Rimrunners, CJ Cherryh

rimrunnersRimrunners, CJ Cherryh (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

Bet Yeager is a vagrant on Thule Station, a decrepit space station off the main trade routes between Union and Alliance territories. She marooned herself there after escaping from Pell Station aboard a freighter. Each day, she visits the station office, hoping for a new berth to ship out on. But none is forthcoming. When a drunk surprises her in a public toilet – she had been sleeping there – and attempts to rape her, she kills him. Desperate for somewhere to lie low, she moves in with a sympathetic barman, but he soon turns abusive. And when he pushes her too far, she kills him too. So it’s a good job a suitable ship then turns up at Thule Station, Loki, and despite Yeager’s lack of official credentials, her captain takes her on as a machinist.

Loki, however, is not a merchant, but a “spook”, a ship with overly-powerful engines which can lurk ahead of warships and gather intelligence or provide early warning. Which means the regime aboard is tough, perhaps even tougher than on a military ship. Yeager is assigned to an off-shift, where she tries to fit in. But she’s not very good at keeping her head down, especially in a ship where the command crew seems to treat everyone like slaves, and feuding cliques have formed among the lower ranks. Her first move, for instance, is to defend a fellow member of her shift, Ramey, known as “NG” for “No Good”, even though he is treated with contempt by most of those aboard.

Ramey’s reputation is a result of a crewmember he was working with dying in an accident and, although it wasn’t Ramey’s fault, he was blamed. But sticking up for Ramey makes Yeager enemies among the crew, resulting in several fraught encounters in the mess and bunk-space the shifts share. It doesn’t help that Loki‘s operations are secret, its crew kept in the dark, and there seems to be some sort of battle for influence going on between two of the ship’s senior officers.

Fortunately, Yeager is more than she seems. She may have been hired on as a machinist, and have some experience in the role, but she is actually a marine. She was left on Pell Station when Mazian’s fleet was forced to withdraw (events described in Downbelow Station (1981)). She’s been trying to return to her original ship, but Mazian’s warships are renegades and wanted by both Union and Alliance. The captain of Loki has a plan to protect his ship in a forthcoming clash between other forces, and it involves Thule Station. It also involves Yeager, once the captain learns who she really is – he has two sets of salvaged marine powered armour. He needs Yeager to get them working…

Rimrunners is a prime example of Cherryh’s sf. It does exactly what she is very good at; and it’s flaws are those which are characteristic of Cherryh’s fiction. Yeager is a well-drawn character, and if she’s perhaps overcompetent at times, it fits with the story. The narrative, as in much of Cherryh’s oeuvre, is only the tip of the iceberg that is the novel’s plot. The reader follows Yeager as she interacts with Loki‘s crew and tries to figure out what the ship is up to, but what is going on outside the ship, and in Union-Alliance space, only comes into focus as the book approaches its end. (And, yes, it is, in part, a continuation of the events from Downbelow Station.)

The whole set-up aboard Loki, however, never quite rings true. Cherryh does an excellent job of depicting the technology and engineering, and if it’s a little dated that’s hardly unexpected (the treatment of computers, for example). But to treat a crew of seasoned professionals like galley-slaves, and to hand out orders that come across as dictatorial whim like some interstellar Captain Bligh… Well, it’s a miracle Loki has lasted as long as it has. After all, galley-slaves were never given shore leave when a ship reached port – although events in Union and Alliance space seem bad enough that no one would willingly strand themselves at a station. There’s always the example of Yeager, as detailed in the opening chapters, so show the likely consequences of such a decision. Nevertheless, life aboard Loki comes across as far too selfish and cutthroat for a vessel whose survival depends on the smooth working of those on board her.

It often seems as though science fiction sacrifices common sense for drama, even if Rimrunners, or indeed Cherryh’s entire Union-Alliance body of work, is set in interstellar space several centuries from now (albeit without any sort of rigorous extrapolation). Wars between planetary systems seem no more implausible than wars between nations either side of a great ocean, although the ability to prosecute such a conflict is entirely dependent on the technology of transport. Certainly such wars were fought in human history with much cruder technology than that on display in any science fiction novel – although in terms of journey time, the distance was effectively the same. A polished and professional crew, working smoothly in unison, much as you would find on a modern-day US Navy warship, plainly isn’t dramatic enough. (Nor, of course, would it hire on a random stranger at some out-of-the-way port, but never mind.) It’s possible life aboard Loki was inspired by life aboard eighteenth-century warships, and there is ample documentation, and no end of fiction, depicting how brutal such a life was. But that was a consequence of the society of the time, and the opening chapters of Rimrunners plainly show an egalitarian, if somewhat libertarian, space-going society. (I will never understand why libertarianism has proven so popular in American science fiction: it’s probably the least plausible, and least sustainable, political system for colonising other planets and running an interstellar polity.)

One of the things science fiction has been doing since its earliest days, and it’s slapdash even at the best of times, is forcing contemporary sensibilities onto an historical model, and then painting it all with a science-fictional gloss and sticking on a few techno-baubles. True rigour in world-building is rare. Having said that, the sort of immersiveness which requires such levels of rigour is a relatively recent phenomenon, so it seems a little churlish to complain of its lack in a twenty-eight-year-old novel. Rimrunners is Cherryh on top form, displays her muscular prose to good effect, showcases her ability to draw good characters, and demonstrates her skill at playing shell games with her plots. If sometimes the world-building creaks at the seams, or feels a little dated, then that’s a minor quibble.

Advertisements

Primary Inversion, Catherine Asaro

primary-inversion-catherine-asaroPrimary Inversion, Catherine Asaro (1995)
Review by Simon Petrie

Catherine Asaro’s Wikipedia page lists a formidable range of accomplishments. She has a doctorate in chemical physics, is a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, and teaches chemistry, physics and maths at various levels. (Her science pedigree is impressive: she’s published papers with Alex Dalgarno, and her father appears to have had something to do with the dinosaurs’ extinction.) She’s also performed as a ballet and jazz dancer, has served as an artistic director for two dance companies, and has collaborated (both as a lyricist and as a performer) with the rock group Point Valid on a science fiction / music project. She’s a past president of SFWA, and the author of a large number of SF novels, novellas, and collections. (I stopped counting at around two dozen.) She’s had numerous award nominations and wins, including Nebula awards for her novel The Quantum Rose (2001) and her novella ‘The Space-Time Pool’ (2008). Much of her SF qualifies as hard SF, and some even has diagrams.

As it turns out, Primary Inversion, contains neither diagrams nor formulae. It’s Asaro’s first published novel, dating from 1995, and is one of a large number in her Saga of the Skolian Empire (although it doesn’t technically mark the beginning of the Saga, since some subsequently-published books deal with preceding events. The Wikipedia page has a helpful flow diagram, to assist with following the timeline).

At the start of Primary Inversion, Sauscony Valdoria (“Soz”) is on rec leave with her team – the combat-hardened Rex and Helda, and the new recruit Taas – on the Allied (neutral-zone) planet of Delos. Sauscony is a Jagernaut, an elite FTL fighter pilot equipped with all manner of biomechanical enhancements designed to allow her to control her spacecraft by thought. The Jagernaut corps, though small in number, are an essential component in the armoury of the Skolian Empire, an interstellar empire in a constant state of war with the much larger and ruthless Trader empire: the Jagernauts’ unique ability to communicate instantly across multiple-light-year distances, using a network created and maintained through psionics and quantum entanglement, is pretty much all that stands in the way of the Traders’ plans for Galactic domination. It’s an uneasy balance, one which has been maintained for generations, but, clearly, something’s going to give, sooner or later. After tangling with a Trader team on Delos, Soz and her team make an unwelcome discovery on Delos, leading them to suspect that “sooner” might well be on the cards. Specifically, they learn that Ur Qox, the arrogant and bloodthirsty Aristo emperor who heads the Traders’ ruling Highton caste, has a secret heir: the charismatic Jaibriol, who holds a secret of his own, one as likely to destroy him as it is to lead to the Skolian Empire’s downfall. Sauscony, no stranger to unpredictable and rapidly-developing situations, suddenly finds herself playing for very high stakes indeed.

The speculative component of Primary Inversion is substantial, and quite heady. Faster-than-light travel, telepathy, instantaneous communication, and quantum creation of matter/antimatter from the vacuum of interstellar space: as a combination, it threatens to become top-heavy, particularly viewed alongside a plot which merges elements of hard SF, mil-SF/space opera, dynastic fantasy, superhero/supervillain wish-fulfilment fiction, and romance. In places, I felt like some of the scaffolding was showing through (early on, there’s at least one out-and-out example of infodump-disguised-as-dialogue), and there were places, also, where I felt the interpersonal dynamics didn’t entirely ring true. But it should be remembered that this is Asaro’s first novel, and while there were some things which grated for me, there were also several strengths. The story makes good use of situational humour; the more extravagant science aspects are justified with plausible (and generally acceptably brief) explanatory paragraphs; there’s an astonishingly-choreographed near-lightspeed space battle; and there’s some genuinely moving emotional shading to several of the character interactions. (Against this, there are times when the book seems quite chimeric, with Soz on occasion displaying the kind of carelessness that sees people in horror movies walk along pitch-dark floorboard-creaking passageways while creepy music plays.) But if you can forgive the story some patchiness (and let’s face it, hard SF and romance is a difficult trick to pull off), there’s a lot to recommend Primary Inversion – and there’d be every reason to expect that Asaro’s later fiction manages to avoid most of the (minor) potholes suggested above. Plus, for all that a full character description of Soz (which I’m not offering here, because spoilers) would make her sound highly Mary-Sue-ish, she’s given sufficient depth to be genuinely engaging, and enough vulnerability and ambivalence to remain believable, despite her credentials. For that reason, I think I owe it to myself to check out some more of Asaro’s writing.

How would I assess Primary Inversion as hard SF, rather than simply as general SF? Hmm… I’m not completely comfortable with the psionic aspects of the story, which while necessary and integral to the plot didn’t always feel natural or consistent to me. In this respect, I sometimes found suspension of disbelief to be a struggle, and I suspect hard-SF purists (among whose number I do not count myself) would likely have greater problems with it. But Asaro always makes an effort to justify her extrapolations, and in that respect the story certainly plays fair by the rules of hard SF, in spirit at least. And her FTL gimmick is brilliantly imaginative – and followed through with a storyline which treats it as more than a gimmick, with some genuine speculation on the ramifications of such technology for travel, warfare, and civilisation. (I should note here, also, that Asaro has authored academic papers on such FTL possibilities.)

Overall? It’s a busy book, well-paced, keenly imagined… kaleiodoscopic at times. (Remember, it blends hard SF, romance, and themes from dynastic fantasy. ‘Kaleidoscopic’ pretty much goes with the territory.) If that sounds like it might be your cup of tea, then yes, it probably is.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

Cordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

cordelias_honourCordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
Review by Megan AM

I really wanted to love these two novels, just so I could identify with the legions of Lois McMaster Bujold fans who buoy her consistent status as the second-most nominated, and second-most winning, author of Hugo Best Novel Awards.

But, alas, I remain unimpressed. I’m sorry, Bujold fans. Once again, I am just not cool enough to fit in with the in-crowd.

Bujold advises Vorkosigan newbies to begin the series with Shards of Honor (1986) and Barrayar (1991), which is sometimes combined into the 1996 omnibus Cordelia’s Honor. This advice goes against publication order, but both novels center on Cordelia Naismith, the mother of the great Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of other books in Bujold’s series. Cordelia’s stories act as an introduction to the world of Barrayaran politics, and provide a non-spoilery background for the uninitiated.

Shards of Honor is the better of the two novels, at least at first. Best described as adventure-romance, it explains the circumstances behind the unlikely romance of independent off-worlder Cordelia and her future husband, military and political powerhouse Lord Aral Vorkosigan. Abandoned by a military coup, enemy captain Vorkosigan takes Cordelia as his hostage and they trek across an unfamiliar planet toward his hidden cache of resources, towing along Cordelia’s severely injured subordinate (ugh, this poor sod). Vorkosigan schemes his way back onto his ship, and Cordelia’s prisoner-like status evolves, causing Cordelia to question her loyalty to her own planet. Warring and scheming bring the two together again, and they fall in love!

The Good: It begins with an exciting and imaginative romp across an unexplored planet, which brings us flying, blood-sucking jellyfish, and six-legged scavenger beasts.

The Bad: It gets a little Twilighty in the second half when Cordy gets a bad case of Conduct Disorder and practically drowns her therapist, manipulates a naive newsman, and hijacks a postal rocket… just to get to the man she loves. Not only is this behavior obsessive and codependent (ie, bad for feminism), but it is inconsistent with the character’s established behavior.

The Ugly: A terribly uncomfortable, and seemingly unnecessary, group rape/torture attempt occurs somewhere in the middle of the book. (Shame on you, Bujold, for falling on this trite plot device.) In fact, it seems every major character in Shards of Honor and Barrayar has some dark, sexually abused past, as if that’s the only method Bujold knows to add depth to her characters.

Barrayar
In Barrayar, Cordelia and Aral are married, and Aral is named Regent to the child Emperor of Barrayar. Cordelia finds herself estranged from her surroundings, no longer a celebrated captain, and stuck as a bored and pregnant housewife on an unfriendly planet. She befriends some new characters, and dips her toe into the strange, unwritten customs of Barrayaran society. At the same time, Aral’s controversial appointment attracts violence, Cordelia’s pregnancy is threatened, and their relationship is tested by another coup.

The Good: Ummm, this half of the omnibus won the 1992 Hugo Award… somehow.

The Bad: The story’s structure hinges primarily on contrived, cliched scenes, such as going into labor in the middle of a street battle. Awkward, expository dialogue is used to explain the knotty political maneuverings on Barrayar.

The Ugly: Heroine Cordelia comes off as selfish and impetuous as she manipulates her staff to risk their jobs, their lives, and Vorkosigan’s attempts at peace, in order to rescue her unborn, high-risk fetus, while neglecting the status of other innocent hostages imprisoned in the same building.

The Unexplained: I can’t quite grasp Barrayaran technology. The Time of Isolation is over. They have rocket ships, they jump wormholes, they fight with pulse stunners. So why do they still behead criminals with axes? Shouldn’t they have lightsabers, or something?

Reading trumps TV and movie viewing because it affords us the luxury of exploring characters’ internal thoughts and motives, but that’s not the case with the Vorkosigan series. Bujold cheapens the reading experience by sacrificing perceptive, insightful narration for back-and-forth, expository dialogue. Shards of Honor and Barrayar is just a lot of standing around and talking, which might make a good television, but it robs the novel of any emotional and psychological depth.

Despite the many, many weaknesses of these two novels, both Shards of Honor and Barrayar have moments of exciting storytelling, and some readers may be able to overlook the lazy technique and selfish protagonist. This is best recommended for SF readers who lean politically Right, where Cordelia’s religious and pro-life philosophies can be appreciated.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs of a a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Ian Sales

The narrator, Mary, is a communications specialist on missions to visit planets inhabited by alien races. She uses her knowledge and skills – and, it is implied, some telepathic ability – to communuicate with the natives of planets previously unvisited. Memoirs of a Spacewoman recounts some of the missions the narrator embarked upon. And their consequences. It is a book clearly not written by an author steeped in science fiction, which lends the whole more of a fabulism air than a science-fictional one; but in contrast, it also covers areas not generally explored by actual genre writers.

The book is structured, more or less, as the reminscences of the narrator, often referencing later events, or commenting on the incidents being described. It does not really feel like a written memoir, as you’d expect from the title, as it’s far too chatty. And yet, although it has a sense of verbal narration to it, the prose is too clear and controlled to convince as speech. If anything, it makes the book a… friendly read, making it likeable even if other elements of the narrative might be hard to like.

There’s something very haphazard about the expeditions described by Mary, although the way her story-telling drifts from breathless to calm and considered from one page to the next probably makes the missions seem less organised than they actually were. (Although some of the events described were clearly the result of bad planning and/or bad leadership.) The aliens she meets are certainly inventive, and most definitely alien – there are no corrugated foreheads in Memoirs of a Spacewoman. Martians, however, are described as “in some ways so like ourselves”, but they communicate tactilely, even using their sex organs… a fact which makes human-Martian relations somewhat strained on expeditions… Among the aliens Mary meets are a race who are “distressingly like centipedes” and who live in transparent houses; a weird protplasmic blob which she has grafted onto her body; and, the mission which takes up the most of the book, a planet that is home to a race of caterpillar-like and butterfly-like aliens.

It’s these last aliens which Mitchison uses to illustrate the point at the heart of Memoirs of a Spacewoman. On first arriving on the planet, the expedition members find the caterpillars and determine they are sentient because of the patterns they make using their colourful droppings. Mary manages to communicate with the creatures, and they prove to be an unsophisticated race. Some time later, the caterpillars are attacked by butterfly-like aliens. The members of the expedition find this aggression baffling. (It doesn’t take them long, however, to discover that the caterpillars undergo metamorphosis to become the butterflies.) Mary manages to make herself understood by the butterflies, and learns that sometimes one of their number breaks out of its chrysalis with deformed wings. While the butterflies have lost all memory of their lives as caterpillars, they do know that they came from. And they blame the caterpillars’ habit of wallowing in stagnant bogs and making patterns with their droppings for causing the incomplete metamorphoses.

It’s hard not to read it all as an allegory for religious creeds and their concept of heaven. The caterpillars fear the butterflies, and yet they’re supposed to stop doing what comes naturally to them because the butterflies promise they will lives of joy after their metamorphosis – despite not presenting any evidence of this to the caterpillars. It’s not exact but the point is clear. And it’s reinforced by the rest of the book’s general message of peace and understanding.

Having said that, Memoirs of a Spacewoman is by no means a religious book, and presents its thesis in a form that is clearly science fiction – alien planets, telepathic communication – and was, in fact, first published by Gollancz, who put the phrase “her first science fiction novel” on the cover. Mitchison’s science fiction, however, owes more the British tradition from Lewis and Wyndham, than it does the US tradition which grew out of the pages of Amazing Stories. It lends the book, as noted earlier, a fabulist air, rather than scientific tale of derring-do the actual plot would normally suggest. But Mary’s breezy narration of events, and the almost child-like depiction of alien worlds, do not detract from the many serious points Mitchison makes.

Some of the attitudes in the book read a little dated, some are almost prescient. It’s an entertaining book, and a deal more thoughtful than its prose suggests. Mitchison went on to write two more science fiction novels – Solution Three (1975) and Not By Bread Alone (1983); but she wrote over forty novels, and around ninety books in total, between 1923 and her death in 1999 at the ripe old age of 101.