21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 11: Falling Free

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Book number 11 in my latest reading project is Falling Free (published in 1988) by Lois McMaster Bujold. She is probably best known for her Miles Vorkosigan books.

21 Authors Falling Free

Leo Graf, a master engineer and welder, is invited by a former student to visit planet Rodeo. The student, Bruce Van Atta, is now managing a zero-g habitat project on orbit and wants Graf to teach the engineers in his new workforce. This 1,000-person-strong populace known as quaddies turns out to be people with two pairs of arms instead of a pair of arms and a pair of legs.

The quaddies were created through experimental bioengineering. They’re defined as “post-fetal experimental tissue cultures” and as such, in the legally ambiguous state that Rodeo is in, considered to be property of GalacTech. They’re quick, intelligent, agile, and much more suitable for weightless conditions than unaltered humans.

Producing them has been tremendously expensive, however, and when GalacTech finds out that a competitor has developed commercially viable artificial gravity, Van Atta is tasked with shutting down the Cay Project and reallocating or destroying the related property, including quaddies, with as little expense as possible. Graf, who’s forged a connection with his students, is appalled and comes up with a daring plan to not just save the quaddies for now, but to set them free forever.

Falling Free reminded me of James Tiptree, Jr.’s The Starry Rift in that the human protagonists were characterized very effectively and economically; they’re all distinct and memorable. Unfortunately, the quaddies don’t rise quite as high as characters in their own right: of the main quaddie characters, Tony is the father, Claire is the mother and Silver the girl trading sexual favors for contraband.

Plotwise the book is well-paced and engaging. Again, Bujold’s high reputation is clearly well deserved, like Tiptree, Jr.’s. Not exactly a full-on Adventure! story, Falling Free has nevertheless a good dose of action, tension and scheming, and opens up a whole universe of possibilities for the quaddies.

Falling Free is set in the same universe as the Vorkosigan saga. The events take place 200 years before the birth of Miles. There was a handy timeline at the end of the book for placing the Vorkosigan novels in context. Not having read any of them, though, I’m still unsure of which events or details (if any) in Falling Free were of special significance. Nevertheless, I’m sure I’m in a good place should I want to go on with reading Bujold – and I well might!

As a sidenote, in 1988, we finally have data disks. (Every single book that I’ve read for this project so far that has had computers has mentioned tapes or cassettes for data storage.) Wo-hoo for catching up with technological development!

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21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 10: The Starry Rift

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Moving on to the tenth new-to-me SF/F author, which means I’m half-way through the project! The Starry Rift by James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon) was first published in 1986.

21 Authors The Starry Rift

Set in the same universe as the acclaimed Brightness Falls from the Air, the book contains three novellas that are combined through a frame narrative. We begin, return to and end with a short scene in the Great Central Library of the Deneb University, where a librarian is helping two students find so-called human fact/fiction materials.

These materials are our short stories, and they’re all about navigating a troubled frontier region, the Great North Rift (a low-star region between the arms of the Milky Way). Separated in time and each with its own separate cast of characters, they nevertheless share common themes such as change, memory, self-sacrifice, swashbuckling vs diplomacy and what makes a being a person.

The first, called “The Only Neat Thing to Do,” is about Coati Cass, a 15-year-old would-be explorer who becomes host to an intelligent brain parasite. Together with Syllobene, the Eea inhabiting Coati’s brain, Coati endeavors to search for two missing freighter pilots. During her attempt, she discovers a seriously worrying aspect of the Eea lifecycle and decides to commit suicide in order to protect humanity from accidental contagion.

In the second, “Goodnight, Sweethearts,” ex-soldier / salvager / repairman / roadside assistant (of sorts) Raven encounters a drifting ship. Because of long stretches in cold sleep, Raven’s lived years only add up to 30 or so, despite having been born a century ago. While working, he realizes that onboard is Illya, his beloved girlfriend from decades ago when they both attended university. However, a slaver ship attacks soon after they leave Raven. Fortunately, still within sensor range, Raven detects the attack and swoops in, attempting a rescue. He discovers an enslaved clone of Illya and has to make up his mind whether to become involved with one or the other – if his rescue attempt succeeds, that is.

Finally, in the third story, “Collision,” we follow the first Federation ship set out to actually cross the rift. They find an advanced alien civilization, but building trust turns out darned hard due to attacks by Black Worlds ships – humans not part of the Federation pent on raiding and killing anyone they can profit from. The small crew of humans and Zilla, an enthusiastic Ziello linguist serving as translator, have to find a way to turn the pending calamity into a peaceful First Contact.

The Starry Rift has difficult questions and situations, problem-solving, action and economically but vividly created characters – no wonder that Tiptree has a high reputation. Despite some unevenness (it might have benefited from an edit pass or two), I liked the stories and characters, especially the linguist in “Collision.”

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21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 9: The Female Man

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Next in my new-to-me reading project is The Female Man by Joanna Russ (first published in 1975).

21 Authors The Female Man

We follow four women: Jeannine, Joanna, Janet and Jael. In a sense they’re versions of the same woman living in parallel / alternate Earths.

Librarian Jeannine’s world never saw the end of the Great Depression; 1970s Joanna struggles to make it in a man’s world; Whileawayan Janet is a woman of many trades and chosen to be her world’s first interdimensional explorer; ruthless Jael comes from a world where men and women are physically at war with each other. The novel starts with Janet and her sudden appearance in the middle of Broadway in Jeannine’s Manhattan. A series of jumps, acclimatizations and meetings follow.

The book is divided into nine parts, with each further divided into chapters. The stream-of-consciousness(-ish) POV changes often between the characters, or skips between locations and times without clearly indicating who the current narrator is. At times characters are referred to by variants of the same name (“When Laura came into the room… We noticed the floss and dew on the back of her neck – Laur is in some ways more like a thirteen-year-old than a seventeen-year-old.”). Some chapters are also exceedingly short. All of these features made reading a fragmentary and confusing experience for me. For example, the last three chapters of the first part read as follows:

XIV

“Jeannine, out of place, puts her hands over her ears and shuts her eyes on a farm on Whileaway, sitting at the trestle-table under the trees where everybody is eating. I’m not here. I’m not here. Chilia Ysayeson’s yongest has taken a fancy to the newcomer; Jeannine sees big eyes, big breasts, big shoulders, thick lips, all that grossness. Mr. Frosty is being spoilt, petted and fed by eighteen Belins. I’m not here.

XV

“JE: Evason is not ‘son’ but ‘daughter.’ This is your translation.”

XVI

“And here we are.”

That’s literally it. I’m sure this stylistic choice would not be so jarring for people who are into experimental prose, but I’m not keen on it.

What Russ does really well, however, is to show how differences stemming from our initial assumptions change how we see people’s actions, although it can be hard to track the characters’ thoughts across the various parts and chapters.

Despite it counteracting some sexist concepts in powerful ways, I found the novel too fragmentary to enjoy. In one word: it’s weeeeird. If I were to read it again, I certainly wouldn’t do it in smallish increments before bed – the book requires longer stretches of time and a much more alert brain than that.

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21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 8: The Ship Who Sang

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Reading on, this time The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey. It’s really a collection of a five stories published 1961 to 1969 and put together into one opus with an entirely new final story in 1969.

21 Authors The Ship Who Sang

The protagonist is Helva, a brainship. Brainships are essentially cyborgs: human babies with severe physical disabilities are educated and prepared for a life with machine interfacing and their bodies then permanently inserted into spaceships. Brainships are able to operate on their own, but they’re usually assigned or asked to choose a mobile half. These “brawns” team up with their brainships for various missions but don’t control or fly the ship.

The Ship Who Sang is from the era when alternatives to tapes to store digital information were apparently unfathomable, which in my mind clashes terribly with the ability to connect human brains with computer circuitry. Nevertheless, like The Time Traders, The Ship Who Sang was a good romp reading experience. I found the concept of “Dramatic Mission” especially intriguing. The story is about trading Shakespeare to highly skilled alien energy engineers living on a methane-ammonia gas giant with no prior concept of theatrical performances. The Beta Corviki’s ability to transfer the human consciousnesses into Corviki bodies for the duration of their playacting reminds me of downloading minds into physical “sleeves” in Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs books. McCaffrey’s is now the earliest example of that idea I know. 🙂

Otherwise, even though I normally prefer long fiction over short stories, in this case I didn’t mind – the book reads more like a novel with six reaaally long chapters than a collection of short stories. I might have to look into McCaffrey’s Pern books, too!

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21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 7: The Left Hand of Darkness

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My latest reading project rolls on with The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin (first published in 1969).

21 Authors Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai is sent to planet Gethen (also known as Winter due to its extremely cold climate) as an envoy for the Ekumen of Known Worlds, an interstellar conglomeration for trade and cultural exchange. His mission is to convince the planet to join the Ekumen, easier said than done on a world where the conditions are semi-arctic even at the warmest time of the year and where cultures and technologies change at a glacial pace. (Pardon the pun!)

I knew a little of Left Hand before reading it. I knew that it’s highly regarded, that the inhabitants of the world are androgynous (or something) and that there’s an arduous trek across a glacier (or snowy steppes or somesuch) that’s somehow significant.

I also knew that some people describe the book as being about gender. Gethenians are all of the same sex – or, rather, of no sex until their monthly reproductive cycle known as kemmer comes around. At that point, depending on who else is in kemmer nearby, a person may turn either into a Gethenian male or female, and it’s quite usual for someone to be both a mother and a father.

I’m not entirely sure yet what Left Hand is about for me. The Gethenian biology does get a lot of attention, but I suspect it’s because it’s so unfathomable to Ai. The importance of hospitality and cooperation in the cold climate is also significant, as are the balancing of opposite forces (like you-me or individual-society), the complex Gethenian honor system shifgrethor and their aversion to war. Karhide’s neighboring country Orgoreyn sounds like a communist regime, with its people described as units instead of citizens and its communal resources or endless bureaucracy; Orgoreyn may, in an unprecedented step, be moving towards starting a war with Karhide, and we might have a Cold War echo there.

Structurally, Left Hand avoids infodump by alternating the present-day narrative chapters with short chapters on Gethenian mythology. I was a little bothered by how much longer the primary narrative chapters were, for it made reading the novel choppy; I may well change my mind about that if I read Left Hand again.

I’ve seen LeGuin’s writing described as zen-like. The descriptor fits her style in Left Hand well, especially when she’s describing traveling across the icy landscape. A fascinating read, and one I may well like to get back to after mulling it over. Considering that I very much enjoy and have read LeGuin’s Earthsea stories several times in two languages, I can’t believe I haven’t read The Left Hand of Darkness before!

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 6: A Wrinkle in Time

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I hit a wrinkle (ha!) and wasn’t able to finish my 21 authors project by the end of 2015. I don’t mind, though; it means I have plenty more of interesting reads ahead of me in 2016! 🙂

So, moving onto the real Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It was first published in 1962, and starts a series called Time Quintet.

21 Authors Wrinkle in Time

The story focuses on Meg, whose scientist father has gone missing after working on a secret government project. A trio of guardian angels posing as eccentric women transport Meg, along with her little brother Charles Wallace and her friend Calvin, on an adventure through time and space to rescue her father from the evil forces that hold him prisoner on another planet.

I did appreciate several things in Wrinkle, like a smart female protag, some whimsical names (for example, Happy Medium for a medium who was happy), the endearing weirdness (for the lack of a better term) of Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace and the discussion of quantum physics (even if I can’t understand physics to save my life). While undoubtedly a competent YA novel, it’s not for me, though.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 5: The Time Traders

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Continuing my latest reading project! First published in 1958, The Time Traders by Andre Norton starts from a Cold War setting. Russia is sending its agents back through time and gaining tech way too advanced for the world’s good from a mysterious alien race. We see America’s answer, a secret time travel project, through the eyes of two POV characters, small-time criminal Ross Murdock and Apache rancher Travis Fox. Both become time agents and share in Adventure! along with trained soldiers. The Time Traders is the first book in a series by the same name, and it shows. While the current story arc does wrap up, there’s clearly so much more in store.

Baen Andre Norton Time Traders

Andre Norton: The Time Traders. Baen Books.

I read an e-book version by Baen Books that was divided into two parts, the first focusing on Murdock and the second on Fox. Only after reading the whole thing (d’oh!) did I realize that instead of one book in two parts, the e-book in fact contained two books, The Time Traders and its sequel Galactic Derelict (first published in 1959). The Traders action alternates between the present day, a tribal society in Britain some thousands of years BCE and a glacial outpost in the last ice age; Galactic Derelict takes us to a smattering of alien planets.

Besides the Cold War setting, the only other detail that clearly dated the book was the copious use of tapes (how quaint!) to store information. Smoothly written YA-esque novels, both Traders and Derelict are competent action-focused Adventure! stories. I might like to read more Norton in the future when in the mood for a good romp.

A free e-version of The Time Traders / Galactic Derelict is available via the Baen Free Library, and The Defiant Agents and Key Out of Time (books three and four in the series) via Project Gutenberg.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 4: Herland

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Book number four in my latest reading project is Herland by Charlotte Gilman Perkins, published a hundred years ago in 1915.

21 Authors Herland

When selecting this book, I somehow missed that it was the middle part of a trilogy. That turned out not to be a problem, though, for apparently the first book (Moving the Mountain) and this one have no common characters at all. Being the middle book would also explain why Herland ends so abruptly.

The story is told from the perspective of a young American, “Van” Jennings. He leaves with two friends, Terry and Jeff, on an expedition to an uncharted land where, according to rumor, only women live. The men first boat upriver and then fly to the unreachable plateau on Terry’s plane, land successfully, and start their exploration on foot, only to be caught and imprisoned by the inhabitants. The men are allowed increasing amounts of liberty, and after some language tutoring, they start making sense of their new home.

Most of the short book consists of various descriptions of this utopian land, either the men’s observations or discussions with the women. It turns out that women have, indeed, been its only inhabitants for some two thousand years. After losing their men in a civil war following a catastrophe, they’ve been able to survive through some mysterious sort of parthenogenesis, first in one woman only, then only in her five daughters and their five daughters; eventually all women in Herland could reproduce should they want to (“When a woman chose to be a mother, she allowed the child-longing to grow within her till it worked its natural miracle.”).

Eventually, after a year or so in Herland, the men arrange a triple wedding, mashing up their customs with the women’s, to accommodate the women’s wish to return to a bi-sex community and their own love for the three girls they first met upon arrival. Soon after, Terry is expelled due to a botched rape attempt. Jeff is at this point deeply in love with his wife Celis and decides to stay permanently, but Van, accompanied with his wife Ellador, leaves with Terry.

In a weird way, some of Perkins’s vocabulary reminded me of Anglo-Saxon compounds like war-terror (wīggryre), spear-bold (gārcēne = ‘brave’) or spear-warrior (gārwiga) in Beowulf. She mostly used them in contexts to do with gender relations and reproduction, like child-longing in the quote above or sex-love and sex-feeling. Perkins has been criticised for racism and praise of eugenics, and there are instances in the book that stick out (e.g. “these people were of Aryan stock”). Both these features turn the reading experience into a more dated one than it otherwise would be.

As I’m generally not big on utopian or dystopian worlds, and as there’s nothing in Herland that would make me want to continue reading the last part of the trilogy (With Her in Ourland), this will most likely remain my only encounter with Perkins.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 3: Sultana’s Dream

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My latest reading project had a little hiccup: I had to replace one author on my list. Instead of Jane Loudon’s The Mummy, I’ll read Herland by Charlotte Gilman Perkins. This is because it turned out to be prohibitively expensive to get Loudon’s book, and nothing by her at all is available through interlibrary loan in my area. I’ve updated and rearranged my original list accordingly.

So, “book” number three is a short story called Sultana’s Dream by Roquia Sakhawat Hussain (the Western spelling of her name varies). Sultana’s Dream was first published in English in 1905 in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine in Madras (Chennai), India.

The setup of the story, framed as a dream, is based on late 19th and early 20th century Indian subcontinent, but with inverted gender relations and attitudes. It’s more like an examination of a scene or setting than a story with plot; in that sense, it reminds me a little of The Blazing World. But unlike in The Last Man, there are definite science-fictional elements in the story: solar power, collection of moisture from the atmosphere with the help of a balloon and a system of tubes (which lead to weather control), warfare by aiming concentrated sunlight, and flying hydrogen cars instead of paved streets and railroads. The latter are quite interesting:

“Then she [Sister Sara] screwed a couple of seats onto a square piece of plank. To this plank she attached two smooth and well-polished balls. When I asked her what the balls were for, she said they were hydrogen balls and they were used to overcome the force of gravity. The balls were of different capacities to be used according to the different weights desired to be overcome. She then fastened to the air-car two wing-like blades, which, she said, were worked by electricity. After we were comfortably seated she touched a knob and the blades began to whirl, moving faster and faster every moment. At first we were raised to the height of about six or seven feet and then off we flew. And before I could realize that we had commenced moving, we reached the garden of the Queen.”

Despite receiving no formal and little informal education in her youth, Hussain certainly shows her potential. Foreseeing solar power by several decades is pretty awesome, right? 🙂

Starting to publish in her twenties, Hussain became a writer, a women’s education activist (and a school founder) in addition to a campaigner for women’s rights, and her views are definitely visible in the short story. According to a review by Aishwarya Subramanian in Strange Horizons, Hussain “was learning the English language at the time, and wrote the story partly in order to show her husband what she had learned when he returned from a business trip” which would go some way to explaining why “[i]t’s easy to take Sultana’s Dream less seriously because it is so slight, and in many ways feels rather naïve.”

Subramanian’s review also places the story in context with regard to women’s education at the time, which was a really interesting point of view. I definitely recommend both the story and some introductory or background reading as well; the latter won’t add much by way of time, but will help understand the context.

A free e-version of Sultana’s Dream is available through A Celebration of Women Writers project hosted by the University of Pennsylvania.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.