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!

Dolphins and Creaky Old Houses

Okay, not in the same book.  But still, both topics are kind of irresistible, no?

greenglass house cover

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, is a children’s book for 8-12-year-olds that was recommended by another blogster, although the way she described it gave away a crucial part of the plot, which was annoying because it ruined the surprise for me.  Like describing The Crying Game as a transgender story–oh, thanks, you just gave away the whole thing.  Anyhoo, I won’t do that.

Twelve-year-old Milo lives in a creaky old four-story inn with his parents.  He’s just been released from school for Christmas break, and he’s looking forward to being with his parents and celebrating the holidays, as Christmas is a notoriously slow time for the inn, and there’s a terrific snowstorm that should keep anyone with any sense at home.

But visitors start arriving, annoying and disappointing Milo, as now his parents’ attention is taken up by being innkeepers.  They call in the cook, who usually takes off Christmas break, and her daughter Meddy is the only person around who’s Milo’s age, so they start hanging out.  The guests all seem to have some odd connection or interest in the history of the house, which intrigues Milo.  The two start an investigation of their own, and the results are unpredictable and exciting.

One of the most effective facets of the story for me was Milo’s changing understanding of himself, and how he fits into his family, as he is an adopted child.  He feels conflicted in a way I’m sure most adopted children go through, wondering if it’s ok to wonder about his birth parents or if even thinking about them is disloyal to his adoptive parents.

I also loved the creaky-old-house stuff, learning the history of who lived there before, and the significance of different design elements of this unique relic. Jaime Zollars’ illustrations are intricate (look at the that cover!) and fun.

Part coming-of-age story, part adventure, Greenglass House was a fun adventure with heart.  Not as creepy as Doll Bones, so good for the kid who doesn’t like their adventures too icky or scary.

neptune project cover

The Neptune Project, by Polly Holyoke, is a middle grade novel, so it’s aimed at a slightly older audience.  It’s a dystopian tale, which is one of my favorite genres, for child or adult.  In this version of the near future, much of the United States is now uninhabitable, thanks to global warming.  There is famine and war as well, so it’s not a super fun place to live anymore.

Nere and her mother live near present-day  Goleta, California, in a coastal fishing town, where they do important oceanic research, part of which involves a pod of dolphins.  Nere can communicate telepathically with the dolphins, which, okay, c’mon! How cool is that?  Yeah, I wanted The Day of the Dolphin (1973 film in which George C. Scott trains a pair of dolphins to talk) to be real, just like everyone else who saw that movie.  My mom tells the story of seeing it with my Dad and asking him afterwards if he thought it could be real, if the dolphins could really talk.  “Oh, yeah,” he said.  Well, she wanted it to be true! I like to think of it as optimistic gullibility (because I inherited it from her). Anyhoo, tangent.

Nere’s world turns upside down when she finds out that her mother has genetically modified her and some other children in town so that they can live underwater.  Nere is both excited and infuriated, since she had no say in this decision to change her life so dramatically.

Nere’s parents and a few others have realized that there is no future on land for humans, that the real future lies in the ocean, and more specifically, under the ocean.  So they genetically modified their children to be able to–or rather, to have to–breathe water.  Nere is part of an experiment called The Neptune Project.

Nere must quickly adjust to life under the sea to survive.  She and the others have to be alert at all times for the dangers of both marine predators and the government police looking to arrest them.  She is with a small group, and they must travel hundreds of miles at sea to meet up with the larger group that consists of the Neptune Project.  For years she thought her father was dead (her mother kept the truth from her for her own safety), but now she knows he is the director of the Neptune Project, and she can hardly believe she will see him again when (if?) she makes it to the rendezvous.

The long journey is a brilliant adventure, with close escapes and life-and-death decisions that must be made on the spur of the moment.  Nere doesn’t know most of the other children in her group, and yet she must decide who to trust almost immediately.  Sometimes things turn out well, but not always.  When one of the group is injured, they can’t simply go to a hospital, and blood in the water puts them all in danger of being attacked by sharks.

Used to being a bit of a loner, Nere is forced to find her place in a group, to find where she fits in this new life.  She’s suddenly had to become completely self-reliant, with no adults around to fall back on.

This is a great adventure about fascinating possibilities, wonderful sci-fi for kids. And the sequel comes out next month!!

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?

The Problem With Classic Sci-Fi

Okay, maybe it’s not a problem for everyone, but it is for ME! It’s so sexist! I can’t stand it! All the women are either accessories or idiots or sex toys.  Or D)all of the above.  I know, I know, it’s “of its time.”  After repeating that to myself for the seventy-ninth time all I can hear is blah blah blah.

So, what has gotten me into such a fury at this moment, you may ask? Reading Larry Niven’s classic Ringworld for my sci-fi book group.

ringworld cover

I really wanted to like this book! I’ve wanted to read it for a long time and thought it would be great to read it in a group.  I should probably wait until the group discussion to pass judgement on it.  But I’m just not feeling generous at the moment.  First of all, Louis Wu, the main character, is indulging himself on his two-hundred-somethingth birthday with a big party, where he meets a twenty-something young woman, Teela, who reminds him of a past love.  He finds out after talking to her and telling her she reminds him of this past heartbreaker (note: 1. the ex wanted a career instead of a husband–the cheek! 2. the whole set-up reminds me of Marnie, the creepy Hitchcock movie with the famously abused Tippi Hedren) that said ex is this woman’s great grandmother. Or was it her great-great grandmother?  Either way, Louis and Teela hook up.  Ew.  Just ew.  Do I need to elaborate?  Why on Earth (or any other planet) would she be interested in a geezer like Louis?  Oy.  Male fantasy, male fantasy.

Louis is part of an expedition, and the alien in charge of choosing the crew chooses Teela, not because she has some skill they need, but because of something to do with her family tree, she is considered lucky.  Woman=good luck charm, rabbit’s foot, token.  Nice.  Then when Louis objects to her being on the crew, she tries to convince him she should go by telling him “you could wind up sleeping alone. You’d hate that, I know you would.”  Why can’t she just say she wants to go and doesn’t need his protection or opinion so he can stuff it?  Because, of course, she is using her wiles to get what she wants.  She’s working the system.  And Louis even admits to himself that “he would hate sleeping alone.”

Later, Teela tells Louis she actually loves him and that’s why she’s going.  Really?  She’s known him for like, five minutes.  I’m not buying the love thing.  Then Louis is thinking how he’s glad she has stayed with him: “It had been like the story of Louis Wu and Paula Cherenkov [the great-great grandmother ex], rewritten for a happy ending.” Again, ew.  He’s not even seeing Teela for who she is, but instead doing the Marnie thing, pasting another face on her and pretending she’s someone else he wanted to possess but couldn’t.   He also calls her “a twenty-year-old girl,” [italics mine] so he’s not even thinking of her as an adult.  I know what you’re saying, you’re saying it’s “of its time,” calling women girls in the 1970’s when this book was published.  Still, it gets very tiresome.  And confusing! I mean, he’s ok with that, shagging her and thinking of her as a girl, not an adult woman? What does that even mean?

Okay, so that’s enough to give you an idea of my experience reading this book.  I want to finish it for the book group, and I still have a few days, but I don’t know if I can take the emotional exhaustion I have every time I read it.  I’m only about a third of the way through it. Plus, I am finding the story boring. Every time I start reading it I fall asleep. I guess I’m just not that into hard sci-fi.  I love stuff like Robopocalypse and Ready Player One, pretty much anything by Phillip K. Dick (you know, Blade Runner), but the more I read hard sci-fi , the more I find it teeeeeeeeeeeeeedious.  Anyone with me?