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HAPPY HOLIDAYS

December 25, 2015

SF Mistressworks wishes all its readers, contributors, and those whose books feature here a very Happy Holiday. Best wishes of the season.

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Solution Three, Naomi Mitchison

December 16, 2015

soliution_threeSolution Three, Naomi Mitchison (1975)
Review by Kate Macdonald

If you like elliptical, immersive, euphemistic strangeness in your science-fiction narrative, this novel is for you. Published in 1975, Naomi Mitchison’s Solution Three retains some slang that was archaic even then, like “cat” for person, which made this reader jump, and certainly adds to the strangeness in the dialogue. Could you ever empathise with a character who says of another that “this cat told me”? The setting is a strange combination of the modern British National Health Service, Maoist self-denunciation and the insouciant babbling cheerfulness of Brave New World (Naomi Mitchison was great friends with Aldous Huxley in the 1930s). Homosexuality is the social norm for relationships, heterosexuals are more or less tolerated but labelled as “deviants”, and clones are born to surrogate Clone Mums, who have to watch their children carefully for when they start showing “the signs”, at which point the children are taken away from the nursery and “strengthened”. “Strengthening” is such a horrible process for these four and five-year olds that no-one ever asks what it is; they simply accept it as part of Solution Three, which is the Way We Live Now.

This is a post-something society: not post-apocalyptic or post-nuclear, but post-Aggressions. These appear to have been a long-ago total war, after which two far-seeing male and female scientists evolved a social pattern for future society to save humankind, decreeing that homosexual relationships would thenceforth be the norm as this would avoid future Aggressions. Thus the population of the civilised parts of the world is paired off whether they like it or not. Uncivilised areas continue to practice aggressive heterosexuality, which is a cause for concern and stern treatment. The characters in the novel are crop scientists, investigating outbreaks of agricultural viruses and struggling to maintain food supplies for a very crowded planet. This concern about the genetic modification of food sources is something Mitchison would go on to write about more fully in Not By Bread Alone in the 1980s. in this novel, she’s much more concerned about social engineering, the rights of maternity and enforced sexual norms.

The storytelling is engaging and chatty, creating an immersive reading experience, but this is a hard novel to understand. The elliptical dialogue glides across the surface of meaning, so it’s tricky to work out what is going on and what the consequences will be. The subplot about Miryam the deviant and her husband struggling to raise their two children in their one-room flats (they’re not allowed to live together) reaches a happy ending when she is awarded a two-room apartment with a little balcony. Her feelings on being given such riches and forgiveness for her deviancy say as much about the society she’s living in as the actions that lead to this largesse. Mitchison writes from the heart outwards, concentrating on women and who they love, to sketch out an outline of this experimental dystopic future. It really is just an outline: there isn’t enough depth in this novel to produce a solid impression of how this society works, or even how it got to be this way. The details are in full focus, the rest is a bit foggy. But given the rarity of fiction of this period (of any period?) that tackles sexuality and ecology with such fair-minded objectivity, this novel is a literary historical treasure.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Maeve, Jo Clayton

December 9, 2015

maeveMaeve, Jo Clayton (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

After the sexual slavery and super-special snowflake abilities of series protagonist Aleytys in the first three books of the Diadem of the Stars, Maeve came as something of a pleasant surprise. It’s almost as if Clayton had given up on spaceships-and-sandals science fantasy and decided to write proper science fiction instead. Not only does Aleytys have a wardrobe throughout this novel, but it consists chiefly of functional clothing (and the clothes she wears as a hostess in Dryknolte’s Tavern are actually provided by the landlord). She also has sex no more than half a dozen times, with partners of her choosing (and one is pretty much a relationship).

Aleytys has landed on the eponymous planet, and left the smuggler she’s been travelling with, because she wants to find a ship to take her back to her home world of Jaydugar and her son (stolen in the second book of the series, Lamarchos, but recovered off-stage during book three, Irsud). So she heads for the world’s only city, guided by one of Maeve’s cat-like natives, Gwynnor. One of the her diadem’s little tricks is an instant translator, which allows her to speak any language she encounters. This later proves useful, when Aleytys and Gwynnor leave the plains, enter a forest and encounter the people there – also alien and native to Maeve, but not the same as Gwynnor, who does not speak their tongue:

“Ineknikt nex-ni-ghenusoukseht ghalaghayi.”

Aleytys heard it as a string of nonsense syllables, then a knife pain stabbed her through the head and the meaning slid like white beads on a string against the blackness in her mind. The people do not know your smell, younger sister of fire. (p 39)

The forest people – the cludair to Gwynoor’s cerdd – have been having trouble with the Company, which, in fine science-fictional tradition, is busy exploiting Maeve, including harvesting the forest home of the cludair with a giant harvesting machine. So Aleytys gives them a hand and destroys the harvester. She also captures the Company director, who is persuaded to stop logging in return for the cludair supplying a “tribute” of wood.

Having sorted that out, Aleytys and Gwynnor carry on to the city. Gwynnor heads back to his home village, to find it in dire straits – Company men have been raiding it and taking away all the young men and women, and the cerdd’s sacred drug, maranhedd. In the city, Aleytys gets a job as a hostess at Dryknolte’s Tavern while she tries to figure out how to get off-planet. There she meets Hunter Grey, who reveals that the director has been taken over by an alien parasite, which is due to spore. And when it does, a University ship in orbit will raze Maeve to bedrock to prevent the spores from escaping. So it’s up to Aleytys, Hunter Grey, Gwynnor and another cerdd, two cludair, and Maeve’s chief mystic, the Synwedda, to kill the director before the parasite can spore.

I’m not entirely what happened between Irsud and Maeve, but I certainly welcome the series’ new direction. Aleytys has gone from being a victim to a woman with real agency. Admittedly, she is still a snowflake. As well as the instant translator, she is a healer – and heals several people from near-death injuries during the book, including herself – and those three personalities trapped in the diadem also lend a hand on occasion. One, of course, is a warrior and a superb fighter. Another is a gifted musician. Both of these talents get used in Maeve. It does mean Aleytys is never really in any danger, but at least these magical talents are used in service to the  plot rather than simply to make Aleytys a more dramatic heroine. Previous novels in the series were driven by jeopardy – Aleytys is captured and must escape – but Maeve starts as a travelogue, introduces a mystery, and then sets a pretty, er, deadly deadline for resolving it. Also, the women characters in the novel are all strong – either council leaders, the only cerdd of Gwynnor’s village to do something about the Company raids, a pie-shop owner not above knocking heads on occasion, and the aforementioned Synwedda. It means Maeve is not the problematic read earlier books were, and while the setting all feels a bit like well-used furniture and the planet’s fate is never really in doubt, it all hangs together entertainingly. Hopefully, the remaining books in the series are more like Maeve than, say, Lamarchos.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

December 2, 2015

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Isaac Yuen

“You are our history. We are perhaps your future. I want to learn, not ignore. It is the reason I came. We must know each other. We are not primitive men. Our morality is no longer tribal, it cannot be. Such ignorance is a wrong, from which wrong will arise. So I come to learn.” (p 75)

The Dispossessed features two diametrically opposing societies: Urras is technologically advanced and ecologically balanced, but suffers from extreme social injustice. Anarres is strong in the areas of equality and human relations, but lacks non-human connections and entrepreneurial innovation. A lot of Le Guin’s personal Taoist philosophy can be seen in this fictional universe – each world’s weakness is its counterpart’s strength and vice versa, the yin to the other’s yang. Yet Urras and Anarres also share something in common, a tragic fundamental flaw. Both are only aware of the present, ignorant of the realities of their shared pasts and the possibility of new futures. On Urras, Vea proclaims that the horrific injustices of past centuries “couldn’t happen now” (p 217), even as fellow citizens suffer in nearby slums (p 291) and are shot dead by the State (p 302). On Anarres, Shevek’s mother Rulag clings stubbornly to isolationist attitudes seven generations old, perceiving the rest of humanity as enemies of society. (p 355) Indoctrinated by propaganda and shaped by social norms, many Urrasti and Anarresti can no longer envision change, have become afraid to take risks, and so have lost the ability to imagine a better society. Things are as they are and must always be. Shevek serves as witness to both worlds’ failings. Acting out of his own initiative, he disrupts the status quo, embarking on a journey to “shake things up, to store, up, to break some habits, to get people asking questions” (p 384). Whether he succeeds in affecting lasting change in either society is left deliberately unresolved (a wise decision, I think). The A-Io government crushes the working class demonstration. Shevek travels home not knowing what kind of reception he will receive when he steps foot on Anarres. True to real-life, nothing is ever safe or certain for revolutions or revolutionaries. But by the end of the story, new conditions have been created, and with it, new hopes and possibilities.

Shevek’s struggle to connect Urras and Anarres parallels his work as a physicist. Throughout The Dispossessed, Shevek attempts to merge the theory of Sequency – the notion that time is linear and successive, with the theory of Simultaneity – the idea that time is cyclical and eternal. This proves impossible until he learns to embrace and accept time’s inherent contradiction, to grant legitimacy for its dual nature to coexist as a whole. One of the things I love about The Dispossessed is how Le Guin portrays science and those who do science – I find that few authors do either justice. Her depiction of temporal physics strikes a careful balance – it feels real without getting too abstruse or explanatory. In Shevek Le Guin beautifully captures the temperament and nuances of a great scientist: That innate curiosity towards the world; a singular dedication to work; the craving for an exchange of ideas; a lifelong passion for grasping a larger truth. To me, Shevek embodies the essence of the scientific spirit, with roots in the natural philosophy of the ancient Greeks.

Many people think science is about the end products – novel inventions, new technologies, gadgets for easier living. But while it may lead to such things, The Dispossessed’s portrayal of science and scientists reminds me that science is at its heart a method of inquiry, a process used to both better understand and appreciate the universe, and done by real and flawed human beings to derive meaning and purpose. As Shevek’s story demonstrates, this can be an extremely frustrating and difficult journey. But it is one well worth taking.

Walls are the central recurring image in The Dispossessed. Throughout his life, Shevek encounters many negative ones, constructed upon foundations of manipulation and exploitation. In a supposedly egalitarian society, he experiences how his colleague Sabul wields public opinion and ignorance to control the flow of new ideas and gain power over others. On Urras, Shevek sees how the elites wall themselves off from the suffering of their brethren with their possessions and status. On a societal level, he recognizes how Anarres has barricaded itself not only from Urras, but from the planets of Hain and Terra and the rest of humanity. At each turn, Shevek strives to unbuild these walls, but at great personal cost: He is dismissed from the Physics Institute, branded a traitor by his fellow Anarresti for reaching out to other worlds, and targeted as an insurrectionist by the A-Ioti government. Yet Shevek continues to take the risks. His story makes a strong case for Roosevelt’s adage that “nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty”. By suffering dearly, by understanding that “even pain counts”, by “working with time instead of against it” (p 335), Shevek comes to realize what he is capable of, how he can best serve his society, and how to walk the path towards a meaningful life.

In a fascinating paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Harvard researchers explore the differences between living a happy versus a meaningful life. Happiness, they found, is “mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money” (p 14). Meaningfulness, however, is “linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others” (p 14), with its undertaking often involving choices that directly diminish happiness. While there are overlapping factors that contribute to both qualities, the researchers argue that happiness is primarily a present-oriented endeavour, while meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. This connects strongly to The Dispossessed. As one who sees life through the lens of time, Shevek uses temporal physics to frame his thoughts on pursuing happiness without meaning and on fidelity’s role in creating purpose:

“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. It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.” (p 334)

Out of everything in the novel, it is Shevek’s realization of promise as temporal reconciliation that most resonates with me. For Shevek, fulfillment comes from understanding the consequences of one’s past actions and using one’s freedom to create a responsible, compassionate, and ethical future. This line of thought is tremendously appealing.

“Because our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.” (p 225)

I’ve always wondered what draws me to environmentalism. It is not guilt like it is for so many, nor anger – I have not the stamina to sustain it. Yet love, that all encompassing reverence so many feel towards nature doesn’t quite fit either. As I reread The Dispossessed and reflect upon my life, I can see that perhaps like Shevek, it arises from a desire to understand cause and effect, means and ends. Blessed with the freedom to do anything, perhaps I chose environmentalism because it brings to light the consequences of human action on the global community, casts the widest net for responsibility, and is the most challenging to develop an ethic for. How shall I empathize with an ecosystem? What are my duties to a swarm of mosquitoes? How should I feel about the farmer who burns down a forest to provide for his family? What can I do to connect with a CEO who whole-heartedly believes his company makes the world a better place? These are hard questions to grapple with. But as Le Guin writes, “the human being likes to be challenged, seeks freedom in adversity” (p 246). Neither is the label of an environmentalist an easy thing to take on. It is an identity steeped in hypocrisy and contradiction, often saddled with despair and uncertainties. But I realize now that it has never occurred to me to escape the difficulty by denying the commitment, for the cause has grounded my life and given me purpose, even as it leads to much headache and heartache, especially in light of the ecological crisis we face today. But promises are like that, as Le Guin again notes:

“A promise is a direction taken, a self-limitation of choice. As Odo pointed out if no direction is taken, if one goes nowhere, no change will occur. One’s freedom to choose and to change will be unused, exactly as if one were in jail, a jail of one’s own building, a maze in which no one way is better than any other. So Odo came to see the promise, the pledge, the idea of fidelity, as essential in the complexity of freedom.” (p 244)

And so I choose to keep coming back, to my path, and to this book. As it is for Shevek, the process of undertaking and keeping promises gives me direction, affords me the chance to try, to do better and be better, as an individual, a partner, a steward, and a citizen. I may never get there, and things always going to be a work-in-progress, but I am excited to continue to learn, grow, write, think and connect. There’s so much more to say about the intellectual and emotional journeys The Dispossessed continues to take me on, but I fear doing what Hannah Arendt warns against: To define the story so much that its power is lost. So I will leave things “a bit broken loose” (p 384). For those who have read the novel, I hope this revisit helps spark what the book means to you. To those who haven’t, I hope this series will help you discover Shevek’s story for yourself.

This review originally appeared on Ekostories, and is the final part of four-part discussion of The Dispossessed. See parts one, two and three here, here and here.

Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold

November 25, 2015

mirror_danceMirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold (1994)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Mark is one of the most resourceful men alive: smart, cunning and trained in combat and subterfuge with a brilliant talent for information analysis. He is also weighed down by the knowledge that he is a clone of a more famous and more effective military commander: Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. Infiltrating the Dendarii mercenaries by posing as his “brother”, Mark embarks on a vengeful attack on the genetic laboratories on Jackson’s Whole. This sets in motion a chain of events that will change his life, and that of his brother, forever.

Mirror Dance is, chronologically, the ninth novel in the Vorkosigan Saga and one of the most vitally important in terms of both the metaplot and character. It starts off in a rather traditional way for the series, with a mission for the Dendarii that appears to be straightforward and then rapidly becomes complicated. The difference here is that it is Mark who has set up the mission and it becomes painfully obvious that, for all his gifts, he is not Miles. Bujold plays a clever game here, since it would be implausible for the Dendarii (who know that Miles has a clone) to fall for Mark’s deception so easily, so she has to set up a situation where they would plausibly go along with the plan in any case. Some dangling plot elements established as long ago as The Warrior’s Apprentice are exploited ingeniously to do this.

The book opens with a structure that reflects the book’s title. Chapters alternate between Mark trying to pull off his crazy scheme and Miles getting wind of it and trying to stop him. Events collide on Jackson’s Whole, at which point the story takes a left-field turn that I don’t think many readers were expecting. The scale of the book suddenly explodes, incorporating a return to Barryar, our first encounter with Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan for many novels and some expert commentary on the changing state of Barrayaran society. Then there is a sprint for the finish, taking in explosive action sequences and an extraordinarily disturbing torture sequence that might even make Scott Bakker flinch (okay, probably not).

Mirror Dance is certainly the most epic book in the series to date, revisiting past plot points, characters and events on a scale not before seen (contributing to its unusual length compared to the previous volumes). But Bujold maintains a tight reign on the narrative and backs up the expanded canvas with some impressively nuanced character development. Around for the opening and finale, Miles sits out a large chunk of the novel as Bujold explores Mark’s character in impressive depth. Even more remarkably, Bujold uses Mark to develop Miles and his shifting cover identities despite him not being around for a good third of the novel, and also to catch up on some characters we haven’t seen for a while.

There’s also the feeling of change in this book. The political situation on Barrayar, simmering in the background of many volumes, feels like it is now coming to a head with events in this novel confirming that the new generation – that of Gregor, Miles, Elena and Ivan – is coming into its own. The events of this novel seem to shake Miles’s position as commander of the Dendarii, whilst the explosive changes on Jackson’s Whole could reverberate across the galaxy. There’s a feeling of Bujold loosening things up in this book, essential for any long-running series, and ensuring that readers will want to proceed into this book’s direct sequel, Memory, immediately.

Mirror Dance is a remarkable book and easily the best in the series to date, more than deserving of its Hugo Award. It starts as another military SF adventure, turns into a combination of mystery and political thriller and then skews briefly into action overdrive before concluding with a bleak moment of horror that – apparently – is turned into a positive outcome. Bujold’s enviable skills with writing and character make it all seem natural. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress

November 18, 2015

beggarsBeggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (1993)
Review by Megan AM

It’s an endless battle between me and sleep. There is always something better to do.

Nancy Kress must share that sentiment, because her Hugo award-winning novella, ‘Beggars in Spain’, and her subsequent novel of the same name, is an exploration of society in which parents can choose to endow their children with more time and productivity through genetic modification to never need sleep.

Before she was born, Leisha Camden’s life was already determined for her. Her wealthy parents purchased genetic modifications to make her beautiful, intelligent, and to never require sleep, while her unexpected twin sister received none of these traits. Being Sleepless provides Leisha with more time to devote to studies and contribute to society, but it also causes resentment and distrust among the Sleeper majority, and tensions between the two communities boil over into violence, segregation, and systematic oppression. Leisha is one of the few Sleepless who chooses to remain living among the Sleepers, and works tirelessly to improve relations. But when an influential Sleepless is murdered in jail, the Sleepless make plans to leave Earth, and ostracize Leisha from their community. Defeated, Leisha finds herself alone among Sleepers, and a stranger within her own family.

Oh, and one other thing. Nobody goes to Spain. This is not a cultural fiction novel that will have your mouth watering for tapas. I was kind of disappointed about that.

Despite the premise’s reliance on genetic science, Beggars in Spain is best classified as sociological SF, or even political SF, where the sociopolitical and socioeconomic ramifications of transhumanism are explored. Less personal than most sociological SF like Le Guin or Butler, Kress keeps her characters at arms-length – they’re fully-fleshed, yet unemotional, but that fits with Kress’ world of the mid- to late-21st century in the United States. The science is still there, with the first chapters preoccupied with realistic-sounding explanations about raphe nuclei and neurotransmitters, but it sounds legit, and is quickly dumped for the actual meat of the story. Kress develops an evolving, pulsing society, driven by pseudo-economic self-help messages, divisive intolerance, a decadent lower class, and a judgmental upper class. This is what true speculative fiction should be: a thought experiment based upon a change, and a speculation of the impact of that change from all angles of society, as demonstrated through the characters’ varying perspectives. Kress does this very, very well.

Just as fascinating as the Sleeplessness, an undercurrent of economic philosophy drives the plot, where Yagaism, a pop-economic theory that sounds more appropriate for a self-help book, rather than a peer-reviewed journal, molds the global economy into a meritocracy based on individual determinism. That sounds exactly like our current economic system, sure, yet in Yagaism, the value of work ethic outweighs the value of the dollar. The brain is the means of production, and leisure is the enemy.

Yagaism sounds a bit like Rousseau’s social contract, subverted by Ayn Rand-ian economic egoism:

… a man’s worth to society and to himself doesn’t rest on what he thinks other people should do or be or feel, but on himself. On what he can actually do, and do well. People trade what they do well, and everyone benefits. The basic tool of civilization is the contract. Contracts are voluntary and mutually beneficial. As opposed to coercion, which is wrong. (p. 29)

It’s a blend of American ambition with a mystic belief that all people will prosper if the best get better (and richer). Like a psychic form of Reagan’s trickledown economics. (And we all know how that worked out.)

So, what the hell does this have to do with the beggars in Spain? The Sleepless call the Sleepers “Beggars,” a derogatory name inspired by their murdered friend, whose analogy about going to Spain and giving a dollar to one beggar versus giving a dollar to one hundred beggars becomes the Sleepless’ mantra to help only themselves, because the futility of helping one beggar neglects hundreds of other beggars, and helping all of the beggars is too overwhelming, and drags down society. But the philosophy cannibalizes itself when the Sanctuary community quickly euthanizes any person with questionable medical problems, and aborts any fetuses that indicate Sleeper brain patterns, all because “no one has a right to make claims on the strong and productive because he is weak and useless. To set a higher value on weakness than on ability is morally obscene” (p. 364). With those beliefs, paranoia infects the dwindling Sleepless community.

Yagaism, beggarism… it all sounds like fuzzy logic, but Kress explores each tangle through her diverse and complex characters. The economic arguments are too complex to be a straightforward capitalism vs. communism caricature. Even Kress’s characters’ opinions change throughout their lives, which makes it difficult identify Kress’s own views within the knotted philosophical turmoil of Leisha and her friends. Socialist sensibilities might bristle at Leisha’s Yagaist messages, which often sound like an assortment of Rand Paul election ads, but Leisha evolves, as does Yagaism.

But it’s not all philosophical pontificating! The story itself is interesting and well-plotted, with a great assortment of sterile, yet intriguing, characters. The first novella about Leisha’s childhood blows away the following chapters, but it’s still a worthwhile read. I hear the later books drag, but Kress’ final chapter sets up the sequel, Beggars and Choosers (1994), in a tantalizing way.

As much as I desire extra hours in a day, I think I would miss the pleasure of sleep. Even the Sleepless characters in Beggars in Spain discover the importance of rest and dreaming for their mental health.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, Lee Killough

November 11, 2015

monitor_miners_shreeThe Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, Lee Killough (1980)
Review by Ian Sales

Science fiction has in the decades since the first issue of Amazing Stories appeared published some books with cringe-inducing titles. Lee Killough’s The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, while very descriptive, is by no means the worse… but it’s still a bit of a toecurler. The monitor is the official leading an expedition to study the Shree, the race native to the world of Nira – it is the monitor’s job to ensure the researchers do not reveal themselves to the primitive Shree. Unfortunately, they soon discover that the eponymous miners have already made a deal with the natives…

I have to wonder if the Star Trek movie Insurrection was not in part inspired by Killough’s novel, since the idea of secret research establishment spying on unsophisticated natives as protrayed here predates the movie. But there all resemblance ends. Because shortly after arrival on Nira, the research station is attacked, its staff gassed and abducted by a security team from the miners. But monitor Chemel Krar manages to escape. She is taken in by a tribe of Shree, who can fly and live in large caves in cliffs, and slowly learns their language… and what is really going on.

The miners struck a deal with the Shree a couple of centuries before, and have even fed them one or two ideas and items beyond the Shree’s current level of sophistication. But the Shree seemed to have accepted all this with equanimity, and have just been getting on with their lives. Their view of themselves and their place in the universe has not been adversely affected – mostly thanks to their reverence for Shishi’ka, a godlike figure (there are, incidentally, a few too many apostrophes in this novel). Krar learns that Shishi’ka is a real person – and works for the miners. He’s a member of a long-lived race, and was a member of the first mining party to land on Nira.

In and of itself, this isn’t that much of a surprise to Krar. Because every character in The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree is an alien. There are no humans. Krar herself is a Cheolon, and one of her researchers was a Mianai, a race who routinely live for almost a millennium. And yet the aliens themselves are not especially, well, alien. There are references to their physiologies – Krar is fond of rubbing “a brow tuft”, for example. While this does make the characters symapthetic to the reader, there is disappointingly little strangeness on display.

And it’s not just a lack of strangness. There seems to be remarkably little jeopardy too. Though two of the researchers are killed early in the novel, and the rest are stranded among the Shree – Krar is separated from them quite early, and so is worried over their fate, but there’s no real sense they might be in danger. The source of their trouble proves to be a rogue agent of the mining company – those two earlier deaths were his fault, and now he’s afraid of the consequences should they be discovered.

All of this means The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree is, well, a nice novel. Which is damning it with faint praise, and quite possibly unfair. It’s an enjoyable novel, although not as appealing as Killough’s earlier A Voice Out of Ramah. In some respects, it feels like a novella stretched to novel length, since many of its beats and reveals are somewhat leisurely paced. The final chapter sees the status of the miners, and of the Shree and the planet Nira, regularised, and everything finishes on a happy note. So despite the events on Nira, this is essentially an optimistic sf novel. And that’s certainly something we need more of.

A fun, if lightweight, read.

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