Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by admiral ironbombs
I knew Wilhelm was the wife of famed editor-critic Damon Knight, I’ve seen other SF bloggers write glowing praise for her novels, and I’ve enjoyed a few of her short fiction in the not too distant past. But I’m actually more familiar with her work as a mystery writer – her début novel More Bitter Than Death was a mystery, as were most of the novels she’s written since the 1980s. Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is her most famous entry, winning a clutch of awards and earning nominations for several others upon release, so I decided it would be a good place to start.
As ecological catastrophe looms, David Sumner’s family takes humanity’s last gamble: in an attempt to preserve the human race in the face of global sterility, the Sumner clan holes up in a hospital-laboratory complex to clone a new generation. This proves to be something of a success with unintended consequences: only the first four clone generations are fertile. And worse, the clones seem to have different ideas than their human creators in how this new human race should grow: genetic diversity is not seen as a benefit but a hindrance. The same goes for diversity in individuals – the clones exist as a collective, where free thought and creativity are unheard of. The narrative jumps forward to follow a clone named Molly on a voyage to explore the ruins of Washington DC. On that trip, the clones make a discovery that will change the very fabric of their being – sowing seeds that come to fruition with the third point-of-view character, Molly’s son Mark, as he changes the clones’ society forever.
The novel examines the relationship between society, community and individual, and those themes form the backbone of the novel. The clones establish a society that follows their comprehension and belief for how this new humanity should be structured—alterations due to the ESP-like ability where batches of clones share emotions and feelings, an empathic link to other clones from the same genetic source. This causes them to form a collective society as individualism is beyond their comprehension; since everything they do and feel is shared within the group, isolation becomes akin to torture, and individuality is a frightening heresy. They are not selfish or petty, acting in the community’s best interest, but can enact great cruelties of compassion – they take great pains to keep the humans and fellow clones alive, but retain many of their fertile members as little more than breeding stock for artificial insemination, hoping to create an army of young clones to reclaim the cities of New England.
David realizes what he and his family have created is not humanity’s salvation but its replacement, though his attempts to alter the clones’ course fail; instead, it’s the great trauma that Molly faces that triggers a new awakening within the clone society. The clones become worried as she develops latent traits of individuality, thought long-lost and dormant by the clone leadership. And her son, Mark – the product of sexual/biological reproduction – lives on the fringe of their society. Learning from Molly and old books, he has traits that the community needs: the ability to survive and explore out in the wilderness, as the other clones grow terrified under the solemn trees. Mark is creative and self-sufficient, but he cannot exist on his own – without a community, without heirs, leaving the clone society will make him an evolutionary dead-end. He even tries to connect with the clones and breeders, looking for someone who can understand and befriend him, to no avail. His alien individuality and childish pranks make him into a danger to the collective’s way of life, and creates a tenuous link between the two groups: each finds the other incomprehensible, but both have something the other needs.
At one level, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang might be read as an allegory for libertarianism, railing against communism or “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” conformity, an overtly simplistic black-and-white comparison where the individual is good and the community is bad. If that was the author’s intent, I didn’t see it as that stark of a good-bad contrast. The clones and their society have serious flaws, and with each new generation it gets worse – with each successive generation, the clones lose more of their creativity and individuality. They are blind to their flaws, unable to see what they are missing for their lack of it, and many of them are presented in a humane way despite their limitations. And while Mark could escape the collective at any time, without a community of his own nothing will change, and nothing he’s learned would carry on to a new generation. The book investigates some prescient issues – what is the relationship of the individual to the community? How do the individual and collective interact, when both have something the other needs yet cannot comprehend? Can one person change the workings of an entire society?
I’m well acquainted other pastoral post-apocalyptic novels – The Long Tomorrow, Greybeard, City and other Simak stories – but I think Wilhelm pens it better than anyone else. Her prose sways gently like grass under a warm summer breeze, with a compelling elegance and a rich texture. She has an incredible ability to create fully realized and sympathetic characters, making them into living, breathing people who spring off the page. And this prose is underlined by raw power – emotion that pulls at your heartstrings. I’ve seen other reviews that criticize the novel as faulty science, finding many of the “clone society” ideas to be implausible. Let’s leave aside the fact that David’s family were not trained scientists and didn’t have time to perfect their cloning methodology, which seems a plausible enough reason to me. I think those criticisms overlook what the novel is saying – Wilhelm wrote a potent allegory with much pathos, a parable that investigates key elements of human society. This is a classic of Soft SF – a book about people and culture – not a textbook for how to clone a living organism.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a gripping novel that clings to your soul, a skillful and thought-provoking read written in beautiful prose. Her pastoral eco-apocalypse and clone society are rich in detail that gives great insight into the roles of the individual and the collective. While others may criticize the book’s science, I found the story near to perfection and give it a high recommendation. Wilhelm writes with impressive emotion and power in her work; Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is not only one of the most heartfelt SF books I’ve ever read, it also digs into some truths of the human condition with ringing authenticity. If you’re looking for a quality post-apocalyptic novel, or if you want a brilliant examination of family and the individual, or if you dislike SF because you think it is only about cold and detached science, read this book. Despite winning the Hugo and Locus, I don’t think this book gets the recognition it deserves, and every SF reader should consider reading it.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.
A Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough (1979)
Review by Ian Sales
The world of Marah was settled by religious zealots some six hundred years ago, but shortly after founding their colony the men began to sicken and die. And so they discovered the world was home to a virus which kills nine out of ten boys when they reach puberty. And still does so. Now a small minority of men rules a much larger population of women, in a theocratic society spread across Marah’s single continent in a number of towns and ranches. As A Voice Out of Ramah opens, a starship has arrived at Marah, the first to visit the world since it was colonised. The starship is from a corporation which leases “shuttleboxes” to human colony worlds. These can be used to transport people and materials instantaneously from world to world – but, of course, there’s that virus, which must not be allowed to escape Marah…
Alesdra Pontokouros is the liaison officer for Intergalactic Communications ramjet Galactic Rose, and she has landed on Marah with a security officer. But then the security officer, a young man, is taken ill. The two of them are taken to the city of Gibeon, and handed over to Shepherd Jared, head of the local Temple and de facto head of the city. When the security officer dies of the virus, Jared is very much shaken by the death. So much so, in fact, that he rebels against the one thing that holds together Marahn society, its greatest secret – that the men developed a resistance to the virus within a handful of generations and now, six hundred years later, the Shepherds and their Deacons in the Temples deliberately, and randomly, poison ninety percent of the male children when they reach puberty.
Some authors might have made this annual near-genocide the point of their story, the horrible mystery at the heart of a repressive religious regime, committed solely in order to keep the men in charge. But Killough is telling a different tale. A Voice Out of Ramah is about Shepherd Jared, not Pontokouros – she is sent off to the capital, Eridu, to meet the Bishop, who delays his decision regarding the shuttlebox for no apparent reason. Jared decides it is time to stop the Trial, the killing of the boys, and he plans to do this by blackmailing the Bishop: he will tell Pontokouros the truth if the poisoning does not stop. Unfortunately, one of Jared’s Deacons has long been a rival, is in fact busy working to unseat the Shephard, and as soon as he realises Jared’s intentions, he seizes control and imprisons him. But Jared manages to escape. However, in order to confront the Bishop he has to travel several hundred kilometres across the continent to Eridu. The only way he can do this is to disguise himself as a woman (a not implausible disguise – Killough has laid sufficient groundwork for it to be physically believable). Of course, during his journey Jared learns the true nature of Marahn society – that the women may defer to the men in all things but they pretty much do everything they want anyway and the men’s power is mostly an illusion.
Having said that, the novel is not without its faults. That six hundred years, for one, feels too long an interval to be entirely plausible. Religious zealotry, and the theocracies it all too often generates, is a soft target and one at which science fiction has often taken potshots; but even so a society that has progressed so little over six centuries is not entirely believable. And, while Jared’s wish to end the Trial after witnessing the security officer’s death from the virus is an understandable change of heart, he overthrows his upbringing a little too readily when disguised as a woman during his journey to Eridu. There is a particularly well-drawn scene when the group of women with which Jared has taken refuge – they are driving some rapas (saurian riding animals) to market at a town several days’ ride away – and who are unaware of his masquerade, are visited by the male head of a local ranch. The man is arrogant, ignorant, and convinced of the sagacity of the advice he gives – it’s a classic case of “mansplaining”. It is this sort of behaviour we are expected to accept Jared dropped the moment he went into hiding.
And yet… The fact Killough has chosen to focus her story on the women-run society of Marah in order to show up the delusion under which the men rule, rather than make a meal of the Trial, the horrible secret at the society’s heart… this makes A Voice Out of Ramah a surprisingly fun and charming read. More than that, it’s a story about women and a society run by women – even if the chief protagonist is male – and it handles its social dimension with an appealing confidence and matter-of-factness. I had not really expected to like this novel as much as I did; but the more I read, the less important the somewhat simplistic theocratic framework became… the less of a hurdle the easy acceptance of the Trial became… the more I wanted Jared to succeed no matter the consequences – and Killough is very clear on the likely outcome of his plan. In fact, it’s the easy camaraderie of Marahn society outside the Temples that is one of the novel’s chief attractions. There are other elements which also appeal, such as the references to a “pre-Marahn” society, and even a visit to a city of ruins by Pontokouros and a Marahn guide.
For all its theocratic setting, A Voice Out of Ramah is a very likeable science fiction novel. I don’t know if Killough has written more novels in the same universe, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for her other books.
Once A Hero, Elizabeth Moon (1997)
Review by Kate Macdonald
Elizabeth Moon writes sf about the space navy, making combat and military command truly gender-neutral. I first came across Moon when she co-wrote volumes 1 and 3 of a space trilogy with Anne McCaffrey, called Sassinak and Generation Warriors. I was powerfully struck by these novels because (a) they were a rejuvenation in quality from anything McCaffrey had done on her own, and (b) they brought into being a whole new space navy universe that I really wanted to read more about. I did try one of Moon’s fantasy novels once, from the Paksworld series, but couldn’t be bothered with it: medievalised multi-volume fantasy epics bore me. The depth of Moon’s science fiction imagination is what makes her an outstanding novelist for me.
Once A Hero is the central novel of a sequence of seven, called the Serrano Legacy. The structure is a bit convoluted: bear with me here. The first three novels (Hunting Party (1993), Sporting Chance (1994) and Winning Colors (1995)) are about a cashiered space navy captain, Heris Serrano, who’s grimly creating a new career for herself captaining a rich old lady’s private yacht as they roam the galaxy looking for bloodstock for the old lady’s stable of racehorses. You’ll have noticed the key words in the book titles that suggest racing, chasing, sport and surviving. The plot thickens into a dark story of a human hunt by navy officers on planet leave. In the course of this, Serrano begins to realise that her cashiering and enforced departure from the Fleet was a set-up, naval security has been compromised, planet pirates are moving in, and it all gets very exciting as she shows her quality and takes command of a navy vessel to beat off the attack. During the last 20 pages of Winning Colors, we hear about a remarkable but unassuming junior lieutenant who got involved in a mutiny to prevent the ship’s captain turning over ship and crew to an enemy force, and ended up commanding the ship, demonstrating seriously effective tactical and strategic thinking on her feet, and destroying the enemy vessel.
This junior lieutenant is Esmay Suiza, and her story is told in the next novel, Once a Hero, and continues in three more novels. The Serrano characters take a back seat for these, but remain as a a dynasty of powerful and influential high-ranking space navy commanders and admirals (all women), plus one very junior male ensign. The Esmay Suiza novels are a long, leisurely read of high-tech weaponry, addictive storytelling and political intrigue in a military world that I find fascinating because I’ve never served in the military. I know almost nothing about real or plausible military protocol and etiquette, but I do find it interesting that in focusing the narrative on how people relate to each other within ranks, within services, in how they work together, Moon makes sure that we learn vast amounts about how the service works as a whole.
The factor that determines the shape of people’s careers and the sociology of Moon’s universe in Once A Hero, and the whole Serrano series, is the idea of extended life. In John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen, extending women’s lives caused men to sit up and take notice, because this meant a serious change in men’s social roles. In Once A Hero, extending life through biological rejuvenation is expensive and thus limited, but it is gender-neutral: anyone can do it, if they can afford it. It’s also a routine medical and cosmetic procedure. Socially speaking, its effect will be to freeze up career advancement through the institutions and the governing powers at the top end, and in Once A Hero it’s already having an economic effect, as an obvious marker of wealth, influence and power for those who need to make a living. Rejuv becomes an essential in the quality of life, which drives up its value, thus causing unnerving instability in the interplanetary economy, and in galactic politics. Even the barbarian hordes of Aethar’s World want longer life, despite their Viking tendencies to leap joyously into battle to embrace death. These sophisticated repercussions show Moon’s quality as a novelist, in creating wondrous, logic-based worlds by working out the social repercussions of an idea. The hardware of traditional space opera is merely an add-on in her worlds.
Moon puts the idea of a quick-fix physical rejuvenation to meaningful use by applying it to medicine, to rejuvenating the body after injury. In the story, the assurance of rejuvenation appears to discount the effects of serious damage done to characters, but that is when we only think about physical damage. There is hardly any violence in Once A Hero, but what there is, is pretty nasty. When characters receive wounds this is recounted neutrally, and constantly buttressed with reassurances, from the characters to each other, or implicitly to the reader, that the damage will be fixed: rejuv will mend the bones, and the internal organ damage will be repaired after a few weeks in the rejuv tanks. But after the bones have mended, Moon takes a lot of time to show how psychological damage as a result of combat or attack is affecting these serving soldiers, male and female. Rejuv can’t help this damage: this is a matter for the psychonannies, a kind of nurse therapist whom the soldiers regard with dismay and some shame while they’re still denying that they need help, but eventually go to freely. Since I haven’t read any modern war fiction I don’t know how common this is in stories about Iraq or Afghanistan. By setting war-related psychiatric trauma in a sf context Moon has freedom to explore the areas she wants, and to send feminist messages which wouldn’t work so well in a real-life war setting. Esmay is only able to open up about her trauma when she feels she can do good by her disclosure, so she offers her pain as a gift and as an example to a damaged junior colleague who is also struggling with male pride about being tough. Thus she demonstrates leadership, strength, empathy, and does not hang on to egotricity. Is this feminist? Not particularly, but it does show what a cracking good leader this female soldier will be, once she works out what she really wants in her life.
Esmay Suiza’s problem is that she is a phenomenally talented junior lieutenant who should be a command-track candidate, but she has inexplicably shunted herself into technical track service, as if she wanted to bury herself in a job where she would be good and useful but unseen. Why is this? She’s already suffered considerable violence that she is only just beginning to discover in her past, and the novel is largely concerned with her recovering memories, her readjustment of her relationships with those who lied to her, and how she will learn to think of herself from now on.
In the universe of Moon’s novels, most planetary civilisations allow the sexes to be equal (she does not mention intersexes, but maybe she will in the future). In Once A Hero and its sequels we get a closer look at two planetary civilisations where they are not, so we can compare them. The first is the really very ludicrous barbarian culture of Aethar’s World, which is nothing more than a high-tech Valhalla: their women are only for breeding and feeding. The other is Esmay Suiza’s own planet of Altiplano, a horse-breeding and agricultural society where women can hold office but are excluded from military role, and are expected to have total responsibility for the home. It’s fossilised, but not necessarily closed, and Esmay has run away from it. What makes Esmay such an interesting hero is that she is a woman excelling in military prowess against the tradition of her family. A woman who left her planet to specialise in technical-track military training, against cultural tradition. Hmm. Why would she do this? What made her leave? Any what has this to do with her very confused ideas about what she is, and what she can clearly do?
Elizabeth Moon’s two sf series, the Vatta’s War books and the Serrano Legacy series, have these characteristics in common: a woman commanding a military or armed force, in charge of teams of men and women; a woman with brilliant tactical and strategic planning skills; a woman happy to have relationships with men lower down the chain of command, but also not stupid enough to let these jeopardise any mission; a woman with empathy for the weak and vulnerable, and no time for the arrogant and stupid; a woman with a goal and a strong sense of her own worth. There will be extended scenes of fighting on- and off-board ship, of the unravelling of deceptions, of nail-biting bluff-heavy interviews, huge amounts of rich technical description that we don’t have to understand if we don’t want to, a strong sense of the bigness of space, and the eternal worry about the consequences of not having enough credit to fix the FTL drive when bits fall off. The economics of flying a space ship are uppermost in the minds of most of Moon’s female characters, because many of them have budget responsibility, as commercial traders, military commanders, or private contractors running their own businesses. This is extraordinarily refreshing (see my grumpy remark about medievalised fantasy epics, above). There is also a very good joke about a fruit cake, but you’ll need to look for it in the Vatta’s War series. Elizabeth Moon is a totally consistent novelist: her quality never falters. Go read her now.
This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading an publishing.
The Zanzibar Cat, Joanna Russ (1983)
Review by Ian Sales
Although she was first published in the late 1950s, Joanna Russ’s first collection did not appear until 1983 – which at least meant she had plenty to choose from for its contents. And it seems Russ decided to select pieces mostly from the 1970s. With good reason, one suspects – as Marge Piercy writes in the book’s introduction: “One unavoidable observation as I read through these stories is the growth of Russ’s feminism … I doubt if ‘The New Men’ or ‘Poor Man, Beggar Man’ would be in any interesting way different if written by a man … If I seem to find Russ’s more feminist stories more successful than her less feminist stories, it is not only, I believe even chiefly, because I agree with her politics, although of course with any writer that always help. It is because her imagination is more liberated…” (p x). I have been saying for several years it’s past time we had a complete collection of Russ’s short fiction – and it would be a large book, since she published fifty-six stories between 1959 and 1996. However, The Zanzibar Cat, which includes a number of early works, does demonstrate that perhaps not everything she wrote actually belongs in such a collection. This is a much weaker collection than her later Extra(ordinary) People (1984) and The Hidden Side of the Moon (1988), although it does contain several of her more celebrated pieces. Incidentally, it’s worth noting The Zanzibar Cat was originally published by Arkham House, but a paperback edition was published the following year by Baen.
‘When It Changed’ (1972) is perhaps Russ’s most famous short story. It won the Nebula, was nominated for a Hugo, and won a retrospective Tiptree in 1995. And for good reason. The world of Whileaway has has been female-only for thirty generations, after the death of all the men in a plague shortly after the world was settled. But now men form Earth have arrived, and the local sheriff has been called to remote farmhouse to meet the visitors. Russ drops the reader straight into the story, and the casual sexism displayed by the men is brilliantly handled – the visitors keep on asking where are the men, and once they learn the truth… there is a conversation between the narrator and the leader of the visitors which is masterly in how it shows male privilege:
“I’m talking to you, Janet,” he said, “because I suspect you have more popular influence than anyone else here. You know as well as I do that parthenogenetic culture has all sorts of inherent defects, and we do not – if we can help it – mean to use you for anything of the sort. Pardon me; I should not have said ‘use.’ But surely you can see this kind of society is unnatural.” ( p 8 – 9)
A bona fide classic.
‘The Extraordinary Voyages of Amélie Bertrand’ (1979). This opens with the subheading “hommage à Jules Verne” which, to be honest, would be pretty obvious from the plot anyway. Set in the 1920s, the story takes places entirely at a small rural railway station near Lyons. The narrator is travelling on business and must change trains there. But as he walks through the passage linking the two platforms either side of the ticket office / waiting room / café, he seems to be thrown into a strange tropical landscape. A hand grabs him and hauls him back, and he finds himself back at the railway station. The woman who saved him explains that she too fell prey to the same phenomenon, and in fact spent many years exploring that other world – and on subsequent visits had even visited the jungles of Venus and the ranches of Mars. Although the woman’s adventures are well described, the fact the story is almost entirely told robs it of any immediacy. The pastiche is not entirely successful either – the premise appears to draw on a deep pool of pulp fiction inspirations, rather than Verne’s scientific romances.
‘The Soul of a Servant’ (1973). In a northern Russian (I think) town cut into the side of a mountain, the governor and his family await the barbarians. The town is commanded, and managed, by the narrator, who is from the south and is looked down on by the locals. The governor’s niece, however, finds him fascinating, although she is clearly playing at forbidden love rather than forming any real attachment. And then soldiers from the town capture some barbarians – and on seeing how they are being mistreated, the narrator realises he has more in common with them than the town’s inhabitants. Piercy remarks on the off-page rape, which “is used as a male writer uses it … the story buys the male rationalization, in its viewpoint character, that a woman being flirtatious, which may be the only form of friendliness she has been allowed to express, is asking for it”. It’s a well-deserved criticism as the violence serves no real purpose in the plot, and the setting is sketched in so thinly it’s unclear how it is meant to be taken.
‘Gleepsite’ (1971). This is a short and enigmatic story, set in a post-apocalyptic world. According to a footnote, the title is the name of an imaginary material and “[this] story is about another ‘imaginary material’ – the huiman imagination itself. Can it do as much as the the narrator thinks it can do?” The end result in places reads more like a writing exercise than an actual narrative.
‘Nobody’s Home’ (1972). A somewhat dated and hippy-ish vision of the future, in which a “stupid” (but “bright-normal” by present-day standards) is invited home by a family, only for them to grow quickly tired of his inability to fit in with their supposedly extremely high intelligence, this characteristic being chiefly illustrated by a silly verbal game played by the children. Although Russ displays her usual skill at setting up her world quickly and efficiently, some of the details are a little too much of the time of writing. This is a story which has not aged especially well.
‘My Dear Emily’ (1962). The first of two vampire stories in this collection. In this a young woman is liberated by being in thrall to a vampire. Her family insist she is ill, but she no longer considers herself bound by convention – the story is set in San Francisco during the 1880s – and behaves accordingly. It’s an atmospheric piece, but there’s little in it to make stand out above the huge number of vampire stories out there.
‘The New Men’ (1966). The second vampire story, this time set in communist Poland. A travelling Soviet official spends the night at the ruined mansion of a Polish count when his car breaks down deep in the countryside. There’s a nice play on dialectics, historical process and Marxism, but the story does end on a somewhat obvious twist.
‘My Boat’ (1976). The way a story is told is as important as what the story says, and I’m not convinced Russ chose the best way to tell ‘My Boat’ even though the premise is clever and works well. The story is framed as a verbal tale told by a screenwriter desperate for work in conversation with his agent. He recounts an episode from his youth, when the first black pupil joined his school, a girl called Cecilia Jackson. Although very shy, she proves to be a gifted actress, if somewhat erratic, and becomes friends with the narrator and his best friend, Al. One day, all three head to the marina to spend the day on Cecilia’s boat, and while on it – a rowing boat that has seen better days – the narrator witnesses a change come over Cecila and Al, and also the boat. Cecilia becomes a queen, and Al her Francis Drake-like consort, and they begin talking about mysterious lands (from Lovecraft’s “Dreamlands”, in fact). When the narrator jumps onto the jetty to untie the boat, he is accosted by a police officer, and while the two of them are looking away, the boat disappears.
‘Useful Phrases for the Tourist’ (1972). The title pretty much says it all. Mildly amusing.
‘Corruption’ (1976). An agent infiltrates another world, where everyone lives in sealed arcologies because the outside atmosphere is toxic. But the more time he spends in his undercover role, the more he sympathises with the society he is supposed to destroy through sabotage. Nonetheless, he follows his orders. The prose style is experimental – the story is broken down into eleven short sections, most of which begin with, “Look – “. I first read this in Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N McIntye and Susan Janice Anderson, and published in 1976, which is where it first appeared. On reread, it seems a much stronger piece, the prose depicting the regimented society of Outpost effectively, as well as the protagonist’s conflict over his orders.
‘There Is Another Shore, You Know, Upon the Other Side’ (1963). A young Italian man in Rome meets a young English woman, is much taken with her, and there follows a fairly straightforward holiday romance, his charm versus her diffidence. She doesn’t always meet him as promised, and she’s extremely vague about her own situation. Because she’s a ghost. As he discovers at the end of the story. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what this story adds to its overcrowded genre. It feels resolutely ordinary.
‘A Game of Vlet’ (1974). A captain of the guard discovers an assassin sneaking into the palace, but the assassin claims he has only come to challenge the king to a game of vlet. But the king’s new consort appears, and she accepts the challenge instead. The set the assassin has brought is “virgin” – unplayed, and untouched by human hands – which means that the game will be reflected in the real world. And so it is. But the assassin is not as good a player as he thought he was. This one is strong on atmosphere, as each move the players make is reflected in the world about them and violence overtakes the palace.
‘How Dorothy Kept Away the Spring’ (1977). Dorothy dreams a fairy tale with herself as the heroine, because her mother died recently and she is lonely. The fantasy elements feel as though they owe a little too much to The Wizard of Oz, a text which I suspect carries more sentimental baggage on the other side of the Atlantic. The end result reads over-long, its simple message diluted by a combination of whimsy and childish invention.
‘Poor Man, Beggar Man’ (1971). Cleitus the Black, who saved Alexander the Great’s life at the Battle of the Granicus but was later killed by Alexander during a drunken fight, visits Alexander as a ghost as Alexander’s army prepares to cross the Indus. Cleitus argues with Alexander, telling him he should return to Babylon and consolidate his rule, and not attack further into India. Alexander refuses, so Cleitus persuades Alexander’s wife, Roxana, to run away to the nearest Indian village and hide – in the hope her disappearance will change Alexander’s mind. During the search for her, Alexander gets lost in a nearby forest and becomes separated from his men. Cleitus comes to him and shows him something which persuades him to not cross the Indus (Roxana had returned of her own accord while they were looking for her). Russ freely admits in an author’s note that she has mangled the chronology of Alexander’s life… which makes you wonder what the point of the story is.
‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’ (1975). In the introduction, Piercy describes this is “as much prose poem or essay as story” – at least the first section of it. ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’ is actually two stories, ‘Daddy’s Girl’ and ‘Autobiography of My Mother’, previously published in separate issues of Cornell University’s literary magazine. I found the second section more successful than the first, whose stream of consciousness narrative feels more like a work in progress. ‘Autobiography of My Mother’, however, is reminiscent of some of other Russ’s stories – particularly ‘Bodies’ (1984) – as it directly addresses the reader, and in the way it pulls together a narrative from a variety of incidents and anecdotes, presented in a variety of forms.
‘The Zanzibar Cat’ (1971). Another homage, this one of Hope Mirrlees. I’ve not read Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, so many of the references in this story were lost on me. But despite that, it’s a well-told, if overly familiar in general shape, story about a young woman who confronts Death in one of its many guises and lives to tell the tale – unlike the army she was accompanying.
As collections go, The Zanzibar Cat is bit of a mixed bag. Many of the better stories have been subsequently anthologised, and only four or five appear here and in their original venue. As pointed out by Piercy in the introduction, the late stories are among the best ones. Not only did ‘When It Changed’ deserve its win, but ‘Corruption’ too is good, perhaps followed by ‘A Game of Vlet’ and then ‘My Boat’. Other stories, the dark fantasy ones especially, are a little too generic to stand out, and suffer poorly in comparison to the rest of the contents. What The Zanzibar Cat does demonstrate, however, is Russ’s breadth – from heartland sf to ghost story to fantasy to literary pastiche. The later stories also demonstrate just how good a writer she really was. It’s not just her economy, her ability to sketch out her worlds and cast so efficiently, but also the sharpness of her observation and the way she questions and comments on sensibilities in stories whose actual focus seemingly lies elsewhere. ‘When It Changed’ is a case in point, a first contact story about how the women of Whileaway react to the appearance of men on their world, but it’s really about the way the men behave toward women. But then there are stories such as ‘Poor Man, Beggar Man’, which seem too generic, too in love with their premise to actually interrogate it fully. Sadly, around half of The Zanzibar Cat falls into this latter category. Which, by definition, means half of the stories range from the merely good to excellent.
It’s definitely past time for a collected Russ.
Ethan of Athos, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Review by Adam Whitehead
Ethan Urquhart is a doctor on the all-male planet of Athos, which is reliant on important genetic cultures in order to increase their population. When the latest culture shipment is contaminated and destroyed, Ethan is dispatched by his government to the transfer point at Kline Station to investigate. Almost immediately after his arrival, Ethan is drawn into a web of intrigue and conspiracies featuring agents from the Cetagandan Empire and the unnerving (for Ethan) presence of a female intelligence agent from the Dendarii mercenaries.
Ethan of Athos is, chronologically, the sixth novel in the Vorkosigan Saga, although it was the third to be written. Even more confusingly, it is often omitted from counts of the series due to the total non-appearance of the series’ main character, Miles Vorkosigan. However, Ellie Quinn, who appeared briefly in The Warrior’s Apprentice and goes on to make more important appearances alongside Miles later on, plays a major role and this book establishes a fair bit of her character and backstory. So my recommendation is to accept it as part of the saga and move on.
I enjoyed Ethan of Athos a lot. It’s what Bujold does best, a comedy-of-manners romp taking in scheming, intrigue, wheels-within-wheels, deceptions and double-bluffs, and a thin layering of real science (a more thorough exploration of the uterine replicator technology mentioned in previous books) and social commentary on top. There’s some nice character scenes and moments of humour, and Bujold writers her typical wit.
However, the book feels like a somewhat missed opportunity. There are a few SF novels which take a look at societies where either women are put in charge or are dominant (such as David Brin’s Glory Season), or where the normal genders don’t exist as we know them (obviously, The Left Hand of Darkness), but surprisingly few about the idea of a planet where only men exist. The early and closing chapters set on Athos show that Bujold has put a lot of thought into this idea and how it works, and the resulting commentary it offers up on male gender roles is facinating. But as a concept it only bookends the novel, the bulk of which is a more basic – if still fun – SF thriller.
Ethan of Athos is a solid, enjoyable SF novel, but one that feels like it could have been a lot more than that if the story had remained on Athos for its duration. Otherwise, this is a reasonable addition to the Vorkosigan series. The novel is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus.
This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.
The Feminine Future, Mike Ashley (2015)
Review by admiral ironbombs
Mike Ashley’s had an impressive career in science fiction as an editor and anthologist, from writing the four-volume History of the Science Fiction Magazine in the 1970s to editing the Mammoth Book of anthology series today. It seems he and I share some of the same values based on his introduction; he puts forth two popular genre misconceptions that this volume hopes to correct. First, that science fiction is a genre of just fanciful adventure stories, with its bug-eyed monsters and super-scientists jaunting across space and time. And second, that women writing science fiction is a newer development. Indeed, if you judge science fiction by the average “best-of” list and SF reader’s expectations, Ursula Le Guin was one of the first women to write in the genre. The Feminine Future collects fourteen science fiction stories by women writers, all of them written before the term “science fiction” was coined—even predating Gernsback’s ye olde “scientifiction.” These stories fall across the era of proto-SF, from contemporaries to Verne’s and Wells’ scientific romances all the way to early pulp SF tales in the ’20s and ’30s.
‘When Time Turned’, Ethel Watts Mumford (1902). Our unnamed protagonist arrives at the house of a friend who happens to be a doctor, and meets the doctor’s newest patient: a strange case that began with the passing of the man’s wife, at which point he realized time was flowing in reverse. He re-lived his marriage, then his engagement, and now is suffering through his bachelorhood. A sad case of neurological disorder brought on by trauma – or is it? An interesting story that predates The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by twenty years, and uses a similar reverse-aging theme. The writing style and frame structure – visiting a friend, hearing this man’s life story retold – is very dated though, and while I like the idea, I feel the second story would be a better start to the collection.
‘The Painter of Dead Women’, Edna W Underwood (1911). Rushing to meet her husband at a regal ball in Naples, our Englishwoman protagonist instead finds herself at arriving at the wrong address – trapped by the mysterious Count Ponteleone, the painter of dead women. Ponteleone is behind the abduction of several local women who he uses as subjects for his paintings, injecting them with a rare chemical concoction that leads to a fate worse than death – the body’s beauty is preserved in immobility, while the brain continues to function… A gripping story with strong horror themes: the body horror element, losing control of one’s self, and a perverse and intrusive (male) villain, combined with the nightmare of living through every minute of the process. Crisp writing and constant tension make it a brisk read. It’s my first favorite of the collection.
‘The Automaton Ear’, Florence McLandburgh (1873). The protagonist, upon realizing that sounds do not diminish but instead fade into the background noise of Earth, develops a remarkable hearing machine that allows him to hear echoes of the past – he hears everything, from biblical stories as they happened through to the suffering of starving children in a more recent era. This story felt more like other early SF stories of the time with its inventive idea, but takes a dark turn when the protagonist becomes obsessed with his creation, and his decision to test this invention on a deaf woman – to see if it can cure her illness – proves his undoing. While the science is questionable, the central idea combines brilliant creativity with the same engineering and scientific principles of later works.
‘Ely’s Automatic Housemaid’, Elizabeth Bellamy (1900). In contrast to the earlier, darker stories, this is a lighthearted piece about a household receiving two robots Automatic Household Beneficent Geniuses from an inventor friend. Having gone through several maids and servants who were unable to perform their cooking and cleaning duties to the family’s satisfaction, the hope is that these machines will become capable replacements – until it becomes obvious that the settings dials for these machines require much precision, and need some fine-tuning (as well as some kind of childproofing). A comedic story as the machines run rampant and fight over a broom; I have to assume it was a light jab at the idea of machines replacing human workers, à la The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
‘The Ray of Displacement’, Harriet Prescott Spofford (1903). Our protagonist has discovered a ray that changes molecular structure enough that its users are able to pass through walls and become invisible, but after a mix-up involving a diamond, greedy Judge Brant has the protagonist jailed. Still polarized, the protagonist sets forth to clear his name and earn a legal exit from jail, while getting even with the mean-spirited Judge. The tale gains a supernatural element after a failed suicide attempt that becomes important to the finale. This story felt about thirty years ahead of its time, as its scientific thought-experiment and remarkable gadget would have been right at home in issues of Amazing Stories. The story itself is a bit stilted, and oddly starts well after the scientific discovery, but is a very interesting take on an idea that was uncommon in SF at the time.
‘Those Fatal Filaments’, Mabel Ernestine Abbott (1903). An electrician creates a device which allows its user to read the thoughts of others – though, as he finds out, it isn’t discerning on what or whose thoughts it receives. An interesting if slight piece from a relatively unknown author who wrote quite a bit of fiction for early 20th-century magazines. The question this story poses is one that pulp science fiction would frequently return to: what is a brilliant idea for some kind of future machine, and what kind of impact would its creation have on society?
‘The Third Drug’, Edith Nesbit (1908). Wandering Paris at night, Roger Wroxham is assaulted and wounded by brigands; in an effort to escape, he jumps into an open house and barricades the door. Inside, he finds his salvation may be his undoing – the inhabitant is a mad scientist who plays god with pharmaceuticals, who wants to test his latest creation on Roger… Shades of Frankenstein and the gothics of old, replacing the alchemist with a more scientific (and realistic) chemist who’s developed a kind of super-serum drug. The semi-scientific idea is bolstered by some good tense atmosphere, and the story has a bit more action than some of the other recent stories.
‘A Divided Republic’, Lillie Devereux Blake (1887). Subtitled “An Allegory of the Future,” this story is rooted in the future-history as a metaphor, in the same vein as Bellamy’s Looking Backward and similar. Growing disillusion on behalf of womens’ rights advocates and suffragettes leads to American woman emigrating en masse to the Western territories of Washington and the adjoining flyover country to its east. There they set up their own society, where women take the roles of architects and lawmakers, building beautiful shining cities. Meanwhile the menfolk fall victim to alcoholism and bad manners, as they remain unshaven and their houses fall into disarray. A bit heavy-handed in its allegory, stilted in its writing, and lacking in characters. But as a feminist utopia it crafts a bold and vivid idea for its time.
‘Via the Hewitt Ray’, MF Rupert (1930). Another feminist utopia, though perhaps a bit more relatable for us unshaven menfolk as it’s a swashbuckling yarn from Science Wonder Quarterly. Hotshot pilot Lucille Hewitt receives a letter from her father, explaining that he’s crossed dimensions using a light-wave device of his own creation. Desperate to save him, Lucille straps on her Colt .45 and follows in pursuit. Inside, she finds creatures of three evolutionary planes: strange humanoid-alien monsters; a race of cold, distant women who have created a feminist society and keep their men in harems; and a third race which has captured Father Hewitt. The story could easily have been written by another Gernsback writer like Stanton Coblentz or David Keller, balancing Lucille’s exploration of the alien society (eg, a satire/contrast of contemporary society) with some derring-do adventure… if it wasn’t for the heroine protagonist – only the second so far in this volume! – and the brilliantly creative society Lucille finds inside the Hewitt ray. While it’s pulp to the core and a bit rushed, this is perhaps my favorite tale from this collection.
‘The Great Beast of Kafue’, Clotide Graves (1917). In the aftermath of the Boer War, rumors of a great reptilian beast begin to circulate in southern Africa. One old hunter knows about the beast, having seen it before – he retells the experience to his son. As a monster story featuring some relic dinosaur, it’s rich in atmosphere, and in terms of writing it’s the best story in the collection. Graves had an excellent feel for her setting, having written several popular novels set during the Boer War; for its time, this is one of the more authentic-feeling Africa stories this side of H. Rider Haggard. An excellent story with a deep if subtle message about empathizing with emotional loss.
‘Friend Island’, Francis Stevens (1918). Francis Stevens was the only author of this collection familiar to me, known as the first woman to regularly write SF for the pulp magazines. She’s known for her vivid imagination, and this story doesn’t disappoint on that front. The setting is a world where woman have replaced men as the “superior” gender, and our male protagonist speaks with a salty old woman of adventure who found herself shipwrecked. The feminist future is a minor point compared to the floating island, which empathizes with our castaway and reacts according to her mood. As for the previous castaway, one of the last adventurous males, let’s just say his time on the island was less than pleasant. Solid writing backs up impressive creativity.
‘The Artificial Man’, Clare Winger Harris (1929). After a football injury cripples George Gregory, he undergoes a theoretical surgery to gain an artificial leg. But he doesn’t stop there, and after a series of other accidents, he finds himself more machine than man – while the terminology wasn’t invented yet, he’s one of the genre’s first examples of the cyborg. And he wants his college sweetheart, who’s apprehensive at how all these artificial limbs and organs have changed George. The writing is very dry, and the plot is a simple love triangle between a man, a woman, and a cyborg, that examines the boundaries between physical perfection and honest virtue/morals. Not one of my favorites, but it raises some very poignant questions.
‘Creatures of the Light’, Sophie Wenzel Ellis (1930). Our protagonist runs into a German scientist who’s working to perfect the human race, manufacturing his own society of clones out in the Antarctic thanks to his wonder devices. As our hero falls head-over-heels for one of the clones, he runs afoul of another who’s smitten with the woman: Adam, the first clone, out to destroy humanity and claim this world for himself. Another take on the theme of physical perfection versus morality and virtue; history has not been kind to eugenics, so the theme of cloning a “perfect” race of humans is off-putting. The story displays a wealth of unique ideas, but the wooden characters and eugenics-heavy plot left me cold.
‘The Flying Teuton’, Alice Brown (1917). As the name indicates, a take on the Flying Dutchman legend of old. In the aftermath of World War One – written at a time when that was also science fiction – peaceful commerce resumes, and merchant ships ply the oceans. One passenger, an American reporter heading back to New York, rides the first German trade ship to attempt the journey… running into a fleet of ghost ships along the way. An eerie story that’s also quite prescient, with the world showing sympathy for the Germans a year before Versailles, due to the strange coincidences they found themselves in with the ghost fleet.
The stories in this volume deal with the same themes that early science fiction would investigate over and over again: many of them follow the same pattern of “introduce a creative scientific idea and examine its effects on society/its users”. The difference is most of these stories were written decades before Hugo Gernsback named it “scientifiction” and proved there was enough of a market for this type of material to support monthly pulp magazines. Other stories take even more inventive approaches, dealing with ideas and concepts that are still original and fresh today. Some reflect issues of their day, reacting to Woman’s Suffrage, or impacted by The Boer War or World War One. Mike Ashley should be commended for finding these gems which were overlooked for so long; that they include such a variety of themes and styles is impressive.
As with all collections, this is a mixed bag, and not every story will appeal to every reader. That’s precisely why I like it: this book shows how diverse science fiction was even in its earlier days. It covers the breadth of the early genre from adventure stories (‘Via the Hewitt Ray’), to stories that blend horror and science (‘Painter of Dead Women’, ‘The Third Drug’), to feminist utopias (‘Divided Republic’ and ‘Hewitt Ray’) or wild invention stories (‘Automaton Ear’, ‘Automatic Housemaid’, ‘Fatal Filaments’, etc). Some of the stories are similar in theme or feel, but all of them are unique, different takes on the same concept of scientific invention and discovery changing the world. In some cases it’s for the better, in others for the worse, and in a few it’s good old fashioned comedy. My favorites lean towards adventure and the macabre, and include ‘The Great Beast of Kafue’, ‘Via The Hewitt Ray’, ‘Friend Island’, ‘The Painter of Dead Women’, ‘Ely’s Automatic Housemaid’, and ‘The Third Drug’.
Readers not as familiar with pre-modernist literature may be put off by some of the artistic preferences of the age, like the awkward framing device in ‘When Time Turned’, or the distant and passive prose in ‘A Divided Republic’. I cut my teeth reading Wells, Verne, and Haggard, and still found some of the stories a bit dry and plodding for my taste. And the individual pieces have not always withstood the passage of time. But for anyone with a serious interest in science fiction’s history and origins, and those readers fascinated by genre gender studies, this slim volume fills an important gap in SF’s history. (What’s worse is that many readers remain unaware such a void exists.) It addresses shortcomings in perception and misconception that the average reader may have regarding early SF and the women who wrote it. The Feminine Future amounts to more than the sum of its parts: it’s a piece of science fiction history that is often overlooked by most fans, a rich sample from an esoteric and overlooked niche. And I give it a high recommendation because of that.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.
The Many-Coloured Land, Julian May (1981)
Review by Ian sales
Most of the books I’ve reviewed for SF Mistressworks over the past four years (yes, it really has been going that long) were new to me. Some, however, were books I’d read previously, and that’s not always a good thing to do. Of course, it does depend to some extent on when I’d read those books previously – five years ago, ten years ago, twenty, in my teens… Some writers, I’ve found, I admire just as much now as I did when I first read them, such as Ursula K LeGuin. Others, I admire more now than I did when I read them in my early twenties, like Joanna Russ. Some – most, in fact – I’ve found to be not as good as I remembered them. (Although, to be fair, while the novels by CJ Cherryh I’ve reread in recent years have not been as good as I remembered them, I have gained a new appreciation for her writing.)
Then there are those writers, you have to wonder why you loved their books all those years ago… I know people who count Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles – The Many-Coloured Land, The Golden Torc, The Non-Born King and The Adversary – among their favourite science fiction novels. I certainly had fond memories of them, although I’d last read them in the early-1980s, shortly after they first appeared in the UK. I had honestly expected The Many-Coloured Land to weather a reread reasonably well. Sadly, it didn’t.
In the early twenty-first century, Earth is invited to join the Galactic Milieu and by the middle of the century an intergalactic human civilisation is well-established. Many humans are “metapsychics”, as are many of the aliens in the Galactic Milieu. But there are also humans who don’t fit into this new peaceful metapsychic-administered galactic civilisation. Fortunately, a French professor invented time travel so these misfits have somewhere to go. Unfortunately, it can only take them six millions years into the past, the Pliocene era, and it’s one way. Nonetheless, plenty decide to take the trip, so much so that a small industry builds up around the Rhône valley cottage where the professor built his time machine.
The Many-Coloured Land concerns the adventures of one particular group of time-travellers, Group Green, and those they meet in the Pliocene. The book is divided into a prologue and three sections. The first section introduces the members of Group Green, and their reasons for choosing exile in the Pliocene. One is a widowed palaeontologist, another is an ex-metapsychic who lost her powers after a near-fatal accident; there’s also a xenophobic starship captain, a berserker miner, a young female ring-hockey plater, an incorrigible rogue, an anthropologist chasing his love, and a nun looking for somewhere to be a hermit. Unfortunately, the Pliocene is not the untapped wilderness everyone expected. When Group Green arrive, they discover that it’s inhabited by a pair of humanoid alien races, the Tanu and the Firvulag, who have more or less enslaved the seventy thousand or so humans who have travelled there since the time machine was first used. The Tanu are tall and beautiful and powerful metapsychics thanks to torcs they were about their necks. The Firvulag, on the other hand, who are actually the same race as the Tanu, are short and ugly and don’t require torcs for their metapsychic powers.
On arrival in the Pliocene, Group Green are taken to Castle Gateway by human guardians, where their possessions are taken from them and they are tested for latent metapsychic abilities (some do much better than others in this). For some reason never full explained, everyone travels through time in fancy dress, like it’s some sort of convention masquerade. The miner dresses like a Viking, for example, the starship captain like the Flying Dutchman, and the ring-hockey player wears the outfit she wears during a match (which is a sort of stylised hoplite armour).
After various incidents at Castle Gateway, during which the members of Group Green learn about the situation in the Pliocene, half of them travel south to the Tanu capital, Muriah, where they will join the Tanu as equals. The others, however, are sent north to Finiah, to become serfs for the Tanu. Except the latter group overcome their escort en route, escape into the wilderness, join up with a group of free humans, and hatch a plot to salvage the flying ships from where the Tanu/Firvulag intergalactic spaceship crashed on earth millennia before. These are covered in the second and third sections of the novel.
As mentioned earlier, I had fond memories of The Many-Coloured Land and its sequels. The high regard in which the books are generally held did little to dispel those memories. But actually rereading this novel for the first time in over thirty years… The central premise is appealing, true, even if the Galactic Milieu is one of those fictional universes in which everything depends on either paragons or pantomime villains. And the idea of the earth of six million years ago being populated by displaced aliens is pretty neat. And yet… The Many-Coloured Land reads just a bit too much like fanfic. Everyone is either too good or too bad or too nice or too incorrigible or too this or too that. The characters feel like Hollywood stage Oirish, reliant on broadbrush – and at times borderline offensive – characterisation.
There are also slips in rigour – when one character arrives in the Pliocene, for example, she is met by a guardian… but we are in her POV and she cannot know the person helping her is called a “guardian”. There are several mistakes like this as the story progresses – characters knowing background before they’ve been told it. Not to mention many instances where characters lecture one another, particularly on the history of the Tanu, Firvulag and the human time-travellers. Having a palaeontogist along also allows May to show off her Pliocene research, as every animal – although not every plant – which makes an appearance is named and taxonomically categorised.
What I hadn’t known when I first read the books in the early 1980s was that much of the Saga of the Exiles (or Saga of the Pliocene) was based on Irish mythology. The Tanu, for example, are the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Firvulag are the Fir Bolg… which certainly explains the Hollywood Irish atmosphere to the story. The Many-Coloured Land also has a slightly Heinleinian cast to the dialogue, that sort of mid-twentieth-century slightly patronising presentation common to a lot of American science fiction of the time. This is especially problematical when in the POV of some of the male characters, and the way they refer to the female characters is frequently offensive (particularly when discussing the ring-hockey player, who is young, attractive, arrogant, a powerful latent metapsychic, and queer).
On the evidence of The Many-Coloured Land, the Saga of the Exiles has not aged well. Despite being set six million years in the past, it is very much a novel of its day. And it had a very good day – it was extremely popular, sold well, and May went on to write a further four novels set in the Galactic Milieu. Her last novel was published in 2006, Sorceror’s Moon, the last book of the Boreal Moon trilogy. Given that her first appearance in print was in a short story in the December 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, that’s an impressively long career. It’s a shame her best-known work proved so disappointing on reread.