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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.

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.