Working my way through the J.J. Abrams Trek timeline, and having some strong feelings about the 2009 reboot’s treatment of Spock in particular. Check back soon for an essay on how killing Amanda Grayson was probably unnecessary and furthermore, how TAS offered a more nuanced portrayal of Vulcan personal growth! Woohoo.
Have you ever loved a novel so much that you wanted to get every word of it tattooed on your body?
Allow me to introduce Greg Egan’s Diaspora.
This is speculative fiction at its absolute finest, in my opinion: the type that’s grounded in what seems scientifically plausible to feeble yet physics-loving minds such as my own, while also doing what I have yet to see a pre-1990’s sci-fi story do, which is to recognize that not only the medium, but the nature of human interaction, can change.
(This is ’98, so it’s close, but no dice.)
The novel starts about 800 years into our future, with a large portion of humanity having voluntarily given up their physical bodies in order to live as sentient software programs inside servers buried deep under terrestrial ground. Each different server is called a polis, named after, presumably, the original creators. We’re introduced to Konishi Polis and Carter-Zimmerman Polis, and it’s implied that there are more.
Our hero, Yatima, is a Konishi polis “orphan”—a parentless, genderless being created from what could be called a glitch in the software that makes up reality within the polis. Essentially, Yatima’s birth was an immaculate conception in programming terms. Egan never truly leans toward a Messianic interpretation for the character, though I suppose that reading would be there, if you wanted it to be.
An aside, here: Yatima is far from the only genderless character. In fact, the majority of the characters use the pronouns ve/ver/vis, and at no point is the reader assaulted with explicit reasoning for this (though there’s plenty of implicit reasoning.) It feels natural, and I love it, and it’s great.
The remainder of humanity has split off into sects of “fleshers” – a fairly self-explanatory term. Naturally there are extremes within the fleshers: those who opt for a ton of genetic modifications and augmentations to make them essentially superhuman, and those who reject these opportunities—while paradoxically using them—to regress back to a more primitive state.
In the grand scheme of the novel, the fleshers don’t really matter. They are wiped out fairly early in the story by an unexpected cosmic event, something that shouldn’t have been possible according to the laws of physics as they are understood in the novel’s future (the Theory of Relativity has been replaced by Kozuch theory, which without giving too much away is a once again, entirely-too-plausible-sounding explanation for some of the weirdness that physics as we know it can’t definitively explain.)
The polises, buried deep under the Earth and backed up on other galactic worlds, survive the event. The remainder of the novel is focused on the Diaspora, the journey of the citizens of the Carter-Zimmerman polis (including Yatima) away from earth and into uncharted territories of the universe, across several more millennia and shifts into areas where our understanding of time no longer holds up.
This book really excels at telling a compelling story of massive, exponential progress in technology and social design, while remaining mostly aware of the bits of human nature that can and do tend to confound such progress. The scope of the story is vaster than that of any novel in my recent memory, yet Egan grounds it well by filtering through the experiences of a small, tight group of characters.
The polises are predictably hyper-advanced and allow their citizens to think and act hundreds of times faster than humans in the “real” world, yet polis citizens still fall victim to the type of overthinking and emotional blindness that frequently plagues today’s interactions.
In Konishi polis, autonomy is valued above all else, leading to a localized reality in which citizens are unable to touch each other, as even the slightest sensory intervention by another being is considered a loss of autonomy for the one being touched. Naturally, sexuality and romantic love have fallen deeply out of fashion and are largely considered outdated and off-putting, a point that I consider a refreshing turn away from the tropes of 60’s and 70’s sci-fi in which everyone is banging hot space babes with the help of off-world alcohol and massive leaps in birth control science.
Early in the book, attempts at saving what remains of the flesher population are mostly thwarted by the fleshers themselves fearing the unknown, refusing to accept the severity of the threat, and misconstruing the polis citizens’ invitations as some sort of invasion plot. Fairly topical issues.
In Carter-Zimmerman the focus is heavier on artistic pursuit and sensory experience, making it fitting that it should be the polis that creates thousands of cloned copies of its citizens and sends them off to distant planets. Which is where the story gets cool. Egan’s descriptions of life, and “life” on other planets are incredible, especially his descriptions of life that exists in more than four dimensions.
Technological advancement isn’t demonstrated with floating cities or Dyson spheres or FTL drives, but rather with the ability to physically change and manipulate the atoms in a planet’s atmosphere – to leave decipherable messages in the form of isotopes, for example. There’s the underlying idea that sufficient advancement would lead to technologies that are increasingly unobtrusive, difficult to detect, a contrast to the constant race to build the biggest, the tallest, the strongest.
Eventually, the pursuit of an ultra-advanced non-human civilization, following clues that have been left throughout the universe, leads the citizens of C-Z out of Earth’s universe, into exponential higher dimensions and physical descriptions that are dizzyingly difficult to picture.
The end of the novel is almost disappointing, if only because by that point I half expected that Egan would be revealing some sort of undiscovered, unifying universal truth. In reality though, the story reaches its logical conclusion when it becomes clear that there isn’t any point in continuing. The Diaspora discovers multitudes, but in the end what it truly reveals is the ambivalence of the universe at large, the sort of optimistic pointlessness of attempts to map or fully understand the extent of the universe, to even know what reality is.
The second installment in the Honor Harrington series really gets down to business in addressing some of the issues that were raised by the first novel, such as “holy shit, a female main character!?” and also “holy shit, a female space battleship captain!?”
I’ll freely admit that even if I hadn’t already read – and thoroughly enjoyed – the first Honor Harrington book I probably would have picked this one up based on the ridiculousness of the cover illustration and summary alone. Look, we put covers on books so that we have something by which to judge them. Not everyone has the time to read a whole chapter of something they might hate.
Look at that fucking cover! That scene doesn’t happen anywhere in the book, to my recollection, but unlike the cover of the first book, which actively annoyed me, this one is irresistibly over-the-top. You know what you’re getting into with this cover. That is a woman who can comfortably ride in a flying convertible, standing up, with a huge cat perched on her shoulders, while the dude driving doesn’t even question it. That woman is a stone cold bad-ass.
The Honor of The Queen lays down some feminist anger with hands heavier than Mjolnir, to start. Things pick up right where they left off on Basilisk Station. The inevitable war between the Republic of Haven, and Honor’s Kingdom of Manticore is still encroaching and Manticore is trying to gather strategic allies before shit blows up in their collective faces. Enter the planet Grayson, which boasts a strategic location and potential motive for allying with Manticore – as well as an incredibly hostile surface environment, stunted technological development, and some deeply ingrained fundamentalist Christian views on women’s rights.
For some reason Manticore decides that a diplomatic mission will make for a great opportunity to shove their social advancements down the throats of the Grayson dignitaries, and sends Honor to head the excursion.
While the women on Grayson are treated reasonably well (for pets), they’re not really allowed to work, go to school or own property. Seeing Honor and her female officers in uniform and ordering dudes around is just too much for the men of Grayson. Sexism ensues. Comments are made about Honor being on the rag. The hand is so, so heavy.
We soon find out, though, that the original colonists of the Grayson planet were split into two sects. The current citizens of Grayson are the descendants of the more moderate of the two, while the remaining extremist division escaped to a nearby planet called Masada. David Weber lays down a few really solid passages that not only serve to explain the differences, but also to give the reader an opportunity to change their minds about the Grayson people. The admirals of the two navies meet, and the Grayson commander repents, admitting that Honor’s captaining is on-point and there isn’t a legitimate argument to be made against her abilities or position. However, he notes that his culture’s views on women are so deeply ingrained that it will take many decades to make a dent in changing them.
I like the way Weber pulls this off. He made me sympathize with a character I was prepared to hate, and he did so without relying on a comparison to a greater evil (despite having one in the chamber.) So I give kudos for that.
Political stuff happens. This is a very talk-y novel. I’m not sure I appreciated that aspect of it, beyond what I just talked about. Anyhow, midway through, Honor and her treecat nearly single-handedly thwart an assassination attempt by some Masadan thugs. This makes a huge impression on the Grayson people, and suddenly a lot more of them are on board with the idea of a female naval officer. During the scuffle, our hero takes a rifle butt to the head and loses vision and muscle control on one side of her face.
That’s right, Honor Harrington has an eyepatch, now and presumably for the rest of the series. Because she wasn’t hard enough. Damn, Weber! You’re really taking no prisoners with this one.
Unlike the Masadans, who take a whole bunch of Maticoran P.O.W.s and, obviously, because this novel has feminist undertones, rape them half to death. Honor barely restrains herself from justifiable homicide, and from then on it’s a Grayson/Manticore versus Masada death-match.
I won’t talk too much about the web of lies that Masada weaves throughout the novel, partly because it would be spoilers and mostly because I found it hard to follow. Honestly that’s my biggest issue with this book. It’s fucking hard to follow. It’s densely tactical and political, and while I don’t tend to write off a book on that basis alone, I found that it really dragged in places because it spent so much time setting up and explaining strategic maneuvers.
If you’re expecting an intense feminist shit-kicking bonanza, well, you pretty much get it – just, diluted with a lot of men talking about how big their ships are. It’s the novel equivalent of a cocktail with way too much ice.
I also just need to point out that Weber knows all the rules for writing a book that feminists will like, and he likes to fucking flaunt it. At the very start of the book we’re treated to a scene in which Honor’s mom does the mom thing and pesters her about getting a boyfriend, pointing out which of her crew members are the hottest and generally being perfectly and wonderfully inappropriate.
And it never pays off. There is not a single moment of sexual tension in this novel. No one gives a shit. Ships get blown to particles in the vacuum of space and there’s not a single “we’re about to get fucked, kiss me now!” So I have to congratulate Weber on that because honestly, with such a potentially campy premise I myself probably would have wedged in at least one awkward sex scene.
Ah, Warhammer 40K. I hate it… but I love it.
Before I start this review I feel the need to preface, given that it’s my first review of a Black Library novel on this blog. All future 40K-related posts will link back to this one.
Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of 40K knows that most of the 40K universe is utter bullshit, which isn’t entirely surprising seeing as it is, at its heart, just a futuristic reskin of regular Warhammer, which is, like the vast majority of popular fantasy tabletop franchises, made for cishet white boys.
I’m not going to bother explaining the entire 40K mythos here but if you want a refresher, here’s a helpful Youtube video that I did not make.
So, why do I give 40K any of my time considering the overarching tone of this blog (which, for those keeping score is “almost all male science fiction writers suck”)? To be honest, I can’t explain it. I guess it’s something of a guilty pleasure. It appeals to my nihilism, and I find it fascinating to speculate that humanity is destined to simultaneously advance and regress so completely that we end up reliving our own shitty history over and over again, each time on a different planet.
But it’s not even a guilty pleasure because it is such a pleasure to hate on it, even in spite of that seed of genuine enjoyment of the subject matter. It’s because of 40K’s utter disregard for any sort of social progress, its complete and shameless embrace of the sweaty, women-hating, nice-guy with hentai posters on his bedroom wall that we probably all picture when we hear the words “Games Workshop.”
So I ask you to take it on faith that I am fully aware of how incredibly problematic and stupid the 40K universe is when I say I’m a huge fan of it.
On to the novel, then! Descent of Angels is the sixth book in the Horus Heresy series, and Mitchel Scanlon’s first contribution. It’s also the first HH novel that doesn’t throw the reader into battle with an Astartes legion right off the bat. Descent of Angels is interesting because it’s the first Black Library novel that I’ve read that follows a recruited space marine from birth, starting from before he had any knowledge of the Emperor or the primarchs.
As the novel opens we meet Zahariel, a young boy living on the planet Caliban. Caliban has been inhabited by humans for the past 5000 years and has evolved a stoic patriarchal culture that views success through knightly combat as the highest honor one can achieve. As you can see, it’s super original, right from the start.
The entire planet of Caliban is overrun with “beasts” – huge, man-eating chimeras that come in a variety of flavours and are the main source of conflict for the world’s many schools and orders of knights.
Early on, we’re informed that, a number of years before Descent’s plot takes place, a lone man was found wandering in the beast-infested woods of the planet, and by virtue of not being dead, was instantly knighted and became a legendary figure known across the planet. The man was given the name Lion El’Jonson which means “the lion, the son of the forest” and is also one of the dumbest sci-fi barbarian names I have ever heard. By physical description, Jonson is basically Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan.
Jonson starts a campaign to exterminate all the beasts on the planet, convincing everyone that Caliban is the rightful possession of the human colonists, because this is Warhammer “Fuck All Cultures Except for Ours” 40K.
This is all going on while our boy Zahariel becomes a man. He gets to join the Lion on his crusade and manages to kill one of the beasts single-handedly, a feat which earns him an instant promotion to knighthood.
By this point, I was feeling encouraged – the novel had raised a few interesting, if heavy-handed points, and I thought maybe Mitchel Scanlon was going to take more of an introspective approach to the Heresy. There had been implications of tapping into the warp for the power of good, mentions of Zahariel meddling in forces he didn’t understand, and an argument speculating that removing an external source of conflict (the beasts) would cause humans to turn on each other. I thought maybe I was going to get to see some genuine internal conflict or some critique of humanity’s xenophobic politics within the fiction. Was I going to get a glimpse of what a self-aware 40K could look like?
Shame on me for getting my hopes up. Scanlon posits his debate topics then buries them again like a nervous fox. The Lion’s campaign is a success and the beasts are vanquished, but before anyone has time to study the aftermath, a spacefaring deus ex machina full of Astartes drops on Caliban and starts preparing the planet for assimilation into the Imperium.
Obviously all the young knights want a piece of that action, because the Astartes are the biggest, shiniest phalluses they’ve ever seen and this is Games “we think the crusades were awesome because we’re a bunch of white dudes” Workshop.
As it predictably turns out, Lion El’Jonson is a primarch and Zahariel and friends are recruited and turned into space marines of the Dark Angels legion. They go on to have adventures and not learn from their mistakes ever at all, because boys will be boys and the Emperor knows best. Little did I know that Mitchel Scanlon wasn’t finished cockblocking readers who were looking for a bit more provocation.
The Dark Angels get stationed on a planet called Sarosh, with orders to take over for the White Scars legion. The White Scars have, for the past year, been trying to penetrate the planet’s convoluted bureaucratic system to make the Saroshi people “compliant.”
Sarosh is portrayed as a peaceful if slightly slow-paced utopia, so naturally the Dark Angels are super annoyed to be there because they won’t be allowed to shoot guns and fuck shit up in the Emperor’s name. I got my hopes up again and thought that Scanlon had been saving his Big Subversive Message for later in the novel, when the stakes were higher.
But no. The Saroshi try to blow up the Dark Angels’ ship because, twist ending, this isn’t just a confusing but benign foreign bureaucracy – it’s a terrorist organization and a cult. Everyone knows that if you aren’t willing to conform to the Imperium’s will it means that you are literally Satan.
Oh, and it’s bad. The Dark Angels discover that the Saroshi people are not actually human but rather non-Euclidian nightmare creatures disguised as humans who worship some sort of shapeless Lovecraftian blob thing, sacrificing millions of their own kin to its insatiable hunger.
Okay. I will say: the book has a cool ending, and readers who are reading it because they love 40K in all its stupid, ridiculous glory will love it. It’s action-packed and bombastic and dripping with gory chainsword porn.
Descent is a unique story in terms of the Horus Heresy novels, and I appreciated where it came from. As with most Black Library books, I can’t know exactly how much blame to lay on the author himself, and how much to lay on the publishers behind Warhammer “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” 40K.
Now, obviously I don’t think that Black Library authors need to be inserting tidbits of philosophy into every other paragraph because these are supposed to be action/adventure books and people are reading them for the alien-slaying, not the abyss-gazing. That said, the moral lessons in this novel seem so obvious that the fact that they are not explored at all makes the story feel disjointed. It’s like Mitchel Scanlon had some kind of shock collar on while he was writing it, and got jolted every time he even hinted at a critique of the deeply fucked up machinations of the 40K universe.
I understand that these novels are simply fleshing out a world that already exists with a fully-realized time frame of certain events, so there are things that you can’t actually change as an author coming in post-creation. But the world is also so massive that it’s pretty easy to tell sweeping, complex, even progressive stories without affecting the overall canon in the slightest.
Can you imagine how interesting it would be to have one Astartes legion realize what a dick move it is to force an apparently peaceful and civilized planet to arbitrarily conform to your system of government and religion? I know the space marines are clones bred for one purpose (war), but I consistently see Black Library authors trying to paint them as complex individuals with their own thoughts, desires and opinions, so I don’t think it would be such a stretch to have one of them go off the rails a little bit, have some sort of identity crisis.
Show me a 40K novel featuring a non-Imperial religion that doesn’t involve ritual sacrifice or demonic possession, that isn’t actually a malignant force. Show me humanity seeing an alien culture and going “you know what? This is actually better.” Show me the challenge and upheaval that comes with trying to impose your law and religion while still feeling empathy.
Or so help me God-Emperor, I will write it myself.
This was my first time reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and I have to say I actually really enjoyed it. I think the multiple awards that Card won for this book have been justified, and I have no problem with its status as a classic. So allow me to discuss some of its flaws because that’s what I like doing!
The novel follows Ender Wiggin through his recruitment and training as a military fleet officer in a futuristic war against a race known as the Buggers (a slur describing a race of aliens who look like insects and therefore had me confusing Orson Scott Card with Robert A. Heinlein for about two days.) The buggers are threatening to exterminate the human race, apparently, though the actual existence of the threat is less important to the plot – the scope remains small and focused.
Ender is a third child, a rarity on the futuristic Earth from which he hails, and while he’s off at the Spartan, space-based Battle School, his psychopathic older brother Peter and calculating-but-kind sister Valentine are left at home to scheme world domination under parents who are seemingly oblivious and largely absent from the plot. That last sentence sounds like a joke but it’s played completely straight and it works, if you overlook the fact that the children in question are under 13 for the first half of the novel, and under 18 for the second half.
To be perfectly honest, this was the biggest issue I had with the book. I had to hang my disbelief altogether too high to find the dialogue at all suitable for the characters. Card makes these kids talk and think like adults or at the very least latter-half teenagers. My edition of the book came out in 1991, 20 years after the original release, and features an introduction that spends several pages indicating that my problem is not unique. Card retorts with a series of letters sent to him by gifted teenagers, who unsurprisingly write in a manner on par with the older children in the latter half of the book. Ender is 6 when the plot begins, however, and I find that he talks and thinks in a manner eerily similar to that of an adult sci-fi author.
Maybe I’m nitpicking – well, of course I am. Card’s annoyance with readers choosing to focus on this issue is clear, but my opinion is that he should either write children like children, or create adult or young adult characters. I guess I haven’t met any properly gifted children, or I don’t remember what it was like to be a child myself. The failing of anyone who reads a novel and can’t believe that those kids would have talked like that, perhaps.
It’s also possible that what bothers me about it so much is that you could dial up the ages on the characters and have a functionally identical version of the novel – the only real reason why these characters are children (that I could discern) is because this is supposed to be a young adult /children’s novel. Admittedly I normally stay away from young adult fiction for this very reason, so my distaste is pretty heavily biased, I will admit.
Naturally I have to talk about the role of women in the book. At the beginning I was concerned that I was getting into yet another story that would leave me wondering where all the women were being kept. As luck would have it, though, the female presence in the book is sparse but strong. There’s a brief and unnecessary remark by one of the characters at the beginning of the book – something about women not going to battle school because evolution is working against them – that sparked my worry. Yes, there is only one female character in the battle school, but within the novel that fact functions more as a comment on the misogyny of armed forces in this imagined universe than on the author’s own personal opinions.
The plot develops to feature two female characters who are integral and not singled out, and as the novel develops, that one comment seems all the more unnecessary until it sticks out in my mind as a sliver of awkwardness like Card was worried that he’d lose his main male demographic of readership if he didn’t note that women are weak at the starting gate. Which is incredibly lame, but if we get past that and just ignore it, women are represented quite strongly and satisfactorily though the rest of the novel.
Valentine proves to be an instrumental part of the whole machine. Where Ender is taught to be cold and violent, Valentine wrestles with her own fears of being too compliant and too good, versus giving in to the psychopathic calculations and manipulations of her brother Peter. She’s never a foil for anyone else’s personality and she never gets killed so anyone can have feelings. She has her own power and her own influence and her own struggles with the responsibility surrounding that.
Over the course of reading the novel no one’s gender is ever made to be more important than it is, or pointed out unnecessarily. It’s rather refreshing.
The novel is tactical, but not to the point that those who are bored by detailed discussions of military strategy would be driven to abandon it. The final twist is a little odd in that it struck me as extremely contrived and yet by that point I was so invested that it came as something of a triumphant relief. It actually caused me to set aside my analysis of the book to just be satisfied that something good was actually happening to the characters, which, once again is an occurrence that I should just sit back and enjoy.
Some might find the ending a bit much. I know I did, though as I previously stated I don’t tend to enjoy young adult novels so I was expecting it to be a bit rough. Just… so much catharsis – all the loose ends are tied up, characters that were no longer necessary are conveniently killed off while those who will go on to be included in sequels are placed at their appropriate starting positions.
Speaking of sequels, this book has a number of companions, a couple of which I have already purchased so you can look forward to those in 2016.
Ah, Friday. It took me a long time to write about this book – mainly because, weeks after reading it, I’m still not sure what I want to say about it. I think my biggest issue with this novel is that I don’t know why it was written. I don’t mean to say that it’s awful – though it certainly has its flaws – but I can’t discern the point of its existence, as a novel. I’m not talking specifically about plot, here. This isn’t a postmodernist novel. But it’s not the rollicking action-adventure story that it tries to sell itself as, either.
There’s no central mission, no really well-defined conflict, no one event that’s weighted with any more importance than the rest. A bunch of stuff happens, the characters are tossed to and fro without experiencing any sort of personal growth – then the story ends with everything tied up in a neat, abrupt bow that comes across as incredibly banal.
Robert Heinlein sets Friday at an indeterminate point in the future, presumably a couple hundred years from now. The Americas have been split up into a number of smaller, separate nations and advances in transportation have made it possible to get pretty much all the way around the world in a couple of hours. In some ways, it almost reads as a technological precursor to Ringworld. For the most part, I found the world building really interesting, logical and believable as a whole. Space travel exists and a number of other planets are colonized but the story takes place by and large on Earth.
Friday is an artificial human – not a gynoid or a cyborg but a flesh-and-blood human that was conceived with frozen eggs and sperm, then grown in a tube. And she’s far from alone in her origins. These genetically perfect humans (and more bizarre composite organisms, known as living artifacts – but we never get to meet any of them) are made to seem relatively commonplace in Friday’s world. Knowledge of their existence seems widespread and the fact that they are being produced is apparently largely accepted.
Despite this, the artificials are met with such uninhibited, violent prejudice that they can never reveal themselves for fear of being lynched. Despite their physical perfection and ability to complete any task with a rate of error far below that of an average human, no legitimate employer will hire them.
This whole concept alone seems like a bit of a farce – it’s deployed as an allegory for racism, sexism, insert-your-ism-here, but with humanity already utterly in control of the creation and rearing of these artificial humans, it seems bizarre to have built up such a hatred of them. Why not just discontinue production? Why design and create organisms for the purpose of living among humans, then refuse to let them live among humans? If there was some sort of traumatic incident in human history that was the fault of the artificials, Heinlein certainly doesn’t let on. So it’s just… a bit nonsensical.
Friday, aka Marjorie Baldwin, admonishes the reader that artificial humans are just as “human” as the rest of us, and that unless the artificial is circumstantially forced to reveal his or herself, the layman is completely unable to distinguish a tube-grown human from a “natural” one. All the while, though, she reminds us how much better she is than the average person – smarter, faster, stronger and better looking. She’s better at fighting, strategy, sex, arguing, and drinking. If not happier, she’s certainly fitter and more productive than you.
This gets a little grating after a while. Plus, she consistently makes mistakes, and admits to her flaws in the same breath that she reminds us how much worse it would’ve been for a normie. To have the main character of your novel constantly negging herself is a choice that gets old really fast.
Speaking of better looking, Friday is always talking about how she’s not really that pretty, even though everyone in the world continuously tells her she’s gorgeous – if she wasn’t so apathetic the rest of the time I’d start to wonder if Bella Swan had been cryogenically frozen for a couple centuries. I wouldn’t exactly call it low self-esteem. At some points she seems genuinely uninterested in her own appearance, emphasizing instead her abilities and intelligence, while elsewhere in the novel it seems like her only real abilities are looking pretty and fucking.
She wants to be seen as a regular human, but when she’s always talking up her artificial upbringing it’s a little hard to believe. Friday goes on about how she doesn’t understand human customs, doesn’t quite grasp human sexual tension, doesn’t have tact. Does she really not understand, or does she just think she’s better than us?
There’s no actual evidence of humans being any more socially awkward than Friday, either. Sexuality has evolved somewhat predictably. Heinlein’s future Earth is less bogged down in relationship stigma – casual sex isn’t portrayed as particularly taboo, and 101 flavors of monogamy and non-monogamy coexist apparently without conflict. It’s humans that Friday is constantly in bed with, and none of them seem to have a problem with it.
A sex-positive heroine is fine, and her sex drive is not in and of itself an issue. But within the context of the book, it doesn’t really matter. If this had just been written as an erotic novel and Friday’s sexual escapades were the plot, hey, that would be dandy. But Friday works as a courier for sensitive items and information. She answers to a mysterious man who for most of the novel we know only as “Boss.” She has numerous bank accounts and credit cards and fake identities and a license to kill that she frequently takes advantage of. So sue me for reading this expecting a goddamned action adventure novel. I don’t really care who Friday is sleeping with unless she’s seducing someone to get information.
Perhaps it’s the certain intangible, male-gaze-iness to the whole ordeal that makes it seem like the author wanted to write a really sexy femme fatale and didn’t quite understand what that meant. All the artificials are given “doxy training” (the killer sex skills aren’t ingrained) before being unleashed on the general public. Which, again… why? If humans hate the artificials so much, why bother training them to be good at sex? Why isn’t humanity prejudiced against people who are good in bed, at this point? The more I wonder about this, the more confused I become.
Sure, yes, there’s action and there’s adventure. But not enough detail about it for me to really get invested. I said it before and I’ll say it again – there is no conflict in this novel aside from small, insignificant disagreements that are opened and closed by circumstance. Religious extremists or [other] decide to mess around with the government at the halfway mark and it causes problems but not… to any lasting detriment? Later, it’s expressed that a pandemic is set to sweep the Earth in a few years but… oh, no one really seems to care, and the problem is neatly solved? It seems like our hero spends most of the novel eating breakfast in bed or travelling. And I’m left exasperated because I can’t figure out why I didn’t care.
The one thing that I could identify as a genuine (if minor) flaw, was I guess a fault of Heinlein’s world building: human society has changed. Government, monetary systems and transportation are all drastically different, but the way that humans interact remains the same. This certainly isn’t a problem that’s limited to Heinlein, but it seems especially annoying here because all the tech is in place to let human social interaction evolve.
Decent analogues for laptops, iPhones and the actual internet are readily available in Friday’s world, and yet we’re treated to a scene in which Friday, in her unparalleled wisdom, just suddenly realizes that you can really spend a lot of time using them for entertainment. This book came out in 1982 and 20 years later we’re already dependent on screens for a good part of our social interactions. We talk to people less in real life. We don’t leave our doors unlocked or let kids go out without supervision. Why, in Heinlein’s distant future, do we have to assume that humans interact in the same way that they did in the early 80’s? Maybe this is the 20/20 vision of hindsight talking but, really, this didn’t occur to anyone?
Oh, and the ending – it’s something like that Harry Potter epilogue that everyone hated, where all the friends get married to each other and have a matched set of kids that are ready to start off on their own adventures. For a story that didn’t really have a point, the neatness of its ending verges on eerie. Friday gets her wish, seeing as her main purpose in life is apparently to get married and have children – which is fine but who is this character? Is she a cutthroat assassin, or a homemaker? Is she both? Because that’s possible, but Friday seems less well-rounded and more indecisive and scattered. I could probably write an entire dissertation on Friday’s character but I’ll leave you with that. This novel is kind of fun, and a relatively quick read, but it might leave you wondering just why you thought so.
Dreams of an Unseen Planet by Teresa Plowright was a random thrift store pick. With a cover like that I wasn’t going to pass it up, and I was delighted to find a female author sandwiched between the usual Asimov and Heinlein novels that populate my local Value Village. I had high hopes for this one from the start, and in the end I’m not disappointed! Though I have to say I think, as a novel, it takes a little bit of time to pick up steam. If you’re reading it, I’d encourage you to stick it out until you’re at least a third of the way through.
Aside from the obvious selling feature of a female sci-fi author, this book features a female protagonist and what I would call a majority of female characters. The circumstance isn’t contrived, either. When your setting is a space colony specifically designed for the propagation of the human species, you can’t really get away with focusing entirely on men. Maybe the scenario is rife with opportunity for females to be given the static “birther” role, but I might have thrown the book out the window if that had been the case. As in David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, I really get the sense that women exist as actual people in this world. There isn’t a palpable distinction in capability between men and women. They hold the same jobs, seem to have the same weird social tendencies, and are equally as worried and emotional. Fertility issues as they pertain to women are discussed as just part of a working whole, not some mysterious, foreign enchantment.
A word on what I just said about fertility – with a tagline like “When sex is not the answer…” I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a novel that toed the line and tripped into straight-up erotica or if I’d get the Stephanie Meyer asterisks-mean-sex cop-out. Surprise! The answer is neither. Sex is a central theme, because of course it is when your setting is a domed base on a distant planet populated by 2,000 colonists whose main purpose for being there is to procreate and continue the human race. Earth has gone to hell and so, on the verge of nuclear war, the Americas, China and Russia each send a bunch of colonists to a far off-planet called Gaea to preserve and rebuild the human race. From the point of view of Miera Tull, a woman living in the English-speaking colony, we learn that all efforts at procreation have been unsuccessful – no one can get pregnant, and those that do eventually miscarry or die.
Naturally, as the sex-drenched but childless years wear on, female fertility takes on something of a talismanic, mystical identity. Everyone lives for it but no one knows how to obtain it. Eventually, the colony takes to putting on a multiple-day orgiastic festival of procreation called Estros. Which harkens to the importance of female sex hormones and is in its way reminiscent of fertility festivals associated with some pagan religions. But I never felt like the book was earnestly presenting this view as its own. The view of fertility as an evasive deity belongs to the characters, and the novel takes a documentary backseat.
It would be difficult and unnecessarily timid to take a setting where sex holds such omnipresence and remove the basic act. So Plowright doesn’t. But she also rarely veers into outright titillation. There’s not a sex scene that takes place outside of the plot or character arcs. The novel stays improbably classy for taking utter, desperate fucking as its subject matter.
So why did I take so long to come around to it? My theory is that Plowright introduces the characters so brilliantly that it’s a little too real. As I started the novel I found Miera petty, dramatic, and largely overly concerned with her own personal issues, considering the general direness of the situation on the colony. Despite being hand-picked for the project for her looks, personality and scientific education, she doesn’t fit in, she’s jealous that her ex-lover has found a new girl, she has insecurities about her job, suffers from insomnia and nightmares, et cetera. In retrospect, of course everyone on the colony would degrade into focusing on personal anxieties, and after a while it’s clear that this is all part of the psychological set-up of the novel.
The range of characters is diverse enough that some are swallowed up in a wave of anxiety, never to return, while others, including our hero, rise above it and become stronger, more developed than I even thought possible at the outset.
Language-wise, you might find the novel a bit flowery. I definitely did. When Plowright hits her stride she does so without sacrificing her language, though these very pretty, dreamlike descriptions seem to have more utility as events progress. The descriptions of sex are at times almost too vague, with so much metaphor that you’re not sure what you’re actually reading. There were a couple passages that I ended up reading twice just to clarify what was actually going on. But it’s worth it for that occasional passage that sparkles with beauty even while it’s describing a hallway or an office.
The sense of scope expands as the story goes on, giving the reader time to get acquainted with each character individually, instead of having to meet several of them at once. Only after a few distinct personalities have been developed do we start learning about the history and inner workings of the colony itself. By the end of the novel we know more about the people in the book that we do about their world, though in a character-focused story, this is an acceptable balance.
In final summation, this book is way more than the fluffy, softcore romp that the cover and synopsis would suggest. It’s definitely a treat for those of you who are sick of reading female sci-fi characters as damsels or oversexed femme-fatales.
Buy Dreams of an Unseen Planet on Amazon.ca!
I actually read this title a little while ago but I’m refreshing my memory for the blog because I feel it bears being written about. For starters, I really liked the story. The overarching plot is reasonably compelling. Unfortunately it’s marred by Larry Niven’s blistering disregard for women. This was published in 1970, and reading novels from a particular era, I think you have to steel yourself against some degree of oblivious, but belligerent, misogyny. That said, I’ve absolutely read other authors who allow the influence of their own era to exist within the book without it being completely awful for readers, who, 30+ years later are starting to get the hang of this whole “women are actually people” thing and get queasy thinking about how recent a development that is. As I’m writing this I’m halfway through Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and the female characters in that serve mainly as either set dressing or plot devices, but Bradbury doesn’t seem to have an active hate/fear relationship with his women characters. Niven, on the other hand, sees women as pretty vessels. The female characters in Ringworld (all two of them!) could be convincingly replaced by aesthetically pleasing Tupperware.
It’s a shame because I liked the story so much. I just learned that there’s a colloquial term for this type of story: “Big Dumb Object” or “BDO” for short. In BDO stories the entire premise is based on the existence of this one big object, whether it’s a threat to humanity, a giant physical anomaly that later proves to be the ticket to humanity’s continued existence, or just a weird unexplored chunk of space rock. Gamers, think the Traveler from Destiny. In the case of Ringworld the titular object is all three of these thing, which is why a team of explorers are sent to…well, explore it.
Huge unexplored space objects are my fetish, so I was quite enthralled with Niven’s descriptions of the Ringworld itself. The author’s descriptions of alien worlds and made-up future technology are sometimes a bit hard to follow, but having a picture in your head is more important than whether or not the picture is accurate. The story’s fairly large in scope, with the huge distances taking years and years to travel, even with fantasy advances in propulsion technology.
The main character, Louis Wu, is honestly just some old rich guy who doesn’t seem to have much else going on. Accompanying him on the expedition is Teela, who we first meet when Louis ends up sleeping with her at his birthday party. Despite an age gap of something like 40 years she falls haplessly in love with him because it’s the future and they have anti-aging technology and people live way longer and because Niven is extremely transparent in the way he projects his own fantasies into his writing. And pretty much the only reason Teela joins the expedition is because she can’t bear to leave Louis and also because Louis can’t bear to go on this multiple-year space journey without someone in which to holster his dick. The other two characters are of different alien species – one of which has sentient males and non-sentient females. I don’t think I really need to say anything more.
The one other female appears toward the end of the novel. She’s a crew member from a marooned space ship. Hang on, did I say crew member? I meant ship’s prostitute. Okay. I am totally supportive of sex work as a legitimate way to earn a decent living, and, okay, this alien is portrayed as mind-blowingly good at her job, but it would be so nice to meet a female character who is in the novel for reasons other than “has a vagina.” I can’t say for sure, but I’m going to guess that a progressive portrayal of sex workers was not at the forefront of the author’s mind when he wrote the character.
My verdict? Buy the book. Buy it USED. Read it, enjoy it, throw it against a wall. Pass it along to your friends.
A few days ago I thought I was going to start this review by saying that David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, the first novel in the Honor Harrington series, attempted to be feminist but almost missed the mark. After having finished it, I can say it really hits its stride in the latter half. Considering that the last few novels I’ve read have been Horus Heresy volumes, it was wonderfully refreshing just to read something that focused on a female lead character. And even more refreshing to note that Honor Harrington is not treated as an anomaly in her universe, but rather that Weber’s Navy seems to have a fairly even distribution of men and women among all ranks and positions. Women in this novel are portrayed as capable, intelligent tacticians, scheming politicians, corrupt billionaires – and each is just as sincerely written and believable as any male character in a similar position.
While the story itself is tight and relatively small in scope – small given that the main conflict involves a space station, wormhole travel and interplanetary espionage – the writing itself drags very occasionally. This is usually when Weber gets caught up in explaining the technological aspects of ships and weapons or the history and process of various political systems. It’s clear that the author genuinely enjoys his world-building, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate this – I can think of a lot more stories where a bit more world-building could have improved things. Weber’s bouts of exposition sometimes go on for four or five pages, eventually reading like someone rambling nervously at a bar, knowing their target is going to walk away as soon as they stop talking.
Those of you expecting a tale of swashbuckling high-space-seas adventure won’t be disappointed – though you should be warned that things take a turn for the #dark towards the end of the novel when the stakes get higher and the body count rises. I’ve never been particularly put off by blood and guts but the way the gore is treated here (serious, with odd dignity given the number of over-the-top violent deaths and their slightly-too-loving descriptions) might be a little incongruous for summer reading. Honestly though, my biggest complaint about this book pertains only to the specific edition that I bought, which features a conventionally beautiful, long-haired Honor Harrington on its cover despite numerous descriptions to the exact contrary within. I digress: the book was engaging almost all the way through, with likable characters and meaningful losses, and I will definitely buy the next installment of the series.