The Sunbound, Cynthia Felice

sunboundThe Sunbound, Cynthia Felice (1981)
Review by Ian Sales

Allis runs a successful tool and die company, but when her partner dies on a desert camping trip, and admits with his dying breath that he’s not from Earth, and then a pair of crew from his alien ship turn up and take her away with them… Daneth was a “star gypsy” and a “stone-carrier”. He was also co-captain of the Sovereign Sun, a spaceship which travelled throughout the occupied galaxy by harnessing the power of the solar winds for interplanetary travel… and using “gravity slips” for interstellar travel. And that “stone” which Daneth gifted to Allis on his death-bed is a telephathic communications device, rare enough to force the gypsies to kidnap her. To make matters worse, the Sovereign Sun‘s other co-captain Milani was Daneth’s lover, is also a stone-carrier, and bitterly resents that Allis now has Daneth’s stone. (When given with love, the stones live; otherwise they die.)

It’s an interesting set-up, made more so by the fact it is happening now out there – Earth is as we know it, or rather knew it in 1981, but the civilisation which spawned the gypsies and their ships, and the various humanoid races with which they trade, all exist out in the galaxy. Allis’s resentment at being kidnapped, her reluctance to accept the stone Daneth gave her, and Milani’s hatred of her for that reason are all excellent engines to drive a plot. But…

Well, there are a couple of problematical aspects to The Sunbound, and in this day and age it’s hard to overlook them. In the universe of the gypsies – who are all, incidentally, tall and pale-skinned, suffering genetic damage from years of space-based living, and have trouble breeding – trade between worlds is pretty much controlled by a race of humanoids called the Watchers. These were the first to realise the usefulness of the artefacts left behind by the long-vanished Quondam Beings (the results of a thesaurus search, if ever I saw one) and use them to build an advanced civilisation. And they’re still keen to find such artefacts – even if the host civilisation is not aware of what they possess. In fact, the Watchers stood by and let the gypsies destroy their homeworld in a nuclear war in order to profit in this trade, but those gypsies travelling between worlds survived… but had to sell the secret of the gravity slips to the Watchers to safeguard their survival.

It’s an interesting set-up, and used well, except… the Watchers are described as brown-skinned and turban-wearing, and they not only breed people for specific roles in their society but actually breed, or interfere in the womb as fetuses, their women to be mentally subnormal. One Watcher character even brags of one of his wives, “I put her down a while ago, when her vagina lost elasticity” (p 139). Seriously, WTF? And the mention of turbans and brown skin, the racial profiling, of the Watchers smacks of Islamaphobia, never mind racism.

That the plot later involves the crew of the Sovereign Sun being waylaid by pirate gypsies, and the survivors – which includes all the major characters – put to forced labour aboard the pirate ship, does nothing to offset the racist portrait of the Watchers. The pirates may be gypsies, and so white, and may treat the protagonists badly… but the villains of the piece are most definitely the Watchers. The pirates are irredeemably evil, but in this instance they’re acting under the instructions of a Watcher, and so their villainy is by definition an extension of his character.

The whole thing spoils what might otherwise have been a fun, if undemanding, science fiction novel if its time. True, the hatred between Allis and Milani begins to wear thin after a while, and the fact the two must eventually overcome their differences and cooperate is pretty much obvious from the novel’s start… And the general concept of the universe, with its Quondam Beings and assorted humanoid races living in their ruins, is intriguing… But the positioning of the Watchers as turbaned brown people who treat their women like pampered animals leaves a very bad taste in the mouth.

It’s a shame because Felice’s first novel, Godsfire, wasn’t half bad, and the novel following The Sunbound, 1983’s Eclipses sounds worth a read (Felice re-issued all her novels on Kindle in 2012 and 2013). I will continue to keep an eye open for her books, but I cannot in good conscience recommend The Sunbound.

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A Sparrow’s Flight, Margaret Elphinstone

sparrows_flightA Sparrow’s Flight, Margaret Elphinstone (1989)
Review by Jack Deighton

Subtitled on the cover “A Novel of a Future”, A Sparrow’s Flight is set in the same post-apocalypse universe as Elphinstone’s The Incomer and features the same lead character, Naomi. Here, on her last night before travelling across to a tidal island (which internal evidence in the text suggests is Lindisfarne) she encounters Thomas, an exile from the once “empty lands” of the west, and is invited by him to return there with him. The lure is that she will discover there something from the past about music.

The novel covers a span of 29 days in which Thomas and Naomi traverse the country east to west, stay awhile at Thomas’s former home then travel back again. The chapters are of varying length and each covers just one of the days. Elphinstone’s future world is one in which the ruins of the past are feared, only low-tech exists; there is no transport, except perhaps for oxcarts and rowing boats for crossing water. Distance is an alienating factor. Once again the incomprehension Naomi has of the local norms is one of the themes. Complicating things are the fact the empty lands’ inhabitants are mistrustful of strangers and that Thomas himself has a past he wants to expiate.

Again, like The Incomer, this is a book in which nothing much happens, especially if you consider the music element of the story as more or less incidental. But quiet lives led quietly are worthy of record. When Thomas and Naomi return to their starting point they have both found things out about themselves and each other, of the importance of relationships and mutual benefit.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

The Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre

theexilewaitingThe Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre (1975)
Review by Victoria Snelling

I read The Exile Waiting by Vonda McIntyre some while ago and I enjoyed it a lot. The story has stuck with me. Humanity has long since spread into the stars except for a remnant population on Earth. The surface of Earth is storm-torn and unlivable and a small city scrabbles a poor living underground. Mischa is a thief, struggling to steal enough to satisfy her uncle who controls her through torturing her telepathic, mentally disabled sister. It’s doubly hard once her brother is lost to the drugs he uses to block out their sister’s psychic cries.

But Mischa has a plan to get off Earth. It involves the ship that arrives carrying genetically modified twins set on removing the ruler of Center and establishing their own power base there. One of the twins finds himself separating from the other, thinking independently, disagreeing, wanting something else. This independence sets brother against brother.

This is a beautifully realised world with layers and depth. I particularly enjoyed the twins, their relationship and their eventual separation. The exquisite pain of growth is well captured. The loss of what one had, the gradual acceptance that what was can never be again, the pain of growing towards something unknown. I loved the hard choices Mischa has to make.

I’m growing to be a fan of Vonda McIntyre.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold

mirror_danceMirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold (1994)
Review by Megan AM

With clones and diplomatic intrigue muddling up the Vorkosigan lifestyle, yet again, another adventure takes Miles out of the picture. Instead of our normal Vorkosigan friends, Mirror Dance offers a unique point-of-view, that of an intruder, giving fans, and detractors, a new perspective on this wealthy Barrayaran family

A series with character, as in strictly character driven, with things happening and things to be accomplished, Mirror Dance belongs somewhere in the early middle of this lengthy series that revolves around members of the same noble family. The Vorkosigan series reminds me of a dollhouse where the fashionable and wealthy characters leave their mansions each day, and drive their expensive, powerful cars (or starships), to run errands and have adventures. Maybe someone gets kidnapped, or deals with a bad guy, or sinks into quicksand… I’m pretty sure I played out these plots with my dolls as a little girl. (Though my dolls did more dressing up than hijacking of rocket ships, but they were pretty adventurous.)

In this episode, Miles’ doppelgänger, Mark, the genetic clone brother who was originally created for the infiltration and destruction of the Vorkosigan family, tricks Miles’ mercenaries into aiding in the rescue of other clones held on Jackson’s Whole. Miles finds out, but before he can put a stop to the violent conflict that follows, he is killed by a grenade. His body is cryogenically frozen for future medical attention, but then lost in space in the chaos of battle. Despite this, the Vorkosigans accept Mark into their home, but Mark feels responsible for the loss of his hated clone/brother/enemy, and his investigative actions result in his own imprisonment and subsequent torture.

But, like the adventures of Barbie and Ken, it’s always going to work out for Miles and his lot, and there is always the same root, the same hearth, the same heart to which they return. But unlike Barbie and Ken, the Vorkosigan charisma and fortitude might be entertaining and inspiring enough to distract from the aristocratic glaze of this elite Barrayaran family.

Mirror Dance is the most enjoyable of the four to five Vorkosigans I’ve read so far. It may be that I am finally indoctrinated into the series, though I suspect Mark’s outsider perspective has more to do with it. (And, let’s get real, a 100% audio run might have helped, too.) Like me, Mark is critical of this family of rich privilege, (although he acclimates quickly enough), and his observations better match my own suspicion of this self-righteous-but-not-enough-to-really-upset-the-status-quo family. Is Mark’s POV just a byproduct of his circumstance, or a hint of Bujold’s self-awareness?

Although Mark (and I) might be critical of this family, it’s clear that fans of this series find comfort in this kind of steadiness. But don’t get too comfortable, comfort readers. Mark’s creation story, which might be covered at more length in a different installment, involves manipulation, programming, torture, and rape. (The thing is, it seems like every Vorkosigan character of importance is raped, or very close to it. It is a primary factor for plot and/or character development in this series. Personality hinges, or perhaps, unhinges, on rape, particularly among the male characters.)

To demonstrate Mark’s consequential developmental and intimacy disorders, Bujold has him sexually assault a ten-year-old clone girl with breast implants, with no consequence because, after all, she’s just a clone. (Not Bujold’s thinking, of course, but a demonstration of the inhumanity of this future space culture – although we don’t really need such a drastic lesson since the narrative tells us as much because, in this series, so much is told.) During his imprisonment after Miles’ death and disappearance, Mark is raped, force fed, raped some more, manipulated to rape, maim, and kill. He copes by splitting his psyche into separate personalities who enjoy each vice: Grunt, Gorge, Howl, Killer. These are not graphic scenes, merely hinted at, but unpleasant all the same. But Mark survives, the bad guys are defeated, and Mark goes home and shakes it off like a wet dog.

This is common with the Vorkosigans. While there is struggle, change, even development, there is no depth, no transformation, no real threat. Change happens, sometimes hard change (loss, dementia, aging, death), but character revolution won’t. I’ve seen these folks at the beginning and at their most recent, and they are always recognizable, familiar – the most likely explanation for this series’ oft-criticized success. Readers come to this series to embrace their old friends, and fill in narrative gaps.

Series like this are, in essence, just like a dollhouse: the flexible, resilient framework combined with foundational permanence, the character stability, the episodic nature, and the à la carte entry points (you can sample the series at any point, a revolving narrative, whereas space opera tends to recommend strict linearity), not to mention the family focus, the extravagant wealth, and the relative ease for characters (even in the face of tragedy), brings to mind this analogy, and I think that’s why this series appeals to so many fans. Once you know the characters and the open floor plan, you can walk up to this structure at any time, get out the characters, and start a new adventure. Both a strength and a weakness, depending on what kind of reader you are.

For a series reader wanting comfort, welcome home.

For me, it just isn’t my bag, and a few other nagging things don’t help. The torture and tragedy never grip me. I wince at the words, but they form sentences, not experiences. Also, Bujold likes to rely on old clichés (“with friends like these” and “gut feeling like a bad case of indigestion” are two that come to mind) rather than delight us with fresh writerly quips. And, as usual, “bemused”, gets abused, both in rate of use and definitional misuse. (I understand “bemused” as “baffled and confused”, though she tends to use it as “slightly amused”, though it’s sometimes difficult to choose through context clues, which is why it is so frustrating because the difference between the two can screw with a character’s point-of-view. Boo.)

But what I like, and what I think really captures the fans, is the motivational-spoiler effect that happens when publication order does not synchronize with narrative order. Lots of foreshadowing, lots of aft-shadowing – it fosters curiosity about the future and past of these characters, no matter what order you decide to read. And for a series that is strictly character driven, that seems to be the key.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.