Promised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice

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 Sunbound, Cynthia Felice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Godsfire, Cynthia Felice

godsfireGodsfire, Cynthia Felice (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

It’s not all that often the cover art on a science fiction novel gives a good indication of what’s inside, but Godsfire‘s actually does a halfway decent job of setting out precisely what the reader can expect to find. To wit, a race of cat-people (who are not always naked, but never mind). And humans. But in Godsfire, the word “human” refers to the cat people, and homo sapiens are actually their slaves – in fact, a discussion of the “humanity” of the slaves is one of several themes driving the novel’s plot.

Heao is an academic, or rather, a member of Academe, a sort of philosophical and scientific thinktank which advises the ruling prince of the city, as well researching things simply for knowledge’s sake. She is also a gifted cartographer, so much so her nickname is “Pathfinder”. The highland town where she lives was recently conquered by a lowland “King-conqueror”, and now life is slowly returning to normal. Heao meets the enterprising merchant lowland Baltsar, and through him learns more about his slaves – which are rare in the highlands. She accompanies Baltsar to meet the King-conqueror, drawing a new map of the landscape as they travel from highlands through badlands to the lowlands, and even finds a quicker route. It transpires that Heao, the King-conqueror and the head of their religion, Tarana, have all had dreams which affect the destiny of the race and somewhow involve “godsfire”. And such dreams are taken very seriously…

Godsfire is essentially a sustained piece of world-building, but it’s a bravura piece. Felice handles her cat people with a remarkable degree of invention, and their physiology and society reads as surprisingly convincing. It’s the small details – their diet, their lack of distance vision, the way they use their tails to signal mood or add colour to their speech. It’s only halfway through the book, for example, during a conversation between Heao and her slave Teon that it becomes clear the characters are colour-blind. The physical details of Heao’s world are also cleverly constructed – the book’s blurb calls it the “shadowlands”, which refers to the land beneath the “skybridge”. Heao’s people believe this is used by the gods, one of which carries godsfire, the great heat that provides sufficient light to live beneath in the shadow beneath the skybridge. The land is limited by the Evernight Mountains to the north, the sea to the south, and there are apparently other peope lto east and west which prevent expansion up and down the coast. It’s not exactly hard to figure out the actual set-up, but Felice does an excellent job of remaining within the viewpoint of her creations.

The first half of the novel introduces the main cast and their world. It then leaps forward nineteen years. Heao is mated to Batlsar, and they have a daughter. She also believes the slaves (ie, homo sapiens) are as fully human as her people, which means by law they should not be enslaved. But to free them would destroy the economy, not to mention upset religious dogma. As a result Heao is shunned by the guardians of the temple, which means she is ostracised by the entire town. Eventually, she is forced to recant, after her mentor is poisoned. This leaves her free to lead an expedition through the Evernight Mountains, because she’s the only person who could so so. On the other side of the mountains, out from under the skybridge, she learns the truth about godsfire, and about the slaves.

Science fiction novels which tell their stories from the viewpoint of an alien are not unusual. Such novels in which humans feature as “alien” to the protagonists are perhaps less common. It’s a difficult trick to pull off – not only do the aliens have to seem sufficiently human for a reader to find them sympathetic, but the humans also have to appear sufficiently alien for the plot to work. Felice manages this successfully – and this despite the fact humans are there in the narrative from pretty much the first page. It’s true the world-building is the most impressive element of Godsfire – and that nineteen-year jump in the story does make the story feel a little disjointed – but it’s worth noting that Heao is a well-drawn protagonist. Perhaps she’s a little too special in some respects, but she’s a thoughtful and sympathetic viewpoint, and this without sacrificing her alien nature.

Worth reading.

Millennial Women, Virginia Kidd

millwomenMillennial Women, Virginia Kidd (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

The mid-1970s appears to have seen a brief surge in interest in sf by women authors – not just this anthology, Millennial Women; but also Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder trilogy (1975 – 1978), a series which would not be repeated until twenty years later. Though long-deserved, it’s hard to know what triggered this interest. Ursula K LeGuin had won the Hugo Award in 1970 for The Left Hand of Darkness, the first woman to do so; and she won again in 1975 for The Dispossessed, only the second female-authored book to win. In 1977, Kate Wilhlem won; and in 1979, Vonda N McIntyre… and books by women writers have won several times ever since – three times in the 1980s, five in the 1990s, and three in the  first decade of this century. It’s by no means parity, but it’s a huge improvement on earlier decades – prior to 1970, only two women had ever been shortlisted for the best novel Hugo: Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1963 and Andre Norton in 1964.

Kidd’s introduction in Millennial Women provides no clues to her motive for putting together the anthology. She gives a few comments on each of the six stories – one is actually a short novel – but there is little real discussion of the role of women in the science fiction field, except this:

But what seems to me one of the most impressive aspects of the collection is that all of these science fiction writers avoid hard-core science fiction for sociology, soft-pedal radical feminism for humanism, and write about women simply as women. (p 3)

Which, if anything, reads like a shot across Joanna Russ’s bows. And it’s certainly true that the contents of Millennial Women are not in the least bit radical. They are, in fact, well-crafted science fiction stories very much in keeping with the less-pulpish elements of the genre of the time. If it was known as “social science fiction” back then – either to distinguish it from sf involving space battles and such, or simply to differentiate it from sf written by men – the label is no longer used, and any need to hold it apart from heartland genre sf has long since vanished. But that quote does feel a little like it’s feeding into the stereotype of women writers in science fiction: “unlike men, they only write a particular kind of sf (which you might like)”. This is nonsense, of course. True, not all women sf writers wrote “radical feminist” sf, but it is deeply unfair to characterise what they did write as “social science fiction”, no matter what characteristics it shared with other subgenres. As Russ herself described it in How To Suppress Women’s Writing: “she wrote it, but she isn’t really [a science fiction writer], and it isn’t really [science fiction]”.

So, it should come as little surprise that the stories in Millennial Women cover a number of subgenres of science fiction, from near-future (mundane) sf to that involving galaxy-spanning spaceships. The various focuses of the stories are no different to what might be expected in any other non-themed anthology of the time, irrespective of the writers’ genders. Perhaps the fact all the stories feature female protagonists might have been considered notable in 1978 – though, in truth, Le Guin’s takes a chapter or two before settling on its eventual female protagonist – but to a modern reader, there’s nothing remarkable in it. Nor should there be.

To be honest, ‘No One Said Forever’ by Cynthia Felice doesn’t even actually read as science fiction, and it’s slightly baffling that it would be considered genre – even in 1978. Carol and Mike are both working professionals – he is a miner, she works for a computer company. And now she’s been offered a contract in Antarctica which she cannot afford to turn down. Neither wants to give up their careers, nor are they keen on separation. Eventually, they reach a solution, but it’s a dilemma predicated on attitudes and sensibilities which no longer hold sway (mostly), and so makes the piece feel bizarrely dated rather than futuristic.

‘The Song of N’Sardi-El’ by Diana L Paxson, as can probably be guessed from the presence of an apostrophe in the title, is much more blatantly science fiction. The narrator is a xenolinguist aboard a merchant ship which is rushing to the world of Cithal in order to be the first to sign a lucrative trade deal with its natives. They also have aboard several survivors from the lifeboat of another ship that was destroyed by aliens while leaving their world. One of these survivors is a young girl who’s suffering from nightmares. The narrator befriends her and then discovers that her ship was destroyed leaving Cithal, and that the girl can speak the native language, Xicithalian. As a result, the traders are well-prepared when they arrive on Cithal. And then the girl recognises the alien repsonsible for the death of her family… The title refers to a Xicithalian epic poem, and its story allows the narrator to use the aliens’ culture to demand concessions and open trading.  There’s nothing untypical about ‘The Song of N’Sardi’ and it would not look out of place in pretty much any sf anthology. Its focus on xenolinguistics does not make it “social science fiction”, though it does it in parts read a little like a story from an earlier decade.

‘Jubilee’s Story’ by Elizabeth A Lynn is post-apocalypse. A group from a women-only settlement stop off en route to another in a tiny hamlet, and find a pregnant young woman close to term. Her husband is afraid she’ll die, so the travellers stay to help. But it seems the situation in the house is somewhat fraught – the husband’s brother claims the baby is his, and the father is an old school Christian fundamentalist, who calls the the young woman a whore and wants her gone. Events come to a head. The set-up may be science fiction, but there’s little in how the story plays out that makes it genre. It could just as easily have been set in some rustic part of the US and nothing would really need to be changed. When you wonder why a story has been written as science fiction, you have to sometimes wonder why it was written at all.

Older women do not appear very often as protagonists in sf stories, but that’s what the narrator of ‘Mab Gallen Recalled’ by Cherry Wilder is. She served as a medical officer aboard a starship, but now she has retired. Much of the story consists of an extended flashback, describing a scene in which she had to stabilise an injured person in the cargo-hold of a damaged ship. Also present was a lay preacher, and the narrator tries to stress on her the importance of not sacrificing her air in order to save the injured man. She does sacrifice some of it, of course. But they all survive. And the narrator thinks back on that lay preacher, and on a lover she saw defect to the other side, and she compares them to the fresh-faced young medical missionaries to whom she is about to speak.

‘Phoenix in the Ashes’ by Joan D Vinge is also post-apocalypse, but in this world South America has remained technological while North America has devolved to an agrarian society. A Brazilian is prospecting by helicopter in south-west USA for oil, when his helicopter crashes in California. Which is where a theocratic society descended from immigrants from further south now holds sway. The women are very much second-class citizens, especially Amanda, who refused to marry the man her father had arranged as her husband. She has been exiled from the family homestead, and now lives in a hovel on the family land, and weaves cloth to pay for food. The helicopter pilot did not die in the crash, though he was left for dead. Later he stumbles across Amanda’s hovel, and she takes him in and tends to his wounds. He has lost his memory, and can remember nothing of his life before. Eventually, they marry, and he introduces crop rotation to the local farmers – including Amanda’s father, which helps ease his entry into the family. Such societies are almost a staple of the genre, and while ‘Phoenix in the Ashes’ predates The Handmaid’s Tale by almost a decade, the two stories are not dissimilar.

‘The Eye of the Heron’ by Ursula K Le Guin is the longest piece in the anthology. It’s a short novel and this is its first appearance in print. It’s been subsequently reprinted as a standalone novel. In fact, Millennial Women was published in the UK in 1980 under the title The Eye of the Heron and Other Stories, with LeGuin’s name considerably more prominent than Kidd’s. In an interview in Whole Earth Review, LeGuin said of this story:

“While I was writing ‘The Eye of the Heron’ in 1977, the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book. “Hey,” I said, “you can’t do that, you’re the hero. Where’s my book?” I stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn’t know how to write about women. I blundered around a while and then found some guidance in feminist theory. I got excited when I discovered feminist literary criticism was something I could read and actually enjoy. I read The Norton Book of Literature by Women from cover to cover. It was a bible for me. It taught me that I didn’t have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write like a woman and feel liberated in doing so.”

Certainly the female protagonist is not at all obvious in the opening chapters. ‘The Eye of the Heron’ opens with an expedition returning home after exploring the wilderness. When the explorers reach their home village, they call for a meeting in order to describe what they’ve discovered. But one of the Bosses is also present, and he tells the villagers that they are to make no move without the Bosses’ approval – even though it is plan the villagers wish to found a new settlement elsewhere in order to no longer be in the Bosses’ thrall. This is an alien world, settled by two groups of people – the People of Peace, who live in near-poverty and perform peasant labour; while the other live in luxury from the fruits of the first group’s labours. It’s such a polarised set-up that it’s hard to swallow. The Spanish Colonial feel to the world only helps obscure that this is a new world, and not some colonial period in Earth’s history. At least if it were the latter, there’d be the weight of history to justify the blatant inequality of the society, and bolster the arrogance of the Bosses. The desire by the People of the Peace to found a new colony away from the Bosses precipitates a confrontation, made worse by the Bosses’ plans to open new areas locally for farmland – or, as they see it, plantations with themselves lording it over People of the Peace labourers. Caught in the middle of all this is Luz Marina, the daughter of the head of the Bosses. She doesn’t want to marry the man her father has picked out for her, nor does she want to be like her married friends. When she learns of plans by a new troop of musket-armed Bosses’ sons to attack the People of the Peace, she runs away to warn them. And ends up staying, further throwing the two groups into conflict.

‘The Eye of the Heron’ is perhaps a more blunt story than LeGuin typically writes. The People of the Peace are so committed to their ideals, it seems a miracle they’ve survived as long as they have. The Bosses insist they represent “law and order” and so must be obeyed, but you can’t help wondering whose law and order they represent, and why they should be obeyed given they’re outnumbered. Indeed, the People of the Peace do practice civil disobedience, but a violent confrontation proves unavoidable (and incidentally is the event LeGuin refers to in the first sentence of the quote above). There’s perhaps a little too much suspension of disbelief required for ‘The Eye of the Heron’ to work as smoothly as it should – especially since, like some of the other stories in Millennial Women, it’s only really the setting that characterises the story as science fiction. Having said that, it’s clearly the best of the six stories in the anthology, and certainly bears rereading.

If the reasons for putting together Millennial Women are not entirely clear, the end result is still an anthology worth reading. Perhaps the other stories suffer somewhat in comparison to the LeGuin, but in other venues they would be more than strong enough to stand on their own. There is nothing genre-redefining or remarkable about Millennial Women. If anything, it amply demonstrates that labelling sf by women writers as anything other than sf does both women and the genre a huge disservice. There is no plausible justification for segregation, even if it takes a women-only anthology to prove it…