class slang full of Spanish phrases—Merrkan, by way of ‘Murican I assume—which has the bad tendency of replacing more complex contractions (“don’t,” “won’t”) with “no,” making everyone sound uncomfortably close to a bad Latino stereotype: “I no go any closer. I no can,” “I no mean that,” etc. It’s also a bit odd examining racism through the eyes of Mulligan in the white minority, especially as he’s branded as a psychic in a world that’s somewhat suspicious of mental powers.

Meanwhile, the story takes the basic “damsel in distress” plot and inverts it. The scrawny Mulligan as the “damsel”, wishing he wasn’t psychic so he could fulfill of dream of playing pro baseball, while the tough-as-nails Lacey is the heroine coming in for the rescue. And it somewhat inverts the old space operas written during the Cold War: instead of making the humans one of the two dominant factions, the human Republic instead plays the part of the Non-Aligned Movement, jammed between two powerful factions, keeping its freedom by cunning and dirty tricks.

Polar City Blues blends a rip-roaring space opera with an SF detective novel; while it has its quirks, overall it’s pretty good entertainment, a compelling, very readable novel. Kerr develops a slew of interesting characters, keeps the plot moving along at a fast clip, and she handles the mystery elements very well. The way that Kerr uses social commentary that makes the novel something more than just a science-fiction adventure; she touches on themes of class, prejudice, race, and gender, giving the novel additional depth without making the characters any less approachable or sympathetic. It’s a fast-paced, action-packed novel, but one with quite a few thought-provoking elements.

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

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

handmaidstaleThe Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
Review by Victoria Snelling

How have I waited so long to read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? It’s a classic, and has been televised, and is the kind of thing that sometimes you don’t read because you think you know all you need to about it. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and I really should have read it long ago.

Sometime in the 20th century a Christian extremist sect sets up a totalitarian theocracy in the US. The handmaids are a caste of women able to have children which is now a rare ability, due to widespread sterility. It’s not clear if that because of environmental toxins or out-of-control STDs. Offred doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t, so neither does the reader. The ruling elite use propaganda to create the beliefs they want the populace to have, and much of what the narrator, Offred, relates is what she’s been encouraged to believe. The parallels between that and the distortion of reality created in today’s media are striking.

Offred describes her life, her illegal relationships with the Commander and his driver, Nick, and her eventual escape via an underground railroad. It is compelling. The claustrophobic nightmare of Offred’s life is vivid. What struck me the most was the boredom. Offred has nothing to do. People are not permitted to read or to write and a handmaid’s only role is to breed. Offred is allowed a daily trip to obtain rationed food but she has no other role, so she spends a lot of time on her own in her room doing nothing. There are exercises and prayers but Offred is not a true believer.

I was gripped by the story. I’d expected, as it was published in 1985, to find it dated. Scarily, the opposite was true. It seems like a future that is only a couple of steps away. One or two wrong turns and we could easily end up there. Atwood’s realisation of the impact of living in a totalitarian society is chilling. It’s an important book and is still relevant. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t wait any longer.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Star Hunters, Jo Clayton

star_huntersStar Hunters, Jo Clayton (1980)
Review by Ian Sales

After the events of Maeve, the preceding novel in Clayton’s nine-book series, heroine Aleytys has joined Hunters Inc, an interstellar mercenary organisation. She is still in training, however, when she is called to Head’s office and told that she has been requested for a particular job – despite the fact she hasn’t completed her training. The Chwereva Company, which owns the world of Sunguralingu, is having a trouble with a plague of telepathic rabbits – well, hares – which are sweeping across the land and eating everything in their path, and telepathically driving the back-to-the-land settlers either into “blindrage”, in which they slaughter each other, or mindlessness. The settlers, some of whom are empathic, have christened the intelligence they can sense driving the hares Haribu. And it is Haribu Chwereva Company have asked Aleytys to “hunt”.

She is partnered with Grey, the man who recruited her for Hunters Inc in Maeve, and now her ex-lover after twelve months of stormy relationship. They travel to Sunguralingu, and en route Aleytys finds herself telepathically linked with someone on the world. Manoreh is a watuk, a humanoid race with green skin prone to blindrage, and an empath – which makes him an outcast among his kind. So he has joined the Tembeat, an organisation that accepts empaths and is not anti-technology like the rest of the watuk. The watuk are also extremely sexist, and consider women inferior – so much so that not only will Manoreh not talk to his wife, but he is unwilling to accept advice or help from Aleytys.

Unfortunately, within a couple of days on arriving on the world, Grey and Aleytys’s cunning plan to track down Haribu has gone horribly wrong and they’ve been captured by the villain. Who turns out to be a Vryhh, one of the super-strong, super-intelligent, near-immortal, with mental powers, humanoid race of which Aleytys is a half-member. And the rabbit thing was actually a plot to entrap Aleytys.

Meanwhile, Manoreh learns to accept that women are equal to men, and his wife, Kitosime, turns their deserted homestead into a sanctuary for feral children, who, being empathic, were ostracised and so became “wildlings”.

In Maeve, the Diadem series made a welcome change in direction. Previously, the novels had been more science-fantasy than science fiction, and Aleytys was presented as a super-special snowflake with super-special powers, who, it seemed, in order to offset her abilities, was subjected to offensive sexual violence. Star Hunters continues on from Maeve in presenting Aleytys as a competent space opera heroine, very much with agency; and while in this novel, Aleytys has to contend with the outright sexism of the watuk, she’s certainly up to the job. True, she still needs to use her powers in order to resolve the plot, but they’re very much dialled back in this novel. In fact, the three disembodied intelligences who “share” the diadem with Aleytys even tell her they will no longer be at her beck and call, and she must now stand on her own two feet at all times.

Having said all that, the plot of Star Hunters is not especially satisfying. The initial situation is presented through Manoreh’s point-of-view, but the jeopardy feels somewhat manufactured. Which is not helped by Grey and Aleytys falling into Haribu’s trap almost straight away. Kitosime’s narrative is perhaps the most engaging, as she has nothing but her own low-level, and carefully hidden, empathy to help her – and yet she still succeeds. There are a number of threads in Star Hunters which carry over from previous volumes, and which remain unresolved in this installment. Still, there are four books to go before the series, so likely the story arcs will be resolve in later books.