Skip to content

Don’t Bite the Sun, Tanith Lee

July 6, 2016

dont_biteDon’t Bite the Sun, Tanith Lee (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

The unnamed narrator of Don’t Bite the Sun is Jang, which means she – and, once or twice, he – is a pampered teenager in the city of Four BEE, living a life of hedonistic pleasure in a far future utopia. Unfortunately, this proves not enough and the narrator has several goes at finding something meaningful to do. She asks to be uplifted to adult, but is told she must be Jang for at least a century. She decides to become a “maker”, ie a parent, but fails to find a suitable partner. She travels to Four BAA and Four BOO, sister cities, but also fails to find a suitable partner in either place. She asks for a job, but the authorities turn her down. And she joins an archaeology expedition into the desert… Before finally coming to the conclusion that she can only do what is expected of her as a Jang.

Don’t Bite the Sun seems to be quite well regarded among sf readers – it was in print for three decades, and is now still available as half of an omnibus, Biting the Sun (with its sequel Drinking Sapphire Wine). And yet… it often reads like an attempt to rewrite A Clockwork Orange in the sort of science-fictional language used by Samuel R Delany, but has neither rigour of the former nor the poetry of the latter. Partly this is due to Lee’s decision to pepper her prose with Jang slang words, definitions of which are helpfully given in a glossary at the start of the book. Unfortunately, the slang words themselves are too ridiculous to take seriously. Groshing, “fabulous, marvellous”, is one thing – albeit not that far from horrorshow. But attlevey for “hello” is unnecessary and silly, farathoom for “bloody, fucking hell” is plain daft… and as for floop, “cunt”, that’s just complete rubbish. The use of such invented words – a practice often known by the phrase “calling a rabbit a smeerp” – adds nothing to the world-building or narrative. If anything, it makes the narrator seem even more air-headed than she actually is.

While the Jang slang reads like the product of a tin ear, the setting is sketched in so thinly it’s not clear what supports it or how it manages to exist. During the narrator’s trips through the desert to Four BAA and Four BOO, Lee displays a nice turn of phrase in describing the landscape, and the descriptions imply some form of catastrophe in the distant past… but the cities themselves seem to be post-scarcity, without any actual available resources. (Although the narrator shop-lifts for much of the novel, it’s clear things should be paid for – but we’re not told where the Jang get their money from.) Most of the work is done by androids – referred to as Q-Rs – although many adults appear to be employed in make-work jobs. The only “professional” who gets any real time in the narrative is a Q-R psychologist who interviews the narrator on several occasions.

Despite the shortcomings of the world-building, the prose at least is readable and entertaining. Perhaps it focuses overmuch, if not almost entirely, on people’s appearances; but given the narcissistic nature of the Jang, that’s hardly surprising. There’s a narrative thread about friend Hatta, who always chooses ugly bodies, because he loves the narrator and wants her to love him for who he is and not what he looks like. There’s also a running joke regarding an animal the narrator steals from a shop, and which she calls her “pet”, and that has its amusing episodes…

But when all’s said and done Don’t Bite the Sun is as shallow as its narrator, of all the Jang in fact; and anything meaningful it tries to say about teen years of state-sponsored hedonism as a precursor to lives of adult responsibility gets lost in the silliness of the narrator and her various pursuits and relationships with her friends and lovers. The books lacks a foundation – in its world-building and in its plot. It’s entertaining enough fluff, although I suspect it felt a little dated even in 1976; and I suppose its colour and silliness give the novel some charm…

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, Anne McCaffrey

June 29, 2016

moretaMoreta: Dragonlady of Pern, Anne McCaffrey (1983)
Review by Megan AM

As a kid who devoured Nancy Drew and Baby-sitters Club novels, then Kurt Vonnegut and Marion Zimmer Bradley as a teen, I can’t quite place where Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series would go on the recommended reads for child development chart. Its style and content seem ideal for the ages 3 to 7 crowd, yet there are some sexy moments that seem a little too sophisticated for young kiddos. But I’m not sure an older child or young teen would buy the whole space-dragon on a medieval future world premise. I know I wouldn’t have.

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern is the prequel to McCaffrey’s extensive Dragonrider series, which serves to explain the legendary tale of the famous dragonrider, Moreta, who is often referenced in the earlier-published, but later-occurring novels. Moreta is a dragonrider/dragonhealer/weyrleader who lived 1000 years prior to the events of the first published Pern novel. Little is known about her because the Pernese suck at recording history (they do this on purpose, sometimes), but her adventures and tragedies are immortalized in song and poetry. Basically, it’s a story about a story from the story.

So what do you do when your people settle a planet and abandon all mechanized technology, only to discover your new planet is bombarded by sizzling thread every 100 turns? You genetically-engineer dragons to combat the thread, and (quietly) discover time travel via said dragons. Obviously. And everything works out perfectly until… FLU PANDEMIC!

Moreta and her golden queen dragon, Orlith, are eagerly awaiting the end of the current thread cycle, eight years away. Both are in the prime of their lives and their careers, important to their weyr community and throughout Pern. They go to a gathering at Ruatha Hold, and Moreta enjoys racing and dancing with the hot Lord Holder Alessan. But when a runner and a rider fall mysteriously ill, Pern is faced with a problem that dragonriding can’t solve. Moreta is swept into the crisis as her Weyrleader Sh’gall and Masterhealer Capiam become bedridden, and many of Pern’s holds are wiped out by the virus. Moreta must use her skills as a rider, a dragonhealer, and a leader to stop the crisis… all while Orlith is pregnant with Pern’s most important clutch of eggs!

Although Pern is praised for its undercurrents of feminism, the first two novels in the series didn’t meet my expectations, mostly due to Pern’s paternal feudal society led by grumbling male Weyrleaders and Lord Holders, a vain female side character, and only one standout female lead who breaks all the rules, yet remains the exception. By Moreta, seven books into the series, that feminism is well-established, giving the Weyrwoman unquestioned authority and independence, including freedom of sexual relations without implications, even within a Weyr partnership in which her dragon chooses a mate whose rider does not appeal to Moreta. Her relaxed attitude toward relationships demonstrates an overt criticism of the possessive nature of romance in our society.

McCaffrey’s version of motherhood is also rather progressive, even by today’s standards. Moreta has had an unaccounted for number of children with several different men, all of whom are fostered to other weyrs and holds, yet she is neither viewed as a slut, nor as a neglectful mother. It can be assumed based on an interaction with one of her children that the relationships between Moreta and her fostered children are warm and loving, with no bitterness about the situation. The Pernese idea of child-rearing is almost more like the crèche style exhibited in other SF novels, where the community raises the children, allowing parents more time and energy to devote to their skills and personal development. In Pern, however, this option seems to be only available to the very important dragonladies – elitist in nature, but very unique, especially in a society that seems backward in so many other ways (feudalism, atavism, etc.)

Despite Moreta’s inhuman feats of dragonriding, followed by dragonhealing, followed by time-jumping to collect the ingredients for a vaccine, followed by more time-jumping to vaccinate the entire planet within the incubation window, the story feels rather insubstantial. Considering the impact of a major pandemic, the emotionality of so many deaths is not conveyed well. After all, it is a children’s book, and the pacing matches a child’s imagination and comprehension. Even fans of the series complain of the book’s lackluster plot, seemingly wedged into the series when McCaffrey ran out of fresh ideas but publishing pressures forced her to mine her own work. I was bored, to the point where I desperately hoped someone important would die – I often do this – forgetting that this is a story about a legend.

Legends always have a tragic end. And THAT’S when this book gets good!

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Fool’s Run, Patricia A McKillip

June 22, 2016

fools_runFool’s Run, Patricia A McKillip (1987)
Review by Guy

As my somewhat dog’s eared copy will attest this is a novel I have enjoyed quite a bit and read more than once. I first encountered McKillip’s work when I found Heir of Sea and Water, the second volume of the Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy in a drug store while attending an archaeological field school in Elk Point, Alberta. The Riddlemaster series now ranks right up there with Tolken’s Hobbit/LOTR books for me, and McKillip is really the only fantasy writer whose works I still buy as they come out. As far as I know, Fool’s Run is her only SF work.

From the prologue:

The static again. A different voice. “Jailbird. This is records. Name of prisoner?”
“Terra Viridan.”
The com whistled. “You’ve got her.”
“Legal status.”
“Her status-sheet is a mile long, can I give-“
“Give us a printout when you dock. Jailbird. Is she sane?”
A break of silence. “You ask her. Look into her eyes and ask her.”

And so Terra Viridian who, as a conscripted recruit stationed in the Desert Sector of Earth, used her laser-rifle to kill one thousand five hundred and nine men, women, and children, has come to the Dark Ring, the Underworld, to spend, the rest of her life.

Chapter one starts in the Constellation Club on the Sunshine Coast, which includes the area formally known as Australia. The Constellation Club is owned by Sidney Halleck, a musicologist and promoter, who collects instruments and bands. His club contains 20 stages with the bands operating behind screens of light allowing the patrons to move from stage to stage. The Magician, the pianist and leader of a band called Nova, has just played Bach for four straight hours, after Nova’s last set, while in some kind of trance. This has been witnessed by Sidney and the Magician’s friend, Aaron Fisher a patroller (police officer) who works in the area. At the same time this is happening Jason Klyes the chief administrator of the Underworld, is fielding two requests. One is from his rehabilitation director Jeri Halpren who wants to work with Sidney to bring a band to perform a concert at Underworld.

The second is from a scientist Dr A Fiori of New Horizons, the mental health facility and rehabilitation centre that Terra Viridian should logically have been sent to, if there had not been so much political pressure to find her guilty. He wants to use a prisoner for Project Guinea Pig, a biocomputer (Dream Machine) which translates brain impulses onto the computer screen in an attempt to help understand and control criminal impulses. And of course the prisoner that Fiori has selected for the project is Terra Viridian. The last piece of the puzzle falls into place when Nova is selected to be the band will play a concert at Underworld.

Not all aspects of McKillip’s universe can immediately be ferreted out. There are no info-dumps and few lectures. She is a writer who shows rather than tells making the reader pay attention to the text they are reading. Which is not to say, she festoons her work with needless slang and in-jokes, to give it a false sense of depth. Any new words, cubers for drummers, sectors replacing countries and continents just supply a hint of the changes time has wrought but the language is straightforward. We find out enough about the world the characters inhabit, without slowing the narrative to add a lot of unneeded detail. The present culture some 5.2 billion people occupy the earth, the asteroids and some of the nearby planets. Regions are divided into sectors and the FWG, Free World Government is the overarching authority. As the Magician states,

“I wonder how long the FWG can keep its grip on the world. It’s part democracy, part tyranny, part socialist, part plain parental, and it has kept itself alive so far by our memory of near annihilation.” (p 101)

It is certainly not a perfect society, there are separatist movements, terrorist organizations, the patrollers must battle not only financially motivated crime but also random seemingly unmotivated crimes. Sounds a lot like today.

The characters themselves are nicely detailed. Despite the fact that McKillip has chosen to have the members of Nova go by nicknames, like characters in a western or medieval allegory, the Magician, the Scholar who is smart and plays the rod-harp, Questor the vocalist, who is or at least pretends, to be very French, the Nebraskian, the sound man who took the name from an old movie, and the cubers, the Gambler and his replacement (he does not fly, inner ear problems), the Queen of Hearts, become real people with obvious personalities before the end of the novel. I did notice that a number of the character traits that can be found in the Riddlemaster books, are also be found in Fool’s Run. One of the things I enjoy about McKillip’s characters is that conversation are often broken off, interrupted, that tone or body language is as important as what is said. Also even after years of working together or being friends her characters do not fully understand one another or know all the details of each others pasts.

I think this is best expressed in a conversation between the Magician and Aaron Fisher:

“Probably. Sorry I brought it up.”
“You didn’t,” Aaron said helplessly. “You just pulled it out of my head. You just -“…
“It was in your voice.”
Aaron shook his head doggedly. “It was in the silence after my voice.” (p 75)

I find this to be a reasonable approach that mirrors my experience. In my experience we interrupt each other, conceal as much as we reveal, dwell on some topics and avoid others, repeat ourselves, tailor what we say to our audience. Sometimes even our closest friends surprise us and sometimes even we do not fully understand our own motivations and reactions. I think this gives McKillip’s work a maturity and nuance lacking in a lot of science fiction. Fool’s Run is very much a novel about language and communication. One of the longest discussions between the band members is about the meaning and importance of symbols. The language of the novel is beautiful and evocative, from the fragments of poetry introduced in the security challenges from the prolong, to all the sensory information we receive, about the light, scents and sounds that inform each scene. This is also a novel about how people act and react, many of the characters rely as much on hunches, intuition, even a slight precognition ability as they do on logical decision making.

If I had to compare Fool’s Run to another book it would be Delany’s Babel-17. Stylistically both deal with language and symbol, with visions, intuitions, short hallucinatory passages of poetry and bursts of sensory experience although otherwise they are very dissimilar works.

This review originally appeared on A Jagged Orbit.

Heritage of Flight, Susan Shwartz

June 15, 2016

heritageHeritage of Flight, Susan Shwartz (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

The Alliance is at war with the Secessionists and has been for many years. It is not going well for either side. Pauli Yeager is a fighter pilot aboard an Alliance battleship, operating in a flotilla of three such ships. But a battle with a Secessionist ship and its fighters goes badly, and Yeager’s ship is forced to flee. Since the ship is the only survivor of the engagement, the security marshal aboard decides to implement Project Seedcorn. The battleship is carrying a number of refugees from a world nuclear-bombed by the Secessionists, most of which are children. These, and a handful of the battleship’s crew – including its captain and Yeager – are landed on the uninhabited world of Cynthia and left to fend for themselves… in the hope they will found a new colony to provide cannon fodder for the ongoing war, or will at least become a last hidden bastion of the Alliance should the Secessionists win.

Unfortunately, it seems the initial survey of Cynthia was somewhat slipshod – the planet is inhabited. The colonists quicklyu establish relations with the primitive flying Cynthians. The other wildlife is less welcoming. A race of acid-spitting giant caterpillars called “eaters”, for example, kill several of the colonists, including the battleship’s ex-captain and head of the colony – forcibng Yeager to take over. She orders the eaters eradicated… before belatedly realising they’re the nymphal stage of the Cynthians. And since the Cynthians quite rightly object to having their young exterminated, Yeager decides the colony’s survival requires genocide of the entire race. Which they accomplish…

Some time later, a Secessionist fighterpilot crashlands on Cynthia, and so demonstrates that the Secessionists have been using mind-linked clones to fly their fighter craft. Originally part of a sextet, Thorn is now the sole survivor. His fighter group was attacked and destroyed by breakaway Secessionists – it seems their war on the Alliance has triggered a civil war. The colony welcomes Thorn, but he needs time to find himself… so he disappears into the mountains.

Then there’s an outbreak of illness/madness… which is discovered to be ergot-poisoning of the colony’s wheat. Everything they have built is pretty much ruined. The poisoning kills some, but the madness kills others.

The battleship on which Yeager served then returns. But this time it carries people from the Aliiance, the Republic (what the Secessionists called themselves), and Earth. The home of humanity had managed to broker a peace between the Alliance and the Republic. The moment they land, Yeager demands she be court martialed for genocide. No one else does, of course – they think she did what had to be done. But she’s been carrying the guilt for all the years the colony has struggled along and she demands justice.

Heritage of Flight is an odd novel. I have fond memories of Shwartz’s Arthurian fantasy/romance Grail of the Heart, but Heritage of Flight reads like a fix-up based in a universe that had been explored in greater detail elsewhere. And this despite being set on a world that is pretty much a tabula rasa. The colophon in my edition of Heritage of Flight reveals that two parts of it were previously published in Analog – although this does not explain why the other sections of the novel read like installments in a series. That episodic nature works against the novel’s plot – Yeager’s guilt over killing the Cynthians, for example, moves backwards and forwards into view depending entirely on the plot of that section… and yet the novel finishes with the implication it is the book’s major theme.

Some elements ofthe background feel a little too… Cherryhesque. True, if you’re going to steal, then steal from the best. But the Alliance / Republic thing feels like a cheap copy of Cherryh’s universe, without the depth she manages to give it. Yeager, however, is a little too thin for a Cherryh heroine – she seems driven by her love of piloting and her guilt over the genocide, but not much else. Few of the other characters rise above the level of sketches. In the novel’s favour, however, there is an extended scene – actually, it’s over-extended, as its purpose could have been served by half as many words – in which the colony celebrates KwaZulu. It is this festival, in fact, which leads to the ergot poisoning, and the effects of that poisoning are given in quite gruesome detail.

I admit I had expected more of Heritage of Flight, given my previous experience of Shwartz’s fiction. Perhaps I was expecting too much. Heritage of Flight is a solid piece of 1980s science fiction, without anything which might lift it above others of its type. It’s an entertaining enough read, but it’s bread-and-butter sf, nothing to set the genre alight, and it comes as no real surprise that it wasn’t reprinted until the SF Gateway picked it up in 2012.

Three Worlds of Futurity, Margaret St. Clair

June 8, 2016

three_worldsThree Worlds of Futurity, Margaret St. Clair (1964)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995) was a mainstay of the major pulp magazines and maintained a prolific career from 1946 to the late 60s (between the 70s and early 80s she produced only one novel and a handful of stories). Previously, I found myself disenchanted with her work as I struggled through the Wicca-inspired ramblings of Sign of the Labrys (1963). However, I thought I would give her short fiction a try and snagged a copy of the 1964 Ace Double #M-105 that contained her collection Three Worlds of Futurity (1964) and her best known novel Message from the Eocene (1964).

Three Worlds of Futurity contains five stories from her most prolific period – the late 40s-early 60s. Although the majority do not rise above their fellow pulp ilk, ‘The Rages’ (variant title ‘The Rations of Tantalus’ 1954, revised 1964) shows a measured and incisive feminist inspired vision and the unusual subject matter of ‘Roberta’ (1962) suggests St. Clair’s willingness to tackle controversial subjects. Most of the stories contain evocative imagery although the delivery rarely transfixes. Also, although most of the main characters in St. Clair’s stories are men, women scientists and pilots (etc) populate the pages. I suspect one could make a case that her characters do not fit neatly into the pulp mode.

Somewhat recommended for fans of pulp (of which I am obviously not).

‘The Everlasting Food’ (1950): Published originally in Thrilling Wonder Stories, ‘The Everlasting Food’ is a mostly forgettable story with some intriguing, and turbulent imagery. Richard Dekker, Earth-born, employed as a oceanographer on Venus chooses a controversial surgery to save his native Venusian (an “almost-mytheical Sanedrin”) wife Pamir Dekker. The result is catastrophic for Pamir loses her “Seeing” ability. Of course, as is often the case with telepathy in pulp SF/F, the ability to the non-telepathic is beyond basic comprehension. Initially all seems well, Pamir smiles (an empty smile) but claims she no longer needs to eat. Soon Pamir runs away with their half-Venusian son. The story soon devolves into a chaotic quest to find the boy. Standard pulp fair with little to distinguish it from its dime-a-dozen Thrilling Wonder Stories brethren.

‘Idris’ Pig’ (variant title: ‘The Sacred Martian Pig’) (1949): Published originally in Startling Stories, ‘Idris’ Pig’ tells a comical story of a mostly immobile unusual pig-like creature with a rank smell… George, on his friend’s death bed, is bequeathed the object and the mission of its original courier: “he was greeted by a fishy smell and a feeble oink. Inside was a small blue animal, some twenty centimeters long, regarded him comatosely” (p 43). This creature with its comatose gaze soon embroils George in an elaborate plot involving Martian cults and general mayhem. Silly and outrageous, ‘Idris’ Pig’ is very much what you’d expect from a late 40s pulp story.

‘The Rages’ (variant title: ‘The Rations of Tantalus’) (1954): First published in Fantastic Universe, ‘The Rages’ is by far the best story in the collection. Although the premise is a standard one – future over-medicated world – St. Clair’s measured way telling, paranoid undercurrents, and human-centered vision make it worthwhile. Harvy and his wife Mara lead a chaste life – i.e. “they had lain side by side for nearly a thousand nights and, except for a handful of times in the first years of their marriage, nothing had ever happened” (p 76) – controlled by drugs. Harvy, addicted completely to euphoria pills, finds himself excited by his wife, not for her attractiveness, but as her “tunic was the exact shade” of his pills.

The state claims the euphoria pills are completely safe and necessary to prevent rages. However, lab experiments on rats and the mental state of city’s hostels occupants indicate the devastating damage caused by the “final rage”. Harvy spends his time fantasizing about increased allotments of pills however a sequence of events cause him to question their effects. Does he have the willpower to overcome his addiction or will he too turn into a twitching wreck on the hostel floor…

There’s more to ‘The Rages’ than the ubiquitous drugs are dangerous message. Drugs do not only create non-sexual states of pleasure that detached society from the importance of sex but are also used to prevent menstruation (and odor and sweat). Drugs are powerful means to control women. However, St. Clair is quick to point out that Harvy himself is the one who must be controlled, his eventual lusts almost cause him to rape another woman. ‘The Rages’ is the most trenchant of St. Clair’s pulp stories I have encountered. Recommended.

‘Roberta’ (1962): First published in Galaxy Magazine, ‘Roberta’ is a disturbing story of a man from Vega named Mr. Dlag who comes to Earth collect “imitation things”.

“That was what interested me most, you know, when I came to Earth – realizing how many Earth things were imitations. Insects that imitate other insects. Plants that imitate other plants. Plants that imitate plants. Plants that imitate rocks. And half your your artifacts imitate other things. It’s amazing. There are almost no imitation things on Needr, my home.” (p 116)

And the “imitation thing” in this case is Roberta, who used to be Robert. Mr. Dlag paid for Robert’s sex change so he could have her in his collection. And Roberta, who constantly talks her to her “male” predecessor, is compelled to kill the collector. Remember, this is the 1960s treatment of transgender topics… I am not sure whether this is a positive, or negative portrayal, or somewhere in-between. For example the above passage seems to indicate that such “imitations” (obviously not the word we would use today), although occurring in life do not replace the original state. But then again, St. Clair puts those words in the mouth of an alien. And, the story follows this format as Roberta talks constantly with Robert. As a story, the idea of a collector looking for a transgendered individual disturbs. I do not know what to make of it.

Recommended for scholars studying gender and transgender topics in SF.

‘The Island of the Hands’ (variant title: ‘Island of the Hands’) (1952): First published in Weird Tales, ‘The Island of the Hands’ is a story of obsession. Dirk compulsively searches for his wife, who disappeared while talking to him on the radio on her solo flight across an ocean. The search and rescue expedition encounters an island where a simulacrum of Dirk’s wife, with subtle differences, resides. Rather, the simulacrum is his projection of what he wished his wife looked like… All the characters are soon transfixed by the Island of Hands and its miraculous powers. But, will Dirk still be able to find his wife? A fun story, with some cool images, that moves in all the right directions.

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

Witch World, Andre Norton

May 25, 2016

WTCHWRLD1963Witch World, Andre Norton (1963)
Review by Megan AM

… but he could not accept the atmosphere of this place as anything but alien. And not only alien, for that which is strange need not necessarily be a menace, but in some manner this place was utterly opposed to him and his kind. No, not alien… but unhuman, whereas the witches of Estcarp were human, no matter whatever else they might also be (p 182)

How could two so widely differing levels of civilization exist side by side? …Alien, alien – once more he was on the very verge of understanding – of guessing – (p 171)

He never figures it out. At least, not in the first book of this expansive series.

And it’s odd to the see the term “alien” pop up so repetitively in a magic fantasy novel about witches, but it was a term to which I clung out of the hope that something really cool or meaningful would happen. That’s not to say I expected little green men to tromp around this world of witches (okay, maybe a little), but I hoped to extrapolate some deeper significance when considering the immigrant status of our good protagonist Simon Tregarth. It never happened.

Post-WWII, former soldier Simon finds himself wrapped up in some unsavory deals with dangerous folks. Now they want to kill him, but Dr. Jorge Petronius offers Simon the perfect, permanent hiding place in exchange for a large payment. Simon accepts the offer, goes through a door, and WHOOSH! He finds himself in an alternate universe where witches with vague and limited powers run the kingdom of Estcarp, which maintains unstable, often violent relations with at least five other provinces, including an evil, mysterious land beyond the sea. After weeks or years (I’ve reread this part a dozen times and I still can’t tell) Simon assimilates to his new culture and becomes a guard for Estcarp. His band of soldiers attack an enemy, then another, then another. There’s a big ship wipeout, and a cave, and some Falconers, and these zombie bird-men, and maybe some machines… that’s the alien part, I think.

And if you want to incapacitate a witch, and you haven’t any buckets of water, you can just rape her. Because a woman’s power is in her purity.

It’s possible that Witch World dangles on the cusp of the feminist fantasy genre, sandwiched between the stale gender roles in works by TH White and JRR Tolkein and the more subversive gender roles portrayed in works by Ursula Le Guin and Marion Zimmer Bradley. From Witch World, there is a small sense that Norton might attempt to do something different from her predecessors, which is why the most bothersome part of this novel is its absolute surrender to a dated worldview. It was a characteristic I was surprised to find in a sixties SF novel written by a woman, but an oversight that I think is corrected in the series’ later novels. Still, knowing that makes this installment all the more unsatisfactory, as its truncated story could have continued in longer and possibly more satisfying form. An omnibus version of the first three books was published in 2003, perhaps to address this issue.

Regardless of Witch World‘s potential social statements, the treatment of female magic is unimaginative and disappointing. The witches demonstrate small, covert powers that are easily neutralized by sexual intercourse. I had hoped that fantasy had shed its chastity belts by 1963, but in Witch World, only pure, virginal women can possess these vague, magical powers, although it is hinted that Simon, the strange outworlder, might also have a knack for psychic hunches. (I wonder if he’s had sex.) If a witch’s purity is sullied, she is essentially castrated. A witch who chooses to marry, chooses to [disarm] herself, put aside all her weapons and defences, given into his hands what she believed was the ordering of her life” (p 222).

And gender isn’t the only thing that receives old-fashioned treatment. Koris, the Guard captain of questionable breeding and unique stature, is basically an over-muscled dwarf, to whom Norton often refers as “misshapen”, “grotesque”, and “ill-formed”. These descriptors are not intended to be malicious, but communicate an ignorance that isn’t acceptable in today’s SF. Norton characterizes him with honor and respect, perhaps a “beauty on the inside” lesson, but it niggled my PC lobe. Beyond that, I was especially excited to discover a fantasy character named Jorge (a doctor of some kind, nonetheless!), only to be disappointed when his brief appearance involved underground dealing and scamming. Bummer.

The unresolved ending and sudden (oh, so sudden!) romantic tangles, which challenge the Estcarp status quo, indicate that the Witch World series has the potential to shed these antiquated worldviews, but not enough seeds are planted to convince me that challenging social roles was part of Norton’s original agenda. It’s common for even celebrated fantasy novels to embrace the rigid past and avoid social statements (beyond the “poor white boy becomes a hero” trope), but they make up for it in rich character development and tense plot movement – none of which happen in Witch World. Considering Norton’s long publishing history, I expected better technique and concepts, and was disappointed by her stilted narrative style. The story failed to keep my attention, often requiring me to reread passages with greater intensity than usual, which heightened my notice of confusing sections. It was a chore to read, but it might be an adequate story for a child. I stopped after the first novel, but the omnibus version might prove to be more satisfying.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

The Nowhere Hunt, Jo Clayton

May 11, 2016

nowhere_huntThe Nowhere Hunt, Jo Clayton (1981)
Review by Ian Sales

The Haestavaada are desperate. They are an insectoid race, and one of their worlds is without a queen. A juvenile queen was sent from another Haestavaada world, but it was intercepted by enemy insectoids the Tikh’asfour, and the ship crashlanded on the world of Nowhere, which is currently travelling through the Zangaree Sink. This last means the okanet, a primitive planet, is hard to reach, and high technology won’t work on its surface. Three ships of Scavengers have already landed on Nowhere, and the Tikh’asfour are preventing anyone else from approaching. So the Haestavaada hire the Hunters of Wolff and ask them to assign Aleytys to retrieving their missing queen.

Roha and Rohit are non-identical twins and members of the Amar, Nowhere’s native race. Roha is the Dark Twin, she has some sort of magical connection with the planet, mediated by frequent ingestion of a local hallucinogen. She’s not happy about the arrival of the crashlanded Haestavaada and their queen – she calls them “demons” – or the Scavengers – she also calls them “demons”. She persuades the warriors of her people, led by Churr, to do something about it. So they trek into the Mistlands, where a nasty death awaits the unwary – thanks to hidden pools of quicksand, thin skins of rock over boiling hots springs, poison bushes, bushes that fire poisoned seedpods, the piranha-like Kinya-kin-kin, floating ghosts and the Mistlanders. The Amar attack the downed Haestavaada but are beaten off, suggesting the trek was more to introduce the Mistland’s perils to the reader than because the plot required it.

Then Aleytys is parachuted in – literally, she reaches the planet’s surface in a small capsule launched from a ship in orbit, in order to avoid the Tikh’asfour. Immediately after landing, Aleytys allows herself to be captured by the Scavengers. She allows herself to be beaten and raped by the Scavenger leader, Quale. But it’s okay, but she’s letting him do it. She needs the Scavengers to do the heavy-lifting, to fetch the queen and then escape in one of their ships with her. However, the Scavengers have been on Nowhere for a few weeks – the book’s chronology is hopelessly confused – and have yet to find the queen. They’re also being picked off one-by-one by the Amar.

Fortunately, Aleytys knows where the queen is and can guide Quale and his men through the Mistlands to her. As a prisoner, however. And the Amar are hovering around the edges, still picking off the Scavengers. It takes them three days, and by the time they reach the crashed Haestavaada spaceship, less than half of the two dozen Scavengers who started out have survived. Aleytys persuades the stranded aliens to go along with her plan and pretend to accept Quale’s help – even though it’s clear Quale plans to sell the queen to the highest bidder. But on the return to the Sc’venge’s’ primitive fort, Quale and Aleytys are captured by Mistlanders and tied to a tree. While trying to escape, Quale is killed by a floating ghost which sucks his mind from his body.

The diadem which gives this series its name, and Aleytys some of her special powers, also contains the minds of three previous wearers: Shadith (the musical one), Harskari (the wise one) and Swardheld (the warrior one). Since Quale’s body is there for the taking, Swardheld jumps out of the diadem – with Aleytys’s help – and takes over Quale’s body. This is a permanent arrangement. The two manage to the get the queen and surviving Haestavaada back to the fort, Swardheld finds the keys to the Scavengers’ spaceships, which he had hidden from everyone, and they successfully make their escape and deliver the queen.

After a couple of books in which Aleytys was presented as a strong, albeit somewhat over-powered, heroine in high-tech space opera universe, the series has back-slipped to men treating Aleytys violently once again. And not just her: on her arrival, Aleytys discovers that Nowhere’s resident xenologist had been taken as a sex slave by Quale. Happily, it’s not gone so far as to turn back into a peplum space opera, all swords and slavery and spaceships, but Aleytys’s strategy on Nowhere is deeply problematic. On the plus-side, Clayton is a dab hand at depicting alien societies, and the Amar are rendered quite convincingly. The flora and fauna of Nowhere are less convincing, however, although one or two are quite amusing. And, despite their lethality, there’s no much jeopardy in the plot. The spear carriers all die, but the major characters survive – and it’s pretty much obvious from the first chapter.

Having now read six books of this series, I’m still a little mystified by their evident popularity when they were published. These days, they’re mostly forgotten – as indeed are most of Jo Clayton’s novels (and she wrote a lot of them). I get the appeal of a special snowflake protagonist – it’s one of the reasons Dune has remained in print for fifty years – but was the level of sexual violence inflicted on Aleytys ever really acceptable back in the late 1970s and early 1980s? I don’t recall it appearing in the science fiction I read at that time – although a lot of the books I devoured then treated women very badly in other ways, or ignored them altogether.

There are a further three novels in this series, and another seven novels based on the characters in Aleytys’s diadem. The Nowhere Hunt was a step backward after Maeve and Star Hunters. I hope the next book, Ghosthunt, doesn’t continue the backwards slide.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,779 other followers