The Price of the Stars, Debra Doyle & James D Macdonald

price_starsThe Price of the Stars, Debra Doyle & James D Macdonald (1992)
Review by Ian Sales

Stop me if you’ve heard this before… A young woman, the political leader of a culturally- and economically-important planet in a federation, persuades a legendary freebooter, who has the fastest merchant ship in the galaxy, to join the fight against an implacable enemy whose leaders possess near-magical powers. The freebooter proves to be an effective general, and the Republic wins the war, but not before the woman’s home world is destroyed. The two marry. It does sound a little familiar, doesn’t it? And that’s just the back-story to The Price of the Stars, the first book of the Mageworld series. The actual story in the novel concerns the couple’s three children…

Beka Rosselin-Metadi is a starpilot aboard a tramp freighter, but her mother is Domina of the destroyed world of Entibor and her father is Commanding General of the Republic Space Force. She wants nothing to do with her family, so she’s surprised when her father turns up at the frontier planet on which she’s just landed with his super-fast merchant, Warhammer. He tells her that her mother, the Domina, has been assassinated while speaking to the Senate… which means Beka is now Domina. She refuses the role – she left home to avoid becoming it. Her father makes an alternative offer: he will give her Warhammer to use to find out who ordered the Domina’s murder, and afterwards Beka can keep the ship.

All goes well for a short while: Beka hauls a few small cargoes, makes a small profit, asks a few questions… but then a contract is put out on her. She’s saved from a pair of paid assassins by a mysterious old man she calls the Professor (the only name to which he answers throughout the entire novel). She takes him on as co-pilot, and he shows her his secret asteroid base, with its well-outfitted hangar and luxurious quarters. He explains that he once served her family, but even though he retired he feels he still owes her his oath.

Meanwhile, Beka’s big brother, Ari, seven-foot of muscley Space Force medic on a frontier world, is dealing with an outbreak of a disease never seen there before. He asks the local contact of the Quincunx, the galaxy-wide smugglers’ organisation, for medicine Space Force cannot supply, inadvertently saves the smuggler from some paid assassins, gets his medicine, and is also made an honorary member of the Quincunx.

There’s a third brother, Owen, who is an Adept in the Guild, which are sort of monks with special powers, a bit like, well, the F*rce. Owen only pops up now and again in the narrative, usually to offer intelligence.

Beka and the Professor stage a crash to convince everyone Warhammer is destroyed and she is killws. She then re-appears in male guise as Captain Tarnekep Portree, freebooter and assassin, in a merchant ship that looks just like Warhammer but has a different name. Beka now has the freedom to continue her investigation without being hounded by assassins. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go precisely as planned and Ari, plus two of Ari’s colleagues, Lieutenant Nyls Jessan and Adept Llannat Hyfid, end up joining Portree’s crew.

Various clues lead them to suppose their mother’s murder was paid for by a powerful industrialist family which is trying to arrange for the planet Suivi Point to leave the Republic. But it all seems too obvious, and further digging – involving run-ins with assassins, a fierce firefight on a frontier world, and the kidnapping of the head of a banking clan at a posh reception while disguised as an exiled royal family – eventually lead Portree et al to one of the most powerful men in the Republic. And it looks like he has ties with the Mageworlds. An attempt to infiltrate the man’s personal planet and take him prisoner provides The Price of the Stars final action-packed quarter…

The Price of the Stars is hardly great literature. It reads like an unholy marriage of Star Wars, Mission: Impossible and EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. Initially, its inspirations are far too obvious, and its world-building far too identikit – I still fail to understand why writers of space operas feel it’s acceptable to feature slavery, or why they think civilisations which can colonise thousands of world are incapable of maintaining law and order on them. In fact, the villain’s world, Darvell, is painted as some kind of hellhole because it’s orderly and well-regulated. Unfortunately, instead of reading like an analogue of the USSR, it comes across as a pleasant and civilised place. Space opera politics have always been firmly stuck on right-wing/libertarian, and The Price of the Stars certainly doesn’t buck the trend…

The book is a fast and entertaining read. It doesn’t challenge tropes or prejudices. After fifty pages, I had no intention of reading any further books in the series, but by the time I’d finished The Price of the Stars I quite fancied trying the next book. Beka/Portree is an interesting protagonist – and female leads in space operas are still uncommon even now, twenty-four years after this book appeared. True, the story’s universe wears its inspirations a little too openly, and what hasn’t been repurposed from assorted popular intellectual genre properties has been lifted straight out of science fiction’s central casting and used furniture… but the plot is pretty relentless and the various set-pieces are handled with economy.

The Price of the Stars is a space opera for a wet Bank Holiday Monday, when it’s best just to go with the flow and not think too hard. Keep your expectations low and you’ll probably not be disappointed.

An Exercise for Madmen, Barbara Paul

madmenAn Exercise for Madmen, Barbara Paul (1978)
Review by Joachin Boaz

Barbara Paul’s An Exercise for Madmen, a retelling of Euripides’s ‘The Bacchae’, follows an established narrative pattern: Stranger enters community with dangerous knowledge. Community reacts with suspicion but soon the stranger, despite claims of goodwill, begins to wield greater and greater influence.

In this case, a priapic-Romance cover “ideal” alien man named Zalmox (masculine to women, feminine to men) gets an entire community to have great sex with him and everyone else… And he brings magical alien apples, apples that cure madness…

Location: the Pythia Medical Project, “an isolated place [far from Earth] where research could continue uninterrupted without any immediate danger to human life”. Experiments on humans and animals abound on Pythia.

The cast: Pythian society falls into four main categories: the scientists, the test subjects, the technicians, and the sentient animal helpers (chimps with human hands). And Jennie Giess does not fit. She is an original test subject of Pythia raised away from Earth, her “parents were a sperm-and-ova bank in New York”. Depressed, drifting, prevented from returning to Earth by manipulative scientists, she is the only non-essential personal on the planet. Jennie spends her time writing about Pythia for Earth audiences and teaches the few children who do not show a propensity for science (a future where the liberal arts are no longer taught to all? perhaps that is why they are utterly unable to assess the morality of their often egregious experiments!). Jennie’s boyfriend and various ex-boyfriends add drama. There’s Sam Flaherty and his webbed feet, and Pythia’s leader Thalia, Jacob the intelligent chimp, children with blue and green cancer resistant skin, Dan the cybernetic man who controls the functions of the station…

And then there’s Zalmox, “an agronomist” who travels, with his space apple plants that cure schizophrenia, across the cosmic reaches bringing his endless libido to all. At first he causes a general fog of pleasantness to seep over the stratifications of Pythian society easing relations between groups, the experimental children and normals, etc. But soon a descent into bacchic chaos begins: a cataclysm of threesomes and other pairings with all genders and combinations and ages… The ramifications of this societal transformation are not as innocent (and “liberating?”) as Pythia’s inhabitants seem to think. But the power Zarmox exudes, seduces.

Two central elements prevent An Exercise for Madmen from failing completely. First, the two main women characters buck standard 70s SF trends. Thalia, the leader of the Pythia settlement, must make the hard decisions when the world is crumbling around her irregardless of her own personal safety. Jennie Geiss, depressed, dependent on drugs, aimlessly moving through a sequence of lovers, is not a traditional SF character – and I found the descriptions of her depression honest and affective: “A careless word, an unintentional snub, a short answer, the casual cruelty of other insecure souls in search of ego—boost almost anything was enough to make her withdraw into her herself even more during the day” [p 42].

Second, although the descent into bacchic chaos laboriously dulls the senses – there are only so many scenes of excess, partying to the cosmic beat of the stars stars piped over Pythia’s communication systems, and piles of naked people doing strange things to each other one can tolerate – the aftermath acts as a form of shock treatment. The tone shifts. The trauma sets in. The characters realize their agency and complicity in causing the chaos. The punch aches.

The novel’s final moments are weakened by a case of over-explanation in the form of Jennie Giess’ self-analysis (that doubles as the author’s statement of intention) as she contemplates her fate. A self-analysis that lays out the work’s allusions to and intellectual descent from classical authors should be apparent to a reader with some grounding in the classics and do not need to be spelled out in excruciating detail:

“Oedipus blinding himself in order to see … Gregory Samsa’s parents pretending they have no cockroach son. Different ways of coping with the incompatible. The healthy, unafflicted body has no need to cope: our long his of “coping” is symptomatic of – what? A terminal case of life? Sophocles, Shakespeare, the Pear poet, Swift, Kafka – five brilliant diagnosticians of human malaise. (We also have quacks: John Fletcher, August Stridenberg, Kurt Vonnegut)” [p 165]

I wonder in what category this novel lies.

My biggest frustration concerns the integration of experimental “meta” passages into the narrative. As the novel “rewrites” the play ‘The Bacchae’, Paul tries to put a more modern spin on the original notion of “script” by creating jarring filmic interludes. In Barry N Malzberg’s The Inside Men (1973) the filmic moments serve to show how the character views his own role, the invented movie as propagandistic filter. In Langdon Jones’ short story ‘The Eye of the Lens’ (1968), the camera lens, as a metaphor for God/an all-seeing entity/the sun, “sees” in a Godard-esque exercise that reduces narrative to a highly fragmented and symbolic sequence drenched with religious (and anti-religious) undertones. Paul’s script chapters, detailing the confrontation between Thalia and Zalmox, do not add to the story’s craft or generate a meaning-rich layer of complexity.

A series of surreal scenes and nonsense paragraphs, for example, one that repeats the letter “p” indicate the final descent into chaos: “I perpetuate the pattern. There’s a positive purpose propelling me – pushing, persuading, prolonging my problem” [p 148]. Yes, it’s a pattern!

As these two examples indicate, Paul moves half-heartedly in many different directions. The ideas unfurl in a logical sequence but do not meld together in meaningful or artful ways.

Not recommended.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other suspect Ruminations.

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

02_herlandHerland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
Review by Jack Deighton

This is one of the earliest pieces of feminist Science Fiction, an attempt to imagine what a society without men might look like. In its form it is perhaps rooted in its time; on an expedition three men from the US hear rumours of a land of only women somewhere in the upper reaches of “a great river” – a land which no-one has ever seen but was said to be “dangerous, deadly” for any man to go there; and from which no man had ever returned – in other words a similar scenario to “Lost Worlds” of dinosaurs. That this is merely an authorial device to entice the men (and the reader) into Herland is revealed when they in fact travel by aeroplane into that mythical place, cut off by earthquake in the long ago, and find no danger but rather an initial sequestration along with a tolerant acceptance mediated by a kind of amusement.

As tends to be the way of these things all is couched as a remembrance by one of the three men, Vandyck Jennings, tracking his progress from a belief that there must be men somewhere in Herland and that social organisation without men must necessarily be lacking to an understanding of the dynamics and motivations of this strange country. But there are no men. The women in Herland reproduce parthenogenetically (how this happened is rather skipped over, being more like a miraculous occurrence than a demonstrable process but there would have been no Herland without it.) Social relations in Herland are such that violence and criminality do not occur. In effect they have been bred out. Roles – including childcare and education, though the latter is something of a life-long endeavour – are performed by those who have an aptitude for them and who specialise in that field. The contrast with the outside world is stark, especially in regard to the valuation of each member of society.

Initially the three are bemused by the appearance of their captors, “In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy,” and – a telling aside – “‘Woman’ in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow.”

The three do eventually form relationships with inhabitants of Herland (somewhat oddly the three women whom they first encountered on arrival) but with the difference in societal norms things do not go smoothly. Of the three intruders Terry O Nicolson is the one who thinks women like to be mastered. “His idea was to take. He thought, he honestly believed, that women like it. Not the women of Herland! Not Alima!” This conflict drives the novel’s conclusion and his banishment.

In his explanations of his world to those in Herland, Vandyck realises that, “Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions. Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness. Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder,” and religion’s “common basis being a Dominant Power or Powers, and some Special Behaviour, mostly taboos to please or placate.” His leads his companion Ellador to envisage sex as Vandyck describes its place in the outside world not, as with animals, for the one purpose of procreation but as specialised to a “higher, purer nobler use”.

Books such as this cannot be subjected to the usual reviewing criteria. The central focus of a novel about a utopia is that of the nature of the society described and how it differs from, and reflects on, ours. The idea is the substance of the novel. Though illumination of the human condition is not, such considerations as plot and character are secondary. Not that there is no character development in Herland: two of the three male adventurers who venture into this world come to their own terms with it. Nicolson the macho man of course does not. (Arguably he cannot, and without his following his instincts the events which led to Jennings providing us with this account would not have occurred.)

It might be argued that Herland is not Science Fiction. But if Science Fiction is the literature of ideas (often a reason for why some SF fails to produce rounded characterisation, but the SF background can be as much of a character as any humans in the story) then Herland definitely counts. Whatever, one hundred years on from its first publication Herland can still be read with facility. It still stands up. It still marks a contrast between what our society is and what it might aspire to.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

Vendetta, MS Murdock

vendettaVendetta, MS Murdock (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

There are some who believe women writing science fiction is a recent phenomenon – indeed, it is that misconception which prompted the creation of SF Mistressworks. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after the cyberpunk-led backlash against feminist sf, when women’s contributions to the genre were seemingly forgotten – other than a handful of big names, of course – but women continued to write science fiction and be published. True, MS Murdock’s Vendetta from 1987 is perhaps a bad example to pick, given the use of non-gender-specific initials (for Melinda Seabrooke); and that Murdock’s first novel, identified on the front cover of Vendetta, was unmistakeably a Star Trek book, Web of the Romulans. Sadly, Vendetta proves a poor example for yet another reason: it’s not very good.

Ran Corbin is Fleet Seneschal of the Kingdom of Dynt, effectively rules it like a tyrant, and plans to have the ageing king name himself as heir. But when he has Senator Foxxe and his family killed for treason – because they’d been helping slaves escape – it sets in motion a chain of events which might well bring about Corbin’s downfall. For a start, his massacre of the Foxxes is not complete: five-year-old Coryelle, and the slave, Marc, who is accompanying her, manage to escape. They smuggle themselves offworld, with the help of a retired retainer, hoping to track down Eban Foxxe, brother of the senator and implacable enemy of Corbin. But their “aerfoil” (souped-up so it can travel in space) crashes on the forest world of Adyton, and Coryelle and Marc are rescued by the old witch, Bricole. Meanwhile, Corbin launches a strike on Adyton’s floating city and destroys it, killing everyone… but Foxxe has already left. Foxxe sets up base on another world, and begins to build a hidden fleet to challenge Corbin, helped by his protegé Lar, and the beautiful-waif-fallen-on-hard-times Stella. Meanwhile, Bricole has her old friend Gisarme teach Marc the martial art (sort of) of auctorite.

Corbin, however, still wants Coryelle found, and so engages the mysterious bounty hunter Blazon to track her down. Years pass. Eban Foxxe is finally ready to make his move. Marc is now a self-assured young man and skilled in auctorite. Coryelle is, er, thirteen. Marc joins Foxxe’s rebel fleet and proves to a leader of men. Blazon finally tracks down Coryelle… and reveals he is her long-lost brother. And then news of Corbin’s latest plan, “dynterminate”, reaches the rebels: Corbin intends to exterminate everyone in the outer colonies. Foxxe is forced into action, leading to a pitched space battle at Chor…

There’s so much wrong with Vendetta, it’s hard to know where to begin. Throughout, the book is written as if it were fantasy, and presents a fantasy-type world; but then there are other worlds and pieces of high technology such as interplanetary communications, space travel, androids and blasters. Senator Foxxe is killed because he is anti-slavery, yet his brother, the rebel leader, keeps a personal slave and shows no indication of emancipating him. And there’s the whole concept of slavery itself. There’s no reason or justification for its existence in the world-building – not that there’s any indication of an industrial or economic base capable of sustaining an interplanetary, or interstellar, kingdom, never mind the technology in evidence throughout the story. Slavery is not “background colour”, and does not belong in any work of fiction as such.

The science fiction trappings of Vendetta strike a wrong note right from the start. The capital of Dynt appears to be a small mediaeval city – it even has a wall and gates, and guards to oversee who enters and leaves – and it’s only the phrase “… possibly even leave the  planet” on page 11 which signals the story is not actually high fantasy. Or rather, it would have done, had not the book’s cover art and blurb made it plain that Vendetta was science fiction. From that point on, sf tropes are dropped willy-nilly into the narrative: the aforementioned “aerfoil”, electronic locks, computers, a city which uses anti-gravity to float above a forest, an android (which attaches itself to Stella, and then Marc, but seems to serve no real purpose in the story)…

Even the climactic battle is hugely unconvincing as science fiction. For a start, it takes place in the “narrow channel” between Chor and its moon, which, if the Earth-Moon system is any indication, is likely several hundred thousand kilometres in width… The entire novel reads as if Murdock had no real idea of the scale of her universe. She describes Chor Harbour, the world’s starport, as “stretched out over the face of the planet” (p 245), and yet an earlier description mentioned only some tens of hangars. The city of Dynt is the only place identified on the planet which shares its name, although the roads leading from its gates – on which people use horses and carts – must lead somewhere. The flight from Dynt by Marc and Coryelle takes only days, yet the world of Adyton is later identified as one of the “outer colonies”.  Everything feels small, like it would in a medieval kingdom that can be crossed in a handful of days, and those outer colonies no more than villages on the borders.

As if that weren’t enough, Corbin is the worst kind of pantomime villain, who thinks nothing of wiping out a whole city because his enemy might be there. His title is Fleet Seneschal, but for much of the book the only military mentioned are the Garde – an elite city milita, although since no other armed force is named it’s hard to see how they qualify as “elite”. Then there’s the age of the female love interests. Stella is only fifteen when she joins Eban Foxxe’s retinue, but the narrative sexualises her. At thirteen, Coryelle is a “young woman” and plainly positioned as the mate of Marc, who is ten years her senior. Murdock may have considered the young ages a better “fit” with the presentation of the book’s universe as ersatz mediaeval, but I disagree. Even for a 1987 novel, it feels like a mis-step

Vendetta reads like a fantasy novel onto which a handful of science fiction trappings have been clumsily stapled. It also doesn’t help that the plot is driven by a romantic triangle, Corbin and Eban Foxxe and the lost Princess Tenebrae, all of which is back-story. Throw in slavery as little more than a form of conspicuous consumption for the wealthy, and young teenage female love interests… and the end result is a science fiction novel that’s best avoided.

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett

thelongtomorrowThe Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955)
Review by Megan AM

Len Colter sat in the shade under the wall of the horse barn, eating pone and sweet butter and contemplating a sin. (p 7)

That’s a killer first line. And now I want some cornbread.

With its bucolic setting and unsophisticated characters, as well as some rambunctious river moments with two growing boys, it’s as though The Long Tomorrow invites the tradition of Mark Twain into the realm of SF, supporting the success of Ray Bradbury’s nostalgia stories and setting the stage for Clifford Simak’s pastoral entreaties for peace in the following decade. (Yes, I know Twain wrote sci-fi. I saw that episode of Next Gen, too.)

An excellent example of a post-WWII attempt at post-apocalyptic fiction, a tradition that has endured and endured and endured. I often wonder if, after we finally suffer the apocalypse that humanity seems to crave, will we then sit around the campfire telling gripping stories about copy machines, fast food tacos, and skyscrapers.

Of course we will. But in The Long Tomorrow, Brackett explores that same question.

Some eighty years after nuclear war, humanity’s survivors subsist in pastoral communities ruled by religious sects, while a federal law forbids the establishment of cities. Len and Esau, teenagers of the New Mennonites of Piper’s Run, fantasize about the cities of the past, with their metal skyscrapers, electric lights, and automobiles. When the punishments for their technological transgressions go too far, the boys decide to break free of their stifling community in search of the mythical Bartorstown, where technology and science are celebrated and preserved.

Brackett is better known for her screenwriting career, with credits on popular hardboiled crime movies and some involvement in The Empire Strikes Back, and even most of her own bibliography is crime and space opera stuff. The Long Tomorrow is an unusual piece in the Brackett oeuvre, though many consider it to be her best. Whatever the state of her other novels, this is an excellent place to start.

Extremely readable and thematically immense, The Long Tomorrow tugs on the worries of a post-war world, a planet sitting on its own atomic power while two superpowers wobble in a precarious balance. This coming-of-age tale about Len and Esau mirrors the loss of innocence of post-WWII nations, where mid-20th citizens grapple with the consequences of the pursuit of knowledge and technology, while mid-20th nations grapple with each other. Len and Esau want to know things. They’re fearful, but warnings of danger don’t stop them.

Could you give up all the mystery and wonder of the world? Could you never see it, and never want to see it? Could you stop the waiting, hoping eagerness to hear a voice from nowhere, out of a little square box? (p 42)

The boys dance a precarious dance, both experiencing a spectrum of convictions, but never at the same time, constantly in flux with one another. Constantly in a bid to outdo and overpower one another. They blame each other for their uncomfortable pursuits. They are never in harmony.

Len. Esau. Lenin. USA. I know it’s the wrong time and conflict for Lenin, but maybe? Just because “Stal” is a crappy name? And maybe “Nik” is too obvious. (I searched around to see if someone else noticed this, and came up empty. So maybe I’m stretching. Me? Stretching? Never!)

But as much as this taps into the current events of the time, this is no study in polemics. Brackett explores the arc along with the reader, and questions are left to drift in the post-nuclear wind. Is knowledge worth the sacrifice of blissful ignorance? When the boys finally get their wish, their skins practically crawl with fear when confronted with certain technologies. Maybe ignorance sounds good again. But, can one ever return to ignorance? (Think on this before you judge the ending.)

Of the flaws, the women are thin in character and agency (read: annoying), typical for fifties SF, but surprising to see from a female author. We do get people of color, a tiny bit, but the one Hispanic is an alcoholic, and Len can’t help noticing the beautiful white skin of the (assumed to be) Native American daughter. This thinness does, however, lend some validity to the product-of-their-time apologists (myself included). The fifties just sucked for women and POCs, even in imaginary tales, even when written by women.

But, it’s remarkable how much Brackett packs in to this 200-page novel based on themes of Cold War social tensions, the risk of knowledge, the power of individuality, and socio-psychological conditioning. She explores post-apocalyptic power structures, the roles of religion in times of fear, and the manifestations of oppression in various societies. The tale feels literary as Brackett experiments with structure and foreshadowing. Her protagonists are developed, not just as agents of the narrative like many early SF characters, but as independent personalities. Len and Esau change and grow, sometimes in unpredictable ways that only make sense upon reexamination.

I’m happy to have found such a satisfying piece of fifties SF with Leigh Brackett. Nothing I’ve read from the fifties comes close to this level of sophistication.

Recommended for readers who want to read fifties SF, but can’t stand the stilted prose.

Recommended for readers looking for proof that women have been writing SF for a long time, and doing it well (better).

Recommended for readers who want to like Bradbury, but think he’s too heavy-handed with the metaphors.

Recommended for readers who love their post-apocalyptic fiction on the soft side.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.