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Earthwind

Earthwind by Robert Holdstock
Published by Pan Science Fiction in 1978

Humans have colonised many planets and on one, Aeran, something strange has happened. The colonists have de-evolved into a stone age culture. Elspeth Mueller has come to find out why. Her colleague warned against the madness the planet evokes if you stay too long so she keeps her trips to the surface short. Until the empire, in the form of shipMeister Gorstein, arrives and Elspeth is trapped.

Elspeth is conscious of losing her grip on her memories as the days go by. She begins to understand what is happening on the planet with the help of Peter Ashka, a seer, who is troubled by the effect that Aeran has on his relationship with his oracle. In Holdstock’s universe there is a uniting force that can give guidance in the form of oracles such as the I-Ching, an indication of what will happen if no action is taken, if one continues on the current path. It is understood that people can change their fate if they choose to act. If the prediction does not come about, it is because something changed or the interpretation was flawed. Aeran has its own oracle, the Earthwind, that is never wrong and the Aerani believe their fate cannot be changed. At first, Elspeth and Peter attribute this to the primitive nature of the Aerani culture but eventually come to believe that there is a fundamental difference between the two oracles.

Gorstein wants the Aerani to accept a mind-implant that will connect them to the other worlds because the empire is paranoid about rebellion. Elspeth opposes this for two reasons: the threat the empire poses to the Aerani culture, and because of the possibility that what has happened on Aeran might spread to other planets via the implant. The colonists themselves are divided and the debate ruptures the community. The longer Gorstein’s ship stays on Aeran the greater the risk they will all revert to stone age mentalities. Elspeth must seek the source of the Earthwind to discover what is happening to her.

It was nice to have a female protagonist of colour, especially as there was no reason for the character to be either of those things. It was just a choice, and it was refreshing that the author made it. I found this both thought-provoking and entertaining. It’s a good adventure story, with a mystery solved by Peter and Elspeth but not without cost. I think this one will stick with me for a while.

Necrotech

necrotech-book-cover-676x1024Necrotech by K. C. Alexander
Published 2016 by Angry Robot

This was a lot of fun. Riko is a street thug, the muscle in a gang of criminals clinging to existence in a near-future cyberpunk dystopia. She wakes up in an unfamiliar lab and has to fight her way out. Riko thinks it’s just the result of a bender but soon discovers her world is far more messed up than that. In order to find out what happened to her Riko is forced to reassess all her relationships and everything she thinks she knows about her world and herself.

Necrotech is fast-paced and relentless and carried me quickly into the world. It’s possibly the most entertaining book I’ve read this year. The world-building is full of lots of lovely, rich details. I particularly liked the idea that everyone has a chipset implanted in their brain for communications which constantly exposed them to advertising, unless you can pay to remove ads.

Riko is an interesting narrator. She has a bolshy attitude and a strong tendency to punch first and ask questions later – even when she knows full well that this is against her best interests. Towards the end of the book Riko begins to develop some flickers of self-awareness. She has doubts all the way through due to the memory loss – because she doesn’t know what happened she has to question her actions. Some of the evidence she uncovers indicates that she might be involved in activities Riko finds repugnant, and yet she can’t be confident that it’s not true. I hope this is the first in a series because the book ends on the cusp of some serious character development.

If there’s one thing that I found a little disappointing it’s that Riko is a strong female character in a man’s world. In almost all respects, Necrotech has a diverse cast of characters with a range of skin colour, sexuality, and physical abilities presented in a way that adds to the worldbuilding. It’s really very good. Except for the lack of supporting female characters. I would have liked more. But it’s a minor point.

Necrotech is gripping, funny, shocking, and absorbing. I read the first few pages and couldn’t put it down. The pace keeps up all the way through the book and the surprises keep coming as Riko uncovers more. I loved it and I’m looking forward to a sequel.

 

Singularity Sky

singularity-skySingularity Sky by Charles Stross
Published by Orbit in 2005

Singularity Sky is Charles Stross’s debut novel. Humanity has spread out among the stars and fractured into societies with different technological levels and administrative structures. Rochard’s World is an outpost of the New Republic, an authoritarian, mid-20th century tech level society. An entity called the Festival arrives and showers technology on the world, granting wishes in return for information. The government responds by attempting time travel, which is prohibited by the god-like Eschaton.

Rachel Mansour, agent of Earth’s UN and Ambassador to the New Republic, and Martin Springfield, agent of a shadowy agency acting as an engineer on the New Republic’s flagship, are working to prevent the violation of the time travel rules.

It has spies, technology indistinguishable from magic, slapstick humour, time travel and explosions. It also has a dose of political philosophy. It is lacking in diversity, in part due to the setting. The New Republic is a patriarchal society and members struggle to accept Rachel as female. She wears trousers and so they see her as an effeminate man, unable to conceive of a woman with authority. I appreciated the recognition of the absurdity but feel an opportunity to diversify the background characters was missed.

I said a while ago I wasn’t going to review books I didn’t enjoy and in part that’s because I don’t finish reading them. I can’t say I loved Singularity Sky, but I liked it enough to finish it. I found it quite heavy-going, especially the first part, and I’m not really a fan of slapstick humour, particularly in the written form. There are some interesting ideas in Singularity Sky and the concepts are intriguing, more so perhaps than the plot or characters. If that’s how you like your sci-fi, then this might be for you.

 

Four Ways to Forgiveness

forgivenessI love the title of Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula Le Guin.

It’s a short story collection and normally I would steer clear of short stories as I don’t find them as satisfying as novels. This book came to me as part of the collection from an emigrating friend and, while I didn’t connect with the Earthsea series, I’d really enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness. A combination of title and author drew me to the book.

The four stories in Four Ways to Forgiveness are set in the same world/universe as The Left Hand of Darkness on the planets Werel and Yeowe. Werel’s societies are based on enslavement on one ethnic group by another. One nation, Voe Deo, colonised a nearby planet using a largely slave population to exploit the planet’s resources.

The first story, Betrayals, is set on Yeowe after the War of Liberation, in which the slave population overthrew the bosses. Yoss is a retired school teacher who reluctantly cares for her mad neighbour, Abberkam, who was a war lord and now lives alone in a sparsely populated area of Yeowe. Yoss has reasons to hate Abberkam and reasons to distrust men in general, but an attachment forms between them. Then Yoss’s house burns down: Abberkam rescues her cat and offers her a room in his house.

I liked this story the most. It is gentle and wistful, yet approaches some heavy themes. It talks about forms of oppression and how freedom requires more work than simply overthrowing the masters. Age has mellowed two characters who might have been enemies in their younger days, and the relationship is facilitated by Abberkam’s confessions, apologies, and adoption of more respectful behaviour. It is both sweet and real. Forgiveness is reached through time.

Forgiveness Day moves to Werel and the story of an Envoy of the Ekumen in one of the smaller, more traditional, countries. Solly is a female of an egalitarian society and she struggles to adapt to a patriarchal system. Although her struggle isn’t as great as Gatay’s struggle to accept a female Envoy. She strikes up a friendship with a member of a troupe of entertainers – they are transvestites and it is considered shocking to openly associate with them – who also happens to be involved in a movement to liberate Werel’s slaves. The story touches on Solly’s attempts to treat the slaves she’s given as equals and their resistance to her behaviour. There is a terrorist attack and Solly and her bodyguard are taken hostage. During their captivity they come to know each other better and understand the roots of the things they had been offended by. Forgiveness is reached through understanding.

The third story, A Man of the People, is also a story of an outsider to the Werel/Yeowe system. Havzhiva is Hainish and grows up expecting his life to follow a defined pattern. He grows to realise he wants more and leaves his community. It’s a difficult choice as few people leave their community and, if you do, you can never really go back. You might be able to return physically but the psychological connection has changed. Havzhiva spends his youth studying and exploring relationships. Eventually he becomes ambassador to Yeowe and it is there he finds a home. The society is struggling with change. The men believe themselves free but the women find themselves oppressed by the former male slaves. Everyone carries the physical scars of slavery and war. Slaves were allowed no family life or education and those institutions are in their infancy. The cities are changing (progressing) faster than the rural areas. There is conflict between different visions of a free Yeowe. Havzhiva forms a friendship with a nurse that lasts lifetime and at the end he tells her he has learned acceptance. Forgiveness is reached through acceptance.

A Woman’s Liberation, the final story, is the story of Rakam, a female slave. As a child she grows up in a compound and sees her mother rarely. Her mother goes to the house and is not a field slave. As she grows, she knows her skin is darker than the other slaves and comes to realise this is because one of the bosses is her father. Her mother secures her a place in the house as slave to the plantation owner’s wife, Lady Tazeu. She is raped repeatedly by Tazeu, who is isolated and lonely and has limited freedom of her own. Rakam is given to the boss’s son, who refuses to use her because she can’t consent, and tells her that he is working to free all his father’s slaves. When the estate is destroyed and the slaves take their freedom they are simply captured again and taken to another estate. Conditions have become harsher. Rakam says she has papers but they are taken from her. The path to freedom is dangerous and is not one act of liberation but must be defended everyday. Rakam is freed again and makes her way to the city where she educates herself. This story reflects how people internalise the philosophies of oppression as children and must work hard to change what they believe about themselves. Rakam realises that there are layers of freedom struggle. This story is most directly analogous to the institution of slavery on our own world and the complexities of liberation experienced by the enslaved. Rakam becomes a teacher and a writer, a powerful voice and a respected academic. Forgiveness is reached through achievement.

The stories of Four Ways to Forgiveness are all linked and together build up a picture of changing societies and the struggles of the people seeking emancipation. The writing is elegant, the characterisation is deft. These are deeply political stories yet character always comes first. I found them enriching and moving. Not only did I enjoy them as stories, but I learned something about the human experience. Wonderful.

The Exile Waiting

exileFirst of all, apologies for not posting for months. I’m taking a diploma in life coaching and all I’ve been reading are coaching books. Some of which have been excellent.

I read The Exile Waiting by Vonda McIntyre some while ago and I enjoyed it a lot. The story has stuck with me. Humanity has long since spread into the stars except for a remnant population on Earth. The surface of Earth is storm-torn and unlivable and a small city scrabbles a poor living underground. Mischa is a thief, struggling to steal enough to satisfy her uncle who controls her through torturing her telepathic, mentally disabled sister. It’s doubly hard once her brother is lost to the drugs he uses to block out their sister’s psychic cries.

But Mischa has a plan to get off Earth. It involves the ship that arrives carrying genetically modified twins set on removing the ruler of Center and establishing their own power base there. One of the twins finds himself separating from the other, thinking independently, disagreeing, wanting something else. This independence sets brother against brother.

This is a beautifully realised world with layers and depth. I particularly enjoyed the twins, their relationship and their eventual separation. The exquisite pain of growth is well captured. The loss of what one had, the gradual acceptance that what was can never be again, the pain of growing towards something unknown. I loved the hard choices Mischa has to make.

I’m growing to be a fan of Vonda McIntyre. Fortunately, book mountain has a few more of her titles in there.

Huysman’s Pets

Huysman’s Pets z4500.inddby Kate Wilhelm
Published by Gollancz in 1986

Drew Lancaster is asked to write the biography of the recently deceased Huysman. He’s not convinced he wants to do it but agrees to talk to Huysman’s widow. As he reads the Professor’s papers and talks to his colleagues, Lancaster gradually uncovers government sponsored experiments on children designed to reveal psionic powers.

Huysman’s Pets is a sci-fi thriller set in 1980s America. The thriller part is the investigation of the secretive work Huysman was conducting and who was funding it. The sci-fi part is the explanation for the powers of the children which is based on quantum mechanics and the concept of singlets.

It’s an easy read and the characters are engaging. Drew is a bit of a mess, doesn’t really want to get involved and is trying to get his family back together. He still has a sexual relationship with his ex-wife who is being bullied by her father into marriage with the senator she works for and is being tailed by special agents because the owner of the bookshop he patronised used to be a counterfeiter. I liked that the two scientists who help him figure out what’s happening are women, and I like the depth given to the character of Irma, Huysman’s widow. There are a lot of female characters in the book, which is nice.

The science is pretty low key in the novel. There is a theme of coincidence and synchronicity running through the book that is linked to the quantum physics that underpins the special abilities that the children have. And in the end, all Huysman’s children are freed from the hospital they’d been kept prisoner and let loose on the world. Who knows what they’ll do?

SF Mistressworks publish my reviews!

SF Mistressworks has accepted my reviews! The project celebrates 20th Century sci-fi written by women and aims to make women writers more visible among what is perceived to be a male dominated genre. The first of my reviews was published on 17th February. I’m delighted. And now I have to go read more so I can write reviews.