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cover of Gwyneth Jones' LifeI first encountered the fiction of Gwyneth Jones when her novel White Queen was published in the US in 1991. I immediately felt I'd discovered the heir to Joanna Russ and went back and read what I thought were her earliest novels, starting with Divine Endurance, although I see that Wikipedia now list four earlier novels. Her American editor was David Hartwell, and we discussed the rest of the Aleutian Trilogy, which started with White Queen, as it came out. Something about the third book, The Phoenix Cafe, with it's cavalier attitude toward men as an eternal danger to women and children, really put me off, however, and I gave up on Jones after that, although I was still curious enough about her to pick up the first book of her next series, Bold As Love at the Eastercon on my TAFF trip in 2003. I don't think it ever had a US publisher, nor did the rest of that series. I took it off my To Be Read pile not long ago, and bounced off what I found to be a very confusing story about European politics (seemingly very prescient in the post-Brexit world) and countercultural defiance. I switched to another book of hers in the Pile, Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, which I found completely fascinating. Having consulted with Claire Brialey about her own experience reading Jones, I settled on Life as the next novel to try.

Suffice it to say that I liked it a lot better than Bold As Love. In the meantime I also realized that one of the things that makes her an heir to Joanna Russ is her pessimism about the battle between the sexes and the ability of feminism to solve the problem. Life is a very complex meditation on this question. It's a story of gender and genetics, which poses the idea that genetics is what makes the difference an unbridgeable breech. She then imagines a genetic solution to this problem that is probably beyond my ability to describe, but basically it's a non-Darwinian way for genes to be selected. The upshot of this is that genetic sexes (based on Y and X chromosomes)seem to be on their way out evolutionarily.

It's also a novel about life as she is lived, following a group of friends who meet at university, fall in and out of love, and fall in and out of contact later in life. The protagonist, Anna, is a geneticist who discovers the change in the X/Y exchange and spends her life trying to prove it to a disdainful scientific establishment, where her gender is held against her. Spence is her husband -- the apparently ideal house husband and lover -- who still manages to interfere with her research with his emotional neediness. In many ways their frenemy, Ramone, is the most interesting character -- a feminist who despises women and becomes a media star as a pundit, along with her mentor, the mystical old schizophrenic Lavinia. Jones' novels are always sprawling, contradictory affairs, full of crisis and pain, and Life is no exception. Two of the female characters are raped under circumstances in which they are unable to report it without unacceptable repercussions, there's also a heartbreaking miscarriage, and Anna's career seems to be a long series of firings by petty assholes.

What kept me going through all the carnage was the fascinating characters grappling with their messy lives. In her note about the book "Life: an Explanation" Jones writes, "The story of Anna Senoz is not my life story (the scruffy and pugnacious Ramone, Anna's shadow girl, is more like me, if I could imagine myself a feminist media star). But in many ways it's the story of my life as a writer: the experiences that shaped me, the changes that swept over my world, the ideas that made me write the novels I've written, the people who have inspired me; the future I imagine." There's a personal, heartfelt, career-summarizing quality to Life that's refreshing. The science fictional content is relatively small scale, but it has a lot of layers, and I appreciate how Jones confronts the limitations of feminism while tackling the underlying problem with a grand SF concept that ultimately completely reimagines what it means to be male or female.
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I read Synners not long after it was published in 1991, but I don't remember what I thought of it. I liked it a lot the second time. It's a novel full of furious energy and lots of ideas. What surprised me a little bit was how much it's about a counterculture, but also how realistically the countercultural life is depicted. At time it reminded me of Delany's Dhalgren on that front, with free spirits squatting in utter squalor, eating badly in filthy surroundings. It's not a very romanticized portrait.

Cadigan is also more sympathetic to the corporate drones than I remembered, especially to Gabe, who is a mid-level corporate toady just ttying to get by as best he can, which is not actually very well. Of course the corporation he serves is an amoral profit-consumed machine that makes a bad situation worse by trying to capitalize on a new neural computer interface that threatens to integrate human brains into the internet and thus expose them to hackers who have nothing but chaos and viruses on (and in) their minds.

This is a novel of many characters that weaves back and forth between the members of the large cast. I had a hard time at first keeping track of everyone and their agendas, but eventually I mostly figured it out. After that the weaving of character points-of-view and ideas about consciousness and perception became hypnotic. This came out at a peak moment in cyberpunk history, and it is loaded with tropes and ideas of the era, practically an encyclopedia of the form.

Basically one character -- a video artist who wants to be a machine -- creates a video that goes viral and and starts to cause people to stroke out. The novel has a romantic resolution to this problem that seemed a little out of tone with the rest of the story. The other problem I had with it was the attempt to create a future slang -- e.g. "stone home" this and "stone home" that -- which sounded just as phoney as any attempt to create future slang. TANSTAAFL, anyone? For the most part, however, I found Cadigan's linguistic riffs to be rich and dense.
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Russ The_Two_of_Them.jpg
She thought that it wasn't David, it wasn't even sex; it was some kind of deeper trouble, not only painful but unbearably, exasperatingly boring, something that would've been a lot better if it had been tragic and easier if it'd been sad.

Something unbearably disillusioning.

And old. Very, very old.


I've been working my way through a couple of different lists of Best/Favorite science fiction by women in Gwyneth Jones' Imagination/Space, mostly recently Tiptree's Up the Walls of the World and McIntyre's Dreamsnake. For Joanna Russ, Jones quite rightly recommends The Female Man, but because the Tiptree and McIntyre were both published in 1978, I chose to re-read The Two of Them, which was also published in 1978 and has long been one of my favorite Russ novels. I've always found it a difficult novel, and it's hard to imagine that I could provide a better reading of it than Jones' "Postscript to A Fairy Tale," which finds in the novel a Cinderella story and a parable of the failure of what's now called second wave feminism to achieve gender equality.

The Two of Them begins with two agents of the Trans-Temporal Agency, Ernst and Irene, arriving on a hollowed out asteroid that houses a neo-Islamic culture where women are treated like ornamental birds in a cage, supposedly for their own protection but really to keep them under control. What Ernst and Irene's mission is, and what the nature of the Trans-Temporal Agency is, is left unclear, but when Ernst and Irene discover the twelve-year-old daughter of the emmisary who greets them and discover that she wants to be a poet but will never be allowed to in this culture (where her aunt Dunya was declared insane for wanting the same thing), we flash back to Irene's adolescence as a bright, awkward, misfit in the USA of 1953. This is pretty clearly an autobiographic element in the story, and I feel that Russ used a similar situation in her Alyx story, "The Second Inquisition." Like the girl Zubeydeh, Irene is unhappy with her options in a culture that is repressive of women like her housewife mother. When a mysterious friend of her mother's named Ernst shows up at the house, Irene is fascinated and soon finds out that he is an agent of a mysterious agency that exists somewhere in an alternative reality. (It seems to me that the agency is not Trans-Temporal so much as Trans-Reality, where Reality conforms to the Many Worlds Hypothesis).

Back in the neo-Islamic asteroid, we find out that Ernst recruited Irene into the agency, rescuing her from the limited future she was facing in her home reality, and that they have been lovers and colleagues in the agency for many years since then. They have a very close, loving relationship, and when Irene decides that she wants to rescue Zubeydeh by recruiting her as Ernst recruited Irene, Ernst is willing. But as Irene mulls the situation, she realizes that rescuing Zubeydeh doesn't accomplish much. What about Zubeydeh's pill-popping housewife mother, who seems to prefer her cage to freedom, or her mad aunt, or Irene's own mother left behind in the home timeline, or her disabled best friend Chloe, who is so socially isolated that she lives vicariously through operas that Irene dismisses as heartless stories about women trapped and killed by social rules while men (especially the morally-ambivalent baritones) are free to have fun while they suffer.

The Two of Them is difficult partly because it's so conflicted. Irene is consumed by guilt for her failures and limitations. She wants women to be as free as men, but she can see that women are often their own worst enemies and complicit in their own oppression. The novel is also self-aware of its own contradictions. This self-awareness starts out as awareness that all stories are artificial, as Irene dissects the cliches of operas and the neo-Islamic poetic fables on TV on the asteroid. Trashy romances that Zubeydeh consumes with a passion and wants to eventually write herself. The fact that Irene and Ernst are moving between probabilities also emphasizes that in some ways they are choosing which story they want to inhabit, which in turn underlines the fact that the one we're reading about is just as arbitrary and full of plot holes as any of the others. Russ takes glee in mocking her own story, in fact, and examining the ways in which it doesn't make sense. Eventually a shocking death occurs, and the novel seems to start unraveling before our eyes, as Irene tries to fix it by imagining that it is a comedy instead of a tragedy.

Yet the nightmare of history won't allow Irene wake up in a comedy. Irene has to face the reality that the oppression of women is deeply engrained in the world and is always working against her, constraining her choices. Ironically, once she cuts herself loose from the agency, which she comes to see as a conspiracy against women, granting freedom to a select few such as herself while abandoning the rest throughout the multiverse, she loses all power of self-determination.

I've always found the end of the novel hair-raising, as Irene dreams of a dream of the mad aunt Dunya, about a valley of dry bones: "Innumerable skeletons are spread from wall to wall, and piled up immeasurably into the half-grey, half-lost rocky ceiling so far from any open love or light, are skeletons lying as they fell long ago in aeons-old attitudes of terror or flight, bones intermingled with bones, heaps of bones choking the dry watercourse and stretching back between the valley walls, a dry, silent carpeting as far as the eye can see." These are pretty clearly the bones of all the women who have died in servitude to men, and nothing in that valley has changed for a very long time. This is an expression of hopelessness and fear that true gender equality can never be achieved in the face of the long history of inequality.

But then, magically, a voice begins to whisper, "Shall these bones live!" and creates a breeze that begins to rustle through the bones, promising new life. I never really understood this ending until a couple of years ago when I discovered that it's a reference to a passage from Ezekiel, where Ezekiel has a vision of a valley of dry bones and then hears the voice of God, '“Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel."'

I'm still not sure what Russ intends with this reference. I don't think she believes gender equality will be wrought miraculously by a supernatural being. It seems more likely that the miracle will be caused by books like The Two of Them, in which women are given a voice, even if only a bare whisper. Of course, while Russ kept writing for a short while after this book was published, she all too soon fell silent herself. But of course Russ was a Jew and would have been well aware that throughout history the people of Israel have never long been free of oppression, enslavement and exile. There's a deep sense of pessimism in this book, for all the agile acrobatics and humor of the narrative. One thing I noticed this time through is that Irene is furious the whole time, but she is also aware that her anger causes her to make strategic and tactical mistakes. Looming over all of this is the question of whether sympathetic men -- such as Ernst -- can be allies in the project of equality, or whether we are doomed by our culture to keep replicating the same power relationships that our culture has stabilized for thousands of years. It's a powerful meditation, if ultimately a gloomy one.
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Dreamsnake.jpegI don't find this novel in my book log, which I started in March 1979, which is kind of remarkable. It implies that I had already read it by that time, which is logistically possible because the hardcover was published in March 1978. But I couldn't afford hardcovers back then, so I either got it through the SF Book Club (May 1978) or borrowed it from a friend. The paperback didn't come out until June 1979. I read McIntyre's first novel, The Exile Waiting, in July 1979, and I'm pretty sure I read those two novels out of order. I don't remember for sure, but I probably met Vonda when I came to Seattle for Norwescon in March 1979, so it's interesting to consider that I had probably already read something by her by then.

In any event, my memory is that I had problems with Dreamsnake, although now having read it a second time it's hard to reconstruct what my objections would have been. I think I probably didn't understand some of the subtler things McIntyre was up to, and I probably found it lacking in the kinds of swashbuckling adventure I still looked for in those days. Not that there's no action in Dreamsnake, and in fact the kind of action there is is one of the subtle things McIntyre is up to.

This is above all a novel about snakes and horses. Earth is a post-nuclear holocaust wasteland, and other than one domed city that has contact with offworld aliens or colonists, which is what The Exile Waiting is about, people live an agrarian or nomadic life at very low tech levels, at least on the surface of things. For example, when they travel long distances they travel by horse, so horses are important characters in the story. I was thinking of it as a kind of post-apocalyptic Arcadia, because the nuclear catastrophe provides a kind of civilizational reset that allows McIntyre to explore some utopian or countercultural ideas about how things might bet organized more equitably. The setting is a little reminiscent of Suzy McKee Charnas' Holdfast series, or even Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow.

As we follow the Healer, Snake, through this wasteland, we begin to learn that there's other tech at work, however. The Healers use genetically-engineered snakes to treat disease, specifically by modifying the venom glands to produce healing enzymes that are then injected into the patient via snake bite (ow!). The dreamsnake of the title is an alien life form that produces a venom that seems to be like an opiate in killing pain and causing people to enter a dreamlike state of consciousness. Amongst other things, it's used as palliative care for people who are dying a painful death. The crisis of the novel is that Snake loses her dreamsnake. Come to think of it, the primary use is probably to numb patients before they're bitten by the big snakes with the medicinal venom. Dreamsnakes are extremely difficult to come by, so her career as a Healer is in jeopardy. Snake sets off on a journey to try to solve the problem, and through her journey we learn more about this world.

Along with the genetic engineering, the post-apocalyptic people have also learned to control their own fertility through a mechanism that I'm not sure is fully explained. For men it's a matter of controlling the temperature of their testicles so that the sperm is killed. For women, one supposes they are either able to dissolve the ovum or block it from being released or something along those lines. One of the smart things McIntyre does is explore the ways that useful tools like this somatic self-control and the gentically-engineered snakes can be used badly or mistakenly. For example, people can become addicted to the dreamsnakes. This aspect of the novel reminded me of Sonczewski's A Door Into Ocean, which was published later.

There's also a connection between the two novels in the shared interest in nonviolent solutions to conflict. This is perhaps where my younger self would have been most out of step with Dreamsnake. The thing that McIntyre is inventing here is how to tell a dramatic story about a female protagonist in which the climax isn't the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist. Throughout the novel she shows problems being solved through cooperation and consensus. The brilliant thing she does in the final climax is resolve the overriding crisis of the novel through cognitive breakthrough. Cognitive breakthrough is a common trope in science fiction, but it often comes on top of the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist. McIntyre was part of a movement of New Wave and Feminist writers who challenged this paradigm, and she cleverly points out that cognitive breakthrough -- the scientific Eureka moment -- can work dramatically to replace the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist.

Although I should add here that McIntyre does embrace one conventional heroic -- and indeed traditionally female -- trait: endurance. Like every Andre Norton protagonist ever, Snake is pushed to the limit of endurance and beyond. Her toughness and ability to take the pain is a token of her heroism, alongside her ability to solve the scientific problem.

Without getting into spoilers, the cognitive breakthrough in Dreamsnake also connects the novel to Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, which was also published later. It's a brilliant stroke involving the explanation for how the dreamsnakes reproduce, and again, how human scientists failed to understand it for so long through their own cognitive biases. This is gripping stuff once you're attuned to it.

McIntyre is modifying a very traditional kind of science fiction story here. I can see why it won a Hugo, because it both embraces the conventional and tweaks it for the current moment. For example, group families are at least as old as Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, and McIntyre rings some variations on it based on the counterculture of her time, from the polyamory of the Healers to the way that they don't marry or bear children but only adopt orphans. When one Healer adopts an orphan, the child becomes the responsibility of all Healers, and it will be raised to be a Healer.

On a final, personal note, I have to say that throughout this review I've had to fight the inclination to refer to the author as Vonda rather than McIntyre, because I do know her and consider her a friend. I have one of her awesome bead creatures sitting right here on my desk. [Stops to fondle bead creature.] I was frequently distracted while reading the book by the fact that some of the characters were clearly based on other people I know, or at least people like them. Maybe that's another reason I liked it better the second time around. It's not that I was in it, but my friends were.
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Upwallsworld_cover.jpgI had to look it up in my book log (fortunately it was near the beginning), but it turns out I read this novel before I read any of Tiptree's short stories. It appears that I read it when the paperback came out in 1979. This time I read the first edition hardcover that I picked up used somewhere along the way. (Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons! Boy, that was a different era of publishing, wasn't it?) So it's funny that my memory was that I was disappointed by the novel. Apparently I wasn't disappointed because it wasn't as good as her short fiction but because I didn't think it worked as a novel.

That's the standard criticism of Up the Walls of the World, and it's justified. For example, it doesn't so much end as trail off, with the characters still ferociously imagining multiple alternative futures for themselves. Tiptree tries to finesse this by having the last viewpoint character conclude, "Let's try it all!" It's not a bad hand wave, because what the characters (and the reader) gradually realize over the course of the novel is that the characters are now facing eternity.

Which is to say that what Up the Walls of the World lacks in structure it makes up for in sheer scale. It's as if Tiptree told herself, "I'm writing a bigger story, so I'm going to expand my speculative scope accordingly." It's pretty literally epic in scale. At times it reminded me of the Star Trek original series episode about the planet destroyer and at others the first Star Trek movie about V'ger. The novel opens with a chapter from the point of view of an absolutely enormous but nebulous space-roving entity that thinks of itself as an evil murderer. I vaguely remember that when I first read the novel I didn't like the use of all-caps to represent the voice of this entity, which eventually becomes know as the Destroyer, because what it does as it roams through space is destroy star systems. I still think the use of all-caps is a clumsy, ugly way to represent vastness, but it certainly didn't bug me as much this time.

So we start big, and then we switch to the POV of a manta ray-like alien living in what seems to be something like the great storm of Jupiter located on an alien planet called Tyree. Tyree is in a star system that's undergoing attack from the Destroyer, and the aliens are desperately looking for a way to survive extinction. Part of what Tiptree has accomplished here is what Gwyneth Jones calls "some the most convincing non-humanoid aliens ... I've ever met." My only caveat is that the characters of the aliens still feel very human to me, and I'm not sure how it could be otherwise without staying out of their minds entirely. But the way they communicate with light and color, and the way they navigate through their environment, have sex, raise kids, perceive the world, all feel very different than any other aliens I've seen depicted in any format, rivaling the Jotoki in Donald Kingsbury's "The Survivor".

On top of these two bits of speculation we are then introduced to a group of humans who are part of a military test of psi powers. The central character in this group is a doctor who suffered a horrible loss in his past and has been self-medicating with opioids ever since. He is skeptical of the experiment, and worse he finds himself overly-sensitive to the pain all of the experimental subjects feel. He falls in love with a black computer scientist, but she is very distant and hard to approach, having suffered a traumatic injury in her own past. The band of experimental subjects is quite various and outstandingly characterized, from the paranoid, to the motherly, to the lesbian couple who are a mix of exuberant and victimized. The only thing all the experimental subjects have in common is pain and fear and lives lived as outcasts, because they are freaks of nature.

Jones says the novel is in a different mode than the short stories -- "a joyous and starry-eyed sf." It's true, but it still has a heavy serving of Tiptree's signature anguish, not least in the genocidal annihilation perpetrated by the self-hating Destroyer, but also more intimately in the fears, injuries, and losses suffered by the Tyreens and the humans. It's one of those stories about endurance of extreme suffering in the cause of a greater vision. That vision does end up being "starry-eyed," but not till the very end. Still, the sheer spectacle of the frantic, star-spanning action and the incredible world-building were enough to keep me happy through all the anguish. The awkward interaction between the aliens and the humans is very smartly portrayed, as is the gradual way they incorporate each other into a new community. This is widescreen baroque SF at its finest, despite the structural problems. As Jones notes, it's also a good example of an ethical solution to the problem of power that doesn't involve domination and exploitation. Echoes of Star Trek in that too?
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Slonczewski A-door-into-ocean.JPGGwyneth Jones writes about this book a number of times in her collection, Imagination/Space. She has a conflicted response to it: "Don't do it! was my cry. Don't claim the moral high ground; the sf guys' club will love you for it; doesn't that tell you anything ...? A woman doing just what she's supposed to do, being gentle and nurturing, looking after our spiritual growth, being moral so we don't have to be ... That's not the revolution. I feel differently now, because these are different times. Best feature: A Door into Ocean works like mainstream sf. Okay, it's about the sixties US under the skin, but the skin is proper, sciffy, rich, and strange sfnal skin." (in "(Re)reading for a Chapter on Feminist SF")

This novel won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for 1986, which is certainly a mainstream SF credential, and it was eventually followed by three more novels comprising the Elysium Chronicles. As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes it: "The planet (in fact a moon) is in this case a water-covered Utopia inhabited solely by parthenogenetic web-footed aquatic female Shorans ... whose pacific culture suffers a savage Invasion at the hands of the male-dominated rigidly-hierarchical culture from the neighbouring planet of Valedon, whose leader is called the Patriarch." Sloncewski is apparently a Quaker, and her pacifist beliefs are definitely explored in this novel. What's interesting is that the Patriarch is light years away from and thus invisible to the planets he rules through an intermediary called the Envoy, and so he works as a kind of metaphor for the Christian God that the Quakers also worship. Perhaps Sloncewski's willingness to explore her conflicted feelings about her religion is part of why the novel feels so personal and honest, despite the way it stacks the moral deck in favor of the Utopian female society.

Like a lot of '70s feminist Utopias (cf Russ' Whileaway, Charnas' Motherlines, or Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time) Slonczewski's matriarchy reflects the political division within the womens movements of the time, with more militant factions, some that are more spiritual, and some that are more separatist, for example. Nobody gets let off easily, and a lot of the novel is taken up with the anguish various characters (including the militarist males) feel about the decisions they make. The deep history of the novel seems to be that the Shorans are descendants of people they call the Primes who thousands of years ago destroyed their civilization with "fire," probably of a nuclear nature. This forced them to change their culture and their science. Now perhaps the Patriarch is interested in resurrecting that old technology for his own purposes, or whatever other weapon technology the descendants of the Primes are capable of creating with the new science.

As Jones implies, what makes A Door into Ocean particularly fascinating is that the women of the ocean moon Shora are advanced genetic scientists, using only organic means to manipulate genes and cells. Slonczewski's background as a microbiologist shines through in the marine ecology she creates on Shora, where all life forms are interdependent and healing is practiced through enzymes and specially-bred lifeforms rather than pharmaceuticals and scalpels. (The split is reminiscent of Sterling's Shaper/Mech stories, I guess.) It's a work of hard science, and a highly original one. The only similar worldbuilding I can think of is in Varley's Eight Worlds stories and Gaia trilogy. Slonczewski goes much deeper, to my mind, creating a fully-imagined world that brought me that vicarious pleasure of exploring the alien that I remember from my adolescent encounters with science fiction. The sexuality in the novel is interesting too, with the one relationship that we see most closely being between one of the merwomen and a male (or malefreak, as the all-female Shorans think of him) from the planet that is invading their world. They are biologically incapable of having reproductive sex (in fact they are basically toxic to each other on that level), but the sex they are able to have is smoking hot.

Despite the painful subject of genocide and resistance, there is a joy to this novel that is a pleasure to behold: a science fiction writer in her prime hitting on all cylinders of imagination and speculation. Great stuff, highly recommended.
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Imagination Space.jpegI went through a Gwyneth Jones phase when the Aleutian Trilogy was being published by Tor. Dave Hartwell was her editor at Tor, and I used to talk about her books with him. I went back and read all of her adult SF and fantasy, starting with Escape Plans, and I read one Ann Halam YA book too. My favorites were Divine Endurance, White Queen, and North Wind. In her I found an heir, both literary and feminist, to Joanna Russ. I found the third book in the Aleutian Trilogy, Phoenix Cafe, a big disappointment, and between that and the fact that Tor dropped her after that, I lost track of her career.

On my TAFF trip in 2003, however, I did manage to pick up a British paperback of her next novel, Bold As Love, which I'd heard her read from when she taught at Clarion West in 1999. (I wouldn't have remembered that date, except she mentions it in the acknowledgements to the novel, where, alas, she also refers to the Crocodile Club, which is actually called the Crocodile Cafe. Ah well, a very minor error in the grand scheme of things.) So as part of my ongoing project of reading mostly books by women, I finally pulled it off the Pile a couple of weeks ago. Alas, I found it completely impenetrable -- which was also true of her first two novels, now that I think of it. I didn't care about the characters and couldn't keep some of them straight, I couldn't figure out the political factions, I couldn't distinguish the different bands or which characters were in which band. In short, I found it completely incomprehensible. On the off chance that it was the chemo causing the confusion, I consulted with the temporarily-retired [livejournal.com profile] fishlifter, who I knew had had some problems with the book too, and she confirmed that she had had many of the same problems I was having. Worse, she told me it was the first in a five book series, not the diptych I expected. I gave up on it at the point.

I was considering the semi-retired [livejournal.com profile] fishlifter's recommendation of another novel by Jones called Spirit when I recalled that I had one of Jones' non-fiction books on my Pile. Since I'd been vaguely feeling that I've been reading way too much fiction lately anyway, I started reading Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, which was published by Aqueduct Press out of Seattle. Two days later, I had read the whole thing. Although I had read some of the excellent reviews and essays on her website during my period of infatuation with her writing, I hadn't heard that in 2008 she had won a well-deserved Pilgrim Award for Lifetime Achievement in the field of science fiction scholarship. She turned out to be an heir to Joanna Russ as an incisive critic and reviewer as well as an author of self-critical feminist science fiction.

However, at first it seemed like a bad sign when the first essay in the book -- "What Is Science Fiction?" quoted extensively from the book I'd just bounced off of, Bold As Love. But I admired the essay greatly for not trying to pin the origins of SF to one book or one literary movement. Instead she cites multiple roots in the Gothic (expecially Shelley's Frankenstein and Stoker's Dracula), travel writing of the ancient past (e.g. Herodotus), the Romantic concept of the Sublime (citing Burke's essay on the subject), and the more modernist genre of the Grotesque (e.g. Kafka's "Metamorphosis"). I love this kind of genealogical, very literate, influence-spotting approach to genre history, so this was a perfect essay for me.

Another favorite piece was "Postcript to the Fairytale", subtitled "A Review of The Two of Them by Joanna Russ." This is one of Russ's most slippery, shifting, difficult works of fiction, and Jones does a brilliant job of tracing Russ's wrestling match with the contradictions of exercising power as a woman in a patriarchal society and her resistance to the common feminist urge to retreat into fantasies of female superiority. Like Russ, Jones is not much for the easy answer, and she is as pointed and balanced in her criticism of feminists as she is of sexists. Of course The Two of Them is partly about the ways women are complicit in their own oppression. Jones sees her own complicity too in brilliant passages like this:

The story behind the fiction, the story of a generation, always starts the same way: I was a girl-child in the fifties. I was attracted to the alien culture (indubitably alien!) of a set of books with rockets on the spines. Maybe I was influenced, though I didn't really know it, by my mother's memories of the halcyon days of World War, when women's work was needed outside the home and she had a life. Maybe I felt her unease, though she never talked about it, at being socially engineered back into the kitchen and the negligee. (Maybe I called this "not wanting to be like my mother.") The books were exciting and adventurous, and there were plenty of tomboy girl characters. I didn't know they were there for decoration, I thought it meant the genre had a place for me! So I ran away with Science Fiction, to start a new life. And here I am, still happy to be dressed in long underwear, with my raygun, but sorely disillusioned about those tomboys ... And then the story divides. The unregenerate tomboys keep their rayguns; the alpha female fans create a female, womb-friendly space within sf; but aren't both playing by the rules of the boy club? The Two of Them examines this dilemma, with illustrations. (p.48)


Jones is frequently provocative. Her essay about the links between horror, sexual arousal, and science fiction is called "String of Pearls," which although derived from a work of criticism, it is a work of criticism about pornography, which leaves the sexual suggestion intact. Her essay on video games connects that industry to the science fiction field in ways that I haven't seen anyone else talk about, although that likely reflects my own lack of interest in video games. She provides fascinating insight into her own working methods as a writer, specifically in "True Life Science Fiction: Sexual Politics and the Lab Procedural" about tagging after a female molecular biologist, Dr Jane Davies, while researching her novel Life, which is about a non-Darwinist concept of evolution.

As with any good work of criticism, I come away from it with a list of other books I now want to read. Jones provides not one but two lists of top feminist science fiction, and I've already started reading Joan Sloncewski's A Door into Ocean, which she mentions more than once, not necessarily disparagingly, as an example of "a female, womb-friendly space within sf" and has long been on my big list of books I'm interested in, largely due to the advocacy of a feminist writer-friend of mine. Indeed Jones' Life now seems like the next novel of hers I want to try, but based on this collection I'd also like to track down her previous non-fiction collection, Deconstructing the Starships. I thought Imagination/Space was completely fascinating and riveting, and I'd like to read more of the same.
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Norton X Factor.jpgI guess I'm done with crime novels about psychologically bizarre characters, so I'm not going to read the last two novels in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the '40s and '50s omnibus. I got one chapter into Margaret Millar's Beast in View and thought, "I can't take any more mental illness!"

So I retreat to some comfort reading: Andre Norton. The X Factor is classic Norton. Like Kilda in Dread Companion, Diskan Fentress is the child of a three-year marriage contract between a Survey scout who was soon reassigned to another planet and a planet-bound mother who was unable to raise him because she died during his birth. So he was raised in a government creche. Unlike Kilda, she had no mentor to look after her, and Diskan became an outcast held in contempt for his mental slowness and physical clumsiness. So a typical orphan/outcast protagonist for Norton, and soon he's jetted off to an unexplored alien planet, where he undergoes a survival ordeal while exploring ancient abandoned ruins and encountering a race of sentient furry aliens (the brothers-in-fur) who see potential in him where his fellow humans saw only disability.

Norton likes nothing better than to have her characters wandering around lost in an underground labyrinth of ruins. Diskan finds allies, both human and alien, to wander through the ruins with him, and eventually he discovers the talent within himself that only the aliens could see before. Once again, a human protagonist in a Norton novel survives either by becoming alien or by learning from aliens. There are archeologists also trying to understand the ruins, and Jacks (basically pirates) looking for buried treasure. It's a survival adventure with some great action and a coming-of-age story, and I found it very satisfying in a comfort-reading kind of way. Norton takes me back to the Golden Age of science fiction, which is the age of twelve.

I know that Norton eventually made contact with fandom even while she was still living in Cleveland, where she lived until 1966 -- the year after this novel was published -- and where she knew Harlan Ellison, for example. If she didn't understand that it was a proud and lonely thing to be a fan, her love of ostracized-alienated protagonists seems ready-made to appeal to the fannish subculture.
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Everfair cover.jpgI'm starting to think I should just read Andre Norton novels for the rest of my chemotherapy, because I'm finding complex, ambitious novels like this one difficult to parse in my current mentally-lethargic state. There are a lot of characters, a lot of locations, and a lot of story thrown at us in short bursts that form a kind of shifting mosaic. It's dazzling, but I tended to lose my way at times.

I know Nisi Shawl socially, and I remember a conversation with her when she had just started writing Everfair in which she said that steampunk was too Eurocentric and that she wanted to write some Afrocentric steampunk. So this is an alternate history about King Leopold II of Belgium's atrocities in the Congo, which amongst other things inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. What Shawl does is posit the creation of a new nation in the vicinity of the Congo, founded by a coalition of British Fabian socialists, freed American slaves and American missionaries, and local African tribes. This nation is called Everfair. At first I thought the steampunk aspects of the story -- steam bicycles and airships -- were tangential and extraneous to the alternate history, but what I eventually realized is that Shawl was speculating on how advanced technology could have been introduced into Africa in the late 19th century and how that technology might have allowed the Africans to defend themselves against Leopold. Leopold's forces were infamous for maiming their victims in gruesome ways, and Shawl makes good use of steampunk prosthetics as a response to these atrocities.

It seems from her Historical Note that Shawl sees Everfair as a kind of multiracial Utopia, but it's an ambiguous Utopia full of tension and conflict. Colonization of Africa by Europeans does not completely stop because of Everfair, and Everfair itself is depicted as having colonial aspects. The white members of the nation are still racist in the ways that white people of that era were. Despite the fact that Leopold is ultimately defeated by the forces of Everfair, it of course doesn't stop World War I from happening or Everfair and other African nations from being sucked into the war as proxies. Africa as a whole is still subject to European power rather than a driving force in the international economy. In the end, however, a balance is struck between contending forces in Everfair that could well be called Utopian.

One of the things that confused me as I was reading the book was the approach to technology. The way the airships are powered initially has to do with special earths provided by a tribe in Africa. I couldn't tell if this was a reference to something real, or whether it was kind of magical property. Likewise, characters have special powers such as being able to inhabit animals, that seemed like pure fantasy to me. Shawl seems to be incorporating African folklore into the supernatural elements of the story, which fit well with what was going on, but to my mind militated against reading this as science fiction.

This is a high concept novel that's worth reading for it's offbeat take on a piece of history that has, as far as I know, been largely ignored in the science fiction world. The closest thing to it that I've read before is Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain, in which a slave rebellion in the US connects with European revolutionaries and creates a socialist state in North America called Nova Africa. Shawl delves more deeply into the details than Bisson did, but alas that made it harder for me to understand in my current state of mental incapacity.
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Sussex My Lady Tongue.jpgLucy Sussex is an Australian writer whom I've actually met. In fact, she gave me the copy of this collection of short fiction when Sharee and I visited her and her partner, Julian Warner, at their Melbourne home just over a decade ago. I've run into her socially in Seattle at least once since then, too.

In any event, I've tagged this post "science fiction," but these stories are mostly not what I would consider science fiction. A lot of them are tales of the uncanny or the weird, frequently with touches of horror. It took me a while to get into what she was up to. My best guess as to why is that her prose is so terse and blunt that the exposition was often hard for me to absorb. I often had to go back and reread earlier parts of the story to figure out what was going on, because I'd missed some clipped clue. This isn't exposition, but here's an example of her pared style: "Shane looked astounded and the lawyer, daggers." Even someone with as blunt a style as Octavia Butler gets her exposition across through repetition, describing the same process over and over in different contexts until the ideas sink in, like tendrils into flesh. However, that's in novels, where space/wordcount is basically unlimited, not in short fiction where space is at a premium.

I'm not going to go into every story in the collection, which would frankly require me to reread most of them to remember the plots. The title story, "My Lady Tongue," which is probably the longest, won the 1989 Ditmar award, which is the award for Best Australian SF handed out at the national science fiction convention. It's the closest thing to a classical science fiction story in the collection, by my standards, reminding me of Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr, and Angela Carter. It's set in an enclave of isolationist dykes who refuse all contact with men. They reproduce through artificial insemination, although they're working on a process to turn eggs into something that fertilize other eggs. In this future, there are circles of less ideological/separationist feminists surrounding this inner core. The protagonist was raised by two woman, or rather born to one and raised by another. She's a troublemaker who is in love with the daughter of a woman who doesn't appreciate trouble. She looks up her biological mother and relates a story about an adventure she had when she was younger, scouting for some territory where the separatists could move to isolate themselves completely from men. Sussex has a satirical eye for ideologues and their contradictions, and the irony of the story is that Raffy (short for Raphael) was rescued by a man on her adventure and forced to spend months in his company while she recovered from an injury. She is furthermore exposed to the poetry of another man, William Shakespeare, in the process. As confused as I sometimes got by the different layers of the society portrayed, I found this an immensely appealing, humanistic, wry story. Of the writers I listed as influences, it seems most closely allied with Angela Carter and her eye for impurity and contradiction, although Carter was a much more sensual prose stylist than Sussex is.

"Red Ochre" is a strange story set in a future Australia where there are mutants, which are related in some mysterious (magical? religious?) way to Aboriginal rock paintings. It's worth noting, perhaps, that another part of my difficulty with understanding her prose sometimes was her copious use of unfamiliar Aussie slang. "Go-To" is a horror story about vivisection, animal rights, and unintended consequences. "The Lipton Village Society" is perhaps a meditation on Utopia and the process of trying to inhabit our ideals, although it can also be read as a story about fandom and its escapist tendencies. "God and Her Black Sense of Humour" starts out being a lark about the '60s groupies who made plaster casts of their rock gods' dicks, and turns into a weird variation on Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood. Black sense of humor, indeed! Bonus points from me for the bizarre alternative Frank Zappa who seems all too credible as a businessman and curator of cult items. In fact, there's a lot of fun name-dropping in this story, betraying a penchant for arcane research that's on display throughout the book.

Despite my initial difficulties, by the end of the collection I'd been won over by the off-beat ideas, off-beat humor, and embrace of the perverse that I found in Sussex's stories. This is not escapist fiction, but challenging, probing literature.
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Lilith's Brood.jpgNo, I'm not exactly sure why it has taken me so long to get to the Xenogenesis Trilogy. I guess I disliked Butler's first novel, Patternmaster, enough that it took me forty years to get back to her, despite all the acclaim, including a McArthur Foundation Genius Award, in the intervening years. Well, my loss. This is a great book, initially published as three separate novels called Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). In the future (I don't think Butler specifies how far in the future) a starfaring alien race called the Oankali discover an Earth which has been devastated by a nuclear war between the US and USSR. Most humans and other kinds of animal life are gone or severely damaged. The Oankali "rescue" what life remains on the planet and begins to restore the planet to its antebellum state, mostly in the southern hemisphere where the war had less direct impact.

Meanwhile the surviving humans have been brought aboard the Oankali starships. Over a period of centuries the Oankali attempt to learn how to communicate with the humans and to prevent them from killing themselves when they realize that they are now essentially the slaves and study subjects of an alien race. Eventually we are introduced to a woman whose name is very eventually given as Lilith with whom an Oankali of the ooloi gender (the Oankali have three genders: male, female, and ooloi) finally establishes a relationship. The ooloi begins to teach her (and us) about the Oankali and the plans they have for humanity. What they want from Lilith is somebody to help wake up more humans and acclimatize them to their situation.

What we learn about the Oankali is that they consider themselves genetic traders. They travel the stars looking for interesting genesets that they can appropriate to mix with their own ever-changing geneset, although they do have one starship dedicated to Oankali of the geneset they had on their home planet. The ooloi gender is a kind of genetic engineer. They can store genetic information in memory and in an organ that they use for collecting cells from organisms they encounter. When they mate with males and females, they take genes from all three mates (or more, if there are more) and mix them into a new pattern with an optimum outcome in mind. That's what their gender does. They are also capable of fixing genetic problems that lead to disease, but when they discover cancer in humans they consider it not just a problem but, once properly understood, the key to beneficial side-effects such as being able regenerate lost limbs and organs. The Oankali are very excited about the possibilities inherent in cancer.

The ooloi, and I guess the Oankali in general, can also physically merge with other living organisms and can directly stimulate a nervous system, if there is one. One of the things the book explores is the idea of consent, and what it means when a) the being you are consenting to can correct your genetic flaws and make you stronger and healthier, and b) the being you are consenting to can make you feel pleasure greater than any you've experienced in any other way through direct stimulation of your nervous system. The ooloi are capable of understanding your desires on a direct biochemical/neurological level, and within the context of the novel they often understand what an individual human wants better than the individual understands themselves. So is it rape if the ooloi perceives that the human really does crave the level of pleasure the ooloi can provide, even if the desire causes conflict on the conscious level with the desire to be autonomous?

Butler maintains an uncomfortable ambiguity on the question as she slowly explores Oankali culture and humanity's various reactions to it. There's never any doubt that humanity's choices are limited by the Oankali, but as the Oankali merge the genesets of the two species, the resulting new species is more sympathetic to humanity's stubborn resistance to total co-optation. It's also more adept at overcoming that resistance by offering humans the things they truly desire. Are they in fact better at enslaving humans? It remains an open question.

There's a lot going on in this book. It's a novel of ideas that explores gender, sexuality, reproduction, genetic engineering, free will, consensuality, appropriation. Butler is not a literary writer, and her prose is very plain and direct. What she does, however, is follow her premises deep into their own internal logic, which gives them the dreamlike feel of being truly lived in, truly living. The Oankali world seems to unfurl according to its own reality. We start to feel what an ooloi wants, what it craves, and that begins to shift our ideas about what male and female mean. In a way, the focus of the novel is what it would mean for humanity to have an ooloi gender as part of its reproductive process.

But it's a lot more than that. I started off feeling that I'd never read anything like it, and it's true that Butler has achieved something unique here. She has carved out a niche that will no doubt keep her name alive in the field for a very long time. However, early on the Oankali preference for symbiotic organic technology (e.g. living space ships and suspended animation modules) reminded me of Varley's Nine Worlds and Gaia stories. The way that humans are transformed into something deeply, weirdly alien by their encounter with the Oankali reminded me of Cherryh's 40,000 in Gehenna.

Also similar to Cherryh is the way that sex and rape are uncomfortably intertwined. It's impossible to say that the Oankali aren't raping humanity, but it's equally impossible to say that they aren't learning through the process how to give humanity what they really want, which is the freedom to choose their own path, even if it only leads back to self-destruction. There's no simple morality to be derived from the story, as far as I can tell. There's a sense that rape and perhaps enslavement are inevitable and that all you can do is deal with the consequences the best you can.
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DownbelowStation(1stEd).jpgFirst of all I want to mention that, in the interests of cutting down on the amount of stuff I have to get rid of later, I read the Kindle edition of Downbelow Station, and I was surprised by how many typos there were. Not sure why it would surprise me that an ebook has so many typos, but I guess I just assume it would be easier to fix in that format.

Anyway, when I read this Hugo-winning novel for the first time back in the '90s, I didn't care for it much. It didn't feel much like science fiction to me, and it still didn't the second time through. Why it doesn't feel like SF is a bit of a puzzle, because it's set on a space station orbiting an alien planet, with a space war raging around it. I guess I'd say it reads like a blockbuster best-seller, by which I mean it's got a huge cast of characters that we move between from chapter to chapter, weaving the story from multiple points of view in epic fashion. I know that's not the deepest analysis, but it just feels like a generic blockbuster novel to me. It's a military story in a science fiction setting, and the military and political intrigue overwhelm the science fictional world-building, to my mind.

It opens with a big wodge of exposition about how Earth gradually started exploring the nearby stars and establishing a trade network mostly via space stations established in orbit around the nearer stars. Well, as I think I said in my review of Merchanter's Luck, I find the concept of interstellar trade kind of ridiculous to begin with, but be that as it may. There is actually some interesting world-building going on in the interstices of this story, having to do with how different the Union culture is from Earth and station/merchanter culture, but the problem is that station/merchanter culture isn't presented in a very interesting way in this book. That's a problem for a book that ends up being the story of the foundation of the merchanter's alliance, where the trading families finally form a political alliance in order to hold their own against the contending Union and Earth powers.

So the war in the book is between Earth and Union, fighting over trade access to the stars that the stations give, with various other factions trapped in between. Most of the action takes place on Pell Station, which orbits a planet with indigenous alien life (the first that humans have discovered out side of Earth), and that's my other big problem with this book. The planet is called Downbelow by the people who live on Pell Station, and the sapient aliens on the planet are called, unironically as far as I can tell, Downers. One of Cherryh's great strengths has always been her depiction of aliens, but the Downers are by far the worst alien race she created. They are twee, furry, noble savages speaking in a horrific pidgin taken out of the worst kind of colonial fiction. They actually seem to be borrowed from Le Guin's "The Word for World Is Forest," which is another anti-colonial work of science fiction that I don't care for much because of the noble savagery of the aliens.

Anyway, the most interesting thread of this very long, very complicated story is a flash of cyberpunk in the form of Josh Talley, who is a character swept up and used as a sex toy by the pitiless fleet captain Signy Mallory. His memories of abuse are so tortured that he asks to have his mind essentially erased, but it turns out (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) that he's actually a deep Union agent created in their labs and implanted with false memories to cover the fact that he's a saboteur. However, he has been so deeply messed with by both Union and Mallory that he believes the deep programming is the false self, and that's what gets partially erased. The truly false memories of being raised by an aunt on a sunny farm on Cyteen are left intact, and Josh is one deeply confused secret agent. The layers of false personality are quite fascinating. I just wish there had been more of that, which is probably why I enjoyed Cyteen a lot more than this one. 40,000 in Gehenna is a far better book too because of the truly weird aliens and the way they turn the humans weird too. Downbelow Station just seems like an overly-busy novel of political intrigue with way too many viewpoint characters for me to keep straight.
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Alliance Space.jpgI should mention, first of all, that when I started reading this book, I mistakenly believed that it was written before Cherryh's Hugo-Award winning Downbelow Station. Not true. It turns out Cherryh started writing Merchanter's Luck and then decided she wanted to work out the back story, so she wrote Downbelow Station instead. So the feeling I got while reading this one that a lot of the backstory must be explained in more detail elsewhere turns out to be true. I actually found Merchanter's Luck pretty hard to follow at times, because it seemed to assume I knew things that I didn't actually know.

So what's it about? On one level it's a Boy Meets Girl story. It's also a boy and girl from opposite sides of the track story, but both are from the merchanters culture that is part of the backbone of Cherryh's big Union-Alliance future history. The merchanters are essentially the Alliance part. In merchanters culture, families own and run freighters that run between stations and planets. Edward Stevens (not his real name) is the last survivor of his family and runs their small fifty-person freighter essentially by himself. Allison Reilly, on the other hand, is from a large and prosperous family that runs a massive freighter with a thousand people on it. These two hook up for sex while on layover at one of the stations, and before too long have formed an unlikely partnership with Reilly wealth investing in Stevens' crappy little ship in an attempt to set up a new trading line in a newly-opened direction. This is part of the back story that got confusing to me, because I didn't fully understand what was in it for the Reillys.

It can also said to be a story about pirates. Stevens' family was essentially massacred by pirates when he was ten, and he has since then become more or less a pirate himself, running shady deals at the fringes of legal trade because he doesn't have the resources to do legitimate business. That's part of what his new partnership with the Reilly clan is supposed to solve. However, the book portrays even the very legitimate, prosperous Reillys as a form of pirates themselves, who are able to legitimatize whatever questionable business they get involved with through legal and bureaucratic maneuvering. Beyond that, and most confusing of all for those who haven't read Downbelow Station, is that Stevens' ship, Lucy, is more or less hijacked by Signy Mallory at the last minute to run suspect cargo to the station they had intended to trade with in a strictly legal capacity. Mallory is a caption of a huge military ship that's part of what's called alternatively the Company Fleet and the Mazianni. They are a military arm of the old Earth Company that started the interstellar trade routes to begin with (as is explained in Downbelow Station) who have more or less gone rogue as Earth's policital power has waned. In short the Mazianni are basically pirates, and one of their ships, possibly even Mallory's, is very likely to have been the one that attacked Stevens' family ship and massacred his family when he was a child.

Well, as always in Cherryh, there are no simple good guys and bad guys, just a lot of mutually antagonistic, selfish factions jostling with each other for advantage. It's never, ever clear who is on whose side, and everybody suspects everybody else of betrayal. Nerves are always just about to snap, panic and tears are always just about to break out. I have to admit that his book kind of wore me out after a while, maybe because I find the merchanter culture (and the idea of interstellar trade in general) basically unbelievable to begin with. But maybe I'd have enjoyed this one better if I'd read Downbelow Station first, because mostly this one left me feeling confused and like I was missing huge chunks of context. Which was true! Maybe that deflated all the political intrigue for me, because it's very much a novel of political intrigue between all the various factions.

However, I thought the ending was a particularly damp squib, and I think it's because Cherryh was resisting the traditional requirements of the pirate story. In a traditional pirate romance, the orphan who survives the pirate massacre ends up being a prince, and this story, which offers a corporate princess is the form of Allison, practically begs for Stevens to end up being a prince from some other wealthy family. But he's not. We do learn his real family name in the end, and it's a name that some of the other characters have heard of, but it doesn't appear that they were an especially affluent or important family, certainly nothing like the Reillys. Cherryh always resists the easy pay-off of traditional story forms, but somehow the uneasy truce she always ends up with instead didn't work for me in this story. Maybe pirates always up the ante, demanding something more dramatic. Whatever the case, this seemed like a lesser novel than the other Cherryh books I've been reading lately.
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Alliance Space.jpgThis is a very dense, complex, difficult novel, even by Cherryh's standards.It's squarely set in her Union-Alliance future history, and it first came to my attention through the references to the events of the book in Cherryh's Hugo-winning Cyteen. Unlike, say, Port Eternity, which is also about Union space and the azi but takes place off to the side in the future history, this one refers to major historical events, like the War between the Union and Sol forces in Downbelow Station that led to the Merchanters Alliance. In fact, the colonization effort in 40,000 in Gehenna is a continuation of that war by other means.

So the ostensible plot is that the totalitarian Union has decided to colonize the planet Gehenna with a mixed force of born-men and azis. The azis are considered lab-born: genetically-modified clones who have also been conditioned or programmed using what is called "tape," which delivers information/instructions to the subconscious subliminally. Most azi are basically slaves who have had the ability to make decision programmed out of them, but there appears to be another category of Union citizens who have been genetically modified and slightly conditioned but who still can make independent decisions. One of the additional layers of complexity in this novel that I don't fully understand is that some non-azi people sneak onboard the colony ship disguised as azi. It's not clear to me why they do it (for sheer scientific curiosity?) or who organized it (a mysterious "board"), but the main character in this group, Gutierrez, swiftly becomes a team leader amongst the regular scientific "civs".

40,000 in Gehenna bristles with all kinds of ancillary documents and commentaries, from genealogical trees to maps to scientific reports to diary entries, and I think there's a lot of information buried in these documents that would take multiple readings to fish out. What the novel really ends up being about is how the Union abandons the colony -- and in fact never really intended to follow through on the colonization plan -- and how the abandoned colony transforms over the course of multiple generations. Because the cloning labs are never set up, the azi are allowed to reproduce in the usual human way, but because the tape training systems are never set up, they are never trained how to raise their children. So their children are strange and detached to begin with, being raised by parents with no independent judgment or feelings of their own.

However, the other layer of complexity to the novel involves Gehenna's natives -- a variety of apparently semi-intelligent lizards that the humans call ariels (the small, green, pretty ones) or calibans (the larger, uglier, grey or brown ones). The question of the sapience of the lizards hovers over the novel and is a source of argument between the human scientists. Gradually the calibans, who initially seem harmless, grow more aggressive toward the colonists, and the descendants of the colonists form disturbing relationships with the calibans. As so often in Cherryh, the humans become more alien, but what's interesting about this novel is that the aliens seem also to grow more human in terms of aggression and territorialism. The humans who form the closest relationships with the calibans basically can't communicate with other humans any more and are considered Weird even by the strange standards of the nearly autistic descendants of the azi.

What's also interesting is that Cherryh seems to be in dialogue with Anne McCaffery's Pern books here: a lost colony of humans who have formed a symbiotic relationship with reptile aliens. She even refers to the aliens as dragons occasionally, and of course they are color-coded as well. But Cherryh's aliens are decidedly more alien than McCaffery's, and the form of communication between the two species, while non-verbal, is not telepathic. Instead, the lizards use a non-verbal form of language called Patterning, which is described as symbolic. Eventually Cherryh delves into how this works, but for the most part we only get a subjective experience of it, which can be baffling at best.

Meanwhile, off-planet humans are trying to understand what happened to the colony. In Cherryh's future history humans try to practice non-intervention when they encounter alien species, but this novel is an interrogation of the whole concept of non-intervention. Human scientists inevitably get drawn into relationships with the descendants of the colonists and their caliban allies, and the whole question of the neutrality of scientific observation comes up. It's safe to say that Cherryh doesn't believe in scientific neutrality or objectivity. The observer has an influence on the observed, and this has political implications as things finally come to a head hundreds of years after the initial colonization.

One of the things that wasn't completely clear to me after a first reading was whether the political factions that form between different alliances of human descendants and calibans reflects a difference in the descendants of pure azi genetic lines and those that also have non-azi genetic lines in them. Really it might have to do with those humans who had rearing only from azi parents and those who had some rearing from non-azi parents somewhere back in the past. The main difference between the two factions seems to be the one eats grey calibans and the other eats only fish, but the one faction also seems to patriarchal while the other has female leaders (and warriors) as well as male.

There were parts of 40,000 in Gehenna that reminded me of the horrific aspects of Voyager in Night, particularly the claustrophobic encounters underground that cause traumatic transformations in some of the characters. There are grotesque sexual encounters that feel very much like rape, but in which the characters seem to just surrender to it because it's the only way they will survive, even though they know they will be something completely alien on the other side of the experience. These sequences are ugly and terrifying, and they seem to embody Cherryh's theme of becoming alien in the most visceral terms. It's a horrific experience, and Cherryh embraces a tragic view of the human condition. People have no control over their lives, they get hurt, they get abused, they get changed, and all they can do is try to make the best of whatever traumas life deals them.

To my mind this all adds up to some very powerful fiction, and it actually reminds me of some of Delany's more avant garde explorations of similar themes in his later career. Cherryh is just as radical as Delany in a less avant garde fashion. This is a very high concept novel told from multiple and clashing points of view over a long period of time, and as I say, it's a challenging and difficult work to digest. Sometimes I feel that Cherryh bites off more than she can chew and doesn't always give us adequate context to understand all the layers (cf Gutierrez posing as an azi), but perhaps further readings will reveal the context that I missed the first time. Cyteen has long been my favorite Cherryh novel, but after my recent Cherryh spree, focusing on her odder early novels, I'm beginning to think I've barely scraped the surface of her greatness. I'll be reading more.

QOTD

Mar. 7th, 2016 12:26 pm
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
'He felt uncertain what his life had meant up to this point. He remembered well enough. But the importance he had attached to things was all revised. His life now seemed more preparatory than substantive. He looked forward to things to come. There would be a world, he believed; and he was called on to build it. He would become more and more like a born-man and he would be on this assignment for the rest of his life, one of the most important  assignments even born-men hoped to get. All of this was due to his good fortune in having been born in the right year, on the right world, of the right gene-set, and of course it was due to his excellent attention to his work. There would be only good tape for him, and when he had gotten where he was going, when he looked about him at the new land, there were certain things which would have to be done at once, with all the skill he had. People believed in him. They had chosen him. He was very happy, now that all the disturbing things were over, now the he could sit in his own bunk and know that he was safe ... and he would have just about enough time to understand it all before they would be there, so the tape promised.' (C.J. Cherryh, 40,000 in Gehenna)
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
star_guard_1.jpgI've probably written before that when I was the golden age of science fiction (twelve) I worked my way through the shelf of Andre Norton novels at the Salem Public Library, and that was my introduction to science fiction. The thing I've realized recently is that none of her earliest SF novels were on that shelf, probably because the original hardcover editions of those '50s books had worn out by the time I got to my reading project in 1972. So I've decided to go back to those earlier novels, starting with this one because a friend had a copy I could borrow.

Star Guard was published in 1955, and of course now that I've read it I discover there was an earlier novel in what is called the Central Control sequence, which concerns a point in Norton's rough Future History in which humanity has reached the stars only to discover an existing galactic federation that finds humans to be militaristic savages and thus forces them to serve as mercenaries in the rare instances where military endeavors are still required. So this is a military novel focused on Terran mercenaries, but it is also an adaptation of Xenophon's Anabasis or The March Upcountry, which is a non-fiction account of an army of Greek mercenaries hired by Cyrus of Persia to dethrone his brother Artaxerxes II in 401 BC. As in Xenophon's historical account, the alien leader who hires the Terran mercenaries is killed, followed by the leadership of the mercenaries, and then the survivors have to fight their way through hostile alien territory to try to get back home.

Norton adds a backstory about humanity's grudging subservience to their alien overlords, with additional speculative history about how Terrans may have previously reached the stars before they met the aliens, as well as deeper history regarding a thousand years of nuclear war on Earth that nearly wiped humans out and largely drove them underground. Clearly in 1955 Norton was still thinking about World War II, militarism, and Hiroshima, and as so often her sense of human savagery is refreshingly bleak. But she's still an idealist, and you know her heroes aren't going to be subservient forever.

On one level this is just another variation on the Galactic Patrol or Legion of Space story, but bending it to the story of Anabasis plot makes it more interesting than the run of the mill variety of these kinds of stories. Since I had recently reread Ordeal in Otherwhere I was struck by some similarities in the marine-based alien races and environments of the planets in the two books. Norton's world-building always feels as though it's borrowed from other books, but the details are re-aggregated in fascinating ways. The plot is clean and well-structured and moves right along, with lots of good action, factional intrigue, and political maneuvering. There may not be a conceptual breakthrough (cf. Clute's remark about the lack of such in Norton in his article about her in the SF Encyclopedia), but it's a coming of age novel about the young protagonist in which he comes to a new understanding about his purpose and goal in life. There's also a transformation of political reality in the end that feels a little like something out of van Vogt. It all feels thoroughly familiar, but it's handled with supreme skill and confidence.
randy_byers: (cap)
DGH in Silver Hat (full length).jpg
David at the Hugo Losers Party at the Glasgow Worldcon in 2005


In the wake of his death a few days ago, I've already posted a few thoughts about David Hartwell on Facebook, but I wanted to expand on those here. Although I don't remember exactly when I met him (like Art Widner, David always seemed to be around on the science fiction convention scene when I arrived) I knew David for probably thirty years or more. I most likely met him at a Norwescon, the regional Seattle convention that I attended regularly starting in 1979. I have a clear memory of listening to him and Algis Budrys singing a sweet duet of "Teen Angel" in the wee hours of a party at what must have been a Norwescon. The presence of Budrys makes me wonder if it was the one where Bridge Publications threw a party for William Gibson. The Norwescon history page says Budrys was Toastmaster in 1983 (Art Widner was Fan Guest of Honor at that one), which sounds about right, although I would have sworn Gibson had published at least one book by this time, which doesn't match the chronology. Indeed, this all seems to have been completely wrong, and it seems that the party I'm thinking of may have been Arbor House's release party for Gibson's Count Zero and Burning Chrome, which would probably make it the 1987 Norwescon, where David was Toastmaster. David was working at Arbor House at the time and was apparently Gibson's editor there. The "Teen Angel" memory, on the other hand, could well be from 1983.

Whatever the case, David became a fixture of the science fiction community for me starting around that time. He used to come to Norwescon quite frequently, maybe Westercons too, and I'd also see him at the sporadic Worldcons I attended. He also taught at Clarion West workshops, so I'd see him whenever he came out for those. On top of that, he and Kathryn Cramer eventually became an item, and because she was from Seattle and her parents and sister still lived here, she and David would come to Seattle fairly frequently to visit. I even had dinner at the Cramer household a time or two during that period, but David would also include me in occasional dinners at conventions, usually on a publisher's tab, but what the hey. It made me feel as though I were vaguely part of the industry, and that was largely down to David's hospitality and inclusiveness.

DGH and RDB.jpg
With David in later days, at the pirate party at the 2005 Worldcon


I was an aspiring science fiction writer in the earliest period of our friendship, but I never tried to leverage our relationship into any kind of help with my development as a writer. Partly it was because David was a book editor, while I was trying to write short stories, and partly it was because I hadn't a clue what I was doing, even when I did try to make use of my professional connections to get feedback on something I'd written. But one of the great things about David is that he was a fan as well as a pro, and he and I could mindmeld completely on the level of enthusiasts of the literature of science fiction. From my fanboy perspective, it was always a delight to be able to talk to him about favorite writers, such as Gwyneth Jones, whom he was working with directly as an editor. He was a font of stories about what was going on behind the scenes. He also had a keen knowledge of the history of science fiction, and as I've related elsewhere, we once got into a discussion about A.E. van Vogt in which he told me that van Vogt's four biggest acolytes were Charles Harness, Philip Dick, Phil Farmer, and Barrington Bayley Jr. All of those writers other than Farmer are huge favorites of mine, and David opened my eyes as to why in one fell swoop. Maybe I should read more Farmer one of these days too.

When you start delving into all of David's accomplishments in the field, it starts to seem bottomless. He was, of course, a major book editor for several decades, publishing many important writers and novels over the years. He was also a major anthologists, who, along with an annual best-of collection, put together a number of very influential genre or subgenre anthologies, including for horror and hard SF and space opera. His Age of Wonders is one of the best general introductions to science fiction ever written and once again displays his fannish cred by including a correctly attributed epigraph citing Pete Graham's fanzine quip, "The golden age of science fiction is twelve." His small press, Dragon Press, was also extremely influential, especially with the Gregg Press imprint of hardback reprints of the best of classical science fiction from the beginning up through the late '60s or early '70s, and also through the publication of The New York Review of Science Fiction -- a monthly magazine of reviews and criticism that published several of my own reviews once upon a time. The World Fantasy Convention, which he helped to found, is a bit more controversial in its accomplishments, particularly for those of us who prefer the old fan-oriented model of conventions, but it's safe to say that it has had an enormous impact on the field as well, if nothing else through the awards it hands out. (And hey, the one World Fantasy Convention I attended, which I mostly didn't enjoy very much, saw John Shirley introduce me to Howard Kaylan -- of the Turtles and Frank Zappa fame -- which reduced me to the worst kind of fanboy spluttering about, "What was it like to work with Zappa?! Gibber, tweet!")

Lennart Uhlin and DGH.jpg
Lennart Uhlin with David at the 2014 Worldcon in London


Because he was such an important figure in the field, he seemed to know all the writers, artists, editors, and publishers, but as I say he was equally friendly with mere fans. He seemed to genuinely enjoy people, and he could remember details about everyone. Most recently I was struck at the 2014 Worldcon in London when David joined me at a table in the village green where I was sitting with the Swedish fan, Lennart Uhlin. I asked them if they new each other, and they both said, "Of course," and David proceeded to talk about Lennart's bookshop in Stockholm, which he had apparently visited at some point. The fannish connection does remind me, however, that I wasn't completely above trying to get David interested in my writing. Or textual amalgamations, as the case may be. I'm pretty sure that, based on our shared enthusiasm for van Vogt, I mailed him a copy of the cut-up van Vogt chapbook I produced called Promethean Wakes, using sentences from van Vogt's novel The Weapon Makers. He never said anything about it, so I have no idea whether he even read it. However, I also sent him a copy of Travels with the Wild Child -- a long piece I wrote in 1996 about my friendship with Tamara Vining, who was also a good friend of David's. David seemed to really like that one, and he offered to trade me a Gregg Press book (Zelazny's Damnation Alley) for several more copies, which he asked both Tami and me to sign and which he said he'd be offering for sale at conventions. I wonder whether he actually ever sold them. More recently I invited him to contribute to the Joanna Russ tribute in the fanzine I publish with Andy Hooper and carl juarez, Chunga, since David had long been an advocate of hers and had dreamed aloud more than once in my company about publishing a collection of her SF reviews and criticism. He told me he hoped he could send us something, but he ended up not doing so. A year or so later I saw him at a convention, and he apologized for failing to come up with anything. He seemed genuinely crestfallen that he hadn't been able to participate, but I just assumed he was a busy man with a lot of other things on his plate.

There are so many other memories, but I'll try not to ramble too much. Another favorite one was finding him at the Hugo Losers Party in LA in 2006, which I'd been avoiding despite the fact that Chunga was nominated that year until Ulrika, whom I'd sent as my avatar, came and dragged my ass to it, where I promptly found David celebrating his first Hugo win and was able to happily add my heartfelt congratulations. He consoled me for Chunga's loss, assuring me it was a fine fanzine. We had added him to our mailing list by then. As I've also mentioned elsewhere, the last meal I had with David was at the London Worldcon, where he treated me, Rachel Holmen, and his two youngest children, Peter and Elizabeth, to dinner after a mad dash through a publishers party where the creme de la creme of British science fiction writers were having fun at the top of their lungs while drinking comped margaritas. One of the big topics of conversation at the London Worldcon were criticisms from younger writers and fans that the science fiction establishment (both pro and fan) was too white, male, straight, and old. David had been hit with some of that criticism and was frustrated, because he felt he had been on the side of the angels when it came to the demographic changes in the field. Still, he took the criticisms seriously and was more than willing to discuss them at length. We also talked about the amicable state of his ongoing divorce settlement with Kathryn, and it was good to hear that things were going as well as possible on that front. I'll always remember that at the end of that meal, as David put the bill on Tor's tab, he gave me a huge smile and said, "Now *that* was a true Worldcon conversation!"

DGH and Charlie Stross (Post Hugo).jpg
David with Charlie Stross, who had just won his first Hugo, at the 2005 Worldcon


A year later, at the Worldcon in Spokane, he came to the TAFF reception for Nina Horvath in the evening fanzine lounge, where I was one of the putative hosts, although Ulrika, Liz Copeland, and Scott K. were doing all the actual work. He talked about how proud he was to have been one of Nina's nominators and how proud he was of her win and of her star-making role at the convention, particularly at the Hugo Awards, where the conversation had turned from lack of diversity in the field to the Puppy complaints that political correctness was destroying the good old-fashioned values of science fiction. That David was keyed into something like the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund once again demonstrates his fannish cred. At the end of Sasquan, I saw him for what would end up being the last time ever, and he told me about how he'd been up until 2am dancing at George R.R. Martin's anti-Puppy post-Hugo party. David said he hadn't known he still had it in him to party like that. He had looked and sounded increasingly frail over the past few years, but he was still rocking the awful shirts and clashing suits and ties. His fashion sense was legendary and otherwordly. He basically embraced conflict and the garish on that front. The fashion atrocities clashed, in turn, with his slightly patrician mid-Atlantic accent and genteel air.

He was really quite an amazing and fascinating man all around. I can't say I was deeply close to him, but having seen him so much over so many years, even in dribs and drabs, leaves a feeling of perhaps unearned intimacy. As with Art Widner, whose memorial party at Sasquan David regretted missing because I failed to publicize the event, it's hard to imagine what fandom will be like now that he's gone. He died trying to carry part of a book case upstairs from the basement, when he took a fall and hit his head, causing a massive brain hemorrhage. It's a horrible loss, but in a very fannish pursuit. A man who loved books like they were breath, killing himself wrangling a bookcase. I feel bad about losing the future pleasure of his company, but I feel worse for Kathryn, Peter, Elizabeth, and David's older son, Geoff, whom I first met at the 1993 Worldcon in San Francisco and who became a buddy for a few years after that. My condolences to the family (I've never met the older daughter, Alison) and to the entire world of science fiction, which lost a singular figure and friend in David. Long may his crass ties fly, if only in memory.

DGH and Sharee.jpg
David and Sharee Carton at the pirate party at the 2005 Worldcon
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Cherryh Cuckoos Egg.jpgThis is another stand alone novel from fairly early in Cherryh's career (copyright 1985). The bibliography at Wikipedia thinks this takes place in the Union-Alliance universe, although if there's evidence in the story, I missed it. Interestingly the bibliography lumps it under the category "The Age of Exploration" with two of the "magic mushroom" novels: Port Eternity and Wave without a Shore, the former of which is clearly in the Union-Alliance universe and the latter also not providing any evidence either way that I noticed.

The subject-matter of this novel is prime Cherryh material. An apparently human child called Thorn is being raised by an alien warrior named Duun who is a member of a guild called the hatani that I believe I've read is based on Japanese martial culture, and possibly specifically the samurai code. The aliens are covered in fur and have claws and doglike ears. Thorn is a freak to the aliens, but Duun is raising him to be hatani -- a radical act that is politically dicey. So as so often in Cherryh we have an outcast struggling to survive in a hostile society, and we have a human learning to be alien.

This is a very good book, and I was interested to see, also in Wikipedia, that it was nominated for the Hugo. It doesn't seem to me to have much of a reputation now, but I was pretty impressed with it. The central mystery of the story is where Thorn came from, and the answer is complex and builds to a climactic revelation that completely transforms the scale and perspective of the story's frame of reference. It's a little overwrought at times, but that's really my only criticism. Cherryh is very good at holding her secrets close to the vest through tight control of narrative point of view and also at depicting the political in-fighting amongst people who have very different understandings of what is important and thus very different agendas. All of this is revealed and resolved in a very satisfactory way in the eventful finale.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Voyager in Night.jpgIt's been a couple of weeks since I read this, so I'm not sure how good my memory of it is. Anyway, I found it the most difficult of the Cherryh books I've read to understand in the first place, and it's also the weirdest and creepiest of the three "magic mushroom" novels collected in the Alternate Realities ominbus. The other two, which I've previously reviewed, are Wave without a Shore and Port Eternity.

The scenario, to the extent that I understood it, is that three humans -- a brother, sister, and childhood friend who has married the sister -- have scraped together enough money to buy a cargo ship, and they are working in a star system when a large alien ship of some kind swoops in and grabs them. All three of them are scanned, and two of them are painfully killed. The two who were scanned are then re-embodied and begin to interact with the survivor. Further scans are made of, I believe, all three, and then some of those scans are re-embodied, so that there are multiple versions of the characters with different memories depending on when they were scanned and re-embodied. That's part of what makes the book so confusing, and then on top of that all the aliens are referred to with names that consist of non-letter characters, often nested in ways that are slightly different but look very similar.

It's also a horror story, which is not my favorite genre by far. Terrible things happen to all the human characters, and it appears that the aliens are experimenting on them for obscure purposes. By the time I got to the end, I was pretty much completely lost. I had literally lost the plot and didn't understand the resolution. Still, it scores extremely high on the wild-ass weirdness scale, and once again I give Cherryh a lot of credit for writing something so strange and different from her other work, and to DAW for publishing a book that wasn't even remotely commercial in nature. Those were the days, by grab! 1984, to be exact. That seems appropriately dystopian, in fact.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Port Eternity.jpgPort Eternity is the second of three Cherryh novels that have been referred to as her "magic mushroom" novels. The first is Wave Without a Shore, and the third is Voyager in Night. The three novels have a reputation of being offbeat, and they have been collected in an omnibus called Alternate Realities.

Port Eternity is a kind of metafiction. It is specifically a story about the Arthurian legend. At it's core its about the wealthy owner of a pleasure space yacht that's called the Maid of Astolat. The staff and crew of the ship are azi, which are people from the Union part of Cherryh's Union-Alliance universe, who are clones that have been conditioned or programmed using pre-recorded instructional tapes. The azi are created according to the designs of their owners, and Dela is a woman who lives in a kind of romantic daydream based on Arthurian legend. Therefore her azi are all based on characters from Arthurian legend and specifically from Tennyson's poem, Idylls of the King, which is quoted at the head of every chapter. Dela sets off on a pleasure cruise with her latest lover, Griffin (hmmm, where could that name come from?)

The next layer of the meta is that Dela's azi personal assistant, Elaine, has been secretly indulging in a story tape that's clearly a version of Tennyson's poem. Story tapes are experienced in a way similar to how the behavioral conditioning of the azi is applied: you take a drug and then the content of the tape is piped into your receptive brain, and you live the story out vicariously, like a kind of virtual reality. Therefore Elaine is conscious of how she herself and all her fellow azi staff and crew are shaped to be like characters in the tape, not just behaviorally but in their physical cloning. This gives her something like a tragic view of things as she watches, for example, her personal favorite, Lance, struggle to accept that his services aren't needed while Griffin is giving Dela the pleasure she craves, and it also shapes her view of how Vivien, who is, or at least perceives herself to be, slightly superior to Elaine in the ship hierarchy, behaves. The other azi on the ship are Lynette, Percival, Gawain, and (ominous music) the nerveless Modred, who is conditioned to be analytical and asexual.

As for what actually happens in the book, the Maid is stranded in subspace during a failed FTL jump. Initially this is a very hallucinatory experience in which the whole universe seems to be turned inside out and nothing makes perceptual sense. Eventually, however, they become accustomed to their bizarre new surroundings, and they encounter a large artificial structure that has attracted other ships to it over time. After that it's an ongoing struggle to understand what the structure is and what is happening to them and what to do about it as the existential crisis gets more and more tense and the preprogrammed relationships start to fray. Our understanding of what the characters are up to plays out against our understanding of the characters and the story they're based on.

The concept of the azi is a fascinating one that Cherryh explored to even greater effect a few years later in her Hugo-winning novel, Cyteen. What's interesting here is the way in which the azi are a kind of fiction to begin with -- which is to say, they are created things that may or may not serve the purpose their creators intended -- and who in this story have to grapple with their place in another kind of fiction. The conditioning of the azi creates an air of control and fatalism, and yet their biological nature makes the conditioning uncertain. Meanwhile Cherryh gets to play around with vicarious experience, dreamlife, free will, and the relationship between story and reality, and yet she's doing it in a purely genre, as opposed to literary, way. Just as with Wave Without a Shore, it has the feeling of an experimental work while not being avant garde at all.

Cherryh has said in an interview that Donald Wollheim allowed her to write this kind of offbeat novel as long as she kept it short and continued to produce big middle-of-the-road science fiction blockbusters like Downbelow Station and Cyteen, but I suspect that this was due to the special relationship they had and to the moment in publishing history in which this was occurring -- i.e. the era of the wire rack displays in drug stores and such, where a steady flow of mass market paperbacks fed the ravening maw of readers looking for a cheap thrill. I seriously doubt that even best-selling writers have this kind of freedom anymore, but what do I know? It's not as if these three novels by Cherryh had much of an obvious impact on the field, and they are still amongst her least-known books. On the other hand, it's pretty cool that they're still in print in that omnibus. On that note I've got to say that the original DAW paperback cover is one of the ugliest and least evocative they ever did.

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