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Dawn, Octavia Butler

November 17, 2016

dawnDawn, Octavia Butler (1987)
Review by Simon Petrie

Octavia E Butler was an African-American SF writer who died in 2006, aged 58. Her fiction has won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and she was the first SF writer to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant for her writing. She wrote several well-regarded series of novels; Dawn is the first novel in what is variously called her ‘Xenogenesis’ or ‘Lilith’s Brood’ trilogy.

Dawn starts with the reawakening of Lilith Iyapo aboard an alien spacecraft in orbit beyond Earth’s Moon. Lilith is one of the few human survivors of a nuclear war which has devastated the Earth. Her captors / guardians / mentors are the Oankali, a three-gendered race of grotesquely tentacled humanoids. (It’s difficult, when reading the book, not to envisage the Oankali as looking like the Ood from Doctor Who.) Starved of human contact, and still grieving for a husband and son who were killed before the war which all-but-obliterated humanity, Lilith must conquer a deep-seated revulsion for Jdahya, the Oankali adult male who has been tasked with helping her acclimate to her circumstances. Once she has adjusted to Jdahya’s company (and his largely passive tutelage), she must learn to communicate with the less-patient, intermediate-gender Kahguyaht (one of Jdahya’s two spouses), then with the family’s adolescent child, Nikanj. With each of her teachers, Lilith strives (and fails) to argue for the necessity to accommodate the basic human needs for companionship, for freedom of movement, and even for information. The Oankali, it seems, are prepared to offer humanity’s remnants a form of salvation, a second chance at existence; but it is to be a second chance which is entirely on the Oankali’s terms. Humans will get to repopulate the Earth, if they agree to abide by the rules which the Oankali are laying down; but they will not get the Earth to themselves.

Dawn is an incredibly immersive view of a disorientingly alien culture: thinking through other books I’ve read in a somewhat similar vein, I think only Phillip Mann’s work (notably The Eye Of The Queen, a near-contemporary of Dawn, and this year’s The Disestablishment of Paradise) would come close in their ability to convey a detailed and convincing otherness. Stylistically, there are parallels with the writing of Ursula K Le Guin, most strongly The Left Hand of Darkness, with which there is a similarity not just in terms of tone but also of the exploration of alternative sexualities: where The Left Hand of Darkness has its each-way ‘kemmering’ of androgynous humanoids into briefly male and female counterparts, Dawn has its three-gendered aliens, with male, female and ‘ooloi’ genders, with the ooloi acting as a very hands-on intermediary between the more recognisable genders. Thematically, the work evokes comparison with Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End, with its superior aliens seeking to enlighten and to reshape humanity. I’d have to say that I found Butler’s view of future human evolution (or the foreshortened sketch of same on offer in Dawn) to be distinctly more palatable, largely as a result of the credibility and emotional depth of Lilith’s portrayal, and the sophistication (superior, supremely foreign, fallible, and somewhat arrogant) of Butler’s saviour-colonialist aliens. Although other humans do eventually appear in Dawn — the book’s final quarter places Lilith in the role of instructor and leader for the group which will subsequently be transported down — the focus, throughout, is on Lilith’s attempts to make her own personal peace with an alien culture which, no matter how well-meaning, spells a form of doom for human civilisation as we would recognise it.

Does Dawn work as hard SF? I think it does; the science in question is predominantly biological, and is addressed through Butler’s efforts to construct a detailed and self-consistent description of the Oankali’s aptitude for genetic (and more broadly biological) manipulation. This exploration is a satisfying and (I think) necessary component of the tale Butler is telling: while the story’s force derives from Lilith’s doubts and persistence as she masters the various dilemmas with which she is faced, its weight accrues from the Oankali’s plausibility as disturbingly accomplished genetic tinkerers, whose motivation in helping to perpetuate a human presence on Earth is plainly not pure altruism.

Butler shies away from simple answers: ultimately, it’s not possible to say whether she’s on the side of humanity, of the aliens, or somewhere in between. (The same could be said, I think, for her exploration of gender politics and of colonialism.) She just observes, and invites us to make our own conclusions of the scenario which she has sketched out with such care in this book. It’s this ambivalence, this careful understatement, which makes Dawn such a compelling story.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

Promised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice

November 9, 2016

promised_landPromised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice (1998)
Review by Jack Deighton

After her mother’s death Delanna Milleflores returns to Keramos, the backwater planet of her birth (from where she was sent years ago to get a decent education) to resolve complications over the inheritance. She wishes to sell up but local laws are strict and do not allow this unless the seller has been in occupation for ten years. In addition her pet scarab Cleo falls foul of the quarantine regulations and she finds that a marriage arranged by her long-dead father between Delanna and Tarleton Tanner (known as Sonny,) the man from the neighbouring farm (on Keramos these are called lanzye) who has been running Milleflores lanzye all these years, became legal. At the space-port she encountered local Lothario, Jay Madog, whose attentions she is plagued by from then on.

The apparent urgency with which her Keramos lawyer, Maggie, says she must take up residence in Milleflores in order to comply with the planet’s inheritance laws, necessitating catching the morning train, is somewhat vitiated by the fact that the terminus is still five thousand miles from Milleflores and it takes weeks to get there. The length of the journey would have disqualified her. The delay of course gives the authors plenty of opportunity to describe Delanna’s lack of knowledge of local customs and conditions and her adaptations to them.

From the start, though, we know where this is going. Delanna’s journey from worldly-wise offworlder (or been-to as they are known on Keramos) to falling in love with her childhood home again – and with Sonny – her accommodations to the idiosyncracies of life on Keramos (including a world-wide radio news and gossiping network where her inadequacies are exposed and everybody’s business discussed mercilessly) has an obvious arc which the authors do not eschew. The traffic is not all one way. She is able to contribute some of her expensively learned been-to computer skills to finding the best routes through dangerous salt-flats.

Promised Land is a very Willis kind of story in which her signature narrative technique of delay by interruption, of not getting to the nub of a situation, which so marred To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear, is to the fore. At first I thought her co-author Felice had muted this trait but it becomes increasingly irritating as the book progresses. Another quirk is that the main structural building material on Keramos is tile. (Keramos, you see.). Add in a sub-plot about an over-officious vet, Doc Lyle, and his obsession with protecting the wild-life and livestock of Keramos from contamination, particularly the very rare birds called Royal Mandarins, an obsession which threatens to endanger Cleo, and the indigenous animals known as Fire Monkeys (fascinated by Delanna’s red hair) and the elements are present for all the ends to be tied up.

This review originially appearedon A Son of the Rock.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

November 2, 2016

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Megan AM

This 1975 Hugo Award winner is probably the most literary bit of SF I’ve read all year. I’ve never read Le Guin before, but Jo Walton’s Among Others referenced her quite a bit, and made me eager to try her out. I’m glad I did.

Le Guin’s writing is beautiful. Nearly every page, especially for the first half of the novel, contains brilliant observations about the human condition, written in delicate language usually reserved only for high literature. This isn’t sci-fi. This is Literature with a big “L”.

It’s Literature that happens to be about a brilliant alien physicist who lives on an anarchist planet that was settled 180 years prior. As he works to discover a unifying Theory of Time, he finds his ideas stifled by the customs and needs of his anarchist community. He opts to continue his work on a neighboring planet, the planet of origin of his people, where capitalism and militarism reign, and where his work becomes threatened by the possibility of state ownership. This is a story about the tyranny of society, regardless of its legal and political system (or lack thereof), and the strength of the individual in combating that tyranny.

The story is secondary to the backdrop, which is why the second half of the novel dragged. I was much more intrigued by the first half, during which the world-building and philosophizing took place. However, as the worlds of Annares and Urras developed, the story unfolded and I found myself less eager to continue reading. Despite that, it was a beautiful book, and I would recommend it to anyone. Regardless of its vintage publication date, the themes and problems in The Dispossessed are easily transferable to modern times, and it doesn’t read like cheesy ’60’s/’70’s SF. This is a thinking person’s SF novel. Get out your highlighter.

Some quotes:

“A scientist can pretend that his work isn’t himself, it’s merely the impersonal truth. An artist can’t hide behind the truth. He can’t hide anywhere.”

“Nothing said in words ever came out quite even. Things in words got twisted and ran together, instead of staying straight and fitting together.”

“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”

“Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal, The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.”

Enjoy!

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Dreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre

October 26, 2016

dreamsnakeDreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre (1978)
Review by Debbie Moorhouse

Dreamsnake is unusual among post-apocalyptic science fiction in that new ways of living have been built, some of them technological, others closer to the land, and there’s very little harking back to the past. The “ancients” are mentioned and some of their buildings and their mistakes survive, but for the most part Dreamsnake‘s characters live in the present. As do we.

Snake is a healer who uses three snakes to diagnose and cure illness and disease. One is Grass, a dreamsnake, a species that originates with offworlders who are mentioned but never appear. Dreamsnakes are incredibly rare and the healers have had very little luck in trying to breed them. Yet at the same time they are essential to the healer’s work – they bring comfort and ease to the dying.

When she is treating a boy called Stavin for a tumour, Snake misjudges the fear and hatred of his clan for snakes, resulting in Grass’s death. Desolate and blaming herself, Snake resolves to return to the healers’ hall where she was trained. But on the way she finds more people to help, and learns of a possible source of dreamsnakes. If she can bring dreamsnakes to her fellow healers, then maybe the loss of Grass will be forgiven.

The writing is spare and overall doesn’t try to evoke emotion in the reader, which perhaps makes for a little distancing. But Snake is an interesting and compassionate character, who is also brave when trying to do the right thing. On her journey she introduces us to the different ways of living that have developed in the aftermath of what seems to have been a nuclear war. Tribespeople, desert people, horse breeders, recyclers, the closed and enigmatic city, all are glimpsed through Snake’s eyes and so imperfectly understood.

The snake medicine is fascinating, being a mixture of breeding, training, and genetic manipulation. Snake can let the snakes free to hunt, drink or explore, knowing they will return to her when she taps the ground. But although she’s immune to their venom, she’s not impervious to being bitten. It’s these small details that make the snakes realistic.

Overall, an intriguing and enjoyable read.

The Legacy of Lehr, Katherine Kurtz

October 19, 2016

legacy_lehrThe Legacy of Lehr, Katherine Kurtz (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

Katherine Kurtz is better known for her fantasy, especially The Chronicles of the Deryni, as indicated on the cover of this, her only science fiction novel. Although the edition shown was published by Avon, The Legacy of Lehr is a Byron Preiss package, written by Kurtz but also featuring interior illustrations by Michael William Kaluta. (The UK hardback edition, published by Hutchinson, has especially striking cover art by Melvyn Grant, incidentally.)

Dr Wallis Hamilton and Commodre Mather Seton are a husband-and-wife team who perform assorted jobs for Prince Cedric, the emperor’s brother. As The Legacy of Lehr opens, they are preparing to ship four wild Lehr cats – giant alien blue-furred lions, essentially – captured at great cost from their home world of Beta-Geminorum II to the Imperial capital, Tersel. To do this, they’ve had a an interstellar liner, the Valkyrie, diverted to B-Gem, which has mightily pissed off its captain, Lutobo, as the ship had been embarked on a record-breaking run between two worlds, and success would have resulted in a bonus for each crew member.

The cats are transported aboard by shuttle, and their cage set up in one of the cargo holds. They are guarded by the squad of Imperial Rangers which had been on the hunt with Seton and Hamilton. However, a couple of days into the journey, a passenger is murdered, his throat slashed open and a tuft of blue fur clutched in one hand. The Lehr cats are the obvious suspects, even though they could not have escaped from their cage or eluded the Ranger sentries. But the cats are known to be slightly psychic… and who knows what other psionic powers they possess? They were, after all, worshipped by the long-dead native race of B-Gem…

Neither Hamilton nor Seton think the cats are to blame, but Lutobo wants them destroyed. As more people are murdered, and more evidence is left pointing to the cats, so Seton and Hamilton – with the help of ship’s medic Dr Shivaun Shannon – decide the cats cannot be the killers, bringing the three of them more into conflict with Lutobo. They investigate each crime, trying to figure out who the killer is and why they might be framing the cats. As murder-mysteries go, The Legacy of Lehr is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It is, essentially, a pair of nested locked-room mysteries – in which the main suspects are locked in a cage they must escape in order to commit the murders, aboard a spaceship in flight from which neither murderers nor victims cannot leave. But then, the novel doesn’t read like it was meant to be a puzzle. Kurtz trails two obvious suspect in front of the protagonists, one of which is quickly shown to be innocent. The mystery surrounding the cats’ abilities is perhaps over-used to stretch out the investigation, and the abrupt swerve into vampirism as a motive halfway through feels like over-egging the cake.

The Legacy of Lehr is a fun novel with an engaging cast. It’s also nicely diverse, with two women among the four major characters – Hamilton and Shannon – and a number of POC among the cast, including Lutobo. (Only one alien race, the Aludra, appear in the story, and they provide one of its red herring narrative threads.) The universe of the book is somewhat identikit, with a benign interstellar empire, which is chiefly characterised by pomp and bureaucracy, but in all other respects resembles generic US society. The novel also features those little telltales which show it’s heartland science fiction – ie, set in a made-up world at some indefinable date in the future which is in no way a product of our current world. It’s not just the abundance of habitable worlds, but the way the science fictional technology all fills the roles of present-day analogues – spaceship for cruise liner, for example; or data storage chips, which must be moved by hand from one device to another (no network? Really?). It’s not really a failure of imagination, because that would presuppose imagination had been spent in building the universe of the story. Like many other sf novels of its type, The Legacy of Lehr‘s universe is built-up from established tropes, and they’re deployed without commentary or any real exploration. I suppose it could be called “Ruritanian sf”, a type of genre fiction in which present-day furniture is seamlessly swapped for science-fictional equivalents, with no effort made to interrogate these tropes, because they exist only as setting.

It has been said that if a plot could be transplanted to another milieu and still work, then it wasn’t really science fiction. That’s certainly true of The Legacy of Lehr. Lions on a transatlantic cruise liner, for example. A couple of the red herrings would have to go, as lions are not known for their psychic abilities. But certainly an average person in 1986 could be gullible enough to consider a vampire, real or imagined, as a possible culprit. But these are problems with heartland sf as a whole and not specific to Kurtz’s novel. As it is, The Legacy of Lehr is an entertaining read. Hamilton and Seton were clearly designed to have various adventures – they’re troubleshooters for the Imperial House, it’s a blatant set-up for further novels… So it’s a surprise, and a pity, none ever appeared.

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.