Houston, Can I Talk To The MAN In Charge?

So, I’ve heard of the famous sci-fi writer James Tiptree, Jr. before, but I’d never read any of her stuff. I say her because, if you don’t know, she was actually a woman using a male pseudonym to write under so that she didn’t have to take any crap from male critics.  So someone left this book in my Little Free Library the other day and I thought, hey, this is short, I’ll try it out. OMG, it blew my mind. I can not believe she got away with this! Well, she did because she wasn’t writing as a she.


The story is told by science officer Orren Lorimer, flashing back and forth in time. In real time, he’s in some kind of spacecraft, but something seems odd because he seems high, and there are young people floating around him who seem to be in pajamas.  I won’t be spoiling much to say that the reader finds out soon enough that his spacecraft had some kind of disaster and was basically rescued by this current spacecraft.  The tag line on the cover–“The astronauts had the ‘right stuff’ to deal with. . . almost anything” is a great teaser, because that could be anything, right? Aliens? Black Holes? Time travel? (Incidentally, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff was published in 1979 and this was published in 1976, so this must have been a reprint with a new cover to play off that title.)

Ok, I do have to do SPOILERS to talk about the rest of this. So there’s your warning. So, what is it these fine specimens of mankind have to deal with that they just can’t handle? Why, women, of course! The astronauts in the other spacecraft are females! And Dave, the commander of the manly ship, actually refuses to talk to them until it’s almost too late for them to be rescued once he finds out the voices he keeps hearing on his comm are not just any females, but female astronauts whose ship has basically replaced Houston and NASA. He just can’t fathom it.  He finally comes around but he’s still suspicious. Lorimer, on the other hand, is basically just curious. He craves the approval of his two shipmates, but he doesn’t seem as devastated as Dave or as crass as Bud, who keeps calling them “chicks.”  

The shocking part of the story is that Tiptree doesn’t hold back, but goes ahead and writes an attempted rape scene, basically playing out the worst fears of the reader, given the characters and the set-up. I can hardly express how refreshing this was, as weird as that sounds. I’ve just read so many classic science fiction novels in the last couple of years that have women characters who serve only as empty-headed sex toys, or they have no women characters at all.  Finally, I felt like this story showed all that misogyny in its true ugly glory. 

I don’t know which character is more arrogant: Bud with his sexual violence, or Dave with his God-ego. Oh, did I mention Dave’s response to an all-female crew is to try and take over their ship? See, he knows that women are incapable and so they obviously need his guidance. But does he offer his advice? No. Again with the violent approach. He threatens them with a gun and tries to lock them out of the ship’s controls. It also bothers him that they have no religion, and considers it blasphemy when they explain that they have faith in themselves. When Lorimer comments to Dave that “they seem to be doing all right,” Dave lumps Lorimer in with the women, telling him he’s not a real man. 

There’s just so much to think about here.  I haven’t revealed all the surprises in the story, either. I highly recommend reading this, especially if you grew up in the seventies or earlier and will recognize these attitudes.  If you’re younger, I’m afraid you won’t believe men could really be like that. Which is a good thing, I guess, it shows how much progress we’ve made. I don’t know, I’d be curious to hear what a younger reader could get out of this. 

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Brandon Mull – Series Addiction

So this time I made sure there more in the series before I started on book one of Fablehaven by Brandon Mull.  There are five in the series, all published, and I just finished book three, Grip of the Shadow Plague. Needless to say, I love them! These might be good reading for someone who loved Harry Potter, because although there is no school for wizards, the two protagonists, brother Seth and older sister Kendra, are immersed in magic up to their necks when they visit their grandparents at what turns out to not be a ranch but a magical preserve, sort of like a wlidlife preserve but for magical creatures.  Their grandparents are the caretakers, and hope to pass on the job to Seth and Kendra.  And so begins their training. 

   
Ok, I just went down the rabbit hole looking for images of the covers, and there is a lot of wonderful fan art, including sculptures, of the different characters in the books, like the lovable golem, Hugo, who is made of earth and twigs and rocks, is about ten feet tall, and can easily carry Seth and Kendra comfortably in his huge palms while running away from baddies to the sanctuary of their grandparents’ house.

So, yes, there are naughty magical creatures as well as friendly ones. But they have just as much right to be there as the benign creatures, and there is a pact at Fablehaven that does not allow any creature to kill another, so that keeps mayhem in check. Sometimes.  Of course there are loopholes, and there is a rival organization to the caretakers of such places as Fablehaven, The Society of the Evening Star, who want to do away with all magical preserves and release the power of some really nasty demons upon the world.  

Seth and Kendra find themselves battling for the survival of Fablehaven, learning skills from different magical tutors, and gaining special powers as a result of some of these battles.  Their parents have no clue what’s really going on, as they are not receptive to the idea of the existence of magic.  Too bad! So the kids find themselves forming new bonds with not only their grandparents, but with their tutors, and even with some of the magical creatures.  Some of the tutors will turn out to be traitors, but some will be loyal to the death.

This is an engaging, exciting series full of magic, but also down-to-earth enough to include sibling rivalry between Seth and Kendra, and each kid deals with their own age-appropriate challenges that every kid reading this can relate to.  Seth is always looking for adventure, so he has a habit of breaking the rules, which gets them all into serious trouble at times.  Kendra is book-smart but doesn’t feel brave enough to deal with some of the unexpected challenges thrown at her.  She sometimes wonders if it would be better never to have known about Fablehaven and her grandparents’ secret.

  
Oh, did I mention Mull has written several other series’ as well?  When I couldn’t wait for my hold on the next book in the Fablehaven series to come in to the library, I grabbed this one: The Candy Shop War. I mean, how can you resist that title? I couldn’t. If you’re not into fairies, satyrs, and naiads, check out this action, that happens right in town. When a new candy shop opens, pals Nate, Summer, Trevor and Pigeon stop in on their walk home from school.  The proprietor, Mrs. White, offers them some free candy if they’ll help out around the store. They willingly agree. At first, she just wants to them give white fudge to all their families and friends, but warns them not to eat it themselves.  This seems a little odd, but they do as they are asked, and pretty soon they notice everyone eating the fudge is oblivious to what’s going on around them. Then Mrs. White starts asking them to steal things, artifacts that will assist her in some kind of treasure hunt.

With each new task, the group gets new magical candy to try out, which is fun, but they start to question whether or not they are doing the wrong thing, and whether they should trust this woman. Then along comes another magician, someone they all thought they knew, and the kids have to decide who to trust. It’s not an easy decision, and probably one a lot of children can relate to (minus the magic), trying to figure out which adults in their lives are trustworthy and which are just using them for their own gain.

There are two books in this series, and it’s very different from Fablehaven, although just as entertaining!

Memorial Day 2015

I have very mixed feelings about this so-called holiday.  On the one hand, great, my husband gets a day off from work.  On the other hand, why? To remember people who served our country, maybe not just the ones who didn’t come back, but how about the ones who have come back and been permanently damaged, physically, psychologically, or both? My father served in Korea as a Marine and he  never, ever talked about it when I was growing up, only at the very end of his life.  I was a snot as a teenager, like all teenagers I suppose, thought I knew it all and that the military was just plain stupid.  How simple that was.

Anyway, I have renewed respect for people who have fought in wars, for whatever reason. I don’t judge them. So, enough already with the politics, right? Why am I going on about this on my book blog, you are wondering? Well, it so happens that I listened to a very good podcast yesterday about military fantasy/sci-fi, on one of my favorite shows, The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. Episode #143. There is a great panel that discusses writers of this subgenre, and how some writers get the whole “grunt” experience right and others don’t.  I found myself interested in this discussion,  about the stories that are not about the leaders of the war.

    

Two series mentioned that I’m currently looking into are Weston Ochse’s Seal Team 666, about a very special ops team who fight supernatural beings, and Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, about a band of mercenaries. I was especially interested to hear that Cook, who used to be in the Navy, wrote an essay about PTSD that doctors use now to better understand how to help returning soldiers.  In other words, he’s got cred.

Anyhow, if any of you have read these series I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m pretty new to this subgenre.

Beggars in Spain: What If You Never Had To Sleep Again?

In this Hugo and Nebula Award Winner, Nancy Kress creates a near future where scientists have discovered that sleep is a left-over mechanism that’s no longer necessary, like the appendix. Gene modifications can make you a “sleepless,” which also has the side effects of making you smarter, and stopping biological aging at adulthood. Sounds good, right? Then you could be super productive with all that extra time. Way more than your “sleeper” colleagues. (Think of how many more books you could read!)

beggars in spain cover

The modification has to start in vitro, so your parents decide your fate. In this tale, Kress spins out all the ramifications of this choice, from complications in interpersonal relationships to political, economic and cultural change. It’s truly a tour de force, and it didn’t have to be a trilogy! I get a little sick of authors (probably pushed by greedy publishers) dragging out one book into three nowadays. This was actually a novella to start with, but it doesn’t feel padded at all to me. I always wanted to find out what was happening next, and a lot happens in less than a hundred years, the span of one lifetime—for a Sleeper.

The story follows Leisha and Alice Camden, unlikely twins in that Leisha was the designed baby, a Sleepless, and Alice was the accident that tagged along, just an ordinary Sleeper. Well, Dad is the one who is obsessed with changing the world through his child with this new technology, but Mom just wanted a regular ol’ baby, so they each ally with a different child. This affects the way Leisha and Alice relate to each other, of course, and even though she’s given every advantage, Leisha feels like an outsider. When Leisha finally meets another Sleepless in her pre-teens, she realizes just how isolated she’s felt. She needs community.

Kress examines ideas about individual responsibility and community, which I was afraid would just boil down to the Star Trekkian “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” or vice versa, depending on who is in peril. But Kress complicates the equation by adding economic change that results from the prejudice that develops between the two groups, Sleepers and Sleepless. Even though the Sleepless stay a minority (the poor can’t afford the procedure, and the rich aren’t interested, just the middle class with a work ethic who want to achieve more), they gradually start doing all the valuable work of society. They are much more effective than Sleepers at finding new scientific and technological breakthroughs, so why should Sleepers bother? Sleepers benefit, becoming a huge and unlikely leisure class, part of a superrich welfare state, which kind of blew my mind. Sleepers think they control the economy but the Sleepless minority eventually pushes back.

I’ve never thought much about how economics shapes culture, but this story made it fascinating. And it’s just fun to read, to imagine all these possible gene modifications. A couple generations after Leisha, a cloistered Sleepless community creates Superbrights, who also do not sleep, but are orders of magnitude more intelligent than the first generations of Sleepless. Kress’ way of explaining how they think, in strings, is just gorgeous. I also appreciated lucid dreaming being presented as an art form that help the Superbright solve difficult scientific problems.

This novel is just packed with goodies.  Highly recommended.

Rollback Entertains, Engages

I picked up Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer about a year ago at a library sale–well, at my library sale, where I reign as Book Sale Queen, which means I paid a measly amount for it as part of my $5 per bag haul.  We always do the bag sale the last hour, but because I volunteer, I just stash my book pile all through the sale instead of waiting until the last hour.  Perks!

rollback cover

Anyway, it took me forever to get around to reading this, because it wasn’t a library book and therefore not demanding my attention right away.  But I read it a couple of months ago and it was wonderful.  Very entertaining, and there was nothing I had to gloss over to enjoy it, i.e., sexist portrayals of women.  I was fascinated by the idea: rolling back your physical age several decades.  In the world of the book, only the super-rich can afford the procedure, but an interested gazillionaire offers it to an important scientist.

This scientist, Dr. Sarah Halifax, is famous for being the person who decoded our first ever radio transmission from aliens.  When a second message is received, she is already eighty-seven, and interested parties want her around to keep deciphering, and figuring out what to send back to the aliens to continue the exchange.

Dr. Halifax is happily married, and only accepts the offer of a rollback on the condition that her husband Don can have it as well.  Tragically, after both of them receive the procedure, it doesn’t work for her, only for her husband. Ironically, it may have something to do with the treatment that saved her life decades earlier when she had breast cancer.

I’m not spoiling anything, really, as this happens pretty early on in the story, and is not so much a result as a setup for the rest of the story.  What happens to that relationship, when her husband is physically twenty-five again?  Will they still be able to relate to each other? Who is his peer group now?  When he has conversations with people his physical age, all his cultural touchstones are lost on them, his references to musicians and actors long dead and gone met with confusion rather than knowing amusement. Meanwhile, he’s running to catch up with the current culture that now belongs to him in a way it didn’t when he was near the end of his life.  His grown children stop calling him Dad after the rollback, he notices, probably because it feels pretty awkward to be in your forties when your father looks twenty-five.  A former colleague calls Don, wanting an in with his rollback benefactor so he can get the treatment himself.  When Don says he isn’t in a position to ask for anything, his friend lashes out: “‘Damn it, what did you do to deserve this? You’re not that special.  You’re not that bright, that talented. You just f***ing won the lottery, is all, and now you won’t even help me buy a ticket.'”

I enjoyed Sawyer’s incorporation of cultural touchstones I am familiar with, like mentioning SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.: “As Sarah always said, SETI is the Blanche Dubois of scientific undertakings: it has always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  Hey, and my husband and I are two of those strangers who donated computer time to the search! (I felt a tiny brush with fame)

I guess I’m finding that the sci-fi I really like has a world that is almost like the real world, with just a few tweaks to make it really interesting.  (I’m a lifelong Star Trek fan, so that should tell you something–I’m not going to say what; you draw your own conclusions.)  You don’t have to change much to create some really interesting questions.

Sawyer made me want to know these people, Don and Sarah Halifax, as they have such a rich relationship.  Here is an excerpt of one of their conversations, in which Sarah is struggling to figure out what the aliens’ belief systems are after she translates the first message:

     “But still, why is abortion a moral issue? I mean, it is for people here because we believe at some point that a soul enters the body; we just can’t all agree on what that point is. But the alien message made no mention of souls.

     “‘Souls’ is just a shorthand for discussing the question of when life begins, and that will be a universal debate–at least among those races who practice SETI.”

     “Why?”

     “Because SETI is an activity that says life, as opposed to non-life, is important, that finding life is meaningful. If you didn’t care about the distinction between life and non-life, all you’d do would be astronomy, not SETI. And where to draw that distinction will always be of interest to people who value life. I mean, most people would agree it’s wrong to kill a dog for no reason, because a dog is clearly alive–but is an embryo alive? That’s debatable; every race will have to define when life begins.”

I love Sawyer’s descriptions of the relationships, and the conversations are genuinely interesting and don’t feel like set pieces.  His science holds up as well, as he explains complex ideas in terms I, the reader, can understand.  I loved his take on quantum physics “‘not as the basic nature of reality, but rather as the–how would you put it?–as a by-product of the level of resolution of our simulated world.'”  Sorry if I lost you there, I do have a physics background. But really, I don’t think you need one to get this, at least, in context you don’t, as Sarah explains it to her non-scientific BBC journalist husband.

Overall, I gave this book 5/5 stars.  It’s engaging on so many levels.  Has anyone out there got any Robert J. Sawyer favorites?  What of his should I read next?