Bluesong, Sydney J Van Scyoc

bluesongBluesong, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1983)
Review by Ian Sales

This is the second book in Van Scyoc’s Daughter of the Sunstone’s trilogy. It takes place on the same world as the previous book, Darkchild, a planet called Brakrath, and even references the people and plot of that novel. It also further develops the trilogy’s overall story-arc.

Keva lives among the fish-people but she is becoming increasingly convinced she is not of the fisher-people. She does not resemble them, and she has dreams that are plainly of places she has never visited. Eventually her mother confesses that a man rode through her village and left Keva, who was ill, to recover. But Keva’s mother left that village and moved to another, so she would never have to give up Keva. Who is now determined to find her father. So she runs away.

Keva is, of course, a barohna’s daughter, the child of one of the women who use the power of the sunstone to keep the valleys they each rule warm and hospitable. More than that, her father is a Rauth-image, a clone of a long-lost explorer, which are used by a space-based civilisation as covert recording devices, which gather information later sold to organisations who plan to exploit the worlds on which they’re used. This plan didn’t work in Brakrath, however, when barohna’s daughter Khira broke the programming of one Rauth-image – as recounted in Darkchild.

Keva finds herself in Brahrath’s desert region, where her father, Jhaviir, a Rauth-image (now adult), has left his barohna partner and is attempting to unite the warring clans of the region. He has created a settlement and issued an open invitation to any member of the clans. But a settled way of life, despite the advantages Jhavirr brings, is anathema to the nomadic warring clans, and Jhaviir’s people are continually raided. When Keva arrives, and begins manifesting her barohna powers, she uses them to assist her father and destroy the attacking clans.

It’s tempting to think Van Scyoc was riffing off Frank Herbert’s Dune with the setting of Bluesong, but The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – likely also an inspiration for Herbert – seems a closer match. The desert clans are fierce and fixed in their ways. And even though some of them unite to attack Jhaviir’s settlement, and are roundly defeated by Keva and her powers, the alliance is only intended to last as long as the battle. It does tend to make the desert clans somewhat of a caricature – which is not helped by the behaviour of those on Keva’s side – which is hardly a failing unique to Van Scyoc, and does at least give the setting a heightened “colour”.

For example, Keva is accompanied by a young man for much of her time in the desert, and he is a typical product of his society – an arrogant braggart, ignorant of everything but his culture, disparaging of other clans while begrudgingly acknowledging their martial prowess… But his heart is in the right place, and he soon comes to see the error of his ways. The fact Keva proves so powerful no doubt helps…

While searching for her father, Keva encountered Danior, the son of a barohna and a Rauth-image, and he accompanied her on her quest, even into the desert. Danior has been pl;agued by dreams of a swathe of silk that sang in an unknown tongue, on a world that is not Brakrath. It’s an artefact of his origin as the son of a Rauth-image, something one of them has witnessed, and Danior thinks it is a clue to the location of the lost explorer Rauth. It also provides the title of the novel.

This trilogy after two books is shaping up to be solid heartland science fiction. Van Scyoc was always good at depicting alien societies convincingly, and especially good at providing a rationale for why they were the way they are. Working over three books instead of just a standalone novel, however, she chosen not to deepen her exploration of Brakrath, although Bluesong does introduce the desert clans, but use the additional length to bracket her three stories with a single story-arc, related to the mystery of Rauth.

Second books in trilogies are generally acknowledged to be the least satisfactory of the three. When stories are stretched across three novels, the second novel generally sees the author getting everything into place for the resolution in the final book. Van Scyoc has neatly avoided this trap with her Daughters of the Sunstone trilogy, because it’s not really a trilogy. It’s three standalone novels, which share a setting and some characters, but also include some hints and clues to a background plot which develops over the three books. It’s an effective technique. The individual books work well enough on their own, although the trilogy story arc does add value.

Van Scyoc’s career may have characterised her as mid-list, but she always struck me as better than her mid-list contemporaries. She was neither prolific enough, nor successful with awards, and so seems mostly forgotten these days. Which is a shame. As is always the case, lesser writers prospered. Her books can still be found, although she has had nothing new published since the early 1990s. But they’re definitely worth reading.

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The Two of Them, Joanna Russ

two_of_themThe Two of Them, Joanna Russ (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

Irene (apparently pronounced I-ree-nee “in the British way”, which, er, isn’t true) was taken from 1950s USA to a parallel universe where humanity has spread out into the galaxy and settled many planets – and many other universes. Her rescuer is an agent of the Trans-Temporal Authority called Ernst Neumann. The name is obviously a pseudonym, perhaps indicating that Ernst hails from a similar background. He chose Irene because she did not fit in her milieu, too headstrong, too tomboyish, too “masculine”. And so he took her away with him. And now the two of them are partners, and lovers, sent on missions to various planets.

The Two of Them opens with Irene and Ernst on the world of Ka’abah – or rather, inside the world of Ka’abah, as the inhabitants live and work in tunnels beneath the inhospitable surface. They are also Muslims. Well, caricatures of Muslims. The women have the social and legal standing of chattel, are kept in purdah, and are apparently so content, and indeed complicit, with their lot they spend all their time beautifying themselves and developing their “feminine personality”. A way of life to which Irene vehemently objects. And because she is so unlike the women of Ka’abah, she is often mistaken for, and treated like, a man.

When Zubeydeh, the twelve-year-old daughter of their host, states she wants to be a poet, an occupation forbidden to women – in fact, all occupations are forbidden to women: Irene even has an encounter with a celebrated female impersonator who plays women on stage… When Zubeydeh is forbidden to become a poet, Irene decides to take the young girl with her when she and Ernst leave. She also wants to take Zubeydeh’s mother, who is almost permanently medicated, and Zubeydeh’s aunt, who was a poet, and is now an inmate of an asylum. But she can’t; and only Irene, Ernst and Zubeydeh depart Ka’abah.

Onboard the spaceship taking them from the world, Zubeydeh “adopts” a young boy who seems to have been abandoned by his parents or guardians. When Irene realises that Ernst plans to institutionalise her on their return to Center because of the events on Ka’abah, she runs away – and takes both Zubeydeh and the boy with her. Back to the world she left. Although now, of course, she is much changed:

You’re in a dress and and coat, although you’ve drawn the line at high heels; you’re wearing penny loafers with your nylons. (p 219)

The depiction of Islam in The Two of Them would only play today on Fox News. It is ignorant and Islamophobic. Russ may have been writing a feminist sf novel about the role of women, but she has cherrypicked common misconceptions about women in Islamic societies as part of her argument, and ignored everything else. This is not an Islamic society, it’s a made-up society based on anti-Islamic myths and clichés.

Russ’s worldbuilding is not helped by her decision to use her own latinisation for Arabic names – perhaps in an effort to render them more accurately. So علي, Ali, Russ spells through the novel as ‘Alee. Which just looks plain weird. Arabic words that are quite common in English, such as wazir, are also given variant spellings.

There’s a good story in The Two of Them, and the prose shows Russ at her best. Toward the end, Russ even begins breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the reader. The narrative also discusses alternative outcomes of Irene’s story, probabilistic worlds and events that would naturally arise out of the premise of the Trans-Temporal Authority. Her depiction of Irene, contrasting both her lack of agency in 1950s USA and her agency in the Trans-Temporal Authority, makes an effective argument. But the attempt to contrast it with Islam is a definite mis-step. The ending at least ties back to Irene’s origin, and not her adventures in the first half of the novel.

I don’t honestly know if The Two of Them is, well, salvageable. Strip out the depiction of Islam, and use a completely invented society, and the novel would be much stronger. And far less offensive. True, the book is forty years old. And written by an American, at a time when American sf was generally considered the only mode of science fiction… because so little sf from other languages was translated, and then often presented as a curiosity – cf 1970s anthologies of translated Soviet science fiction – and the most successful British sf was transatlantic in flavour… So, it’s no real surprise The Two of Them saw publication – although I am surprised The Women’s Press reprinted it eight years later.

And yet… According to Gwyneth Jones in her collection of critical essays, Imagination/Space, Russ’s The Two of Them was written as a deliberate response to Suzette Haden Elgin’s ‘For the Sake of Grace’, a Coyote Jones story, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in May 1969. In Elgin’s story, also set in a society based on Islam, poetry is the only route to fame and fortune available to women. Zubeydeh (Russ even uses the same names in her novel) remains determined to become a poet, even though failure caused her aunt to go “mad”. Russ was not responding to Elgin’s depiction of Islam, but to her central premise of the failure by women to reach male-imposed standards driving those women insane – which in turn harkens back to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. This, at least, explains Russ’s decision to create the society of Ka’abah – although it does not, I would argue, excuse the hash she made of it. Ka’abah was not necessary to continue the conversation begun by Gilman, although it was to directly address Elgin’s story.

I suppose it could be argued Russ’s invented society is peripheral to the main argument of The Two of Them. And it’s certainly true there’s more to the novel than just Ka’abah… It might also be argued the sections set on Ka’abah are intended to be humorous – it’s not a commentary on Islam, it’s certain elements of the religion exagerrated for comic, and/or parodic, effect. Except it doesn’t read funny, and it doesn’t feel funny. And that interpretation only really works if the reader is aware of the Elgin story (even if they have not read it, which I have not), which I was not until beginning this review.

The Two of Them does some things really well, things that were characteristically, er, Russ-ian (Russ-esque?). It’s a much cleverer book than it initially seems, and much more experimental narratively as it progresses. Irene is a great character (although I was less impressed by Ernst). But there’s that massive hurdle in the first third of the book to get over. And I don’t think the novel makes its case well enough for it to be forgivable.

The Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett

best_brackettThe Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

These days, it’s likely Brackett is better known as the screenwriter of The Empires Strikes Back (and The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye and others). But back in the day, she was almost science fiction royalty, published in many magazines, a collaborator with Ray Bradbury, and married to Edmond Hamilton. And throughout the 1940s and 1950s, she churned out dozens of science fiction stories, most published in Planet Stories, and a handful of novels. Much of her output could be described as “planetary romance”, stories in which the planets of the solar system – Earth excluded – hosted the dying remains of ancient civilisations. Titles included ‘The Dragon-Queen of Jupiter’ (AKA ‘The Dragon-Queen of Venus’), ‘Sea-Kings of Mars’ and ‘Enchantress of Venus’, among many others.

These were stories in which adventurers sought alien treasures and became trapped by ancient curses, or the last members of a dying race managed to exact their final revenge. The sensibilities were pure pulp, but the prose was hard-boiled noir polished to a diamond sheen. Brackett was  very very good at what she did, and her nearest male rivals – including her husband – were no match. Perhaps the closest was CL Moore, Catherine Lucille Moore, with her tales of Northwest of Earth, or her superior space opera novel, Judgment Night.

Given the nature of Brackett’s science fictions, it’s no real surprise that despite her skill she is these days mostly forgotten. The style of what she wrote, irrespective of its quality, has fallen out of favour. The real indignity of this, however, is that other such progenitors, like EE ‘Doc’ Smith, whose writing was so vastly inferior, are still remembered fondly. Make no mistake: of the sf authors writing planetary romance or space opera in the 1940s and early 1950s, Leigh Brackett was probably the best.

And so it seems reasonable to expect superior stories in a collection titled The Best of Leigh Brackett. Which was, incidentally, edited by her husband, Edmond Hamilton. It would not be unreasonable to expect Hamilton to be in an excellent position to select Brackett’s best fiction. But this collection feels more like an attempt to show her range rather than simply showcase her best. It would also not be unreasonable to expect her husband of such motives in selecting stories for the collection.

Sadly, the end result does not play to Brackett’s strengths. There is some classic stuff here, science fiction of the 1940s/1950s that demonstrates it could be serious and superior pulp fiction, like the aforementioned ‘Enchantress of Venus’, or ‘The Jewel of Bas’, or ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’… These are hits of the pure stuff. Known planets of the solar system, ancient civilisations, magical technology… Planetary romance does not get better than this.

Unfortunately, The Best of Leigh Brackett also includes some of her “straight” sf stories, such as ‘The Tweener’ or ‘The Queer Ones’, neither of which compare well to similar contemporary material. If they suited at the time they were published, that’s one thing; but Brackett’s planetary romances are, happily, mostly timeless and still hold up well today…

Albeit perhaps not as well as Moore’s Judgment Night, which rings some changes which took nearly fifty years to take hold in the genre… And Brackett’s fiction was often so well-tuned to its time it now reads as misogynistic… But she had the elegiac tone down pat, and her evocation of long-dead cultures is second to none in genre fiction. There is perhaps a tendency to recycle plots, but no more so than is the case in hard-boiled detective fiction.

Brackett’s style of science fiction is these days considered passé, and was thought so when she returned to it in the late 1970s after a hiatus of a decade or more. It’s certainly true the genre has a tendency to faddish-ness, inasmuch as certain styles and “preoccupations” may prove more popular than others at various times… But good fiction is timeless; and the best fiction evokes timelessness even at the time it is published. Some of Brackett’s stories – and she liked to write at length, so much of her best fiction is novelette- or novella-length – has that quality.  Yes, it could be argued Brackett’s planetary romances were colonialist and orientalist; but because they were constructed to a specific pattern – albeit only inasmuch as they were seemingly patterned on ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’ by J Milton Hayes in much the same way Heinlein’s sf was apparently inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim… And the former being a pastiche of the latter… And both being imperialist and racist to a considerable degree…

Of course, this relies on a particular reading of Brackett’s fiction, or indeed of much American sf of the first half of the twentieth century, and it is perhaps unfair to complain of issues endemic to her entire generation. If Brackett’s fiction did not overcome those issues, it at least made them a mostly unobjectionable element of her stories. Her tales of Mars and its dying races are good stories, put together with enviable skill and economy. She even collaborated with Ray Bradbury – in ‘Lorelei of the Red Mist’ – and her voice drowned out Bradbury’s.

During the 1940s, the two best writers of science fiction were arguably Leigh Brackett and CL Moore, and if history has not recorded them as such, that may well be due to their gender. Some male writers of the period went on to greater success – such as Asimov and Clarke – and so occluded better writers whose subsequent careers did not really survive the 1950s. But the history of women writers in sf is filled with examples who enjoyed historical success, only for their success to be forgotten in subsequent years in favour of the few male authors whose success continued into following decades. True, it also happened to male writers; but the many of the female writers thus forgotten were of better quality.

The Best of Leigh Brackett is not the best-named collection ever published. But Brackett was extremely good at, well, at what she was extremely good at. Her fiction is long out of print, bar collections from some small presses; although she did appear in the original Fantasy Masterwork series from Gollancz, with Sea-King of Mars, despite it not actually being fantasy…  But books by Leigh Brackett are not hard to find, and she is totally worth reading. She should be in print – more so than the likes of Asimov or her other contemporaries. If you see one of her books snap it up. You will not be disappointed.

The Dancers of Noyo, Margaret St Clair

dancers_noyoThe Dancers of Noyo, Margaret St Clair (1973)
Review by Ian Sales

My previous experience of St Clair’s writing had been only with her short fiction, but I thought I had some idea of what her novels might be like. In fact, The Dancers of Noyo read more like Doris Piserchia than the St Clair I’d expected. The story is set after a plague – world-wide possibly, US-wide certainly; it’s sometimes hard to tell with US science fiction novels – in a California which has returned to a tribal agrarian culture. The protagonist, Sam McGregor, is a bit of a rebel and doesn’t understand why the young men of his tribe must always dance under the instruction of the android Dancer. Neither is the reader, as St Clair fails to explain the purpose of the dancing, or why the tribes – and it seems they all have one – each have an android Dancer. Because he refuses to dance, Sam is sent on a Grail Quest, which means driving down the coast in search of some sort of epiphany.

En route, Sam begins to relive the lives of people from earlier – chiefly from last decades of the twentieth century – including a dead young woman being autopsied, and a man who may have been patient zero for the “bone melt” plague which drastically depopulated the Earth. Sam then meets up with the daughter of the man who invented the android Dancers, and she leads him to her dead father’s secret underground laboratory. Where Sam must defeat some of the monsters which roam the underground complex…

While The Dancers of Noyo opens much like any other science fiction novel of its time, with its Republic of California, and a village society which borrows freely from Native Americans, and feels much like hippy films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But St Clair doesn’t seem to know what story she is actually telling. The past lives experienced by Sam as he travels south don’t seem to belong to the main plot – which involves indvertently breaking the tribes free of the android Dancers. It’s all a bit Easy Rider, but with some weird science fiction twist based on the sort of secretive research programmes people believed governments were undertaking – not unlike the sort of thinking which inspired Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive.

Unfortunately, the result is a novel which is very much a product of its time. It’s tempting to think she made up the story as she went along – common practice in sf in those days – but it reads more as if she couldn’t be bothered to turn a promising start into a plot that made sense. It was her last novel.