Heaven Chronicles, Joan D Vinge

heaven_chroniclesHeaven Chronicles, Joan D Vinge (1991)
Review by Simon Petrie

Joan D Vinge’s asteroid-colony book Heaven Chronicles is novel-length, but it’s not a single novel: instead it combines the works ‘Legacy’ (which I judge to be on the awkward cusp, in length, between a novella and a short novel) and the short(ish) novel ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’. To complicate matters slightly, ‘Legacy’ is itself a combination of two short novellas ‘Media Man’ and ‘Fool’s Gold’. Two of the three component stories (‘Media Man’ and ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’) first appeared in Analog magazine, respectively in 1976 and 1978; ‘Fool’s Gold’ was first published in Galileo magazine in 1980. The Outcasts of Heaven Belt has also all been published separately as a paperback. Additionally, Vinge has apparently revised all of this material, in a book entitled Heaven Belt which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet seen release.

The tales within Heaven Chronicles all concern the unfolding, and downward-spiralling, history of the colonised asteroid belt orbiting the star Heaven, in a system rich in planetoidal resources but lacking any habitable planets. The two stories comprising ‘Legacy’ explore the adventures of prospector-turned-media-reporter Chaim Dartagnan and pilot Mythili Fukinuki, who meet as participants in an ill-fated mission to rescue the wealthy occupant of a spacecraft marooned on the frozen, inhospitable Planet Two. ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ deals with the events that unfold following the arrival in Heaven system of Ranger, a well-resourced and technologically advanced starship piloted by Betha Torgussen who, after the ship comes under attack from an overzealous colony defence force, is one of only two survivors from an original complement of seven.

There’s a decidedly old-fashioned and pulpy feel to Heaven Chronicles. (I offer this as an attempt at classification rather than any implied criticism.) There’s a lot of argument, a lot of tension, some well-telegraphed action and a kind of rough simplicity to the characterisation, more so in the space-operatic ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ than in ‘Legacy’. The most obvious overarching characteristics of the stories are, however, an evidently thoroughgoing respect for the laws of physics and an interest in the exploration of gender politics. It’s probably relevant also to note the book’s thoroughgoing use of “metric time” – ie, seconds, kiloseconds, megaseconds, gigaseconds – rather than the “imperial time” (hours, days, years, etc) to which readers are presumably accustomed. The use of unconventional time units is initially disruptive – the conversion to familiar units has to be thought through, the first few times – but does, I think, encourage a degree of immersion in the story that might otherwise be absent.

I found ‘Legacy’ to be the more rewarding of the assembled components: while neither Dartagnan nor Fukinuki is a particularly compelling viewpoint character, the interaction between them is fascinating, and I appreciated the story’s ultimate (rather elliptical) denouement. ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ suffered slightly by comparison: the story seemed overlong and meandering in places. Overall, while I found the book enjoyable, I suspect its “bitsy-ness” might irk some readers, since, despite the presence of common characters, the three stories don’t really mesh together to form a complete whole. On the other hand, it would probably hold a strong appeal to devotees of 1950s and 1960s space-based SF.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

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The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin (1971)latheofheaven
Review by Megan AM

One of the most radical, yet unradical, ways of thinking.

Fundamentally paradoxical, yet still, fundamental.

Both the thesis and antithesis for change.

(One of most difficult concepts to teach to a classroom of 9th graders scratching themselves in their uniforms on that one day of the year when state-mandated teaching objectives cross into the territory of “Eastern Philosophy.”)

The Tao. The Way.

George Orr is the embodiment of The Way.

In The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr visits a therapist to deal with his lifelong problem of affecting reality with his dreams, what he calls “effective dreaming”. But when the landscape of reality starts changing, steady Orr is not sure he can trust the ambitious Dr. Haber with his powerful mind. Can a passive, compliant person like Orr take back control of his dreams, and reset the world?

The dualism of personality, symbolized in the style of a PKD novel.

But, really, a celebration of a particular personality.

At first, it may seem like a tale about two undesirable opposites, vain wit versus witless passivity. Le Guin pulls no punches with her quarry, the arrogant therapist Dr. Haber, who was “no being, only layers” [81], and who “was not… really sure that anyone else existed, and wanted to prove they did by helping them” (p 28)

(Ouch, says the woman who practices the same profession.)

But Le Guin also drops a few judgmental remarks on her protagonist Orr, who is “unaggressive, placid, milquetoast…” (p 7), and “meek, mild, stuttering” (p 42). George Orr is “like a block of wood not carved” (p 96).

But it turns out Le Guin likes blocks of wood. And so does Lao Tzu:

The way goes on forever nameless.
Uncut wood, nothing important,
yet nobody under heaven
dare try to carve it.

[“Sacred Power,” Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way by Ursula Le Guin, p. 48]

In the notes of her demystified translation of the Tao Te Ching (2009), Le Guin expounds on that “block of wood”:

Uncut wood – here likened to the human soul—the uncut, unearned, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial. (p 83)

Not an attack on the passive personality. This is the celebration, perhaps exploration, of one. A personification of The Tao.

There’s other good stuff, too. Le Guin, as always, is funny, with “enhuging” and “enreddenhuged” being only two examples of hilarious attempts at short and concise, Tao-like humor. She also addresses vainglorious ambition, the expert pretense of therapy, Orwellian dystopia, PKD-style wibble-wobble of dreaming, interracial relationships, the gray tedium of an ethnic melting pot, among other things.

But The Lathe of Heaven also arouses curiosity about Le Guin’s lifelong relationship to Taoism. A woman who tells it like it is, who dissects books with an unforgiving blade, who unleashes snappy comebacks at fellow authors, and who turns humble acceptance speeches into defiant criticism. Ursula Le Guin is no George Orr.

But The Lathe of Heaven is a lot like The Tao.

Simple. Short. Sweet. Funny.

Mystical and whole.

Like the stanzas of a Tao verse.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Heart of Stone, Denny DeMartino

heart_of_stoneHeart of Stone, Denny DeMartino (2001)
Review by Ian Sales

Philipa Cyprion used to be the emperor of Earth’s astrologer, but she fled the planet, and her job, after the murder of her husband, who had also worked for Emperor Theo. Now she’s been called back, because one of the emperor’s sons (has has over a hundred children) has been murdered, and the emperor thinks Cyprion, with her science of “the interplanetudes”, can solve the crime. To this end, he pairs her with a Terrapol detective called Artemis Hadrien – despite the name, he is male. Details of Prince Lundy’s murder suggest a link to the Waki’el, an alien race with which Emperor Theo is allied. In fact, he has such close ties to the Waki’el that he has a half-Waki’el daughter… And she becomes the next victim.

The Waki’el are humanoid, and either blue or cranberry-coloured (DeMartino seems confused as to what colour cranberries are), possess some sort of sternum ridges, and visible within the cage they form, an external heart. The female Waki’el also produce an addictive drug called “honey” in glands in their mouths when sexually aroused. Some of them produce an even more potent form of this substance, called “amber”. These last belong to a different caste to the ruling Waki’el, although they are born among them.

The plot of Heart of Stone is tied up in both the science of astrology as practiced by Cyprion and the life-cycle of the alien Waki’el. It’s all something to do with zero-point energy, or “creation energy”, and photons and the speed of light in this dimension and an alternate dimension where souls go when people die, and from where they are reincarnated… but the Waki’el apparently have a direct connection to that dimension. Except the current Waki’el leadership have been trying to take control of the zero-point energy, or something, by fitting “quantum pacemakers” to their external hearts, in order to extend their lives. They’ve been assisted in this by “balloon heads”, who are the super-intelligent but profoundly disabled results of humanity wanting “to see how a human fetus would form while stranded for nine months in the creation energy” (p 114). Also involved in the conspiracy is the emperor’s “executioner”, Cornelius Paul. The dead prince and princess were just collateral damage in the plot to seize control of the zero-point dimension and the Earth. Or something.

Cyprion and Hadrien learn all this during a visit to Arif, the Waki’el home world, in the Pleiades Star System (DeMartin probably means “star cluster”. They have travelled to Arif with Paul, although they are at pains to point out they are acting under the direct orders of Emperor Theo. Unfortunately, this seems to cut very little ice with the various people Cyprion and Hadrien interview… and their eventual stumbling onto the solution is more the result of Cyprion’s wild theorising on creation energy, the way in which the Waki’el interact with it, and the “tachyon pacemakers” designed and built by one of the Waki’el chief priests…

As if Heart of Stone‘s failure as a crime novel, and its frankly confusing science-fictional world-building, weren’t enough… DeMartino chose to make Cyprion British, and the Britishisms she uses throughout the novel are all… wrong. I can’t even tell if it’s done as a joke, they’re so completely tin-eared:

“… If I get the chance, I’m going to give the little bramble bunny a piece of me mind.”
“A piece of me mind?”
“And that’s another thing. Don’t go braying about me accent. I’m from East London. Get used to it.” (p 6)

Rhyming slang is used quite often in dialogue – and it’s often wrong, or a phrase you very rarely hear:

“… So, tell me. Which dustbin lids were they?”
“Dustbin lids?”
“Dustbin lids – kids,” I said. (p 11)

“Have you ever seen so many bobbies in one place, going about their trade like it weren’t nothing?”
Bobbies was short for Bob Hope which rhymed with dope. (p 138)

Some other British terms are mis-used – a “johnnie”, for example, is not a toilet…

“… so I hid in the johnnie for a while…” (p 19)

… “wank” is certainly not

I didn’t distract him by replying. It wasn’t so much because I didn’t want him wanking Hadrien but more because my brain had swerved into overdrive like a Rolls-Royce driven by a spoiled princess. (p 133)

I smelled his musky odor. It threatened to make me wank, but I held in the nausea, sitting back quickly. (p 161)

Some more mangled Britishisms – I suspect “tiddlywink” is supposed to be drink…

I polished off the rest of my tiddlywink before standing up (p 163)

… but the phrase is definitely “bread and butter”…

… no astrologer worth his bread and jam would say (p 175)

… and it’s “birthday suit”, but not “pony trap”…

“How dare you invade me privacy? I’m in me friggin’ fancy suit … if you ever come into me space uninvited again, I’ll rip off your Tommy Rollocks at the root and stuff them up your pony trap (p 177)

And even verbs get misused – Hadrien will have been grassed up… and…

I had a feeling that Hadrien had been grassed by one of the boys at Terrapol. (p 76)

I’d say Cornelius Paul is crapped up in the brain (p 188)

“Brahms and Liszt” means drunk…

“Are you telling us that Zebrim Hast has fed us a load of Brahms and Liszt?” (p 190)

And “septic tank” is rhyming slang for Yank, not the reverse…

” … it stinks like an overflowing yank in here,” I muttered (p 202)

As for the rules of cricket…

… and we found ourselves offside at the cricket match (p 205)

Philipa Cyprion is without a doubt the most unconvicing British character I have ever read in a book, and that’s in a story which itself doesn’t convince, set on a late twenty-third century Earth which doesn’t convince, and in prose in which all the cultural references are mid- to late-twentieth century, like Elvis Presley and Adolf Hitler…

A sequel to Heart of Stone, titled Wayward Moon, appeared in the same year as the first book. DeMartino had previously published a near-future urban fantasy quintet under her real name, Denise Vitola.