Grass, Sheri S Tepper

grass-sheri-s-tepperGrass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by Victoria Snelling

Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture… Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Grass follows Marjorie Yrarier and her family as they go as ambassadors to Grass with the secret mission of finding a cure for the plague. There are two societies on Grass; the aristocrats, an ossified relic of old European aristocracy that spends its time hunting; and the Commons which is a vibrant, trading nation. Then there are the Hippae, who act as mounts in the aristocrats’ hunts, but who are far more than semi-intelligent animals.

I loved this. The central mystery is well-handled and the reveal is done slowly over the last third of the book. Grass as a world is vividly realised and it’s inhabitants and their relationships are well-drawn. The ideas about social organization are subtly woven in and the plot is always at the foreground. I actually couldn’t put it down. It’s nice to read something with a middle aged woman as the protagonist – especially science fiction, especially an adventure mystery. Marjorie is a wife and a mother, and yet she is portrayed as an individual, as active and as as driving the story. Marjorie is purposeful woman, driven to solve the mystery at the heart of the disturbing planet she finds herself on and, although she has love interests (three if you count her husband) they are secondary to the main plot. It’s worth mentioning because it strikes me that female protagonists, in this type of story, are pretty rare. Tepper avoids the traps of either making her female protag solely defined by her family and romantic relationships or making her a man in a lady costume. It’s so refreshing.

I only have two minor niggles, and seriously, they are tiny. First. the planet Grass is sharply drawn and the word picture is rich and vivid. The group of colonies that it is part of is quite fuzzy; I don’t even know whether to call it a galaxy, system or universe. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as most of the action is on Grass but it does feel slightly incomplete. The other niggle is the omniscient third person POV. Tepper handles it well so it doesn’t feel like head-hopping, but I did find it a little old-fashioned and in one or two places it is confusing.

So, Grass was excellent, overall. It was complex, deep and thought-provoking. It was beautifully written. It made me want to read everything else she’s written.

Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

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Murphy’s Gambit, Syne Mitchell

murhpys_gambitMurphy’s Gambit, Syne Mitchell (2000)
Review by Ian Sales

Thiadora Murphy is a Floater, she was born and grew up in zero-gravity. But now she is a cadet at the Collective Enforcement Agency’s university, four months away from graduation, the first Floater to ever join the CEA. Which is hardly surprising, given that she had to train for months to withstand the gravity at the university campus – and that the Floaters are the Collective’s workers, treated so badly by the Corporations which run the Collective that they frequently revolt. Murphy is also the university’s best pilot.

She is called into the office of the university commandant, where a civilian – clearly a high-up executive from one of the corporations – has her fly a simulator which matches no known ship, and then offers her a job as a test pilot. She turns it down as she wants to be a CEA officer. Shortly afterwards, she is set up by a fellow cadet, accused of stealing his sportster to ferry arms to rebel Floaters. She is dismissed from the university, refuses to return home in disgrace, but cannot find a job. Again, the corporation – Gallger, responsible for the “launchers” which are used to transport ships from star system to star system – offer her the test pilot position. Murphy again turns it down, realising that Gallger had engineered her dismissal. Instead, she goes to work for Avocet, the Corporation which builds ships.

Avocet want Murphy to steal the Gambit, the mysterious ship whose simulator Murphy had flown. For some unknown reason, Murphy appears to be the only person capable of successfully flying the ship. The theft goes as planned. Onboard the Gambit is Kyle, the man who sold out Gallger to Avocet. During their escape, Murphy discovers why the Gambit is so sought after – it can “self-launch”, ie, it doesn’t need a launcher to travel between stars. Self-launching ships would destroy Gallger’s control of interstellar travel, and also free the Floaters from their near-slavery.

Unfortunately, Gallger manage to recover the Gambit before Murphy can deliver it to Avocet. With the help of her Floater family, Kyle, and Floater scientist Spanner, Murphy plots to steal back the Gambit. She gives herself up to Gallger – fortunately, Kyle proves to be the errant brother of the Gallger CEO, Vivien – and is sent on a test flight in the Gambit, accompanied by the CEA cadet who set her up at the university. The second theft doesn’t go as planned, although Murphy does learn the secret of the Gambit‘s origin – and why both Gallger and Avocet wanted her to fly it.

The loss of the Gambit leads to Vivien shutting down all the launchers, precipitating a war with the Floaters. When Murphy returns to save the day, destroying the Gambit in the process, the other corporations step in and arrest Vivien. There is a tribunal. Murphy is now a popular hero and so untouchable, but it looks like Vivien might get off with nothing more than a slapped wrist. Murphy demands a chair on the tribunal for the Floaters, so they are represented in the Collective government. After some politicking, she gets her way, and everything more or less returns to normal – albeit somewhat better for the Floaters than before. And Murphy is a test pilot for Avocet, who are now trying to reverse-engineer the Gambit from its wreckage…

One peculiarity of American science fiction is its penchant for corporate-dominated futures, as if it were only the private sector which is capable of colonising the galaxy. It wasn’t the private sector which put twelve men on the Moon, and it wasn’t corporations which colonised – or rather, occupied – the North American continent. These corporate futures are always depicted as almost Dickensian, with rapacious executives, and a population barely above subsistence level and with little or no rights. What’s the attraction? The USA has a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, both of which protect its citizens. So why do US science fiction authors continually posit futures in which people have no rights at all? For the sake of drama? Rubbish. There’s plenty of mainstream drama – there’s an entire genre, as popularised by John Grisham and others! – about the operation of those rights, and the legal apparatus which enforces and protects them.

It strikes me that such science fiction novels – and Murphy’s Gambit is one – are not intended as cautionary tales. It’s a failure of imagination, not a warning. Modern american consumer society is so inundated with corporate products and services that writers imagine the future will simply be more of the same. And yet, for some reason that escapes me, they decide to couple this with a treatment of ordinary people even a Victorian slumlord would shudder to consider. Certainly there’s no good reason for such a situation in Murphy’s Gambit. Gallger has a monopoly on interstellar travel, and the existence of the Gambit is enough to threaten that monopoly. Cue plot. (Of course, an effective, and honest, government would not have allowed the monopoly to form in the first place; but US genre authors seem to like to forget that if corporations are not as evil and rapacious as depicted in fiction, it’s because their government prevents them from being so… albeit, sadly, with decreasing effectiveness.)

In many respects, Murphy’s Gambit reads more like a 1980s science fiction novel than one published at the end of the century. A protagonist who is an outsider, but also a hotshot pilot, reminds me of SN Lewitt’s Angel at Apogee from 1987. The corporate-dominated future feels more cyberpunk than hard sf, and while Mitchell successfully gets across the dangers of space, and the long-term effects of living in zero-gravity, the plot is pure space opera. There are also a number of malapropisms – “veritable” used where “verifiable” was meant, for instance – and, most annoyingly, Fomalhaut is referred to throughout as Formalhaut (the name is Arabic, الحوت فم , fom al-haut, “mouth of the whale”), suggesting the book could have done with a more eagle-eyed line editor. Nonetheless, it managed to win the Compton Cook Award for Best First Novel in 2001. Mitchell went on to write a further four sf novels, the last of which, The Last Mortal Man, was the first in a planned series, the Deathless, but the publisher chose not to continue after one book.

Cuckoo’s Egg, CJ Cherryh

cucckoos_eggCuckoo’s Egg, CJ Cherryh (1985)
Review by Megan AM

I was familiar with CJ Cherryh before I became familiar with the CJ Cherryh, thanks to the time, way back when, I googled something ubiquitous – though, I thought it was pretty unique – “female science fiction writer”. A strict fantasy reader at the time, I wasn’t interested in the harsh realities of space, but I was looking for something different because fantasy was starting to wear on me. I kept Cherryh’s name in mind and eventually stumbled across the first of her Foreigner series in a messy little secondhand bookstore near Rice University. I thought the diplomacy plot would appeal to my poli-sci sensibilities and it did. I liked it okay. And it felt exactly the way I expected space opera fiction to feel.

Nowadays, I’m a little more informed about the CJ Cherryh, and her place in sci-fi history, and since reading Foreigner, I’ve noticed that Cherry’s style is almost always described as cold, distant, and dry. Sometimes, mechanical. These descriptors are always loaded as a caveat, as if her writing should be warm, inviting, nurturing – just like all the other warm and fuzzy space opera authors clogging the bookshelves. Well, let’s just come out and say what those well-intentioned reviewers really mean: she is a woman, so where is her writerly womb?

So it’s interesting that I’ve come to a Cherryh book that is essentially about the nurturing of young life, of childhood and family. Will she remain firm in her portrayals of cold, enigmatic diplomacy, or will she breastfeed us directly from the page?

In Cuckoo’s Egg, Cherryh explores the development of a human boy, Thorn, raised by a warrior-judge, Duun, of the Shonunin race. Though Thorn’s differences and the reasons for his sheltered existence are never explained to him, the human boy becomes aware of them on his own. His strict hatani upbringing, however, prevents him from breaching cultural mores to inquire about his origins. He grows up isolated, resentful, and desperate for love and acceptance, while his hatani training adds to his physical and emotional burdens. When Thorn is finally ready to be accepted by the hatani community, he learns the truth of his origins and his ultimate purpose.

A standalone book, possibly built into Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe (although it didn’t feel similar in my limited experience), Cuckoo’s Egg is a coming-of-age tale of otherness and acceptance. Never mind the ill-fitting bird metaphor, it’s clear from the beginning that Duun, and his Shonunin peers, are fully aware that the baby Thorn is an outsider.

It waved its hands. He, Duun reminded himself. (p 19)

Instead, Cuckoo’s Egg is more about the human sapling growing up in an overprotective Shonunin household, while coming to terms with perceived secrets about his alienness within his beloved culture.

… Dunn was suddenly aware of a silence within the child, a secrecy which had grown all unawares, that small walled-off place which was an independent mind. Thorn had arrived at selfhood… (p 28)

Surely it’s not too soon to coin the phrase human gaze, (and someone probably already has), which is what Cherryh challenges by depicting the human as alien and other among the (normal) Shonunin people, where “the awful, demon face, to the slitted [sic] eyes with their centers like stormcloud” (p 18) disturbs medical personnel, and where holding the child “would have chilled the blood of any countryfolk…” (p 18). Thorn’s hairless skin repulses everyone (“I’m all in patches, Duun!”), and even a potential lover is revealed as a spy after she recoils at his advances. The Shonunin, with their fur, claws, and teeth, their restrictive caste-like society, and their severe reticence, are so different from the reader that when moments of humanity shine through, it’s clear that this book not only serves as an allegory of personal acceptance, but also a cultural metaphor that avoids the trappings of the imperialist and privileged gaze that usually comes with most alien fiction.

If large print and wide spacing (and pacing) is an indicator of a book’s intended age group, Cuckoo’s Egg ranks as one of the youngest novels I’ve read this year, notwithstanding the similarly named Cuckoo Song (2014) by Francis Hardinge. And like Cuckoo Song, Cuckoo’s Egg employs quite a lot of darling lesson moments, designed for developing minds: “Some day you’ll be wise enough to solve problems. Until then, don’t create them” (p 136), and “You’re different… and you want to make sure they respect you” (p 134). This is a perfect book for a young reader who might be struggling with real or perceived differences.

But if we’re going to compare Cuckoo kids’ books, I prefer Cherryh’s for its more penetrating treatment of otherness and growing up, along with her knack for conveying complex interpersonal relationships.

Okay, so maybe cold Cherryh is a tad warmer in this book.

But more than Cuckoo Song, I see more in common with its 1985 Hugo-nominated (and eventually –winning) peer, Ender’s Game. Much of Thorn’s rearing is strict physical and mental conditioning, Karate Kid-style, (another ‘80s peer… is KK the impetus for these books?), to become part of the hatani, a warrior-judge class within the Shonunin culture. Duun is often a distant, unsympathetic, and challenging parent, his training often strays to abuse and neglect. Like Ender with his games, Thorn meets every challenge, endures the depression of failure and isolation, and is surrounded by trusted adults who lie and mislead (for his own good, they say). Both Ender and Thorn are victorious in matters far beyond what they expect, with Ender fated to become a war criminal, and Thorn… well, with Thorn, it isn’t quite clear at the end of the book whether his fate is similar to that of Ender’s:

That’s what you are. A solution. A helper of the world. (p 135)

For Thorn’s sake, let’s hope so.

Warmer and slighter than Foreigner and Downbelow Station. More insightful, and better crafted than Ender’s Game. This kid-focused story might satisfy the critics who dislike her “cold” style, though fans of Cherryh’s will recognize her trademark touch of interpersonal maneuvering and stoic characters. Cuckoo’s Egg is a departure from her usual space opera designs, but mostly because it’s geared toward a younger crowd, though it makes for a satisfying snack for mature readers.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Mississippi Blues, Kathleen Ann Goonan

mississippi_bluesMississippi Blues, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1997)
Review by Matthew Montgomery

In 1994’s Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan attempts to meld the improvisational structure of jazz with the science fiction novel. More ambitious than simply offering nanotechnology as a gee-whiz cool thing (or novum as per Darko Suvin), Goonan’s debut puts stress on the generic limitations of the sci-fi field, pushing the novel into different realms of narrative possibility. Her 1997 sequel, Mississippi Blues, takes the world the first novel laboured at and presses further the melding of form and content, taking Mississippi Blues into new territories, both literal and figurative.

Mississippi Blues picks up almost directly where Queen City Jazz leaves off: Verity gives up control of Cincinnati and forces the city to relinquish nan-facilitated control of the citizens. Without the nan forcing them to act out the roles assigned by the corrupted intelligence at the heart of the city, the people are without purpose. Verity instills in them a nanotech-induced mission called The Norleans Plague, which coerces people into travelling down the Ohio River to New Orleans, essentially acting out the journey Huck Finn takes on. Commanding a nan-built riverboat, Verity takes them on a hallucinogenic voyage through a post-collapse America.

Instead of jazz as a structuring metaphor, Goonan looks to the blues to inform the thematics of the sequel. The novel does not shy away from the racial politics of the blues; instead, she reminds the reader that the blues has a complex political ancestry, including the songs of the slaves. Goonan uses the ignorance of her characters as an avenue for expounding on the dark sides of American history, all while skilfully weaving an intricate thematic web. Mississippi Blues is intensely focused on the conceptual potential of freedom and slavery. Verity has freed the people from a nan-induced slavery by shackling them to another nan-induced feverdream. Simultaneously, the novel asks whether this future society can ever be free of American history, can ever rebuild without the looming shadow of slavery and racism.

Goonan blends these strings of thematic investigation with sensitive characterizations of Verity and the other people on the riverboat. The structure of the novel, with its lackadaisical meandering down the river, allows Goonan the space to let her characters breathe and develop. Frequently, the narrative slows to let some backstory fill in, usually of the heartbreaking variety, as no character emerges unscathed by the trauma of society’s collapse. Goonan’s sensitivity towards the feelings and motivations of her lead characters remains of one her greatest strengths in this novel and the preceding one.

However, a problem from Queen City Jazz rears its head in Mississippi Blues. In order to prolong the plotting, Goonan relies on avoiding the reveal of information. Verity, raised in isolation, is almost completely unaware of how society has collapsed and how nanotechnology went from saviour to oppressor. She is constantly paired with characters who do know, but won’t provide answers, despite direct questions from Verity. It’s similar to the frustration presented by Dumbledore: people just won’t provide straight answers, leading to my frustration and frequent exasperation. It’s a delaying tactic and a stronger narrative might have provided an organic reason for withholding information beyond a character point blank refusing to divulge.

Mississippi Blues is a dense read, both in its execution and its worldbuilding. Even after reading two volumes in this quartet, I’m still somewhat unsure of the backstory’s chronology. Likewise, I’m fuzzy on many supporting characters’ motivations and position in the novel. An effect of an episodic structure, too many people are introduced and quickly dropped, their impact dulled by the frequency with which this happens. Still, Mississippi Blues is an engaging and thoughtful read, glittering with narrative and thematic ambition, anchored by some strong prose and confident characterization.

For more information, see A Lay of the Land.