randy_byers: (powers expdt)
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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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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Leckie_AncillaryMercy_COVER-220x330.jpgAncillary Mercy is the third novel in what I've been calling the Ancillary Trilogy, but which the jacket copy of the book itself call the Radch Empire Trilogy. I guess that's a more descriptive title, and it emphasizes the political aspect of the trilogy, which is certainly fitting for the final volume. As I mentioned in my review of the first book, Ancillary Justice, this is a story about revolution, and in Ancillary Mercy the revolution continues. Calling it the Ancillary Trilogy makes it a story about Breq, which is perhaps too narrow a frame, although, hey, the personal is political, right? And that proves the case in these novels too.

In my review of Ancillary Sword, I spent some time talking about how Leckie handles gender in the trilogy, and I spent some time talking about how she handles emotions. Let me try to connect those dots! These books are very focused on emotion, or to put it another way, the protagonist, Breq, who is a cyborg who was once part of a vast military artificial intelligence, is very focused on emotion. She is constantly monitoring the emotions of the people she interacts with -- partly through her own observations of their behavior and partly through a data feed she gets from an AI reading the physiological output of various characters -- and she uses that information to help her understand their agendas. In our culture, emotional openness and an interest in parsing emotion are considered female traits, and I confess that at times Breq's focus on emotion feels excessive and uncomfortable to me. (In this novel, the question of whether it really *is* excessive/intrusive is raised within the story itself.) But what's probably more interesting than my occasional discomfort is that because the Radch refer to all people as female, whatever their actual gender, the thing that the books made me stop and think about again and again is how I kept assuming that the characters are female, despite the fact that some of them aren't.

So there's a fair amount of crying in Ancillary Mercy, and it feels out of place to me in a military space opera, to begin with. On top of that, I'm assuming that all the characters who are crying are women. Yet Leckie has set this up so skillfully that it makes me question both of those judgments on my part. There's no reason to believe that crying is considered something that men don't do in Radch culture. (Here on the planet Earth, for example, traditional Yapese culture had no problem with men crying.) And Leckie's story shows that the emotions of the characters matter in all kinds of ways that are invisible in traditional space opera that mostly ignores emotions. However, my own biases still militate (ho ho ho) against the importance of the emotions, and still finds them too pathetic at times -- in the sense of trying to tip our sympathies in a certain direction. At the same time I'm constantly fascinated by Breq's use of the emotional state of her crew as just more data to help her understand what they're up to and where and when they need her guidance. And truth be told, the book made me shed tears more than once myself, so there's that.

Well, I'm not sure I've gotten my finger on what's so fascinating about Leckie's approach, but I'll leave it there for now. Another thing that impressed me about Ancillary Mercy is its sense of humor, playfulness, and weirdness, which is something that I hadn't really picked up on in the earlier books. The sense of humor may be one way Leckie is different from C.J. Cherryh, who is an obvious influence but has never seemed to me to have a sense of humor. Leckie's humor is very dry and is frequently expressed in banter between characters, but Ancillary Mercy also has a character, the alien Presger Translator Zeiat, who is a total hoot in the way she (again we don't know if she has a gender or what it might be) behaves. Zeiat is a constant font of apparently absurd non-sequiturs, and she herself sees Radch culture as absurd in ways that the Radch (and human readers like myself) can't quite make sense of. She is a wildcard who doesn't seem to be taking the tense conflict of the story very seriously at all, which allows us as readers to see how funny the proceedings are from a certain perspective. At the same time Zeiat represents an alien race in the Presger who are terrifying in their power to simply squash the Radch if they choose to. It's really a remarkable point of view Leckie has created in this character.

I've said the trilogy is about a revolution, and it's hard to talk about that aspect of the book without committing spoilers. What I will say is that one of the things Leckie is exploring in these books is social justice and whether/how it can be achieved. The Radch Empire is authoritarian and is a lot like, say, the Borg in the way that it tries to assimilate every species it conquers. In other words, it tries to create justice by making everyone the same and everyone secure under the universal, absolute rules of the system. Breq, on the other hand, is interested in difference, even when it leads to conflict. For her, conflict is built into any system, so you might as well acknowledge it rather than try to force it into a semblance of sameness. Better a thousand different rulers than one ruler who has been cloned a thousand times, which is literally what the ruler of the Radch Empire has done. This is the theme of a lot of anti-authoritarian science fiction, but Leckie seems to me to have embodied it better than most, both through literal features such as that multiple-cloned ruler and through her attention to a thousand layers of culture, class, gender, emotion, history, and backstory. Once again she builds to what feels like a feel-good ending, but rife with all the tensions and tendencies to fall apart that she has explored throughout. In Ancillary Mercy she makes it explicit that this flawed, conflicted process, always subject to failure, is our lot in life. The revolution is another turn of the wheel in an unending process that at best leads to a new and temporary balance of contradictions.

This kind of balancing act also seems familiar from Cherryh, so perhaps its worth noting that if Leckie's sense of humor is missing in Cherryh, so perhaps is Leckie's optimism. Considering the horrors of oppression and slaughter of the Radch Empire, the optimism may seem a little out of place, I don't know. I've wrestled with that question a bit since I finished the book. Still, the particular spin on the revolution that arises in this volume was unexpected and yet pretty much perfect, not least in the part the apparent wildcard of the Presger Translator plays in it. Whether Leckie has earned her hedged optimism or not, she created a very satisfying story with an enormous depth and richness to the world-building supporting it. There's obviously a lot more room to explore in this particular story universe, although I have no idea if Leckie is going to keep working this soil or move on to something different. I'll be interested in whatever she does next.

Addendum: Publisher's Weekly has published a list of ten of Leckie's favorite SF novels, and I have to say that I don't have any argument with this list, which is an unusual reaction to have to such a list. As I said on Facebook, any fan of Leigh Brackett is ahead of the game in my book. I also hadn't known that there's now an English translation of Lem's Solaris directly from the Polish (formerly there was only an English translation of a French translation of the Polish), and I'm happily reading that now. I haven't read the particular novels she lists by Vance, Cherryh, and Mieville, but I've read other books by all of three them, including other books by Cherryh and Mieville that she specifically mentions. [Thanks to cj for the link.]
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'What sort of name is that? Didn't Notai ships usually have long names? Like Ineluctable Ascendancy of Mind Unfolding or The Finite Contains the Infinite Contains the Finite?' (Ann Leckie, Ancillary Mercy)
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Ancillary Sword.jpgWell, woof. Count me as one who thinks this is an even better book than the first in the trilogy, Ancillary Justice, and I really liked Ancillary Justice. That one appealed to me intellectually and told an exciting story, this one did both of those things and then kicked me in the gut in the finale. Woof.

The basic set-up here, which may contain spoilers if you haven't read the first book yet, is that a star-spanning culture called the Radch Empire is ruled by an autocrat who is constituted of multiple cloned bodies who are connected with each other via what I believe is a form of artificial intelligence. Because of the huge distances in space and time that separate the various members of this entity and because of inherent contradictions in its expansionist, imperialist policies, the autocrat is at war with itself. The narrator-protagonist of the two books is an ancillary -- a kind of cyborg soldier who was once part of an AI-driven military spaceship that was destroyed by the autocrat when the ancillary killed one of the autocrat's constituent bodies. The ancillary is the only surviving member of the community of soldiers that once ran the ship. In the first book, the ancillary obtained a weapon with which it hoped to destroy the autocrat. Instead, a civil war broke out, and the ancillary was assigned by one faction of the autocrat to go to an isolated space station and defend it against possible attacks by the other faction of the autocrat. This is where the action of the second book picks up.

In the comments to my review of the first book, [livejournal.com profile] grytpype_thynne describes this one as "a story about the implied violence of rigid class structures where there's incredible tension in scenes that basically describe polite rich people serving tea to each other that might spill over into world-shattering mayhem." This is an excellent description. The world-building in these novels is deeply layered, and one of the things that I finally started picking up on in Ancillary Sword is how much of what the protagonist observes is the minute clues about the class structure of the empire. The Radch Empire has conquered and annexed many cultures in its expansion, and like the Roman Empire it has granted citizenship to the annexed peoples. The level of integration of the different conquered peoples varies, and that's part of what creates the tension [livejournal.com profile] grytpype_thynne mentions. The protagonist, Breq, is constantly noting accent, for example, and that's because she can tell something about the origins and status of the person she's talking to by what kind of accent they have when they speak the Radch language. The class system is indeed rigidly hierarchical, and even people from the original Radch culture exist in a hierarchy of houses, or families, which has changed over time and is a constant source of jockeying for position and political power. People in the lowest levels of the hierarchy are exploited and oppressed in ways very familiar to anyone who has studied, say, the colonial history of humankind. Indeed, both novels are focused on the injustices, some of them downright murderous, built into the Radch political system.

I read this book (which required me to read the first one as well) because it was one of the non-Puppy novels nominated for the Hugo this year. So it's possible that I only have the Hugos on my mind, but I was struck by how similar this one (but not Ancillary Justice) was to The Goblin Emperor in some aspects. In particular I was struck by how both books were about autocratic empires and about a figure within that polity who tries to help those who are oppressed and exploited. Breq, like Maia in The Goblin Emperor, is constantly shocking even those sympathetic to her with her willingness to ignore the class hierarchy and show consideration for the bottom rung. But Leckie seems to me more realistic about the limits of compassion and kindness than Addison is. What is exemplary about Ancillary Sword is that the question of justice is treated with great complexity. Breq knows she cannot really change the system and cannot really do "good". What she can do is try to find the least-bad approach to complicated problems. As an ancillary she was, in fact, a part of any number of murderous crimes in the service of the empire. She is trying to do right as best as she can, but she is part and parcel of a corrupt and abusive system.

Another thing that the Ancillary books have in common with The Goblin Emperor is a close focus on feelings. Breq was at one time part of an AI that was constantly monitoring the physical manifestations of emotion in all its component members and those of other regular non-ancillary Radch that served on the ship. Breq is now cut off from that level of constant awareness, but is fed quite a bit of similar information from the AI of the ship she's been assigned to as captain. Breq is also an inveterate observer of the physical cues to emotion that body language gives. Thus she is always paying attention to the emotional status of the people immediately around her as well as a few key crew members who are elsewhere (a neat narrative trick that resembles multiple points of view), and we as readers get a constant flood of information about the anger, anxiety, pleasure, misery, uncertainty, pride, suspicion, resentment, love, desire, etc of the characters in the story. This was remarkable enough in a work of high fantasy like The Goblin Emperor, where it mostly served to make the characters more sympathetic, if not simply pathetic, but I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like it in a work of space opera, let alone military space opera. There was a thrown-off line in Ancillary Justice about how emotion was necessary even for artificial intelligences to make decisions, and Leckie drives home the importance of emotion by the sheer wealth of observation of it on offer. And it doesn't take the place of intellectual analysis either, because Breq is always analyzing the situation from a number of different angles as well, using the emotions of others as clues to what their hidden agendas are.

Well, crap, I've already gone on at much greater length than I wanted to, and I haven't even gotten to Leckie's approach to gender in these books, which I didn't talk about at all in my previous review. The interesting thing is that the Radch don't refer to gender in their language, but this gender neutrality is represented in the text by female words. Everybody is she and her, all parents are mothers, all children are daughters, all siblings are sisters, etc. This is similar to what Delany did in Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand, although it's been so long since I read that one that I forget the details how he handled it. Leckie's approach masks the genders of the characters while making us think of them all as female. Very occasionally she reminds us that this isn't true when Breq speaks in a non-Radch language that requires gender specification. These moments, in which Breq has to guess the gender of the person she's addressing (thus implying that the Radch really pay no attention to gender), remind the reader that some of the characters are male, and we mostly don't know which ones. It's a nifty piece of intellectual judo.

I said at the beginning that the reason I liked Ancillary Sword even better than Ancillary Justice is that it "kicked me in the gut in the finale." This ends up being a very romantic story, in the sense that there's a great unleashing of emotion at the climax. I'm not sure I'm capable of describing all the narrative forces at work in this unleashing, but it's related to that abiding sense of incredible tension that [livejournal.com profile] grytpype_thynne described. Part of it, too, is that Breq, who has been looking after everybody else all this time, suddenly becomes very emotional and vulnerable herself. There's a burst of heroic action, confessions of guilt, expressions of inconsolable loss, pain, tears, relief, healing, and hugs, all in a welter, and there's a powerful sense of new bonds being formed and old ones being strengthened. For a story about moral complexity and the impossibility of justice, maybe it's a bit too much of a feel-good ending. But it does strike me that Leckie is wrestling with the nightmare of history and perhaps even the concept of original sin (she's very good on the subject of religion), and if she's cheating in the finale it may only be in the sense that the characters are allowed a moment of feeling good about themselves despite the inevitability that the injustice, oppression, and murderous abuse will continue. The problems of this world have not been solved, but we are allowed to feel love and security in a momentary shelter from the storm.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Judgment-NightOver the past few years I've been slowly digging deeper into C.L. Moore's work, which is an effort complicated by the fact that after she married Henry Kuttner in 1940 pretty much everything they published was a collaboration, usually under pseudonyms such as Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O'Donnell. The SF Encyclopedia article on Moore claims that most of the things published under the O'Donnell byline, including four of the five stories in this volume, were mostly written by Moore. If that's not confusing enough, the title novel, Judgment Night, was published in two issues of Astounding in 1943 under the byline C.L Moore, but that's not definitive proof that it's not a collaboration. However, I've read elsewhere that for the original publication of this collection in 1952 these five stories were selected by Moore herself as the best of her longer works of science fiction. So for the purposes of this review I'll treat them as her work, as dubious as that proposition might be.

Certainly Judgment Night holds up with the best of Moore's own pre-Kuttner work and with the best of their collaborations (which is amongst the very best stuff from the Campbellian Golden Age). In fact, the protagonist of the novel, Juille, compares quite closely to Moore's famous sword-and-sorcery character, Jirel of Joiry. In Jirel's first (and best) story, "The Black God's Kiss," Jirel is humiliated by a man and seeks out a way to kill him for his effrontery, only to discover after she's succeeded that her powerful hatred has been masking love -- or at least sexual desire. Similarly Juille finds herself in a love-hate relationship with the handsome Egide, and does her best to kill him after they've had sex. The difference, as many people have pointed out, is that Jirel is a largely passive character and her adventures largely psychological, where Juille acts out in the most dramatic ways possible. All the world's her stage, and she acts without thinking. That's pretty much what the story is about.

This is a standard Golden Age galactic empire set-up. It feels hoary that way, and I can't help but think it was hoary already in 1943, even though the SF Encyclopedia says that it was in the '40s that the galactic empire trope really got going. I suppose it's just that this is a story full of pulp formulae (such as the hate-love complex) that had already been well-worn in other contexts. In any event, Juille is the daughter of the Emperor of the known universe, who is the last of a line of a hundred emperors, who have ruled over an empire that succeeded a series of previous empires receding into the vastness of time. All of the empires have ruled from the planet Ericon, which was originally the home of a species now referred to as the Ancients, who have retreated to a forest where they live an isolated and godlike existence. The empire of Juille's father is under attack from a barbarian people called the H'vani. The emperor seeks a peace treaty, but Juille, who has been raised as an Amazon, wants to destroy them in a war.

Again, this is all very standard for American pulp SF of the era. What Moore brings to it is, first of all, a deft handling of the character of Juille, with her deeply conflicted feelings about sex and power, which cause her to thrash around like a fish on a hook. Juille is an arrogant princess in the mode of Scarlett O'Hara or Dejah Thoris, but melded to the arrogance and hawkish desire to kill is a confusion about sexual desire and love that her arrogance won't allow her to acknowledge. She's a character who is despicable in many ways but whom the reader is invited to feel both superior and sympathetic to because of her obvious immaturity. The story is propelled by the explosive mix of hatefulness and vulnerability in Juille, as she strives to kill everything that frustrates or threatens her.

On top of this potent character portrayal is a sophisticated mix of science fictional ideas, some of which are the standard genre furniture of the day used in effective ways, but others of which still feel surprisingly modern. Probably the most interesting of these to me was the artificial pleasure planet, Cyrille, which circles Ericon and gives the upper class a place to blow off sexual steam. Many aspects of the pleasure planet are familiar pulp ideas of dens of vice, but the striking bit is that Cyrille uses something like virtual reality to give people an unlimited variety of places to play. Moore isn't real specific about how this technology works, but what it enables is people's fantasies. The lyrical descriptions of these virtual paradises reminded me at times of the later space operas of Samuel Delany or Iain Banks. Even more remarkable is a sequence late in the novel where Juille destroys Cyrille with an alien superweapon, causing all the virtual realities to be scrambled and thrown topsy turvy in a way that completely pulls Juille apart psychologically. Moore's prose is poetic enough to give us this description, after Juille has stumbled through a long series of collapsing virtual worlds: "She had been through too many nights and mornings for the present to remain today."

Finally, there is the notably downbeat ending, which is still very potent but left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it prevented the story from descending into the romantic banality that constantly threatens Juille's evasion of her attraction to Egide. The fact that the romantic clinch in the end takes place in a context of utter catastrophe for the human race is quite bracing, to say the least. However, there's an aspect to this catastrophe, which is foreshadowed in the title, that left me feeling uncomfortable. In some ways the ultimate fate of humanity in this book is just a variation on the biblical doctrine of Original Sin, with the Ancients standing in for Jehovah. It feels deeply conservative, if not reactionary. Yet there are some odd things going on alongside the judgment visited on humanity, both in the weirdly joyful sense of mono no aware that Juille develops when she realizes that her love won't survive the apocalypse and in the science fictional zoom out that then shifts the focus away from humanity entirely. Life goes on, even if not for humans. There's something quite bracing in that, too, and the ending is somewhat reminiscent of the great O'Donnell story, "Vintage Season".

Compared to Judgment Night, the other four stories in this collection are solid but not great. "Paradise Street" is basically a Western frontier story transplanted to another planet, and the best thing about it is the action sequences. "The Code" is an odd play on the Faust legend by way of Lovecraft, and the semi-metaphysical speculation is probably more interesting as an idea than as a story, although the ending packs a bit of an eerie punch. "Promised Land" and "Heir Apparent" are vaguely linked stories about the genetic engineering of humans in order to settle the solar system, and again there are some good ideas set into okay stories with interesting details. The fact that Ganymede is the site of the earliest genetic engineering attempts made me wonder if these two stories were an influence on Blish's Seedling Stars stories, or at least something he was tipping his hat to.

Note on editions: I read the Red Jacket Press facsimile of the Gnome Press first edition of the collection, with the darkly lurid Kelly Freas cover. The novel Judgment Night has been published as a stand-alone paperback in at least a couple of different editions.
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It's impossible to write seriously about this novel without serious spoilers, so THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Consider yourself warned.

Use of WeaponsUse of Weapons was the first (and perhaps only) Banks novel to really bowl me over, so it's fitting that it's the first one of his that I've now read a second time. What was interesting about the reread was that I've always remembered the big reveal of the bone chair that has haunted the protagonist of the novel his whole life and driven his hunger for atonement, but I'd completely forgotten the book's second punchline, which is that the protagonist isn't who we (or he) thinks he is. He is not Cheradenine Zakalwe, he's Zakalwe's cousin, Elethiomel, who murdered Cheradenine's sister (who was Elethiomel's lover) and made a chair of her bones in attempt to destroy Zakalwe's spirit and thus win the war he was waging against him.

So this novel is famous for its twist ending and for the elaborate structure (borrowed in a slightly different form by Christopher Nolan for his memory puzzle movie, Memento) in which one set of thirteen chapters moves forward in time in alternation with another set of thirteen chapters that moves backward in time. Banks says that this structure is actually a simplification of what he came up with when he originally wrote the book in 1974. (The revised version was published in 1990.) But to what purpose are the twists and structure put? The purpose is a complex meditation on the use of weapons.

I think I've already mentioned that one of the things that has struck me about the Culture novels as I've been reading them lately is how much they are military novels. They are almost all about war and about the secret military wing of the anarchist utopia that is the Culture. Sometimes, as in this book, they are about the attempts by the secret military wing of the Culture to secretly guide less advanced civilizations toward a less militaristic mode of social organization. The ironies and contradictions of this meddling are the central theme of Use of Weapons. Zakalwe, for reasons that are slowly revealed over the course of the novel, is the perfect weapon for the Culture to use in its proxy wars. He embodies the contradiction of their efforts: he is an amoral murderer seeking to atone for his unforgivable crimes by trying to use war to create peace. His self-hatred makes him the perfect pawn for the elements of the Culture who are trying to act selflessly. Elethiomel's dissociation from his own identity rhymes with the Culture's dissociation from their own biases and compulsions. That's ultimately what gives the novel its great power: Zakalwe/Elethiomel is a perfect symbol of how the Culture's quest for progress and peace by any means necessary turns them into amoral monsters willing to turn anything into a weapon for their cause. Once again, as in most of the other Culture novels, this is a kind of critique of Western liberalism and its intolerance of intolerance.

Coming back to Use of Weapons after having read all the later Culture novels, there were aspects of it that did feel a bit primitive in comparison. The Minds, and especially the drone, Skaffen-Amtiskaw, are almost buffoonish characters here, although to some extent the slapstick is a diversion from the fact that these are incredibly powerful beings. Perhaps it's implied that the Minds hide behind a comic persona to make the humans feel more comfortable with them. Banks got much better later at depicting the Minds as godlike in their powers, which some people feel reduced the human characters to insignificance and which in turn one can argue became a great theme of the later books. Probably the one area where it felt as though Banks was cheating regarding the Minds in Use of Weapons is their ignorance of Zakalwe's history and true identity. He tries to finesse this by presenting Zakalwe as a refugee from a planet that the Culture knows nothing about, but it's highly unlikely that a Mind as portrayed in the later books would have been unaware of Zakalwe/Elethiomel's personality dissociation, even if the exact nature of his identity was elusive.

But of course this is another Culture novel in which the Culture is largely seen from a non-Culture viewpoint. On that level it's a predecessor of the far more radical experiment in Inversions, in which the whole novel is told from the point of view of characters who don't even know that the Culture exists and are at a technological level that would find the Culture incomprehensible. In fact, Use of Weapons also explores some similar arguments about whether it's right to intervene in other cultures. By grounding the action in the "primitive" civilizations that Zakalwe infiltrates as an agent of the Culture, we are given an argument for intervention in the form of examples of cruel and unthinking behavior, but Banks continually questions whether the Culture is really any better on a moral level. Again, their willingness to use Zakalwe as a weapon of intervention is equated, via the structure of the novel, with Elethiomel's willingness to murder his own cousin and lover and use her bones as a weapon.

Does the novel still work when you know what the final twists are (even if you've forgotten one of them)? I'd say yes, because as much as the novel is structured to punch you in the gut, the structure also works brilliantly in the service of the novel's world weary themes. Really, this is the standard critique of liberalism, so it's not even as though the ideas are all that powerful on their own. Banks creates something poetic out of them by pairing them with Elethiomel's horrifying history and harnessing the resonance between the personal and the political to drive its story home. As much as I think his vision of the Culture improved with age, he probably never topped Use of Weapons for tying the grand space opera scale to puny human failings.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
HydrogenSonataThe Hydrogen Sonata is the final Culture novel by Iain Banks, and it ends up being an oddly appropriate finale. This one is all about Sublimation, which is the process by which certain advanced civilizations remove themselves from physical reality into some kind of mysterious non-physical dimension, perhaps akin to hyperspace. This is described as a completely natural (not supernatural) process, but it has a lot of resonance with ideas of the afterlife or heaven or the Faerie otherworld. It is effectively a way to move beyond the mortality that Banks finally succumbed to this year.

There are ways in which the final three Culture novels (Matter and Surface Detail are the previous two) felt very similar structurally. They have multiple viewpoint characters, some that we follow all the way through the story and some that only occupy a small part. There's a villainous type who is Machiavellian and a sexual predator. Tension ramps up slowly until there's a sudden burst of violent action at the end. Throughout all this are witty essays about all manner of miracles and marvels in the far flung future. I found Surface Detail disappointing in the end because I felt Banks failed to satisfactorily resolve all the storylines he was following. Matt Hilliard seems to feel the problem with all the later Culture novels is that the humanoid characters are basically irrelevant, because the Culture Minds (the artificial intelligences that actually run things) are so much more powerful. But for me Matter and The Hydrogen Sonata are pretty much completely successful, even though it's true that especially in the case of The Hydrogen Sonata the humanoid actors are largely irrelevant. One might say that humanoid irrelevance is in fact driving the Gzilt civilization to Sublimation. Sublimation may be the final answer to the question hovering over all these novels: What do do when you've done it all and have everything? What is the point of life?

The other interesting thing that The Hydrogen Sonata does that's related to this question is take us back to the origins of the Culture. I can't remember that Banks has dealt much with the origin of the Culture in previous novels, although I think he's written about it in essays about the Culture. In any event, we discover that there's at least one humanoid who has been alive since the founding of the Culture, which was ten thousand years in the past of this novel. Nobody can quite believe it's true, because it's assumed that all humanoids choose to die after about four hundred years or so. Nobody can quite believe that any humanoid could find something to keep themselves occupied and entertained for ten thousand years. Banks' portrait of the man who has done so is quite fascinating in itself, even though he is basically a secondary character. There's also a tangent about a woman who exists as a dormant recording of herself that is only activated when she's needed for something -- in this case, to track down the ten-thousand-year-old, with whom she was friends a couple of hundred years previously. Here is another solution to the problem of what to do with yourself when you are effectively immortal: hibernate.

The title of the novel is a reference to another type of solution to what might be called The Problem of Boredom. "The Hydrogen Sonata" is a piece of music composed as a sort of joke or test or enigma. It is composed for an instrument that was designed especially for the composition and that's impossible to play without body modifications. It's nearly impossible to play even if you have the body modifications, and the resulting "music" is something that no audience really wants to listen to. The only reason to play it is to demonstrate that you can. It's something to do -- a challenge to surmount -- and it's something you do for yourself, as a form of discipline and focus and engagement. It advances no other cause, aesthetic or otherwise. That's the ultimate dark truth of the Culture series: There is no reason to live other than the reasons we give ourselves. Other than that it's all sound and fury signifying nothing.

In this novel, everybody has their reasons, but the reasons don't ultimately mean anything. Yet Banks still finds room for the sublime -- the wondrous, the awesome -- in this universe (or at least within reach of this universe). There is still that which surpasseth understanding, even for the fantastically intelligent Minds, one of whom we meet who has Sublimed and then returned to the physical universe, unable to describe what it's like on the other side or why it returned. In that sense of something beyond the edge of the world we know -- beyond reason and reasons -- Banks perhaps finally locates a mystery to keep wonder alive.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Surface DetailI found this novel mildly disappointing in the end, but up until the climax I found it completely riveting. This is another in the Culture series, and Banks delves into a couple of aspects of the Culture that I don't recall his going into so deeply before: virtual realities and self-backup and "reventing," which is the Culture term for re-embodying a backed-up (or recorded) self. My sense is that Surface Detail also increases the complexity of points-of-view that are interweaved into the narrative -- something he'd already amped up at least one level in the previous Culture novel, Matter. Unfortunately, as amazing as some of the interweaving is, I think this complexity is part of what undermines the resolution, as he has too many balls in the air and doesn't seem to know what to do with them all.

The story revolves around two nodes. In one, a non-Culture pan-human woman named Lededje Y'breq, who is a sex slave, is murdered by her owner and then revented by a Culture ship. Her ambition is to return to her home planet and wreak revenge on her owner. In the other node, a virtual war (called, ironically, the War in Heaven) is being waged over whether civilizations will be allowed to continue to create virtual hells where virtual souls are subjected to extreme torture for religious reasons. Eventually these two strands of the narrative coincide, although not in the most compelling way. Which is perhaps to say that I didn't feel a dramatic connection between the two threads, despite the fact that they end up connecting to the same character.

Still, as a travelogue through the Culture and through various interesting scientific, philosophical, and religious questions, the book is entirely engaging. Banks was a master of exposition, and I could read his background histories of various aspects of the Culture (and other civilizations) all day long. I feel as though as the Culture series progressed, he got more and more interested in the religious aspects of things, including Sublimation (in which civilizations move beyond a physical substrate into something like virtual reality, except, well, not physical) and the correspondence between the idea of the recorded self and the idea of the soul and between the idea of reventing and the idea of reincarnation, not to mention questions about the purpose of pain and suffering. On some level Surface Detail can be read as a long meditation about how the Culture deals with pain, and I think the emotional high point of the story for me was a sequence in which a Culture ship with one of the human protagonists on board it is attacked by a superior technology, the punishing nature of which is conveyed along one axis by the extreme (and extremely effective) measures the ship takes to detach the human from the pain of severe injuries.

Banks has always been fascinated by violence, and there's another thread to this novel that's about the pleasure of violence in a civilization that theoretically abhors it. This thread runs through all the Culture books, in fact. It's one I have mixed feelings about, partly because I'm so terrified of the atavistic side of human nature (a fear which finds the instinct toward violence as depicted by Banks all-too-real), and partly because there's a gleeful side to it that I just don't get. So the blood-thirsty Culture ship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints who is such a source of humor and good cheer in this novel was a challenge, shall we say, for me. I'm never quite sure that the conflicted feelings about violence in Culture novels make sense on a philosophical or world-building level or whether they are more an expression of Banks' own personal obsessions.

Somewhere in the middle of this novel I was thinking about what kind of writer Banks was, and what kind of books the Culture novels were. They are adventure novels -- romances -- for the most part, but with serious ideas presented and explored. They are wildly exciting, and yet they raise complex moral questions. I was thinking Banks was like Alexandre Dumas, but maybe Victor Hugo is a better point of comparison. I don't really know who to compare him to, honestly. Rollicking adventures and Big Ideas. It's amazing, heady stuff, but I still think his aliens are basically humans with odd appendages tacked on.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Iain_banks_matter_cover'Even galaxy-spanning anarchist utopias of stupefying full-spectrum civilisational power have turf wars within their unacknowledged militaries.'

Well, gosh wow. What a book! When I started reading Matter it seemed to me an interesting melding of the previous two Culture novels, Inversions and Look to Windward. The intertwining story threads combine a low tech feudal society as in Inversions with an outsider's view of life in the high tech utopia of the Culture as in Look to Windward. Banks uses these two strands to create an amazing sense of vast scale. His universe is teaming with layer upon layer of different technologies, intelligent beings, civilizations, and worlds. The locus of the action is something called a Shellworld, which is an artificial world with a number of different levels, supporting a number of different life forms and civilizations. It is a fitting metaphor for the whole book.

The plot begins with the assassination of a king on one level of the Shellworld Sursamen. We then follow two of the king's sons -- one who knows about the murder and one who thinks his father died in battle -- and the king's daughter, who left Sursamen years previously to live in the Culture and to become an agent of Special Circumstances, which is one of the Culture's "unacknowledged militaries". Gradually these three threads come together, as the one son flees Sursamen looking for allies, the other begins to suspect that his life is in danger, and the daughter makes her way back to her homeworld to pay her dead father final respects.

Banks is masterful here in building tension very slowly over the course of what is quite a long novel. As always he doles out information carefully, and our understanding of what the Shellworld is and what history surrounds it grows and deepens along with the narrative tension. Eventually the feudal story and the space opera merge with another story element that might be categorized as Lovecraftian. With this the tension suddenly spikes and Banks slams the story into full throttle, exploding into an action finale as breath-taking as anything he's written in a career full of breath-taking action sequences. I could hardly sit still as I read the final two chapters.

At the time of the book's release Banks joked to The Guardian, "It's so complicated that even in its complexity it's complex." It feels like a summation of all his thematic concerns up to that point. It feels like a pinnacle work. The matter of Iain M. Banks. The question of the Culture novels is always, If people are freed from want, what will they want? This book undermines the whole question (as Banks is wont to do) by exploring how the material world -- matter -- means that there is no freedom from want. No matter how many resources are made available, no matter how much power is available, no matter how much of life we are able to control, the hard matter of fact is that we don't have it all, and we are left wanting. We are left with special circumstances. Near the end there is a passage in which one character from the feudal society reflects on what it means to have and have not and perfectly captures Banks' complicated point of view:

He was starting to change his mind about the old Warrior Code stuff knights and princes invoked, usually when they were drunk and in need of spilling their words, or trying to justify their poor behaviour in some other field.

Behave honourably and wish for a good death. He'd always dismissed it as self-serving bullshit, frankly; most of the people he'd been told were his betters were quite venally dishonourable, and the more they got the more the greedy bastards wanted, while those that weren't like that were better behaved at least partly because they could afford to be.

Was it more honourable to starve than to steal? Many people would say yes, though rarely those who'd actually experienced an empty belly, or a child whimpering with its own hunger. Was it more honourable to starve than to steal when others had the means to feed you but chose not to, unless you paid with money you did not have? He thought not. By choosing to starve you became your own oppressor, keeping yourself in line, harming yourself for having the temerity to be poor, when by rights that ought to be a constable's job. Show any initiative or imagination and you were called lazy, shifty, crafty, incorrigible. So he'd dismissed talk of honour; it was just a way of making the rich and powerful feel better about themselves and the powerless and poverty-stricken feel worse.

But once you weren't living hand-to-mouth, and had some ease, you had the leisure to contemplate what life was really all about and who you really were. And given that you had to die, it made sense to seek a good death.

Even these Culture people, bafflingly, mostly chose to die, when they didn't have to.

With freedom from fear and wondering where your next meal was coming from or how many mouths you'd have to feed next year and whether you'd get sacked by your employer or thrown into jail for some minor indiscretion -- with freedom from all that came choice, and you could choose a nice quiet, calm, peaceful, ordinary life and die with your nightshirt on and impatient relatives making lots of noise around you ... Or you could end up doing something like this, and -- however scared your body might feel -- your brain rather appreciated the experience.

He thought of his wife and children, and felt a twinge of guilt that they had been so absent from his thoughts for so long recently. He'd had a lot to think about and so many new and utterly bizarre things to learn, but the truth was they seemed like beings from another world now, and while he wished them only well, and could imagine -- if, by some miracle, they survived all this -- going back to them and taking up his old duties again, somehow that felt like it was never going to happen, and he'd long since seen them for the final time.

A good death. Well, he thought, given that you had to die, why want a bad one?

And of course one of the many little and large ironies of the book is that this is a character who possibly does survive "all this".

Matter is hard. There are some hard deaths in this book. "Unexpectedly savage," says the blurb from The Times (London) on the front cover. Except that for those who have read Banks, it really isn't unexpected. In his books, when the shit hits the fan, it's unpleasant. Even in an anarchist utopia, matter bites. Banks finds heroism in the way his characters face this reality. He's an old-fashioned romantic and romancer that way. This is an old-fashioned story of princes and a princess seeking a restoration, but in Banks' hands it becomes something much darker and more noble than that. It becomes something far more complicated and humane than that.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
LooktoWindwardAs I may have indicated in my review of Inversions, I have undertaken to read all the Culture novels that I haven't read yet. I had previously read the first four (excluding the collection, State of the Art), and my favorite of those by far was Use of Weapons. The last one I read of those four, Excessions, was a bit of a disappointment for reasons I don't remember, but I have to say that both Inversions and Look to Windward strike me as the equal of Use of Weapons, which I plan to reread once I get through the rest of the series.

It was actually only just now, as I was rereading the quote from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land that serves as the epigraph and source of the title for Look to Windward that I caught on to the fact that it's also the source of the title for the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. ('Gentile or Jew/O you who turn the wheel and look to windward/Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.') Look to Windward is to some extent a sequel to that novel, or at least builds on the aftermath of the war with the Idirans that was the subject of Consider Phlebas. But Look to Windward is also, and primarily, about the aftermath of another war that the Culture was only involved in indirectly -- a civil war amongst an alien species called the Chelgrians. The novel has two main threads: one concerning a Chelgrian composer living in exile on a Culture Orbital (basically a ringworld à la Niven), and the other about a Chelgrian survivor of the civil war who is acting as an emissary to try to persuade the exile to return to his home world.

One thing that strikes me as I read Banks now is that his science fictional ideas are mostly inherited from the field. Take Niven's ringworld and cobble it together with Varley's personality backups restored to clones (and humongous organisms that support a whole ecology inside and around themselves) and virtual realities from cyberpunk, etc etc. His interest isn't in inventing new stefnal concepts but in interrogating Utopia and Western (European-derived) culture. Look to Windward, like Consider Phlebas, is largely from the point of view of aliens looking at the Culture from the outside and mostly from a more conservative and disapproving viewpoint. At times this is too obviously a modern conservative critique of modern liberalism, but the thing that gives these novels such force is that Banks is able to simultaneously apply a serious conservative critique of liberalism (and hedonism) while gleefully depicting the steely brutality hiding behind liberalism's smiling, tolerant face. You could say that that's what this novel is up to in a nutshell, and it certainly delivers the goods. The concluding chapters are breathtaking in their studied revelation of a cold-blooded, if not logical, savagery that has been hiding in plain sight all along.

The one weakness of the novel is the aliens who are the main characters. They are alien only in physical characteristics. Emotionally they feel far too human, and it was in fact easy for me to forget that they were alien until I was reminded by a physical description. I had the same problem with the Tines in Vernor Vinge's A Fire upon the Deep. They were a fine concept, but they felt human in very uninteresting ways. My touchstone for how to depict truly alien aliens remains Donald Kingsbury's novella "The Survivor", which manages to give us at least three different and distinct alien races who don't feel at all human. Banks can't even manage one, and he's trying to depict at least two in detail.

Despite this flaw, however, and despite the fact that the far-flung future society of the Culture frequently feels like it has been torn from yesterday's old sci-fi, Banks plays to his strengths here: vivid descriptions of landscape and action, full of playful, poetic language and wonderful wit, and a bracing view of the less pleasant aspects of civilization and its discontents. There's something a bit laddish about Banks' perspective, but it's damned sexy too, I have to say. It's bold and brash. Space opera started out as a cheerfully colonialist enterprise, and Banks is expert at finding that blood still running in the veins of his post-socialist post-scarcity Utopia. His ability to straddle the European heritage of colonialism and liberal idealism is manifest in the book's dedication, "For the Gulf War Veterans," which exudes a potent, sympathetic irony when you return to it after finishing the novel. Consider Phlebas, mixing memory and desire after the agony in stony places. It rings for thee.


Aug. 19th, 2012 10:47 am
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
'I was reproaching Bob Tucker last night for inventing the term "space opera." I told him there had been only one true space opera, and that was a Swedish opera, Aniara. That's the only opera that's about space.' (Edmond "World Wrecker" Hamilton in a 1976 interview with Tangent conducted at Minicon 11.)
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
So far I find I disagree with Bleiler's judgments as much as I agree with them, which isn't all that surprising and not all that interesting as a general observation. People always disagree in their judgments on literature. The biggest disagreement I've had with him so far is his assessment of Murray Leinster's early SF, which he doesn't think much of. I find his characterization of "The Mad Planet" (1920) -- "competent textbook natural history" -- to completely miss the point of the story, which I see as a conceptual breakthrough story: a weak man learning to use tools and weapons to project power in a nightmare world. Then again, Bleiler's assessment may be a clue as to why these early Leinster stories never show up in his Best Of collections, despite the fact that Gernsback thought they were important enough to reprint alongside Verne and Wells in the early issues of Amazing.

However, Bleiler is just killing me with some of his descriptions of stories I've long wanted to get my hands on. For example, Robert W. Cole's The Struggle for Empire (1900), which I've faunched after ever since reading that it may well be the earliest example of space opera. Here's what Bleiler says:

"The first real space opera, filled with space battles, invasions, and escalating weapons; a nineteenth-century E.E. Smith story in many respects. ... A remarkable work for its time. While the theme of the story is obviously that of a naval imaginary war of the terrestrial sort, the author goes far beyond this in his concept of space empires, weapons, space tactics, and much else. The story vehicle is trivial, but the strengths elsewhere more than make up for this weakness. In some of the descriptions there is a touch like M.P. Shiel's. * The Struggle for Empire is one of the great missed opportunities in the history of science-fiction. If it had been as well circulated as H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (to which it is superior in concept, if weaker in execution) science-fiction might have developed a generation earlier."

Poking around on Google just now I see that it was released in a facsimile edition in 1998, but I don't see any copies available. I'm curious why this book is so obscure, because every reference I've seen to it indicates that it would be of great interest to the historically-minded SF reader. Seems like the perfect kind of thing for Project Guttenberg, except that it's probably so rare that hardly anybody has access to the text. So on top of wanting to put together a Homer Eon Flint collection, now I want to reprint this novel too! Just as soon as I think of a name for my publishing imprint ...
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Darkness. The black silence of the tomb. He strained his ears, but even the supersonic torture of the drive was slipping away, receding beyond reach. Blue witch-lights flared from every metal surface in the ship, and then it began: the subtle slide and wrench and twist that took each separate atom in a man's body and moved it in a new direction with the most horrible effect of vertigo that ever had been devised. Comyn tried to scream, but whether he made it or not he never knew. For one timeless ghastly interval he thought he saw the fabric of the ship itself dissolving with him into a mist of discrete particles, and he knew that he wasn't human any more and that nothing was real. And then he plunged headlong into nothingness.

-- Leigh Brackett, The Big Jump (1953/1955)

The Big Jump is a slick, hard-boiled space opera that reminded me in tone of Budrys' Rogue Moon, particularly in the focus on hard-driven, almost maniacal characters in semi-realistic settings that feel very Fifties. The enormously rich family's domed garden enclave on the moon, on the other hand, reminded me of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. This perverse family and their interest in exploiting rare elements in distant stars are perhaps faintly echoed in Samuel R. Delany's Nova.

This is mostly a fairly middling novel -- a potboiler about humankind's first trip to another star and the frighteningly transformative phenomenon they find there.

Analysis of maguffin with BIG SPOILER )

Next up is Brackett's The Long Tomorrow, which is frequently cited as her best novel, along with The Sword of Rhiannon. I believe it is the only one of her science fiction novels that is Earthbound.
randy_byers: (Default)
So I'm working my way through Leigh Brackett's novels. I probably should have started with her first novel, a mystery called No Good from a Corpse (1944), but I read it not too long ago and didn't think enough of it to want to read it again. So far I've read Nemesis from Terra (aka The Shadow over Mars, 1944), The Starmen of Llyrdis (aka The Starmen, 1951), and Sea Kings of Mars (1949). Sea Kings of Mars was the magazine title of the novel published in book form as The Sword of Rhiannon, which I've read before. It is published under its original title in the Orion collection, Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories, which is where I read it this time. I'm not sure if this is actually the magazine version, or if they just used the old title. I've e-mailed the editor of the collection, Stephen Jones, but haven't heard back from him yet. I couldn't tell any difference, but it's been a while since I read The Sword of Rhiannon.

Since I had the collection with me in Oregon and had finished the novel, I also reread the Eric John Stark novella, "Queen of the Martian Catacombs". This is, in fact, the magazine version of the story, which was later rewritten (allegedly by her husband, Edmond Hamilton) and slightly expanded as The Secret of Sinharat, which I'm now reading in the Ace Double form. This is Brackett at her best -- an exotic adventure story full of pungent details and powerful atmosphere and heightened-through-suppression eroticism. There's a one-sentence description of a kiss of broken, thirsty lips that beautifully captures a sadomasochistic sensuality. The first part of The Secret of Sinharat seems identical to "Queen of the Martian Catacombs," but I've reached the point where changes begin. I'm curious to see what was done to the ending, which I found very powerful in the original version -- a typical moment of renunciation and separation, the price of crimes committed.

Nemesis from Terra isn't very good, although it has some of the usual great sensual and sadomasochistic detail. The Starmen of Llyrdis is a bit rambling or episodic, but it successfully moves from a mundane Earth to a far-flung space opera. The central idea is a strain of humanity that has been bred to survive faster-than-light interstellar flight. This idea has been used over and over, including by Delany in "Ay, and Gomorrah" (IIRC) and "The Star Pit". I wonder what the earliest usage was? In any event, there's a terrific horror scene in The Starmen of Llyrdis involving a normal human who stows away aboard an FTL flight.

Sea Kings of Mars/The Sword of Rhiannon is one of Brackett's best-known books. The adventures (as often in Brackett) are largely formulaic, and what is remarkable about the novel is its vision of an ancient Mars with oceans and sea-going civilizations. The clash of pre-gunpowder cultures and super-science is straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but Brackett layers on the torn loyalties, torn consciousness, and sadomasochism. It's a potent cocktail of pulp psychosexual histrionics. The mild telepathy of the Martian halflings perhaps represents our naked vulnerability, our inability to hide, though we desperately wish to, like prey trying to hide from predator, like a lover trying to hide his betrayal at the height of passion.


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