Happy Holidays

SF Mistressworks hopes you all had a merry celebration of your choice last weekend, and will have a happy New Year this coming weekend. Let’s hope 2017 doesn’t turn out to be as bad a year as 2016 is promising it will be.


SF Mistressworks will continue to post a review a week of science fiction novels, collections or anthologies by women writers, published before 2001, for as long as we have reviews to publish. If you’d like to volunteer some reviews, email us at sfmistressworks(at)gmail(dot)com.


Two That Came True, Judith Moffett

two_that_came_trueTwo That Came True, Judith Moffett (1991)
Review by Kev McVeigh

Ignore the odd, misleading, title. This slim collection, originally part of the Pulphouse Publishing’s Author’s Choice series and now available from Gollancz SF Gateway as an ebook, consists of two novelettes from the early stages of Judith Moffett’s SF writing career. ‘Surviving’ (1986) won the inaugural Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ from 1989 made various Best of the Year lists and anthologies. Although quite different stories they sit well together and anyone familiar with Moffett’s novels will recognise much here. ‘Surviving’ was Moffett’s first published SF but she was already an established poet with two acclaimed collections on her cv.

‘Surviving’ is a contemporary take on Tarzan. A young woman, Sally, raised by apes after a plane crash is rehabilitated into society. The narrator, Janet, is a psychologist fascinated by the “chimp child”, and author of a book about Sally. They finally meet when Sally is appointed at Janet’s university, but Sally repeatedly rebuffs Janet’s overtures, not just because of “that book”, but because of her refusal ultimately to truly integrate socially.

By chance, Janet discovers Sally’s secret escape from the university, roaming ape-like, naked, at high level in the trees. After some fighting, to gain the younger woman’s trust Janet joins in and a rapprochement of sorts develops into a stronger (and later, sexual) relationship. Stronger at least in Janet’s perspective, that is.

As Janet narrates ‘Surviving’ from eighteen years later, and after Sally disappears again, she reluctantly acknowledges her own agenda but fails to see where she went wrong. She pursues Sally with intent to be the one who truly socialises the returnee. Even as she submits to Sally in training and relationship rules, Janet has a strong vision of herself as saviour.

Attempting to avoid spoilers, any reader familiar with Moffett’s Holy Ground trilogy will see the same internal moral debates here. The ongoing battle between selfish human urges and our need to engage with the natural world works in a way Kim Stanley Robinson fans might find interesting. Moffett shares with Robinson a passion for the environment, and a willingness to debate issues through her characters (mostly) without preaching.

The other significant aspect to Moffett’s oeuvre is the consistent, open and diverse range of sexuality she covers. (See the controversial ‘Tiny Tango’ for instance, possibly the earliest heterosexual HIV+ protagonist in SFF.) The other is rarely judged as other in her work. The relationship between Sally and Janet develops quite naturally, out of Sally’s comfort masturbation. Janet is hesitant and awkward, but this is her discomfort not the author or reader’s. Sally reached puberty with the apes, and Moffett explores this unflinchingly.

The ending of ‘Surviving’ may be slightly too contrived in terms of personal redemption, but the passage there is a fascinating, provocative look at ego, social structure and discomfort.

‘Not Without Honor’ is a superficially very different story. I glibly described it on first reading as a “First Contact collaboration between Kim Stanley Robinson and Howard Waldrop”. Spoiler alert: it also predates Galaxy Quest by a decade, though it isn’t as funny.

A small, near self-sufficient Martian colony is approaching the finishing stage of a biosphere project when a peculiar signal is received from space. Only one person recognises it. Sixty-eight-year-old Pat identifies ‘The Mousketeers Hymn’ from Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club TV show.

It seems that the aliens have come to find Mickey Mouse Club host Jimmie Dodd for help with their own troubled youngsters, only to be dismayed to learn that he’s long dead.

The colonists, whilst bemused by the scenario, are united in wanting a peaceful resolution. NASA meanwhile sends a provocative ‘rescue’ mission. (The driver of Moffett’s debut novel Pennterra is similar.) Pat’s deep familiarity with Jimmie and the show foregrounds her in the alien contacts and discussion..

This is where ‘Not Without Honor’ fits alongside ‘Surviving’ in its discussion of human power relationships, parenting, and parental needs. For Pat and many others, Jimmie Dodd was a proxy parent providing moral guidance, developing independence, and support. Pat questions her memory, wonders if this is a nostalgia-tinted view, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The colonists get to see old episodes of Mickey Mouse Club but only Pat sees it childlike, and sees its depths. She explains and encourages with mixed results, and a resolution is achieved, for the colony and personally for Pat.

‘Not Without Honor’ isn’t as good a story as ‘Surviving’ perhaps because it romanticises a little of a past that the characters don’t quite relate to. There’s a hard edge to ‘Surviving’ despite the redemptive ending, that ‘Not Without Honor’ almost makes twee. There’s a curious non-sex scene, for instance, that doesn’t go against the author’s sexual worldview, but is quickly passed over where other stories apply challenging emphasis and rigor. That’s not to dismiss it as a poor story, Moffett set very high standards in ‘Surviving’ so ‘Not Without Honor’ inevitably suffers in comparison. As always Judith Moffett asks tricky questions without easy answers.

Reading Letters To Tiptree (the critical volume edited by Alexandra Pierce & Alisa Krasnostein last year) I learned that one of the last tasks Alice Sheldon completed was a reader’s report on Judith Moffett’s manuscript for Pennterra . There’s certainly elements in both these stories I suspect she’d have been interested in, issues of sexuality, and power role playing in particular. Tiptree, of course, never shied from awkward questions either.

Both stories in Two That Came True come with lengthy, informative afterwords, including selections of Moffett’s poetry. She was a poet long before turning to fiction. These pieces cast light on much of Moffett’s oeuvre. The afterword to ‘Surviving’ is perhaps a perfect, precise explanation of several key elements of all her work. It is as though her first SF story defines everything that followed. Certainly themes in both stories match moments of poetry and autobiographical elements from Moffett’s lifestyle, her life and philosophy and the clues here are explicitly delivered.

It is no secret that I believe Judith Moffett to be deeply underrated as an SF writer. ‘Surviving’ should convince you on its own, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ is also an enjoyable, thoughtful and thought provoking story. Together they make Two That Came True a notable short collection, and a good thematic introduction to the SF of Judith Moffett.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.

Cyteen, CJ Cherryh

cyteenCyteen, CJ Cherryh (1988)
Review by Simon Petrie

C J Cherryh (the terminal ‘h’ is in fact pseudonymous, and also silent) is an American SF / fantasy writer with over sixty novels to her credit. Her awards include the John W Campbell Award, three Hugos, and a Locus (the subject of this review, Cyteen, accounts for the Locus and one of the Hugos); she also has an asteroid, 77185 Cherryh, named in her honour.

Ariane Emory is the Councillor for the Bureau of Science, one of the nine supreme political figures in the multiple-world Union; Ariane (‘Ari’) is also inextricably connected with Reseune, the dominant genetic-industrial research centre on the planet of Cyteen that is the centre of Union government. At the start of Cyteen, Ari – a sharp-as-nails centenarian, herself gifted in genetic research, and a persistently shrewd operator – has made an enemy in Jordan Warrick, a rival researcher at Reseune who has become concerned that Emory has been seeking to appropriate his research efforts for her own ends, a situation which is not helped when Ari initiates an ill-judged and psychologically-damaging dalliance with Warrick’s seventeen-year-old ‘son’ Justin (who is in fact Warrick senior’s personal replicant, or clone). Jordan has been agitating to be reassigned elsewhere, beyond the influence of Ariane Emory; as a result of the events precipitated by the revelation of Ari’s interference with Justin, Jordan gets his wish, but at terrible cost to himself and to a good many other people within Reseune. The majority of the book occupies itself with Ari and Justin striving to come to terms with who they are, and to understand the scope and the limitations of their abilities… as well as to figure out just where they stand in relation to one another.

(I am well aware that the capsule description of the book’s outline above leaves out a hell of a lot that is important, and that’s deliberate. I have a policy of treating as ‘fair game’ for disclosure in a review any plot point which is revealed less than a third of the way through the book; I’m breaking that rule with this review, because I think there are events within the book, even within the first third, that will have more impact if they’re not given away here.)

Cyteen is a massive book: the edition I read weighs in at 680 pages, and it’s fairly densely-spaced text. It would not surprise me to learn it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000 words. I’m not a devotee of large novels, and I have to say I approached Cyteen with no little trepidation on this score. I finished the first novella-length chapter still without a clear idea of what I was dealing with: there is, I think it’s safe to say, a lot going on, and Cherryh, like Ari, is fully capable of throwing half a dozen seemingly-disparate things at you at once. By the end of the second chapter, though, I was hooked.

One of my deficiencies, I think (at least I have certain friends who tell me it is a deficiency) is that I seek to explain through comparison, which means that my natural inclination when looking to give an insight into the kind of book that is Cyteen is to say that it reads somewhat like a cross between Asimov’s Foundation series and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. By which I mean that it combines something of the kind of interstellar-empire-politics that fuels Asimov’s work with the keenly attuned social awareness and personal depth that typifies Le Guin’s writing; and yet, though this comparison might be of some use (it does, I think, have some validity), it might also mislead. A less direct but more pertinent comparison, by virtue of the book’s monolithic claustrophobia (it’s set, almost exclusively, within the one large building), its attention to detail, its focus on generational and dynastic struggle, intrigue, and Machiavellian manoeuvering, might be made with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books: although where Peake’s concern is to capture, in words, the images needed for the reader to envision the story in as much detail as possible, Cherryh’s focus is on the thought processes, and she is remarkably good at laying bare the motivations that lead people into (and out of) various predicaments. The book hits high marks as a keenly-focused psychological novel.

It also works as first-rate science fiction, with an obvious focus on genetic research, cloning, and the sticking points of the nature versus nurture argument. (‘Soft’ science does not preclude ‘hard’ science fiction, and I would cite Cyteen as a case in point in this regard.) I found the book’s scientific content to be very well-drawn and overall highly credible; and its sense of both (a) the sometimes-glacial pace of scientific research (with innumerable dead ends and blind alleys, and progress that might, on occasion, be measured in decades) and (b) the overwhelming bitterness of academic bureaucracy definitely heighten its plausibility. (And I believe that I can see, in Cherryh’s extrapolated political system, having power over billions of people across scores of worlds, what is effectively a hyperelephantiased form of a typically dysfunctional University council).

There are probably some key examples of ‘future tech’ that I should mention, since they are central to the book’s evolution. The book makes the distinction between ‘born men’ (citizens, those conceived and born in the usual way, with chance playing a considerable part in their genotype) and ‘azis’ (with a precisely defined genotype, vat-grown, born into servitude and designed to perform particular functions within society, but able to attain citizenship under certain conditions). There is also a form of ‘automated learning’ involving ‘tape’, which is central to azi programming and which is also, on occasion, used on citizens. Described thus, these concepts probably sound dehumanising; but placed in the context of Cherryh’s imagined universe, with safeguards and oversight, they work. It is a society which is sympathetically visualised, and surprisingly immersive.

Ultimately, I suppose the focus of Cyteen is that of power versus vulnerability (and the opportunity for trust), and of nature versus nurture. There’s much made of the fact that Justin, Jordan’s clone, has a different personality, because of differences in his upbringing. And it’s fair to say, also, that Ari is not the same person at the end of the book as she was at the beginning…

I could say more, but I won’t. Other than that I found Cyteen to be a highly rewarding, intelligent, and deeply moving piece of SF.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Victoria Snelling

This was an interesting read from a style perspective. It was published in 1974 and feels even more dated than that. Partly it’s because the book looks at cloning technology and its physical and psychological effects and much of the thinking has moved on a lot since. That aside, I think the main thing creating the archaic feel was the use of omniscient point of view.

I can’t remember the last time I read something where the narrative was so far removed from an individual character’s POV. The advantage to this is that it keeps a story that unfolds over several generations to a manageable length. The book is relatively short at approx. 75,000 words. It also keeps the focus on the intellectual ideas behind the book – what happens when people only reproduce by cloning – and allows the author to present several sides of the debates.

The downside is that characterisation suffers. The reader never really gets in the head of the characters. On the one hand, the clones are presented to the reader as not quite human and distant POV gets in the way of identifying with them. There are two cloned characters, Molly and Mark, that we do get a bit closer to in the second half of the book and they are presented as being more human. I wonder if this was deliberate in order to emphasise that the clones are not like us. Which might have worked if the fully human characters in the first part of the book were more fully drawn. In the end I think that Molly and Mark are the most developed because they get the most POV time.

In this book I really noticed that the dialogue was used to explore the intellectual concepts of the book rather than as a characterisation tool.

It’s been a long time since I read a sci-fi novel in which the story was so clearly subordinate to the idea. I enjoyed it, but this one’s for the purists.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.