Dream Dancer, Janet Morris

dream_dancerDream Dancer, Janet Morris (1980)
Review by Ian Sales

I first stumbled across the middle book of Morris’s Kerrion Consortium trilogy, Cruiser Dreams, some time during the mid-1980s, and liked it enough to track down over the years the first and third books, Dream Dancer and Earth Dreams. Despite all that, it’s taken me until 2016 to actually get around to reading them… And now I’m wondering what I saw in Cruiser Dreams, because Dream Dancer is one of the worst-written books I’ve ever read. I find it hard to believe it was even edited.

The novel opens in Borlen’s town, New York, in 2248, on what appears to be a post-apocalyptic Earth, which is also a backwater property in a galactic polity of some sort. Three “enchanters” ride into town, and enter Bolen’s inn, clearly in search of “adventure”. But the situation turns nasty almost straightaway, two of the enchanters are killed, and the third only survives because he’s led out the back-entrance by the orphan girl who works as a skivvy at the inn. In return for saving him, she demands he take her with him when he leaves Earth – enchanters, it seems, are high-tech visitors from other worlds of the Consortium. The man, who introduces himself as Marada Kerrion, second son of the consul-general of the Consortium. Well, first son now, since one of the two enchanters left dead in Bolen’s inn was his older brother; the other was Marada’s betrothed. Not that Marada seems especially bothered by their deaths. The young girl is Shebat, fifteen years old, who has been used and abused by the regulars of the inn for years. Not that she seems especially traumatised by her experiences.

Marada adopts Shebat to protect her once the two reach Kerrion space – and it’s just as well he did, as Parma Alexander Kerrion, the consul-general, is not predisposed to take in a waif and stray from a primitive world, especially after losing his heir and a planned merger with the Labayas, a rival powerful family, by marrying off Marada to one of their daughters (she was other one who died on Earth). Morris introduces Parma to the reader while he is having a crap, leading to the line, “Parma got up from his defecatory throne” (p 39). As if that weren’t bad enough, Marris introduces Lorelei, the Kerrion “platform “(ie, space station) as follows:

“Above her head the sky rippled, a candent pewter pond. From glaucous downwarding curving hills around it shining villages like jasper berries seemed to hang suspended. Before her, a serpentine construction of shimmering glass and enchanted iron glimmering bright as silver crouched above the cinereous roadway” (p 19)

This isn’t “word salad” writing, it’s a complete abuse of vocabulary. It comes as no surprise that Morris later uses “irregardless” and thinks martial law is “marshal law”. The whole novel is like this.

It doesn’t help that the story is equally risible. Shebat grows up to be an absolute stunner – of course (although she’s only seventeem by the end of the novel). She also proves to have a natural aptitude for piloting, and as a dream dancer. And Parma has made her his heir, because Marada doesn’t want it and Parma doesn’t want the next eldest, Chaeron, to have it. Parma also gives Shebat her own ship, which she calls Marada, a state of the art cruiser. All starships in the Consortium are controlled by AIs in a sort of mind-meld with the pilot. Unfortunately, all this conflicts with the plans of the pilots’ guild, which has been conspiring for years to break the hold of the big families. So ‘Softa’ David Spry, top pilot of the guild and Parma’s private pilot, sort of kidnaps Shebat and hands her over to a dream dancer troupe in one of the low levels where the poor people and non-citizens live.

Dream dancing is illegal, and the pilots hope that Shebat will become so addicted to it, she stays disappeared. But, of course, Shebat proves so good at dream dancing she doesn’t even need the special equipment – and she produces a dream that is so threatening to the Kerrions that they clean out all the dream dancers – although not before Chaeron has rescued Shebat. And married her. (She’s still not quite seventeen, at this point.) Meanwhile, Marada has been married off to another Labaya daughter, but that turns out badly. In fact, everything starts to go wrong – and Shebat is bang in the middle of it.

Get over the fact all the characters are super-special at pretty much everything, and that unthinking acceptance of slavery and imposed poverty US science fiction seems so fond of depicting in its futures… then the biggest hurdle is the awful writing,such as,

“… when Selim Labaya had solicitously attended him on a walk through Shechem’s gardens, whose audacious expanse was full of flying things that shit whitely  on a man’s shoulder” (p 130)


“‘If you insist, prince of dalliance, pompous pederast,’ she snarled” (p 165)

It will be a while before I get round to rereading Cruiser Dreams. If ever.


Dawn, Octavia Butler

dawnDawn, Octavia Butler (1987)
Review by Simon Petrie

Octavia E Butler was an African-American SF writer who died in 2006, aged 58. Her fiction has won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and she was the first SF writer to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant for her writing. She wrote several well-regarded series of novels; Dawn is the first novel in what is variously called her ‘Xenogenesis’ or ‘Lilith’s Brood’ trilogy.

Dawn starts with the reawakening of Lilith Iyapo aboard an alien spacecraft in orbit beyond Earth’s Moon. Lilith is one of the few human survivors of a nuclear war which has devastated the Earth. Her captors / guardians / mentors are the Oankali, a three-gendered race of grotesquely tentacled humanoids. (It’s difficult, when reading the book, not to envisage the Oankali as looking like the Ood from Doctor Who.) Starved of human contact, and still grieving for a husband and son who were killed before the war which all-but-obliterated humanity, Lilith must conquer a deep-seated revulsion for Jdahya, the Oankali adult male who has been tasked with helping her acclimate to her circumstances. Once she has adjusted to Jdahya’s company (and his largely passive tutelage), she must learn to communicate with the less-patient, intermediate-gender Kahguyaht (one of Jdahya’s two spouses), then with the family’s adolescent child, Nikanj. With each of her teachers, Lilith strives (and fails) to argue for the necessity to accommodate the basic human needs for companionship, for freedom of movement, and even for information. The Oankali, it seems, are prepared to offer humanity’s remnants a form of salvation, a second chance at existence; but it is to be a second chance which is entirely on the Oankali’s terms. Humans will get to repopulate the Earth, if they agree to abide by the rules which the Oankali are laying down; but they will not get the Earth to themselves.

Dawn is an incredibly immersive view of a disorientingly alien culture: thinking through other books I’ve read in a somewhat similar vein, I think only Phillip Mann’s work (notably The Eye Of The Queen, a near-contemporary of Dawn, and this year’s The Disestablishment of Paradise) would come close in their ability to convey a detailed and convincing otherness. Stylistically, there are parallels with the writing of Ursula K Le Guin, most strongly The Left Hand of Darkness, with which there is a similarity not just in terms of tone but also of the exploration of alternative sexualities: where The Left Hand of Darkness has its each-way ‘kemmering’ of androgynous humanoids into briefly male and female counterparts, Dawn has its three-gendered aliens, with male, female and ‘ooloi’ genders, with the ooloi acting as a very hands-on intermediary between the more recognisable genders. Thematically, the work evokes comparison with Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End, with its superior aliens seeking to enlighten and to reshape humanity. I’d have to say that I found Butler’s view of future human evolution (or the foreshortened sketch of same on offer in Dawn) to be distinctly more palatable, largely as a result of the credibility and emotional depth of Lilith’s portrayal, and the sophistication (superior, supremely foreign, fallible, and somewhat arrogant) of Butler’s saviour-colonialist aliens. Although other humans do eventually appear in Dawn — the book’s final quarter places Lilith in the role of instructor and leader for the group which will subsequently be transported down — the focus, throughout, is on Lilith’s attempts to make her own personal peace with an alien culture which, no matter how well-meaning, spells a form of doom for human civilisation as we would recognise it.

Does Dawn work as hard SF? I think it does; the science in question is predominantly biological, and is addressed through Butler’s efforts to construct a detailed and self-consistent description of the Oankali’s aptitude for genetic (and more broadly biological) manipulation. This exploration is a satisfying and (I think) necessary component of the tale Butler is telling: while the story’s force derives from Lilith’s doubts and persistence as she masters the various dilemmas with which she is faced, its weight accrues from the Oankali’s plausibility as disturbingly accomplished genetic tinkerers, whose motivation in helping to perpetuate a human presence on Earth is plainly not pure altruism.

Butler shies away from simple answers: ultimately, it’s not possible to say whether she’s on the side of humanity, of the aliens, or somewhere in between. (The same could be said, I think, for her exploration of gender politics and of colonialism.) She just observes, and invites us to make our own conclusions of the scenario which she has sketched out with such care in this book. It’s this ambivalence, this careful understatement, which makes Dawn such a compelling story.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

Promised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice

promised_landPromised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice (1998)
Review by Jack Deighton

After her mother’s death Delanna Milleflores returns to Keramos, the backwater planet of her birth (from where she was sent years ago to get a decent education) to resolve complications over the inheritance. She wishes to sell up but local laws are strict and do not allow this unless the seller has been in occupation for ten years. In addition her pet scarab Cleo falls foul of the quarantine regulations and she finds that a marriage arranged by her long-dead father between Delanna and Tarleton Tanner (known as Sonny,) the man from the neighbouring farm (on Keramos these are called lanzye) who has been running Milleflores lanzye all these years, became legal. At the space-port she encountered local Lothario, Jay Madog, whose attentions she is plagued by from then on.

The apparent urgency with which her Keramos lawyer, Maggie, says she must take up residence in Milleflores in order to comply with the planet’s inheritance laws, necessitating catching the morning train, is somewhat vitiated by the fact that the terminus is still five thousand miles from Milleflores and it takes weeks to get there. The length of the journey would have disqualified her. The delay of course gives the authors plenty of opportunity to describe Delanna’s lack of knowledge of local customs and conditions and her adaptations to them.

From the start, though, we know where this is going. Delanna’s journey from worldly-wise offworlder (or been-to as they are known on Keramos) to falling in love with her childhood home again – and with Sonny – her accommodations to the idiosyncracies of life on Keramos (including a world-wide radio news and gossiping network where her inadequacies are exposed and everybody’s business discussed mercilessly) has an obvious arc which the authors do not eschew. The traffic is not all one way. She is able to contribute some of her expensively learned been-to computer skills to finding the best routes through dangerous salt-flats.

Promised Land is a very Willis kind of story in which her signature narrative technique of delay by interruption, of not getting to the nub of a situation, which so marred To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear, is to the fore. At first I thought her co-author Felice had muted this trait but it becomes increasingly irritating as the book progresses. Another quirk is that the main structural building material on Keramos is tile. (Keramos, you see.). Add in a sub-plot about an over-officious vet, Doc Lyle, and his obsession with protecting the wild-life and livestock of Keramos from contamination, particularly the very rare birds called Royal Mandarins, an obsession which threatens to endanger Cleo, and the indigenous animals known as Fire Monkeys (fascinated by Delanna’s red hair) and the elements are present for all the ends to be tied up.

This review originially appearedon A Son of the Rock.


The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Megan AM

This 1975 Hugo Award winner is probably the most literary bit of SF I’ve read all year. I’ve never read Le Guin before, but Jo Walton’s Among Others referenced her quite a bit, and made me eager to try her out. I’m glad I did.

Le Guin’s writing is beautiful. Nearly every page, especially for the first half of the novel, contains brilliant observations about the human condition, written in delicate language usually reserved only for high literature. This isn’t sci-fi. This is Literature with a big “L”.

It’s Literature that happens to be about a brilliant alien physicist who lives on an anarchist planet that was settled 180 years prior. As he works to discover a unifying Theory of Time, he finds his ideas stifled by the customs and needs of his anarchist community. He opts to continue his work on a neighboring planet, the planet of origin of his people, where capitalism and militarism reign, and where his work becomes threatened by the possibility of state ownership. This is a story about the tyranny of society, regardless of its legal and political system (or lack thereof), and the strength of the individual in combating that tyranny.

The story is secondary to the backdrop, which is why the second half of the novel dragged. I was much more intrigued by the first half, during which the world-building and philosophizing took place. However, as the worlds of Annares and Urras developed, the story unfolded and I found myself less eager to continue reading. Despite that, it was a beautiful book, and I would recommend it to anyone. Regardless of its vintage publication date, the themes and problems in The Dispossessed are easily transferable to modern times, and it doesn’t read like cheesy ’60’s/’70’s SF. This is a thinking person’s SF novel. Get out your highlighter.

Some quotes:

“A scientist can pretend that his work isn’t himself, it’s merely the impersonal truth. An artist can’t hide behind the truth. He can’t hide anywhere.”

“Nothing said in words ever came out quite even. Things in words got twisted and ran together, instead of staying straight and fitting together.”

“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”

“Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal, The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.”


This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.