The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin (1971)latheofheaven
Review by Megan AM

One of the most radical, yet unradical, ways of thinking.

Fundamentally paradoxical, yet still, fundamental.

Both the thesis and antithesis for change.

(One of most difficult concepts to teach to a classroom of 9th graders scratching themselves in their uniforms on that one day of the year when state-mandated teaching objectives cross into the territory of “Eastern Philosophy.”)

The Tao. The Way.

George Orr is the embodiment of The Way.

In The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr visits a therapist to deal with his lifelong problem of affecting reality with his dreams, what he calls “effective dreaming”. But when the landscape of reality starts changing, steady Orr is not sure he can trust the ambitious Dr. Haber with his powerful mind. Can a passive, compliant person like Orr take back control of his dreams, and reset the world?

The dualism of personality, symbolized in the style of a PKD novel.

But, really, a celebration of a particular personality.

At first, it may seem like a tale about two undesirable opposites, vain wit versus witless passivity. Le Guin pulls no punches with her quarry, the arrogant therapist Dr. Haber, who was “no being, only layers” [81], and who “was not… really sure that anyone else existed, and wanted to prove they did by helping them” (p 28)

(Ouch, says the woman who practices the same profession.)

But Le Guin also drops a few judgmental remarks on her protagonist Orr, who is “unaggressive, placid, milquetoast…” (p 7), and “meek, mild, stuttering” (p 42). George Orr is “like a block of wood not carved” (p 96).

But it turns out Le Guin likes blocks of wood. And so does Lao Tzu:

The way goes on forever nameless.
Uncut wood, nothing important,
yet nobody under heaven
dare try to carve it.

[“Sacred Power,” Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way by Ursula Le Guin, p. 48]

In the notes of her demystified translation of the Tao Te Ching (2009), Le Guin expounds on that “block of wood”:

Uncut wood – here likened to the human soul—the uncut, unearned, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial. (p 83)

Not an attack on the passive personality. This is the celebration, perhaps exploration, of one. A personification of The Tao.

There’s other good stuff, too. Le Guin, as always, is funny, with “enhuging” and “enreddenhuged” being only two examples of hilarious attempts at short and concise, Tao-like humor. She also addresses vainglorious ambition, the expert pretense of therapy, Orwellian dystopia, PKD-style wibble-wobble of dreaming, interracial relationships, the gray tedium of an ethnic melting pot, among other things.

But The Lathe of Heaven also arouses curiosity about Le Guin’s lifelong relationship to Taoism. A woman who tells it like it is, who dissects books with an unforgiving blade, who unleashes snappy comebacks at fellow authors, and who turns humble acceptance speeches into defiant criticism. Ursula Le Guin is no George Orr.

But The Lathe of Heaven is a lot like The Tao.

Simple. Short. Sweet. Funny.

Mystical and whole.

Like the stanzas of a Tao verse.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Victoria Snelling

This was an interesting read from a style perspective. It was published in 1974 and feels even more dated than that. Partly it’s because the book looks at cloning technology and its physical and psychological effects and much of the thinking has moved on a lot since. That aside, I think the main thing creating the archaic feel was the use of omniscient point of view.

I can’t remember the last time I read something where the narrative was so far removed from an individual character’s POV. The advantage to this is that it keeps a story that unfolds over several generations to a manageable length. The book is relatively short at approx. 75,000 words. It also keeps the focus on the intellectual ideas behind the book – what happens when people only reproduce by cloning – and allows the author to present several sides of the debates.

The downside is that characterisation suffers. The reader never really gets in the head of the characters. On the one hand, the clones are presented to the reader as not quite human and distant POV gets in the way of identifying with them. There are two cloned characters, Molly and Mark, that we do get a bit closer to in the second half of the book and they are presented as being more human. I wonder if this was deliberate in order to emphasise that the clones are not like us. Which might have worked if the fully human characters in the first part of the book were more fully drawn. In the end I think that Molly and Mark are the most developed because they get the most POV time.

In this book I really noticed that the dialogue was used to explore the intellectual concepts of the book rather than as a characterisation tool.

It’s been a long time since I read a sci-fi novel in which the story was so clearly subordinate to the idea. I enjoyed it, but this one’s for the purists.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

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.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ

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.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper

grass-sheri-s-tepperGrass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by Victoria Snelling

Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture… Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Grass follows Marjorie Yrarier and her family as they go as ambassadors to Grass with the secret mission of finding a cure for the plague. There are two societies on Grass; the aristocrats, an ossified relic of old European aristocracy that spends its time hunting; and the Commons which is a vibrant, trading nation. Then there are the Hippae, who act as mounts in the aristocrats’ hunts, but who are far more than semi-intelligent animals.

I loved this. The central mystery is well-handled and the reveal is done slowly over the last third of the book. Grass as a world is vividly realised and it’s inhabitants and their relationships are well-drawn. The ideas about social organization are subtly woven in and the plot is always at the foreground. I actually couldn’t put it down. It’s nice to read something with a middle aged woman as the protagonist – especially science fiction, especially an adventure mystery. Marjorie is a wife and a mother, and yet she is portrayed as an individual, as active and as as driving the story. Marjorie is purposeful woman, driven to solve the mystery at the heart of the disturbing planet she finds herself on and, although she has love interests (three if you count her husband) they are secondary to the main plot. It’s worth mentioning because it strikes me that female protagonists, in this type of story, are pretty rare. Tepper avoids the traps of either making her female protag solely defined by her family and romantic relationships or making her a man in a lady costume. It’s so refreshing.

I only have two minor niggles, and seriously, they are tiny. First. the planet Grass is sharply drawn and the word picture is rich and vivid. The group of colonies that it is part of is quite fuzzy; I don’t even know whether to call it a galaxy, system or universe. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as most of the action is on Grass but it does feel slightly incomplete. The other niggle is the omniscient third person POV. Tepper handles it well so it doesn’t feel like head-hopping, but I did find it a little old-fashioned and in one or two places it is confusing.

So, Grass was excellent, overall. It was complex, deep and thought-provoking. It was beautifully written. It made me want to read everything else she’s written.

Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper

grass-sheri-s-tepperGrass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Grass!

Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses — some high, some low, some feathered, some straight — making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quiet at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were. Commoners all, of course. No aristocrat would sit in the wild grass to dream. Aristocrats have gardens for that, if they dream at all.”

It was human overpopulation that drove the exploration of space, the great flight from Terra for other habitable planets with more living space. When all is said and done, the balance of power rests in the hands of Sanctity, a fundamentalist religion turned power bloc that promises its adherents will live forever in its genetic banks. But not even Sanctity and its cloned afterlife is safe from the plague that may doom the dispersed humanity: a roiling miasma of death that kills any human or animal it touches, with life wasting away in a haze of gray lesions and gooey decay. Rumors say that the planet Grass is free from the plague – Grass, named for its endless oceans of green prairie – and so Sanctity’s heirarch names his Catholic nephew Rigo Yrarier the ambassador to Grass, sending him and his family with a secret mission to investigate Grass for signs of plague – or, hopefully, signs of a cure.

Rigo and his wife Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier are both Olympic equestrians, and Sanctity hopes that their experience as riders may be an inroad to Grassian society. Grass has a strong classist system where the elite aristocracy – the Bons, descended from Europeans who fled Sanctity’s intrusion – live in grand estancias, their existence revolving around their near-continuous Hunt. They stay at arms-reach from the commoners huddled around the planet’s only port; nor do they care much for the “Green Brothers”, Sanctified monks all but banished to Grass, excavating the ruins of long-dead alien species called the Arbai. But with the Bons, what the Yrariers find is a dark mockery of a Terran fox-hunt: utilizing “native equivalents”, the Bons ride barbed Hippae alongside frothing Hounds, running down or harpooning the strange, wailing Foxen. To the Bons, a horse is but a common animal in front of the Hippae. And it’s the Hippae who hold the answers to Grass’s secrets, displaying a dark and malevolent intelligence behind their blood-red eyes.

Marjorie is the unlikely heroine: middle-aged, trapped in an unhappy marriage, and now stuck on a planet known for its bizarre rituals and distrust of outsiders. Her husband and daughter plan to ride Hippae and join the Hunt, not wanting to lose face in front of the Bons; when her daughter vanishes during the Hunt, Marjorie sets out to find her with a group of odd companions, including a plague survivor, an elderly Green Brother quite attuned to Grass’s ecosystem, and Sylvan bon Damfels, a striking young aristocrat who’s fallen for Marjorie. Thrust into this chaos, Marjorie often has her doubts, questioning her role in her family, her relationship with Rigo, and in several long sections, questions the strictures of her faith. Yet despite all adversity, she proves a capable and competent heroine, unraveling the planet’s deep mysteries.

Tepper’s writing is pretty good; she has flashes of sublime imagery, and can evoke pure dread in the early sections dealing with the Hippae. Tepper reminds me of CJ Cherryh from her mix of sociopolitical intrigue, alien culture and biology, and good old-fashioned thrills, along with some social commentary. With Grass, that commentary is mostly on religious and moral grounds – it’s clear Tepper has no love for extremists (as Sanctity shows), but Marjorie and her “Old Catholic” family offers up a fairly balanced religious dialogue, a rare sight in SF. Tepper’s plotting is strong, too; the first half of the novel moves at a slower pace, introducing the many characters and subplots and foreshadowing what’s to come. The novel’s pacing picks up around the middle, and the final third of the novel sees all the plots and subplots crash together. Covering all of them is a futile effort; suffice to say that even when it’s slow-going, the book is packed.

While a strong novel, Grass is not immaculate; the plague is a nice macguffin, but both it and the planet’s surprise biology end up suffering from a lack of believable science. There’s also a distinct feel that Tepper was making things up as she went along, as some of the twists feel neither plotted or natural: Rigo first appears as an intense but loving husband, until suddenly he has a secret mistress, who (later) Marjorie suddenly knew about all along, and Rigo descends to become a cartoonish caricature of a domineering patriarch. In another case, Sylvan bon Damfels shows up at the commoner town and is annoyed that the commoners ignore him and treat him as useless, and suddenly it’s as if his life-long desire has been to be welcomed by the common folk. The ending is rushed and lacks impact, some elements are too stereotypical, and several of the characters (Sylvan, for one) remain underdeveloped. And some readers may chafe against the religious and moral philosophizing.

Overall, though, I found Grass a fascinating read. It balances social, religious, and scientific ideas in a novel rich with intrigue and action and a dash of horror. Combined with the stellar world-building, Tepper impressed me with her storytelling, weaving a complex narrative with dozens of characters and a multi-layered plot; even if it’s wrapped up too neatly, it’s an impressive effort. Grass has its flaws and imperfections but it also does so many things right, and I have a hard time being too critical. What Tepper has written is a very ambitious novel; like most ambitious novels, there’s that whole “reach exceeds grasp” thing, but what is grasped is more than enough to make Grass successful. I’d recommend it to most SF readers as a worthwhile read, provided they don’t immediately flee from its religion or ecofeminism.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Kate Macdonald

Three months ago I had never heard of Kate Wilhelm. Science Fiction and other Suspect Ruminations ran a week of Wilhelm guest reviews recently, which alerted me to her existence. I found Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang in Aberdeen’s fine second-hand bookshop Books and Beans, a week after that, and carried it home in triumph. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award in 1977 for the best science fiction novel, as well as the Jupiter and the Locus in the same year. The Jupiter Award for best novel, according to Wikipedia, was only awarded four times, and two of the other three winning books were Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. These three have also won the Locus Award, along with, for instance, Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake. So, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang should be a good indication of the quality of Wilhelm’s 1970s sf.

I read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang with increasing attention over a day. Though it was highly absorbing, beautifully written and had a good, thought-nagging central premise, it bothered me. Afterwards, in chats with other folks online, it appears the novel was stitched together from a set of novellas, which helped me understand its curious structure, constructed of sections with overlapping character involvement. It’s set in a post-disaster scenario sometime in the future, on the east coast of America (yawn … why do American writers think this is the optimum location for futuristic survival narratives? There are other areas in the world …) in a remote valley somewhere near Washington DC (convenient for a later metaphor on the destruction of the Capitol equalling the Destruction of the Nation).

A tight-knit and frankly rather creepy family, called Sumner after its patriarch, decide that they will pool all their cash and technical training to build a secret underground laboratory and learn to clone human beings. Any day now, the very obvious changes in weather, disease resistance and crop failure will kill off most of the Earth’s population, and they want to ensure some kind of survival.

In the Sumner family all its professionals and technically trained people are male, whereas the women are only allowed to be mothers and cooks. This is disturbing: this speculative novel was written after many other sf novelists had managed to imagine a future society in which social systems had evolved along with science and technology, yet it will not let go of the social norms of the era in which Wilhelm grew up, the 1940s. What was she thinking? Wasn’t she aware of feminism, or civil rights developments in her own society? She creates a conveniently normate group of characters to enhance the lesson her central plot gives – that artificially repressing difference suppresses humanity’s strengths – but it also suggests that she wasn’t interested in drawing a whole society, only an idea.

The big, big futuristic, wildly speculative aspect of this idea that does show Wilhelm thinking totally out of the 1970s box in terms of social evolution is in how she uses sexuality. The clones are encouraged to be sexually active in all possible permissive ways from as early an age as they want, and they evolve a mat-playtime component to their socialising. This is essentially a long group sex session for group bonding and mutual satisfaction and comfort, enhanced by their in-group telepathy. I assume that the germ of this idea came from Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Some other 1970s preoccupations – for instance ecology – also made it into her story of the possible future.

Wilhelm was clearly thinking only about the social effects of cloning on society, since the successive four sections of the novel deal with what happens when cloning has been achieved; what happens to an isolated society when a child is born naturally and grows up outside a clone group; and how cloning reduces imagination and lateral thinking to such an extent that the highly trained clones can’t think for themselves, and are ultimately an evolutionary dead-end. This vision is brilliant, a splendidly-told and enacted extrapolation of a single idea, that works so well as a central thread of narrative. This is why this novel won its awards.

Wilhelm writes with most power when she’s describing how Mark, the throwback human in the community of clones, behaves and acts in opposition to his environment. This is a very effective way of imagining being human as ‘other’, and works so well to add tension to the brave but hopeless expeditions of the clones to try to find new supplies. They can’t learn to find their way in the woods, they don’t understand how to rebuild a mill, they can’t improvise or imagine, they don’t believe what they haven’t been told, they die of exposure and radiation, but not stupidity. The clones are not stupid, they’re just incapable of learning and adapting. Ultimately, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is about what being human means.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr

hersmokeHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990)
Review by Kate Macdonald

The short stories of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever are grim and powerful reading, committing the reader to new worlds and leaving unsettling characters in the mind. They are about love, sex and death in the future, across species and time. In the original introduction to the 1990 edition John Clute writes passionately about the youth and vigour of Tiptree’s writing, and the masculine use of language that “tells the world what it is, tells the world what to do”. The point of this defence (and no defence is needed, but Clute was recapping the situation from the 1970s when Tiptree was an enigmatic secret) is, of course, that the secretive and impressive sf author James Tiptree Jr was unmasked in 1977 as Alice B Sheldon, also writing as Raccoona Sheldon, a CIA operative, psychology PhD, and explorer’s daughter, aged 62. The revelation of the femaleness of this superb writer must have given huge pleasure (it still does) to those who had bristled at Robert Silverberg’s authoritative statement from a few years earlier that Tiptree could not be a woman because her writing was “ineluctably masculine”, implying that only men wrote great sf. That was just a bit too hegemonic for the late 1970s, even for a grand old man of literature.

Clute calls this Tiptree collection “one of the two or three most significant collections of short SF ever published”. The stories are soaringly futuristic, succeeding so much better than many other works of the period in stepping out of contemporary social and cultural restrictions and inventing spectacularly alien futures. Yet there is a problem, a very serious one for these feminist stories written in “masculine” language. They reach for the stars, but cannot free themselves from a 1950s mindset about women. When Tiptree began to write these stories, in a burst of creative genius between 1968 and 1981, she had turned 50, and had already left several careers behind her, one of them as the US Army’s first photo-intelligence officer. Clute claims youth and vigour for her writing, but he acknowledges the weight of her years: “she burns out old”. Her narrative expectation is dated on what the reader would think about society and human development. This produces a straining of invention, as if a marvellous, powerful flying creature was tied to the ground by a single length of pluckable rope that it couldn’t see to cut. An example of this is in the final story in this collection, ‘And So On, and So On’, a conversation piece between a group of travellers in a space shuttle. One character is identified as female, a “clanwife” and nursemaid. The others are male (or neutral gender), and hold professional posts in a future far away in time. Why was it so hard, given her own history, for Tiptree to make a professional character female?

Even where pilots, engineers or scientists in these stories are female, they are almost certain to be sexually assaulted. Most of the stories in this collection feature rape, or violent sex, as a central aspect of the plot. Reading the stories one after another, this focus on an inevitable masculine brutality becomes numbing, even if the number of words used to give the details represent a very small percentage of the story. Tiptree had a “concern”, as we say in the trade, to talk about women, death and rape, and how stunningly, crucially wrong this was for a civilised society intending to fly out to the stars and spread its morality and social practices elsewhere. Graham Sleight’s 2014 introduction to this new edition of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever quotes Tiptree’s 1983 essay, in which she talks about her childhood on her parents’ explorations and trips, in which “she found herself interacting with adults of every size, color, shape and condition […] and above all, women: chattel-women deliberately starved, deformed, blinded and enslaved; women in nun’s habits saving the world; women in high heels saving the world”.

There is more on that theme in this long quotation: its effect is to suggest how Alice’s experiences in the 1920s and 1930s in Africa and Asia had stayed in her mind. After working in intelligence and training in psychology, she started writing terrifying and brutal stories of women’s oppression, just when the second wave of feminism was happening in the West. What disturbs and impresses me most about these stories is the suffering that Tiptree makes the women characters endure, whether they feel it as suffering or not. We have to read it: that’s her point.

In ‘The Screwfly Solution’ men begin killing women, all the women, often raping them first: the horror comes from how easily this could happen. ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side’ is about man’s desire for alien sex, any sex, and any alien. The title comes from Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (doomed love for a cold fairy) and the theme comes from ‘Tam Lin’ (human loses decades of his life in the faery hill). (Tiptree’s titles are baroque fantasies in their own right, epic and ornate.) ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ is a horrific fantasia on Frankenstein and reality TV that reminded me forcibly of a story by (possibly?) Ray Bradbury in which an abortion is performed live on camera in a speeding car with white leather seats to show how superb its stabilising system was. The kind of gripping story which you don’t want to continue reading but you have to, and you don’t forget it either.

‘The Women Men Don’t See’ is apparently Tiptree’s most famous story (I hadn’t heard of it), and is a little lighter because the women don’t die, but escape rather than stay on a planet with voracious male humans. In Tiptree’s narrative perspectives it seems that masculinity is the default option for “human”, and woman’s default option is to do what masculinity requires. ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read’ considers what would happen if there were no longer men on Earth, and then brings three of them back from the past.

Naturally, rape is attempted, but by now I am getting rather depressed: why does a male-female encounter in a Tiptree story always include sex, whether she wants it or not? Is there really no other option in the future, other than this kind of power play? ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’ is a masochistic escape-from-torture novella that ends in the suffering woman’s epiphany and all the brutalising men dead. ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’ is all about sex, in the biological sense, and yes, there is a flashback of critical importance about child sex too. Oh dear. Are we there yet?

‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light’ is about an alternative reality where a happy woman is running freely along a long abandoned highway, a courier for the all-women society that seems to have replaced the one who built the crumbling roads and buildings, but, of course, it’s all in her head, and you can guess what happens under the freeway. ‘We Who Stole The Dream’ varies the rape narrative by making it a pan-planetary colonial nightmare, rather like Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest.

All Tiptree’s stories require attentive reading, and often re-reading. She doesn’t make anything easy, and delivers wonders, even if they’re often unpalatable. The title story, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, is hard work, about time travel controlled by psychic scarring. The event that causes the scarring is, predictably, sex. ‘Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death’ is my preferred story of all in this collection because Tiptree gets right away from the corruption of human (actually 1950s American) social norms, and imagines the life cycle of a devouringly powerful race of giant spiders who feel love and passion in the most erotic terms. This story allows love to dominate, rather than violent lust, and is a linguistic triumph in conveying multiple shades of affection and selfless desire that isn’t based on a male-female binary. ‘Slow Music’, a story of the last potential breeding couple on Earth, does include sex, but in its proper place, as only part of the complicated relationship that people must develop when considering impregnation to restock the Earth with people.

The remaining stories are not about rape, thank goodness, but they are absolutely about deaths that are inevitable but slow. A schlock situation is given grandeur and pathos in ‘On the Last Afternoon’ when a herd of immense breeding lobsters crashes into the bay where the humans’ post-crash settlement is struggling to survive. ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ and ‘And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways’ are so sad, stories of the desolate loneliness of death, tempered with pleasure in new knowledge, but not by enough. One man is rushing through time in the same point in space for centuries, trying to get back home, watched with interest by generations of settlers at the desert spot where the explosion threw him out of time. The other has left home for good to get to the top of the forbidden mountain to see what’s there in his last moments. ‘She Waits for All Men Born’ is possibly the ultimate in powerful, lonely women: a mutant girl who can never be killed, and whose gaze kills everyone. What can withstand that?

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a very dense reading experience. It took me several days, and I needed respite in between, to clear my mind of nightmares and hopelessness. Tiptree’s writing is astonishingly powerful, and reading these stories all in one go is probably not at all what she intended (this collection was assembled after her death). The magazines who bought her stories are also factors in considering why she included so many violent sex episodes in her plots: was this a requirement by the editors? Did New Dimensions 3, Phantasmicon, Nova 2, Galaxy, Stellar 4, Interfaces, Amazing Stories, to list only some of the collections or magazines that published these stories, have a high tolerance for sexual violence, or readers with an appetite for it? Was Tiptree unusual or the norm in her detailed writing about rape in space? I find it interesting that Clute doesn’t mention the stories’ obsessive attention to sexual violence in 1990, whereas Sleight does in 2014. Have Tiptree’s violent lessons in feminist thinking about women, sex and fiction finally percolated through into the cultural norm?

This review originally appear on katemacdonald.net.

Ammonite, Nicola Griffith

ammoniteAmmonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
Review by Kate Macdonald

I think this may have been the first sf novel I read that I instantly recognised as feminist: not stealth, or muted, or sub-conscious. It was Nicola Griffith’s first novel, and if she had never written anything again it would still be stunning: it won the Tiptree Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Premio Italia.

Ammonite is an exploration story set on a male-free planet; they’re not even needed for making babies. The impetus behind this novel seems to be, what would a world be like when there weren’t any men? And the answer is, a perfectly normal world, but with only women, which changes all the social dynamics. It’s a very simple premise, but the result is an outstanding novel. The setting and story stay with you, you want to know more, and to have the story continue.

The world is called Jeep – GP – and it was first investigated by the Company, an Alien-like conglomerate Griffith uses as a useful metaphor for authority and interference on a galactic scale. Company colonists were sent down to explore, and a planetary virus killed all the men, and a fifth of the women. Company promptly quarantined the planet, and set up extreme decontamination procedures for anyone who wanted to leave. This includes the complete removal of the subject’s blood lymph and bone marrow: I can’t see that one being compatible with continuing to live. The women that remained maintained the Company settlement for five years, and when the story opens they’re showing unmistakeable signs of becoming settlers rather than a temporary mission because, of course, they can’t leave.

Marghe the xeno-anthropologist is the newcomer through whose eyes we see the story unfold. She takes the one-way trip to the surface to make closer contacts with the natives, because this is the professional opportunity of a lifetime. The natives are human, living in a collection of communities with different social organisations. They originate from Earth, centuries before, which explains their mixed-up lingua franca of different Earth languages. Now, they’re all illiterate and tribal, some are settled and agricultural and some are nomadic and pastoral; most are peaceful, but one tribe is showing very worrying signs of irrational aggression. Times are not so much hard as fragile: a bad harvest or the death of a leader can tip a group into jeopardy, which is why the social trading and allegiance system of trata is essential for communal survival. Marghe is given help by one group, which puts her, and the Company settlement, in a trata relationship. For the first time, the Company settlement has a stake in the planet’s future, they will be consulted, they will be asked for help, they exist. But Marghe is struggling against her innate suspicion of Company, and her loyalties to her own people. Her instincts are to get away from the confines of the Company enclosure and live among the women of Jeep. It helps that she’s a brilliant linguist, so the first hurdle for understanding goes down quickly, and she heads out into this brave new world to see what she can see, and learn as much as she can.

Naturally, she gets into trouble. She strays into a bad electrical storm, she gets lost on the high plateau, she gets captured by the worryingly aggressive nomadic tribe and is forced into servitude to survive the winter, in a tribe that is clearly malnourished and inbred, and is being influenced by a madwoman who thinks she is the reincarnation of the Death Spirit. Griffiths draws on lots of different Earth societies for Jeep’s different social groups, and her depiction of this nomadic tribe with an unpronounceable faux-Gaelic name is pretty chilling. Marghe’s obstinate refusal to just shut up and keep the fire going is infuriating, because it’s perfectly plain to the reader that she has no chance of surviving the hostile environment and the hostile people unless she learns and listens, but Marghe’s own demons are too noisy for her to listen to anything else going on, a lot of the time. Her eventual escape seems like a miracle, and not one that she earned with prudence or caution.

Once she struggles over the winter plain with much suffering and several lost frostbitten fingers, Marge is rescued from delirium by the farmers of Ollfoss, and she recovers her mind and her health in a society that less charitable readers might snoot at as being a feminist hippy commune, and lose interest in the novel at this point, but it worked for me. I really like the depiction of a society where children are shared between parental groups (see Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake), and where different skills find different outlets. The village Marghe comes to live in seems like an ecologist’s dream of comfortable subsistence living, with hot tubs, communal gardens, a gong-banging pavilion to echo the electromagnetic pulse of the planet and a very sensible trading ethic. Making things is very important for these people, but the things that are made are not always tangible. Marghe falls in love with Thenike, a travelling story-teller, arbitrator and wise woman, and finds that her anthropologist’s training has given her these skills too, so she can become part of the native economy herself. Their travels put them in touch with news, and with political developments, which come to a head when the terrifying wild tribe of the north starts to raid southwards, killing as they go. The parallel plot, of what the Company settlers are going to do to avoid being blown up by the military cruiser parked in orbit to keep an eye on them, and how they’re going to fit into this world, comes to a head at about the same time. The plotting is very skilful, since the book ends with plenty of loose ends but also with the most urgent plot problems resolved and sorted. It’s all very satisfying, and leaves you wanting much, much more of this world and its richly imagined life. This is one of Griffith’s major strengths as a novelist: her worlds work at all levels, and embed themselves deeply in the reader’s imagination.

You may be wondering about how this all-female society breeds. How are the children conceived, if there aren’t any men to do what human insemination requires? Well, it’s all in the mind. The virus enables women to tweak their own gametes and the gametes of their lovers, when they go into a sex-related trance state, so that children (girls) can be conceived as an act of love. This seems perfectly plausible, if you’ve got the ability to work on your own biofeedback, as a kind of meditative extension of yoga or t’ai chi. You can do pretty much anything to your own biology, once you know what you’re doing and have the mental whatnot to tweak the cells. Anne McCaffrey used this idea too, in her telepathy short stories, Pegasus in Flight. Forget about the science, embrace the concept.

One of the consequences of there being no men (though there are male animals: the virus is apparently not a male-hater, just a man-eater) is that society runs itself differently from how we know it. This is the utopian aspect of Ammonite, exploring how a society could develop following only female interests. There are no hierarchies: that’s the most obvious factor. Group leaders lead through common sense, and put the tribe first. The mystical element to how these societies operate does affect their social practice: if you can look back along the generations and see how your great-great-grandmother did something, or dealt with a particular problem, then that naturally throws a wild card into the otherwise logical process of gaining experience and learning how to manage a tribal meeting. It would be like having the lives of all your ancestors on tap for a special consultation, taking the place of written records and archive-keeping that most human societies develop.

Without hierarchies, there is a strong focus on fair treatment, equal treatment, and no-one taking advantage of anyone else. Open discussion of disagreements resolves problems, and nobody seems to be angling for personal power, or gain. There are exceptions: the madwoman who wanted to lead the tribe to a bloody killing swathe over the planet was deranged, a result of too much inbreeding. Leifin, the woman who saved Marghe from the winter plains, shows signs of not only developing capitalist tendencies – an obsessive pursuit of trata for its own sake, and trading advantages beyond anything she actually needs – but also hunting for pleasure as well as for the skins of the creatures she kills. This is another of the enticing loose ends that Griffith leaves open: Leifin is hunting goth, a mythical creature whom most people think is an invention, but whom Marghe has seen, and whom Liefin has killed for its pelt. Marghe suspects the goth of being one of the indigenous inhabitants of the planet, a true alien, and also an intelligent one, who made the standing stone circles, and still survives in the forests. This takes the story back to a different level, where we can start questioning colonisation in all its forms, and look more searchingly at the Earth-imported human women who now act as natives. This is a novel of unfolding imaginative invention, it’s rich and packed, and definitely worth rediscovering.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Synners, Pat Cadigan

synnersSynners, Pat Cadigan (1991)
Review by Ian Sales

As should be clear from the cover art to the left, Synners is in Gollancz’s SF Masterwork series, which makes Cadigan one of fourteen female authors among the seventy-eight authors in the series so far. Even more remarkable, Cadigan is one of the few female authors to succeed at writing cyberpunk, the subgenre of science fiction which did more to minimise the contribution of women to the genre than any other. As for Synners‘ credentials as a SF Masterwork… It’s certainly an accomplished novel, and there are definitely worse books already in the series. But, perhaps, by 1991 pretty much everything that needed to be said by, and in, cyberpunk had already been said. Given that, it’s not easy to determine what precisely Synners brings to the subgenre, or even genre. This is not helped by certain aspects of its world-building coming across in 2015 as somewhat quaint and dated. But that, of course, is an occupational hazard of writing science fiction, and it’s a remarkable novel indeed which won’t feel dated twenty-five years after being written.

The plot of Synners centres around a new technology, “sockets”, which allows for direct neural interfacing. But rather than in service to computer programming, this is used to experience entertainment media, especially “rock videos”. In the twenty-first century, this seems like an odd place to put the cutting-edge of computing, and from what I remember of 1991, the shine had long since rubbed off MTV. But there is also an Internet of sorts in Synners, and in describing this Cadigan proves almost prophetic in parts. However, the constant references to “datalines”, ie, landlines, feels a little dated in our current wifi world…

All of which is to say that the technology on which the story of Synners sits – and for cyberpunk fiction, this is no open landscape but a fully-populated mise en scène whose every element is important – is not the most convincing aspect of the novel. The aforementioned sockets, for example, are all but magical – no real explanation is given how their filaments might propagate through the brain to exactly the right areas for the sockets to be effective (although there are some convincing discussion of neurology). On the other hand, the computing mentioned throughout has the ring of believability – as of the state of the art in 1991, when 40 MB was considered a pretty hardcore harddisk…

But a science fiction novel is more than just the world of its story. Synners feels like it has… too many characters. It opens in a tattoo parlour in a run-down Los Angeles, and then bounces among a dozen or so characters, before the plot finally kicks into gear about a third of the way into its 475 pages. And even then, the focus is not entirely clear. There’s been a take-over of a video production company, EyeTraxx, by a media conglomerate, Diversifications, because EyeTraxx had a small medical research lab and that’s where sockets came from. In hindsight, this is not entirely plausible, but never mind. But the idea of a company which specialises in enhancing Hollywood studio films through the use of CGI is surely prophetic (rumour has it such firms these days are even used by celebrities for their private videos, such as those they take at birthday and anniversary parties).

In transpires that Diversifications’ takeover of EyeTraxx threatens the datalines. Because the brain of Visual Mark, EyeTraxx’s chief programmer, is somewhat overdeveloped in the areas where the sockets interact, so when he suffers a stroke while connected… and he has spent so much time connected he has pretty much spread out his mind through Diversifications’ many, many computers and computer systems… The stroke takes down parts of the datalines, and a second major stroke inflicts even more damage because it manages to mutate into a semi-sentient virus.

All this is told through the viewpoints of several characters, most of whom have little agency in the world of the book, although they do have agency in the narrative. They are drop-outs and hackers and the sort of people who spend most of their time at raves. But because they’re not driven by a need to increase market share or revenue, they’re the only ones who can see what the problem really is and so take it upon themselves to fix it.

Synners is far from being a bad novel. The prose is taut and well-written, and if the characters tend to blur together that’s more a consequence of there being so many than it is of Cadigan’s failure to make them distinct. The story takes a while before it picks up sufficient speed for narrative impetus to drag the reader along, but once it’s up and running it’s a fast read. It suffers a little because of its insistence that rock videos are where all the computing and artistic rebels can be found. And while much of the technology on display is plausible, if a little dated in places, some of it is a bit hand-wavey.

Synners deserves its spot in the SF Masterwork series – not because it was written by a woman, not because it is cyberpunk, and certainly not because it is a cyberpunk novel written by a woman… but because it snapshots in muscular but well-chosen prose a particular moment in science fiction’s history. And it does so in a distinctive voice. Worth reading.