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They, Marya Mannes

October 12, 2016

theyThey, Marya Mannes (1968)
Review by Andrew Pineo

The youth of the sixties, represented as the title of Marya Mannes’s They, has taken over America and passed an age segregation law for people over 50. This is related during rambling conversations of five people in their early sixties who are allowed by special exemption to share their isolation in an old beach house with a few pets, as recorded in the journal of the narrator, while they are waiting for the ultimately grim choice of self disposal or compulsory liquidation at age 65 by the Age Administration in this dystopia.

The narrator is Kate, a former writer/editor, who is clearly the author from the autobiographical details. The others are also associated with various arts. Lev, a major conductor; Joey, popular song writer for Broadway musicals; Barney, a painter; and Annie, his model/mistress. These well-drawn characters may represent Mannes’ friends, second husband or her relatives in the Damrosch family?

After the initial shock of isolation the group tries to strengthen and heighten their remaining functions by periodically depriving themselves of various faculties such as One Leg Day, Deaf Day or Blind Day, but that is abandoned. They end up spending the majority of their time griping about the values of the youth and their generation, as well as in introspection, with Kate detailing their conversations. The group ultimately lays the blame for their situation on themselves: “After all, age was never the object of veneration or admiration in America, even though we still remembered a time when respect in manners if not in mind was accorded it. And how could we seriously claim that our generation as a whole deserved it? Affluent as it was for the majority, the society we had produced was not admirable. It might be better than others, but it was nowhere near what is should have been. It was, in fact, going rotten.” This overwhelming indifferent acceptance of their situation is only addressed in one portion of dialog: Joey asks, in reference to the young, “What happens when They turn forty and fifty? What happens then, when They get the taste of age?” Lev replies, “They will revolt.” Barney adds, “Then why the fucking hell didn’t we? Why?” Nobody answered. This blasé feeling changes to fear as they continue to age and are required to get quarterly computer checkups.

Toward the end of the novel Mannes introduces a mute character who they call Michael “because he looked like the archangel”. Michael is never fully realized or has meaningful interaction with the group and eventually becomes a loose end.

In summary this foray into science fiction by a non-genre writer is insightful into the 60s youth, but may be disappointing to those expecting it to live up to the cover blurb, “More terrifying than Orwell’s 1984 – five outcasts in a future world where all that matters is sensation”. Perhaps the contents may be best summed up by the self criticism appearing in the prologue that this work is “…a clinical document testifying to… In spite of its occasional deceptive lucidity it is clearly the product of a disordered… mind”.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ

October 5, 2016

thefemalemanThe Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Megan AM

“Everyone knows that much as women want to be scientists and engineers, they want foremost to be womanly companions to men (what?) and caretakers of childhood; everyone knows that a large part of a woman’s identity inheres in the style of her attractiveness.”

“Laura is daydreaming that she’s Genghis Khan.” (p 60)

Joanna Russ’s 1975 turbulent treatise on female oppression, The Female Man, begs for interaction from the reader. It taunts with its candor. Even as a forty-year-old book, it dares you to disagree. For the modern reader of this not-really-tale, side effects may include chest tightening “buts”, understanding “ohs”, and flustered “oh come ons”.

In a recent article with ShelfAwareness.com, Kim Stanley Robinson describes Russ’s The Female Man as the “book that made me laugh the hardest while slapping me in the face”. He couldn’t be more precise.

The lives of four women collide: the uber-feminine doormat Jeannine, the rough-and-tumble person Janet, the agro-reactionary murderer Jael, and the rational, scholarly Joanna, our dear author, who communicates her own internal arguments and confusions via these four women. On the face of it, the women are presented as coming from four alternate worlds, but one infers quickly that the characters are non-entities, and that Russ is essentially arguing with herself, and with society, via these personalities. She conveys a divided female psyche that despises the status quo, yearns for gender equality, yet doesn’t want to annoy people, and feels guilty for achieving her own version of equality by essentially giving up her femininity in the academic world.

Four women. Four J names. Different facets of Russ. Different facets of womanhood. Sometimes the narrator refers to “the Weak One” and we don’t know who that is. Is it Jeannine, the young and naïve girly girl, who wants ever so much to get married, but for some reason she won’t? But she’s the quickest to accept and justify violence.

Uncertainties like that define the relative amorphousness of this novel. Its structure is as fractured as the author’s identity, with chapters ranging in length from one sentence to one paragraph to ten pages. Storylines bounce to and fro, interrupted by personal statements, poems, anecdotes, and uncomfortable revelations about self and society.

This is a book of harsh truths, stylized in biting, provocative, funny ways:

In 1975, Russ reminds us, “There are more whooping cranes in the United States of America than there are women in Congress.” (p 61)

She takes on marriage: “You can’t imbibe someone’s success by fucking them” (p 65).

She discusses social conditioning:

There is the vanity training, the obedience training, the self-effacement training, the deference training, the dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the stupidity training, the placation training. How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? …You can’t unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter… (p 151)

She posits a world without men by introducing Janet, from Whileaway, which is ten centuries ahead in an alternate future, where men have been long ago wiped out by way of disease: “And about this men thing, you must remember that to me they are a particularly foreign species; one can make love with a dog, yes?” (p 33)

Russ’s witty cantankerousness is hard to put down, even if some of her references feel outdated to younger readers. Her portrayal of a typical party includes inane social chatter that illuminates the patronizing gender games people play (“His Little Girl” and “Ain’t It Awful”), which seems ridiculous to this late-born Gen-Xer, who hopes no one still talks that way today. It’s hard to believe people ever talked that way.

Even if some of her portrayals might not quite mesh with today, enough truths bubble up to make this a relevant and influential discourse on gender relations. The majority of women I encounter still view marriage as a goal and career, their identities exist through their kids, and the career gap is still gaping.

But most compelling about this novel is the intimacy Russ shares. She splays out her soul, a psychic vivisection for the world to see. Blood pumping, heart beating, eyes agape, and mouth roaring. Sometimes it’s too much and we feel embarrassed for her. Its cringe-inducing roughness is a little too roar-full. Younger generations like myself may balk at the more extreme portrayals of casual sexism, or find this mid-century roaring tiresome. (Women of my generation don’t roar. We death-stare. Much more effective.) Most surprising for me is realizing that this was written only four years before I was born. I was born into this society???

But even if society has progressed beyond the immobile social roles of Russ’s generation, and even if younger generations can’t completely relate to the society Russ depicts, The Female Man still gives us kernels of familiar insidiousness that peek out from the corners. Today, social media has allowed us to see more brash displays of dangerous misogyny, but it’s the subtle sexism that’s most overlooked, and easiest to ignore. Russ reminds us of those places where our standards have been calloused, where our vigilance has waned.

Although The Female Man is a product of its time, we are not quite living in its desired legacy. This should be required reading for all. We should never become comfortable enough to allow this novel to be forgotten.

This review originally appeard on From couch to moon.

The Sunbound, Cynthia Felice

September 28, 2016

sunboundThe Sunbound, Cynthia Felice (1981)
Review by Ian Sales

Allis runs a successful tool and die company, but when her partner dies on a desert camping trip, and admits with his dying breath that he’s not from Earth, and then a pair of crew from his alien ship turn up and take her away with them… Daneth was a “star gypsy” and a “stone-carrier”. He was also co-captain of the Sovereign Sun, a spaceship which travelled throughout the occupied galaxy by harnessing the power of the solar winds for interplanetary travel… and using “gravity slips” for interstellar travel. And that “stone” which Daneth gifted to Allis on his death-bed is a telephathic communications device, rare enough to force the gypsies to kidnap her. To make matters worse, the Sovereign Sun‘s other co-captain Milani was Daneth’s lover, is also a stone-carrier, and bitterly resents that Allis now has Daneth’s stone. (When given with love, the stones live; otherwise they die.)

It’s an interesting set-up, made more so by the fact it is happening now out there – Earth is as we know it, or rather knew it in 1981, but the civilisation which spawned the gypsies and their ships, and the various humanoid races with which they trade, all exist out in the galaxy. Allis’s resentment at being kidnapped, her reluctance to accept the stone Daneth gave her, and Milani’s hatred of her for that reason are all excellent engines to drive a plot. But…

Well, there are a couple of problematical aspects to The Sunbound, and in this day and age it’s hard to overlook them. In the universe of the gypsies – who are all, incidentally, tall and pale-skinned, suffering genetic damage from years of space-based living, and have trouble breeding – trade between worlds is pretty much controlled by a race of humanoids called the Watchers. These were the first to realise the usefulness of the artefacts left behind by the long-vanished Quondam Beings (the results of a thesaurus search, if ever I saw one) and use them to build an advanced civilisation. And they’re still keen to find such artefacts – even if the host civilisation is not aware of what they possess. In fact, the Watchers stood by and let the gypsies destroy their homeworld in a nuclear war in order to profit in this trade, but those gypsies travelling between worlds survived… but had to sell the secret of the gravity slips to the Watchers to safeguard their survival.

It’s an interesting set-up, and used well, except… the Watchers are described as brown-skinned and turban-wearing, and they not only breed people for specific roles in their society but actually breed, or interfere in the womb as fetuses, their women to be mentally subnormal. One Watcher character even brags of one of his wives, “I put her down a while ago, when her vagina lost elasticity” (p 139). Seriously, WTF? And the mention of turbans and brown skin, the racial profiling, of the Watchers smacks of Islamaphobia, never mind racism.

That the plot later involves the crew of the Sovereign Sun being waylaid by pirate gypsies, and the survivors – which includes all the major characters – put to forced labour aboard the pirate ship, does nothing to offset the racist portrait of the Watchers. The pirates may be gypsies, and so white, and may treat the protagonists badly… but the villains of the piece are most definitely the Watchers. The pirates are irredeemably evil, but in this instance they’re acting under the instructions of a Watcher, and so their villainy is by definition an extension of his character.

The whole thing spoils what might otherwise have been a fun, if undemanding, science fiction novel if its time. True, the hatred between Allis and Milani begins to wear thin after a while, and the fact the two must eventually overcome their differences and cooperate is pretty much obvious from the novel’s start… And the general concept of the universe, with its Quondam Beings and assorted humanoid races living in their ruins, is intriguing… But the positioning of the Watchers as turbaned brown people who treat their women like pampered animals leaves a very bad taste in the mouth.

It’s a shame because Felice’s first novel, Godsfire, wasn’t half bad, and the novel following The Sunbound, 1983’s Eclipses sounds worth a read (Felice re-issued all her novels on Kindle in 2012 and 2013). I will continue to keep an eye open for her books, but I cannot in good conscience recommend The Sunbound.

A Sparrow’s Flight, Margaret Elphinstone

September 21, 2016

sparrows_flightA Sparrow’s Flight, Margaret Elphinstone (1989)
Review by Jack Deighton

Subtitled on the cover “A Novel of a Future”, A Sparrow’s Flight is set in the same post-apocalypse universe as Elphinstone’s The Incomer and features the same lead character, Naomi. Here, on her last night before travelling across to a tidal island (which internal evidence in the text suggests is Lindisfarne) she encounters Thomas, an exile from the once “empty lands” of the west, and is invited by him to return there with him. The lure is that she will discover there something from the past about music.

The novel covers a span of 29 days in which Thomas and Naomi traverse the country east to west, stay awhile at Thomas’s former home then travel back again. The chapters are of varying length and each covers just one of the days. Elphinstone’s future world is one in which the ruins of the past are feared, only low-tech exists; there is no transport, except perhaps for oxcarts and rowing boats for crossing water. Distance is an alienating factor. Once again the incomprehension Naomi has of the local norms is one of the themes. Complicating things are the fact the empty lands’ inhabitants are mistrustful of strangers and that Thomas himself has a past he wants to expiate.

Again, like The Incomer, this is a book in which nothing much happens, especially if you consider the music element of the story as more or less incidental. But quiet lives led quietly are worthy of record. When Thomas and Naomi return to their starting point they have both found things out about themselves and each other, of the importance of relationships and mutual benefit.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

The Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre

September 14, 2016

theexilewaitingThe Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre (1975)
Review by Victoria Snelling

I read The Exile Waiting by Vonda McIntyre some while ago and I enjoyed it a lot. The story has stuck with me. Humanity has long since spread into the stars except for a remnant population on Earth. The surface of Earth is storm-torn and unlivable and a small city scrabbles a poor living underground. Mischa is a thief, struggling to steal enough to satisfy her uncle who controls her through torturing her telepathic, mentally disabled sister. It’s doubly hard once her brother is lost to the drugs he uses to block out their sister’s psychic cries.

But Mischa has a plan to get off Earth. It involves the ship that arrives carrying genetically modified twins set on removing the ruler of Center and establishing their own power base there. One of the twins finds himself separating from the other, thinking independently, disagreeing, wanting something else. This independence sets brother against brother.

This is a beautifully realised world with layers and depth. I particularly enjoyed the twins, their relationship and their eventual separation. The exquisite pain of growth is well captured. The loss of what one had, the gradual acceptance that what was can never be again, the pain of growing towards something unknown. I loved the hard choices Mischa has to make.

I’m growing to be a fan of Vonda McIntyre.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold

September 7, 2016

mirror_danceMirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold (1994)
Review by Megan AM

With clones and diplomatic intrigue muddling up the Vorkosigan lifestyle, yet again, another adventure takes Miles out of the picture. Instead of our normal Vorkosigan friends, Mirror Dance offers a unique point-of-view, that of an intruder, giving fans, and detractors, a new perspective on this wealthy Barrayaran family

A series with character, as in strictly character driven, with things happening and things to be accomplished, Mirror Dance belongs somewhere in the early middle of this lengthy series that revolves around members of the same noble family. The Vorkosigan series reminds me of a dollhouse where the fashionable and wealthy characters leave their mansions each day, and drive their expensive, powerful cars (or starships), to run errands and have adventures. Maybe someone gets kidnapped, or deals with a bad guy, or sinks into quicksand… I’m pretty sure I played out these plots with my dolls as a little girl. (Though my dolls did more dressing up than hijacking of rocket ships, but they were pretty adventurous.)

In this episode, Miles’ doppelgänger, Mark, the genetic clone brother who was originally created for the infiltration and destruction of the Vorkosigan family, tricks Miles’ mercenaries into aiding in the rescue of other clones held on Jackson’s Whole. Miles finds out, but before he can put a stop to the violent conflict that follows, he is killed by a grenade. His body is cryogenically frozen for future medical attention, but then lost in space in the chaos of battle. Despite this, the Vorkosigans accept Mark into their home, but Mark feels responsible for the loss of his hated clone/brother/enemy, and his investigative actions result in his own imprisonment and subsequent torture.

But, like the adventures of Barbie and Ken, it’s always going to work out for Miles and his lot, and there is always the same root, the same hearth, the same heart to which they return. But unlike Barbie and Ken, the Vorkosigan charisma and fortitude might be entertaining and inspiring enough to distract from the aristocratic glaze of this elite Barrayaran family.

Mirror Dance is the most enjoyable of the four to five Vorkosigans I’ve read so far. It may be that I am finally indoctrinated into the series, though I suspect Mark’s outsider perspective has more to do with it. (And, let’s get real, a 100% audio run might have helped, too.) Like me, Mark is critical of this family of rich privilege, (although he acclimates quickly enough), and his observations better match my own suspicion of this self-righteous-but-not-enough-to-really-upset-the-status-quo family. Is Mark’s POV just a byproduct of his circumstance, or a hint of Bujold’s self-awareness?

Although Mark (and I) might be critical of this family, it’s clear that fans of this series find comfort in this kind of steadiness. But don’t get too comfortable, comfort readers. Mark’s creation story, which might be covered at more length in a different installment, involves manipulation, programming, torture, and rape. (The thing is, it seems like every Vorkosigan character of importance is raped, or very close to it. It is a primary factor for plot and/or character development in this series. Personality hinges, or perhaps, unhinges, on rape, particularly among the male characters.)

To demonstrate Mark’s consequential developmental and intimacy disorders, Bujold has him sexually assault a ten-year-old clone girl with breast implants, with no consequence because, after all, she’s just a clone. (Not Bujold’s thinking, of course, but a demonstration of the inhumanity of this future space culture – although we don’t really need such a drastic lesson since the narrative tells us as much because, in this series, so much is told.) During his imprisonment after Miles’ death and disappearance, Mark is raped, force fed, raped some more, manipulated to rape, maim, and kill. He copes by splitting his psyche into separate personalities who enjoy each vice: Grunt, Gorge, Howl, Killer. These are not graphic scenes, merely hinted at, but unpleasant all the same. But Mark survives, the bad guys are defeated, and Mark goes home and shakes it off like a wet dog.

This is common with the Vorkosigans. While there is struggle, change, even development, there is no depth, no transformation, no real threat. Change happens, sometimes hard change (loss, dementia, aging, death), but character revolution won’t. I’ve seen these folks at the beginning and at their most recent, and they are always recognizable, familiar – the most likely explanation for this series’ oft-criticized success. Readers come to this series to embrace their old friends, and fill in narrative gaps.

Series like this are, in essence, just like a dollhouse: the flexible, resilient framework combined with foundational permanence, the character stability, the episodic nature, and the à la carte entry points (you can sample the series at any point, a revolving narrative, whereas space opera tends to recommend strict linearity), not to mention the family focus, the extravagant wealth, and the relative ease for characters (even in the face of tragedy), brings to mind this analogy, and I think that’s why this series appeals to so many fans. Once you know the characters and the open floor plan, you can walk up to this structure at any time, get out the characters, and start a new adventure. Both a strength and a weakness, depending on what kind of reader you are.

For a series reader wanting comfort, welcome home.

For me, it just isn’t my bag, and a few other nagging things don’t help. The torture and tragedy never grip me. I wince at the words, but they form sentences, not experiences. Also, Bujold likes to rely on old clichés (“with friends like these” and “gut feeling like a bad case of indigestion” are two that come to mind) rather than delight us with fresh writerly quips. And, as usual, “bemused”, gets abused, both in rate of use and definitional misuse. (I understand “bemused” as “baffled and confused”, though she tends to use it as “slightly amused”, though it’s sometimes difficult to choose through context clues, which is why it is so frustrating because the difference between the two can screw with a character’s point-of-view. Boo.)

But what I like, and what I think really captures the fans, is the motivational-spoiler effect that happens when publication order does not synchronize with narrative order. Lots of foreshadowing, lots of aft-shadowing – it fosters curiosity about the future and past of these characters, no matter what order you decide to read. And for a series that is strictly character driven, that seems to be the key.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

The Price of the Stars, Debra Doyle & James D Macdonald

August 31, 2016

price_starsThe Price of the Stars, Debra Doyle & James D Macdonald (1992)
Review by Ian Sales

Stop me if you’ve heard this before… A young woman, the political leader of a culturally- and economically-important planet in a federation, persuades a legendary freebooter, who has the fastest merchant ship in the galaxy, to join the fight against an implacable enemy whose leaders possess near-magical powers. The freebooter proves to be an effective general, and the Republic wins the war, but not before the woman’s home world is destroyed. The two marry. It does sound a little familiar, doesn’t it? And that’s just the back-story to The Price of the Stars, the first book of the Mageworld series. The actual story in the novel concerns the couple’s three children…

Beka Rosselin-Metadi is a starpilot aboard a tramp freighter, but her mother is Domina of the destroyed world of Entibor and her father is Commanding General of the Republic Space Force. She wants nothing to do with her family, so she’s surprised when her father turns up at the frontier planet on which she’s just landed with his super-fast merchant, Warhammer. He tells her that her mother, the Domina, has been assassinated while speaking to the Senate… which means Beka is now Domina. She refuses the role – she left home to avoid becoming it. Her father makes an alternative offer: he will give her Warhammer to use to find out who ordered the Domina’s murder, and afterwards Beka can keep the ship.

All goes well for a short while: Beka hauls a few small cargoes, makes a small profit, asks a few questions… but then a contract is put out on her. She’s saved from a pair of paid assassins by a mysterious old man she calls the Professor (the only name to which he answers throughout the entire novel). She takes him on as co-pilot, and he shows her his secret asteroid base, with its well-outfitted hangar and luxurious quarters. He explains that he once served her family, but even though he retired he feels he still owes her his oath.

Meanwhile, Beka’s big brother, Ari, seven-foot of muscley Space Force medic on a frontier world, is dealing with an outbreak of a disease never seen there before. He asks the local contact of the Quincunx, the galaxy-wide smugglers’ organisation, for medicine Space Force cannot supply, inadvertently saves the smuggler from some paid assassins, gets his medicine, and is also made an honorary member of the Quincunx.

There’s a third brother, Owen, who is an Adept in the Guild, which are sort of monks with special powers, a bit like, well, the F*rce. Owen only pops up now and again in the narrative, usually to offer intelligence.

Beka and the Professor stage a crash to convince everyone Warhammer is destroyed and she is killws. She then re-appears in male guise as Captain Tarnekep Portree, freebooter and assassin, in a merchant ship that looks just like Warhammer but has a different name. Beka now has the freedom to continue her investigation without being hounded by assassins. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go precisely as planned and Ari, plus two of Ari’s colleagues, Lieutenant Nyls Jessan and Adept Llannat Hyfid, end up joining Portree’s crew.

Various clues lead them to suppose their mother’s murder was paid for by a powerful industrialist family which is trying to arrange for the planet Suivi Point to leave the Republic. But it all seems too obvious, and further digging – involving run-ins with assassins, a fierce firefight on a frontier world, and the kidnapping of the head of a banking clan at a posh reception while disguised as an exiled royal family – eventually lead Portree et al to one of the most powerful men in the Republic. And it looks like he has ties with the Mageworlds. An attempt to infiltrate the man’s personal planet and take him prisoner provides The Price of the Stars final action-packed quarter…

The Price of the Stars is hardly great literature. It reads like an unholy marriage of Star Wars, Mission: Impossible and EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. Initially, its inspirations are far too obvious, and its world-building far too identikit – I still fail to understand why writers of space operas feel it’s acceptable to feature slavery, or why they think civilisations which can colonise thousands of world are incapable of maintaining law and order on them. In fact, the villain’s world, Darvell, is painted as some kind of hellhole because it’s orderly and well-regulated. Unfortunately, instead of reading like an analogue of the USSR, it comes across as a pleasant and civilised place. Space opera politics have always been firmly stuck on right-wing/libertarian, and The Price of the Stars certainly doesn’t buck the trend…

The book is a fast and entertaining read. It doesn’t challenge tropes or prejudices. After fifty pages, I had no intention of reading any further books in the series, but by the time I’d finished The Price of the Stars I quite fancied trying the next book. Beka/Portree is an interesting protagonist – and female leads in space operas are still uncommon even now, twenty-four years after this book appeared. True, the story’s universe wears its inspirations a little too openly, and what hasn’t been repurposed from assorted popular intellectual genre properties has been lifted straight out of science fiction’s central casting and used furniture… but the plot is pretty relentless and the various set-pieces are handled with economy.

The Price of the Stars is a space opera for a wet Bank Holiday Monday, when it’s best just to go with the flow and not think too hard. Keep your expectations low and you’ll probably not be disappointed.