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.

The Crystal Ship, Randall, Vinge & McIntyre

crystalThe Crystal Ship, edited by Robert Silverberg (1976)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Only a handful of SF anthologies have hit print solely featuring women authors – none were published before 1972 and, surprisingly, few after 1980 (there seems to be a resurgence in the last few years). The Crystal Ship (1976) is one of these. It contains the three novellas by three important SF authors who got their start in the 70s: Marta Randall, Joan D Vinge, and Vonda N McIntyre. The latter two achieved critical success: Joan D Vinge won the Hugo for her novel The Snow Queen (1980) and Vonda N McIntyre won the Hugo for her novel Dreamsnake (1978). Marta Randall, on the other hand, despite her Nebula nomination for the intriguing Islands (1976) remains to this day lesser known.

All three of the novellas feature impressive female protagonists and narratives that subvert many of SF’s traditional clichés. All three protagonists are outcasts, striving against worlds characterized in turn by decadence, colonialism, and sadistic prison systems. Tarawassie in Vinge’s ‘The Crystal Ship’ is cast in the vein of Alvin in Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956). She takes on the mantel of “the one who knows how the world really is”. The eponymous heroine of Randall’s ‘Megan’s World’ is shunned by her fellow humankind due to her mechanical and strangely-coloured body. She is accepted by the natives of a soon to be exploited planet and feels compelled to fight, in the final confrontation, against her own. It takes all mental and physical strength of Kylis in McIntyre’s ‘Screwtop’ – imprisoned for minor infractions including “stealing passage” on a spaceship – to not succumb the hellish environment of the world and the sinister whims of a particularly disturbed guard.

‘Screwtop’ is the highlight of The Crystal Ship. Neither Randall or Vinge can match the raw psychological power, evocative world building, and solid storytelling of McIntyre.

‘The Crystal Ship’ Joan D Vinge: In the past I have found Vinge’s works from the late 70s deeply flawed – for example, Fireship (1978) and The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978). She would refine her style/characterizations in The Snow Queen Cycle of novels from the 80s and 90s. In a far future environ, a vast (mostly empty) crystal spaceship orbits a distant planet. The occupants of the vessel lived a drugged and satiated existence where they end their lives by jumping into a mysterious contraption called a “wishing well” (p 14). Like Alvin in The City and the Stars, Tarawassie sees the sad state of the world after her mother, who lives on the planet’s surface and refuses the life of the crystal ship, seeks to end her life in the wishing well. Tarawassie escapes the “Loom’s catch-spell of light/music” (p 19) and strikes off for the planet’s surface.

On the surface she encounters the “real humans”, ie some new strain of humanity (mixed with the native population?) with pouches, telepathy, and tails. These rat-like creatures believe themselves superior to the inhabitants of the spaceship. With the help of a native named Moon Shadow (*wince*), Tarawassie learns the true history of their peoples, and reason for the strange crystal ship.

‘The Crystal Ship’ is an inarticulate allegory with an intriguing premise but a flawed delivery. Moon Shadow’s “‘What it’ – he grimaced, concentrating – ‘what it – mean?’” (p 29) attempts at dialogue are beyond frustrating for the reader. The unease generated by the world and the hints of past cataclysmic confrontation are the most praiseworthy elements of the story. For die-hard Joan D Vinge fans only.

‘Megan’s World’ Marta Randall: Randall’s novella is on the surface a traditional SF narrative. Engineer Padric Angelo, whose past is filled with ignominy, lands on an alien planet in search of natural resources with an inept ethnologist who knows little about dealing with aliens. The ethnologist believes that it will be easy to convince the natives to desecrate their planet, ie just speak into the universal translator and they will think that the Terrans are gods and thus get whatever they want with superior technology.

And then Randall subverts the paradigm: the feline aliens are far from simplistic naturalistic aliens who are one with nature. Rather, they worship bloodthirsty gods and are stricken with internal political and social dissension. The biggest realignment concerns Padric’s sister, whom he encounters on the planet. Megan is “thin and immensely tall; has gray hair; a second and transparent set of eyelids set above liquid crystal irises that shift colors with changes in temperature and pulse in time to her heartbeat. Her bones are formed of high-impact, stress-resistant biosteel allow, and her bluntly shaped finger- and toe-nails are of a dully gray metal” (p 95). Megan was developed as an experiment in spaceship construction (integration of human with machine) – however, the experiment was a failure. She escaped the ridicule she faced by her fellow Terrans and fled via a stolen yacht. In part because she is accepted by the natives of the planet, she feels closely for their plight and the danger her brother represents.

The story is somewhat bogged down with needless exposition. Most frustrating is the lack of nuance dealing with the key themes of the novel – alienation, colonialism, etc. The frustratingly abrupt ending does little to ram home the more intriguing elements. Recommended with reservations.

‘Screwtop’ Vonda N McIntyre: is by far the most satisfying and evocative novella in the collection. Kylis, a spaceport “rat” who spent her childhood at spaceports stowing aboard ships, is captured for stealing passage and is imprisoned on the planet Redsun. A perpetually hot planet filled with strange parasites, fern plants, and volcanoes, Redsun is powered by some form of geothermal energy (how exactly this works is not altogether clear). Kylis spends her day working with other prisoners removing vegetation and drilling into the planet’s crust. She encounters two disparate characters who become her friends: Jason, an writer, arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy; and a tetraparental, ie a designed super-intelligent individual culled from the DNA of four parents, named Gryf. However, the prison guard named Lizard is commanded to force Gryf to return to the life he escaped and uses Kylis affection for Gryf and Jason as leverage.

There are indications throughout of non-traditional relationships – for example, group living and non-monogamous relationships such as Kylis, Gryf, and Jason. McIntyre’s avoids info-dumps and only carefully reveals each character’s back-story. The narrative is well-told and ultimately, downright heart-rending.

McIntyre’s Dreamsnake is the only Hugo-winning novel published between 1960 and 1980 I have yet to read. After experiencing the refined and psychological power of ‘Screwtop’, I desperately want to get my hands on a copy. Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

The Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge

snowqueenThe Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge (1980)
Review by Shannon Turlington

The Snow Queen is an epic story set on a distant planet, about the fall of one queen and the rise of another. The novel is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson and tackles such weighty themes as immortality and the power of knowledge.

The strength of this novel lies in its world building. The planet of Tiamat is a fully realized world, an ocean-covered planet orbiting twin suns. Two tribes live there: the sea-going, island-dwelling Summers, characterized by a fear of technology and a superstitious worship of their sea goddess, the Lady; and the Winters, who live in the Northern regions and the shell-shaped city of Carbuncle, embrace technology and freely trade with the Offworlders.

Tiamat’s culture and history are shaped by the oddities of its planetary and solar system orbits. Every 150 years, it moves closest to one of its suns, bringing a long summer to the planet. This signals a complete power shift, as the Summers move north from the equatorial regions and the Snow Queen abdicates to the Summer Queen. In fact, the Snow Queen and her consort are sacrificed to the sea in a paganistic ritual following a multi-day festival similar to Carnivale or Mardi Gras.

During the same period, the planet orbits close to and then away from a black hole that enables interstellar travel to other planets in an empire called the Hegemony. While Tiamat is close to the black hole, the Hegemony maintains a presence there, sharing technology with the ruling Winters. When the planet starts to orbit away, the Offworlders must leave, and they destroy all technology before they go to keep Tiamat from advancing too much without their influence and perhaps declaring independence. The Offworlders’ interest in Tiamat comes down to the planet’s one valuable asset: immortal sea creatures called Mers. The Mers’ blood, called the Water of Life, can be harvested to provide ever-lasting youth.

The Snow Queen takes place at the cusp of this great Change. The 150-year-old Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has been scheming to maintain her power after the Summers take over. Her plan involves cloning herself, producing her Summer twin, Moon. But even though the two look alike, they are diametric opposites in personality. Arienrhod is self-absorbed and power-hungry, emotionless in her extreme age, a manipulator of everyone she meets. Her young twin Moon is compassionate and empathetic, someone who inspires adulation and devotion in everyone she comes across.

Moon has become a sibyl, a prophetess who can answer any question. Through this power she taps into an ancient network of knowledge and discovers the true significance of the Mers and why they must be protected. This prompts her to compete for the mask of the Summer Queen and the power to, as she puts it, change the Change.

Moon and Arienrhod are both in love with Moon’s cousin, Sparks. His character is probably the novel’s biggest flaw, because it seems implausible that these two strong women would go to such lengths for him. Sparks is narcissistic, petulant and tends to make rash decisions or sulk when things don’t go his way. His character doesn’t improve or change much over the course of the story. He commits atrocious crimes, witnessed by Moon, who still wants to be with him even when much more attractive options are available to her.

This is a long novel that probably could have been a good deal shorter, but there is enough action and interesting dynamics to keep the reader involved. In fact, I would like to know more – about the ruling planet of Kharamough, for instance, and its rigid class structure, which we visit only briefly. Clearly, the novel is setting up for a sequel, since many conflicts are left open-ended and the resolution is not quite satisfying as a result.

The Snow Queen won the Hugo Award in 1981. The sequel, The Summer Queen, was published in 1991, and a third novel in the trilogy, Tangled Up in Blue, was published in 2000. Vinge also published a novella, ‘World’s End’ (1984), set in the same universe.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.

Fireship, Joan D Vinge

fireshipFireship, Joan D Vinge (1978)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Like so many SF fans, my first exposure to Joan D Vinge’s work was via her wonderful Hugo-winning novel The Snow Queen (1980). Eventually I found a copy of her first published novel, The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978), which had an intriguing premise but a less than satisfactory delivery (poor characterizations, pacing, etc). The collection Fireship (1978) is comprised of two novellas: the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated ‘Fireship’ (1978) and one of her earlier works, ‘Mother and Child’ (1975).

The title story is the lesser of the two despite its (dare I say dubious) award nominations. It’s a light-hearted and unchallenging proto-cyperpunk novella. I would characterized the work as “popcorn SF”. Its plot is straight from the pulps with some late 1970s technological updates and told in a vigorous and readable manner.

The second novella – ‘Mother and Child’ – is more a product of 1970s anthropological science fiction. It attempts (with intermittent success) to develop a premise, a culture clash between humans groups and alien “observers,” which exudes social commentary. Although nowhere near as eloquent as Michael Bishop or Le Guin who are true proponents of literary prose and though-provoking scenarios, Vinge’s ‘Mother and Child’ is easily worth the price of the volume for any fans of her more famous work and 1970s social SF in general.

‘Fireship’: A single human body contains three distinct personas. First, there is Michael Yarrow, a generally unintelligent man with little ambition. The second is ETHANAC, a super computer whose entire circuitry is easily hidden in the structure of a portable case. When jacked into Yarrow’s body “his” voice “speaks”. When this machine/man conjunction occurs between Yarrow and ETHANAC a separate altogether different persona emerges, Ethan Ring. Yarrow was selected for this dangerous experiment because of his lack of ambition and disposable nature. However, Yarrow’s transformation – into the altogether more manly/intelligent/and ambitious Ethan Ring – allows him to escape from the confines of Earth to Mars. The settlers on Mars are comprised of a vast assortment of various cults and other renegade individuals like Ethan desperate to escape the increasing totalitarianism of Earth.

Post-WWIII, Russia and other superpowers have been mostly wiped out. Two forces gain hold sway in the changed world, the US and the Arab states due to their natural resources. The Arabs are one of the key proponents of investments in the Mars colony. Khorram Kabir is one of these “sheikh-like” investors who establishes a lavish and highly profitable casino, aptly named Xanadu. During an intensive bought of gambling where ETHANAC took over and acquired vast sums of money, Ring encounters the luscious Hanalore Takhashi. Little does Ring know that she works for a shadowy organization that seeks to blackmail him unless he hacks Kabir’s computer network!

I enjoyed the idea of the Arab states taking an active role in colonization (just think of all the massive building projects and investments in Manchester City and other teams in the EPL princes and sheikhs from the region are engaged in). This reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars) where one of the main groups of colonists are from the Middle East. The shifts between the weakly Michael Yarrow, the more manly Ethan Ring, and the super computer ETHANAC are effectively done. The proto-cyperpunk premise filled with computer hacking, portable super computers, man-machine hybrids is entertaining but forgettable.

‘“Mother and Child’: A three-part novella where each section is told from the perspective of male character whose life becomes increasingly intertwined with Etaa, a human “priestess” of Mother (ie, the personification of the planet). It is slowly revealed that the humans are not on Earth but some planet colonized long before. A mutation causing plague wiped out the majority of the colonists and destroyed many of their senses. Etaa’s people, who placed the mother as the center of the society, hold priestess with “special abilities” (ie, hearing) in high regard.

The first portion of the novella follow’s Hywel, Etaa’s mate, and his childhood and the events leading up to a disaster. Etaa’s people, the Kotaane (“Mother’s children”) are bordered by the Neaane (“Motherless ones”). The Neaane king Merton steals Etaa from her spouse and rapes her. His society is a more traditional male-centric one – with pseudo-medieval inspired social systems – where an hair is of paramount importance. Merton himself the narrator of the second portion. He does not believe in his “gods” who take for the form of humans and physically wander among the Neaane… Despite his initial treatment of Etaa, whom he wants to bear his heir, he begins to feel for her. And, in her own way, Etaa does as well (she thinks that Hywel has been killed). Vinge’s characterization of Etaa, who despite her rape/imprisonment/and Merton’s less than honourable intentions, begins to see virtue in her captor strikes me as odd. The third portion is from the perspective of one of the gods who in reality, is neither male nor female.

The most effective element of the novella is the shifting male narration on Etaa, the connecting character in all three parts. Hywel is clearly a good man yet his goals are simplistic, he seeks to recover Etaa who has been stolen from him rather than change resolve the culture clash between the Gods and the Neaane and Kotaane. King Merton is much more flawed although again, yet his beliefs (or lack thereof) about the Gods are instrumental in changing Etaa’s view of the world. The final “male” God who “rescues” has represents a people desperate to modify the make human society malleable and easy to “guide.” He too is transformed by his “friendship” with Etaa.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt, Joan D Vinge

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt, Joan D Vinge (1978)
Review by Joachim Boaz

The title of Joan D Vinge’s first novel, The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978), is an homage to The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1869) by the turn of the century western writer and poet Bret Harte. He is famous for his depictions of resourceful women in California pioneer settlements. Vinge creates a resourceful female captain of a powerful but weaponless spaceship who finds herself beset – with only a depleted crew – by a series of challenges in the decadent, grasping, and fractured pioneer societies of Heaven Belt. Although the often less than amicable conflict between the egalitarian society with powerful women and the male-focused pioneer cultures could be the focus of the novel, Vinge is less interested in exploring the social ramifications (à la Le Guin and other works of the previous decade – the 1960s). Instead, this conflict provides a suitable world-building backdrop for a traditional space opera – a bedraggled but technologically sophisticated spaceship beset by numerous factions which wish to take it by force.

Vinge is at her best evoking the decadent world of Heaven Belt but her attempts to create convincing characters/motivations/tension is less sophisticated. The Outcasts of Heaven Belt is an uneven but readable first effort – masterpieces such as the Hugo-winning The Snow Queen (1980) and Hugo-nominated The Summer Queen (1991) were to follow.

In the far future pioneers from earth, after a nameless period of political upheaval, settled less than perfect astroid belts and planets of the galaxy. Heaven Belt, a series of astroids, is considered by the settlements on marginal planets nearer to earth as an utopian expanse replete with natural resources. Betha, the captain of the Ranger and her crew (her husbands and wives), set out from Morningside to settle in the Heaven Belt. Little do they know that the region was previous beset by a devastating civil war. The few remaning survivors huddle in the wreckage of the astroid settlements with dilapidated ships, failing technology, and severe radiation poisoning which creates stratified societies dependent on preserving the few remaining fertile women.

The Ranger is immediately attacked by the Ringers. Most of the crew (Betha’s family) is killed. Soon afterwards they gain new members – Shadow Jack and Bird Alyn, young pirates of the crumbling Lansing settlement who attempt to capture the vessel. Eventually they come into contact with the Demarchy, a “pure democracy”. This society utilizes the remaining communication network surviving from the civil war to voice the opinions of all Demarchs. Swarms of newspeople follow everyone around but charisma and show dominate the politics. Ideas are seldom discussed in length before they are immediately voted on. I was intrigued by Vinge’s discussion of this unusual political environment.

In short, each society is in an advanced state of collapse. They are no longer self-sufficient and depend on each other for necessities (water, etc). However, the crumbling wrecks of spaceships prevent efficient trade. The inhabitants of Lansing astroid huddle under their tent canopy. Those who are not plagued by deformities caused by radiation stay underground while the deformed tend the remaining gardens on the surface and are prevented from marrying or producing children. The Demarchy proclaims to follow the rule of the people but in reality, the intensely charismatic and the news agencies are the real political motivators. Other astroid settlements are blessed with ice and supply the rest with water but choose their customers, effectively killing their rivals. For each society capturing Betha’s spaceship with its production facilities is a tangible way to emerge triumphant from the wreckage of the war.

The societies Vinge creates are vividly realized. Unfortunately, the novel contains little tension. Despite numerous attempts to capture Betha’s vessel, the decayed state of the societies encountered cannot challenge the vessel even without weapons and a limited crew. Also, Vinge frequently resorts to ineffective melodramatic moments replete with clichéd prose (“there are more stars in the galaxy than there are droplets of water in the Boreal Sea”) and stilted poetry (“Understanding comes from learning / no one ever changed a world”). Betha’s clan-based society which defines who is allowed to marry who, modeled on Native American cultures (Vinge was educated as an anthropologist), is too obviously “perfect” and “utopian”. Why would anyone leave to settle a bunch of asteroids out in the wilds of space?

The world of Heaven Belt is admirably realized setting the stage for a moving work of space opera. However, the parts do not combine effectively. It lacks emotional depth and effective characterization. An intriguing first novel by an author finding her footing. I suggest tracking down her 80s and early 90s classics first.