Archives

Starfarers

Starfarers, by Von5802nda N. McIntyre
Published 1989 by Ace Books

Starfarers is the story of a group of people who find themselves on a journey across the stars. For some that was their intention and for others it was the path circumstance led them down. They are scientists and artists for the most part. As Starfarers is the first book in a series so there are two stories. The series story is the one of what happens to these humans when they leave our solar system and can they maintain their ideals while they do it. In the first book, the story is how the characters overcome the internal and external obstacles to starting their journey.

McIntyre makes an effort to present a future in which humans act differently than they do now. Three of the main characters are in a polyamorous relationship which was once a group of four but they are grieving the death of the person who was at the centre of the relationships. I liked the depiction and I thought it came across convincingly. Each member has to manage their intimate relationships and also manage the group dynamic. That wasn’t portrayed as something too difficult but it also wasn’t swept under the carpet. The characters are highly emotionally intelligent and that helps. I liked that it was presented as a slightly old-fashioned relationship in that it was formalised.

The politics of this future world are described in the ways they impact the ship. It’s a research facility primarily so when countries don’t want to support it’s aims they pull finding and it affects directly the lives of the people on the ship. Their friends leave and they can’t get the supplies they’re used to. The ship believes itself to be egalitarian, but one character is a gardener and he observes that the academics don’t mix with the custodial staff so it’s not as free and equal as they’d like to think. There’s a fair amount of exposition in the book but for me I found it interesting and thought it was well-handled as character development and worldbuilding. But this is a vision of a future I’d like to buy into so perhaps I wouldn’t have thought that if McIntyre had been exploring different ideas. I enjoyed the worldbuilding and I found the characters real and engaging. I’ve been acutely aware of the monoculture of most of the books I’ve been reading and the conspicuous diversity, at least in gender, ethnicity and sexuality, was refreshing.

Clearly this is the first in a series and it is setting up what is the real story – due to political tension on earth the ship and its scientific mission is under threat and eventually the US tries to take it by force. They want to use it as a military base. As the ship is weapon-free their only alternative is to run – to start their mission understaffed, under-supplied and underprepared. It may only be the first peril they face on their journey but it was full of tension.

I enjoyed this very much and am keen to read the rest of the series, although the current book-buying embargo might mean that doesn’t happen for a couple of years.

Damnation Alley

damantion alleyDamnation Alley by Roger Zelazny
Published 1971, Faber and Faber

This was so much fun. In a post-nuclear holocaust America only the coastal cities have survived. Boston has a plague that threatens its survival and Los Angeles has the cure. A messenger made the crossing to ask for the cure but didn’t survive the effects of the journey. The continent is racked with radiation, storms, quakes, monsters and feral humans. Hell Tanner, a Hell’s Angel, is offered the choice between attempting the drive or going back to jail. The rest of the story is Hell battling the environment to take the cure to Boston.

It’s a fairly basic plot and is well handled. There’s plenty of tension and excitement and the success of the mission is often in doubt. The worldbuilding is excellent and the description of the impact of the use of nuclear weapons is vivid. I’m not sure how scientifically accurate it is, but it makes good fiction. A film starring Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard was loosely based on the book Damnation Alley, and, ye gods, it’s awful. The book is much, much better.

The characters were a bit sketchy. It’s a fast-paced action story, so the characterization takes a back seat. Hell is a seventies-style anti-hero who does a good deed only because he’s forced into it, but is cool in a laconic, anti-authoritarian way. The supporting cast is handled in what I think of as line drawing. There’s little detail and not much depth, but the impression of the character is skillfully conveyed in brief strokes of the pen.

Since I’m now reading a lot of sci-fi and fantasy written more than twenty years ago, I’ve started noting the publication date. Where I can, that’s original publication date, not necessarily the edition I read or of the picture that goes with the post. The reason for doing that is to try to build up a picture of changing representations of characters who are not white, male, able-bodied, cis-gender, or heterosexual and to see whether there is a pattern of change over time.

Damnation Alley has, as I recall, two female characters. One is a wife and mother of a family that give Hell food and healing half-way through the journey. There are a number of background characters and they are overwhelmingly male and white. Near the end of the book, Hell is chased by a biker gang. He kills most of them and one of the women joins him, but she’s only there for Hell’s sexual relief and conveniently dies soon after.

Despite the disappointingly predictable lack of diversity, Damnation Alley is extremely enjoyable. If like me, you like action, adventure and bit of silliness.

Deathworld

Deathworld-Harry-HarrisonDeathworld, by Harry Harrison
Published 1960, by Bantam Books

Humans have colonized many planets in the galaxy and in most places they live in sealed bubbles that provide a breathable atmosphere. But on one planet, life has become nothing more than a daily fight for survival. Every living thing on Pyrrus seems intent on destroying humans. Fast evolution provides all plants and animals with poisons, weapons and armour and the single-minded desire to kill people.

Jason dinAlt has a bit of psychic ability which he uses to make a living as a gambler and con-man. He’s approached by the ambassador from Pyrrus, Kerk, to use his skills to increase their money. Intrigued by the man and what he says about the planet he’s from, dinAlt can only see the challenge. He ignores the warnings everyone gives him and convinces Kerk to take him back to Pyrrus. He spends months in ‘school’ with Pyrrus’ children where he learns how to respond to the many deadly things that want to kill him. Eventually, he persuades them to let him out where he finally grasps his arrogance. From there he gradually learns what the inhabitants of Pyrrus can’t – why the planet is responding in this way.

There was a lot to like here. This is very much fiction of ideas; character development is sacrificed to plot and theme. It’s very fast paced and I liked that. I enjoyed the exploration of militarist culture and the impact that has on people. These are ideas and experiences that are relevant in any time.

Sometimes the trope of outsider coming in to solve the natives’ problem is paternalistic. In this case, I think the realistic depiction of Pyrran society helped avoid that. The people are so completely consumed by survival that they can’t spend time thinking about the bigger picture. Thinking is a luxury when your every waking moment has to be dedicated to staying alive.

My only criticism is – where are the women? It’s not even that the major characters are male, it’s that there is only one woman to be seen at all. The pilot of the Pyrran transport ship, Maya, is female and she gets as much character development as any of the male characters (which is to say, very little). She’s tough, smart, sexually confident and as capable as any of the men. Which is great. But she is the only woman in the book. The croupiers in the casino are male. All the children are male. The librarian is male. There’s another society of humans on Pyrrus who’ve learned to live in harmony with the planet (ish) and dinAlt spends some time with them. No women are mentioned. Where do the children come from? We talk a lot about the lack of gender equality in modern SFF and Deathworld puts this into context somewhat. Women are irrelevant to the human story in this book, as in anyone not white or straight. Fortunately, it’s fun enough despite that.

I suspect I might be talking about these issues a lot as I work my way through book mountain.

Blue Remembered Earth

bluerememberedearthBlue Remembered Earth, by Alastair Reynolds, is the first in the Poseidon’s Children sequence.

Set one hundred and fifty years in the future, in a utopian society in which African is the dominant geographical power on earth, the moon and Mars are colonised, and asteroids are mined for water and minerals, the story centres around one family. The Akinyas are wealthy and powerful family with varied business interests, but Sunday and Geoffrey want to pursue lives unconnected to the family business. Geoffrey wants to study elephants in the Amboseli basin and Sunday lives in an artists’ commune on the moon.

When the reclusive and eccentric matriarch and founder of Akinya Industries, Eunice, dies she instigates a treasure hunt through the solar system. Sunday and Geoffrey follow clues that Eunice hid on the moon, on Mars, and finally on the space station where she spent her last decades. Their cousins, Hector and Lucas, are the ones that currently run Akinya Industries and are concerned that the mystery Eunice is set on revealing will be bad for the business.

Along the way, Reynolds introduces us to his world and the players in it. Poseidon’s Children starts with a human level story and develops into space opera. Geoffrey and Sunday are ordinary people thrust into a game initiated by their grandmother, who was far from ordinary. It ends with a hint at what she might have done a hundred years ago, something that goes against all the principles of the society she lived in.

I enjoyed this. It’s the first of Reynolds’ books that I’ve read and I understand that a utopian vision of the future is different for him. The worldbuilding was excellent and I liked the unique elements of it. It was a great demonstration of how to use plot and character to create the world rather than relying entirely on description. I will read more of these. Once book mountain is  conquered, obvs.

Station Eleven

stationelevenA virulent flu virus spreads like wildfire through the world. Almost everyone dies. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is the story of what happens afterwards.

Kirsten was a child when the virus struck North America, performing on stage in King Lear alongside Arthur Leander, an aging movie star. A few days later, nearly everyone is dead. The next ten years are so traumatic that Kirsten represses most of the memories. As an adult she is part of a caravan of performers, the Travelling Symphony, moving between the small settlements that remain after the collapse of civilization.

Both pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds are revealed through the stories of those whose lives intersected with Arthur’s. His first wife, Miranda, who dies in Malaysia when the virus strikes; Jeevan, a paparazzo turned paramedic who photographed Arthur; his son, Tyler, and second wife, Elizabeth; his best friend, Clark; and Kirsten, to whom he gave the comics that she carefully preserves when she’s lost everything else.

I loved this. The prose is lyrical and engaging. It’s fairly literary in style but is so well-executed that I didn’t mind. The characters are interesting and there is enough suspense in their stories to keep you turning the pages. I liked the way the stories switch between the past and the present and the connections between the characters are slowly built up. Mandel realistically presents a scenario for how the whole world might collapse in a matter of weeks if enough people die in a short space in time. It was quite chilling to think about. Definitely read this.

The Handmaid’s Tale

handmaid's taleHow have I waited so long to read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? It’s a classic, and has been televised, and is the kind of thing that sometimes you don’t read because you think you know all you need to about it. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and I really should have read it long ago.

Sometime in the 20th century a Christian extremist sect sets up a totalitarian theocracy in the US. The handmaids are a caste of women able to have children which is now a rare ability, due to widespread sterility. It’s not clear if that because of environmental toxins or out-of-control STDs. Offred doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t, so neither does the reader. The ruling elite use propaganda to create the beliefs they want the populace to have, and much of what the narrator, Offred, relates is what she’s been encouraged to believe. The parallels between that and the distortion of reality created in today’s media are striking.

Offred describes her life, her illegal relationships with the Commander and his driver, Nick, and her eventual escape via an underground railroad. It is compelling. The claustrophobic nightmare of Offred’s life is vivid. What struck me the most was the boredom. Offred has nothing to do. People are not permitted to read or to write and a handmaid’s only role is to breed. Offred is allowed a daily trip to obtain rationed food but she has no other role, so she spends a lot of time on her own in her room doing nothing. There are exercises and prayers but Offred is not a true believer.

I was gripped by the story. I’d expected, as it was published in 1985, to find it dated. Scarily, the opposite was true. It seems like a future that is only a couple of steps away. One or two wrong turns and we could easily end up there. Atwood’s realisation of the impact of living in a totalitarian society is chilling. It’s an important book and is still relevant. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t wait any longer.

——

Buy my book Fragments at Amazon or Smashwords.

The Departure

I’ve read some of Neal Asher’s Polity novels and enjoyed them, so I thought I’d try the first in another of Asher’s series, The Departure.

In a near-future dystopian version of earth, a totalitarian world government is hoarding Departureresources and allowing the vast population to starve. Dissidents are dealt with by torture and scientists are forced to develop cybernetic neural implants. They have prisoners to practice on.

One man is on a mission of revenge. He doesn’t know who he was, but he does know he was tortured and sent for incineration. Somehow, with the help of a rogue AI, he survived and is hell-bent on destroying the man who tortured him. The Departure is the events that lead Alan Saul to remember who he was and collect the elements he needs to complete his mission.

Like the Polity novels, The Departure is pretty hard sci-fi and takes a while to get into. I didn’t like this novel as much as the others. It was hard work and I nearly gave up. I think the reason it didn’t work for me was that I didn’t find much differentiation between the point-of-view characters. Most of the book is from Saul’s point of view, but there are sections set on Mars from the point of view of Var, a senior technician, and sections from the point of view of Heather, Saul’s girlfriend and the creator of much of the cyberware that enables him to carry out his mission. Saul is hard to identify with: he’s cold, emotionless and ruthless. When it’s revealed that he’s autistic some of that makes sense, but it’s still hard to care. Var feels like a set-up. She’s a plot device not a character. Heather is supposed to be Saul’s conscience but she doesn’t have much depth. Her main function in the story is to provide an external view of Saul, to show the reader what his neural tech costs him physically, and to humanise him a bit. Neither Var nor Heather come across as characters in their own right.

I think the same is true of the villain, Director Smith. He is depicted as a sadist and an ambitious politician, but we don’t really get any sense that he’s developed beyond that.

So, I did finish it eventually, and the ending was really good. The novel is the first part of a series and this book sets up what the series will be about. It was exciting and made me want to read the next part. It’s conceivable that the characters make get stronger. It may be some time before that happens but I’m not ruling it out.

Dune

I’m supposed to like this, right? It’s a classic. And I remember I liked the film a lot when I was younger. Maybe that was just because Sting was in it. Dune by Frank Herbert has been sitting on my shelf for a good five years since it was bought for me by a friend in a ‘You haven’t read Dune?!’ moment of horror.

I got over three hundred pages in before I finally gave up. I just wasn’t enjoying myself and then I questioned why I was putting myself through the tedium of trying to finish it. There is a question over a cat that has to be milked and the mouse duct-taped to it. The question is WHY? Answers in the comments please.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with the book. It didn’t really seem to get going and I felt I was waiting for it to start for the first two hundred pages. The stuff about the mental powers and reading body language and other clues didn’t come across that well. I don’t know how you could really show that working though. It’s ambitious and isn’t quite pulled off. There were parts of the book that were entirely dialogue for pages and pages. That was quite interesting from a writing technique perspective. It worked. A touch more action and description would have grounded it a little more, but it would have taken very little.

If you haven’t read Dune already, you can probably live without it. This picture of a cat is way more entertaining.

How I Live Now

I don’t often read YA fiction because of all the adult fiction I haven’t read yet. Last year I accidentally read some and wasn’t sure how to judge it. I couldn’t decide whether it was rubbish because it wasn’t well written or it was rubbish because my expectations were inappropriate for YA fiction. I didn’t have that problem with How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.

Daisy moves from New York to rural England to stay with her aunt as she’s having issues with her wicked step-mother. She finds an idyllic pastoral life with her three cousins and settles in quickly. Her Aunt Penn is some sort of international diplomat and never around. She falls in love with her cousin Edmond and begins to remember how to be happy.

Then a war breaks out and the kids don’t really know what’s going on, except that Penn is in Norway and can’t get back. They’re used to managing for themselves and for a while life goes on until their farm is requisitioned by the army. The boys are sent to one family and the girls to another. Daisy decides she’s going to take Piper, her youngest cousin, and make her way back to where Edmond and Osbert are staying.

The walk takes days and they’re hungry and dehydrated. They find the farm where the boys were staying and they’re gone, so the girls make their way home where they stay until Daisy’s father finds her and brings her back to New York.

Six years later, Daisy returns to the farmhouse and is reunited with her cousins. They are all dealing with the after effects of what they went through.

How I Live Now was June’s book club read and came to us via World Book Night. I didn’t expect to enjoy it but I found Daisy’s voice utterly engaging. There are some hard issues dealt with them in this book and the way they are handled is very clever. Younger readers might not pick up on them but older teenagers will. The world is convincingly bought to life, although the parts about New York don’t always ring true.

I found the ending a little weak, almost as if it was tagged on as an afterthought. The part where Daisy covers her years in New York after the events of the book seemed rushed and not as dense as the rest of the story. But ignoring that, the rest is excellent. I may not read more YA fiction because of it, but if I do I now have a benchmark. (For the record, what I had read previously was not nearly as good as this). I’ll be giving this book to a friend in the target demographic and I hope she enjoys it.

 

The Player of Games

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks is the first of his science fiction novels that I read. At the end of last year I read two of his more recent ones that I was blown away by and wished I could nominate them for my book club. I couldn’t because we have a page length limit of about 600 pages and these two books were both well over that. So, I thought I would nominate The Player of Games which I first read more than ten years ago. I wondered if I would like as much now as I did then.

The Culture is a socialist utopia run by artificial intelligences where people can pursue any life they like. (I totally want to live in the Culture). There are a group of people and AIs who form Contact which is like the Culture’s diplomatic service and armed forces rolled into one. Within Contact is a more shadowy organisation called Special Circumstances. These are the groups that manage the Culture’s relationships with other civilizations. Gurgeh is a man who has spent his life mastering all the games there are to play and is acknowledged as one of the foremost gamers in the whole Culture.

Gurgeh is manipulated into travelling to Azad, a more barbaric civilization to play the game that rules their society. How competitors place in the game determines the positions they will hold in public life. Azad is a hierarchical society riven with inequity and they don’t believe anyone from outside Azad will stand a chance in the game. Naturally, Gurgeh does better than anyone expects and the stakes become very high.

One thing I do notice about Banks’ books is that they start slow and end with a bang. I enjoyed this greatly, but perhaps not as much as I did the first time around. The reason for that is that Banks’ later books are much better :-). There’s a nice amount of ambiguity about who is playing who and several games are being played at once. It’s a gentle introduction to the world of the Culture and the themes that Banks’ likes to explore with it. There’s only a low level of machines with personality disorders which is disappointing but despite that, I would highly recommend it.