Book Review: Updraft by Fran Wilde

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Updraft (Bone Universe, #1)Updraft by Fran Wilde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I started reading this book because it was nominated for the Andre Norton Award this year and it met a few other criteria for reading challenges I was doing; it was a post-apocalyptic novel and it was written by a female author I’m not familiar with. This was Fran Wilde’s first novel. The Andre Norton Award is given for young adult or teen science fiction and fantasy; it is presented with the Nebula Award and otherwise follows the same criteria for nomination and voting.

Fran Wilde is wonderful at world-building. Her universe is truly unique. In some world which might be our own in the far future or something entirely different, people live in high towers made of the bones of living creatures that form cities. The cities can be encouraged to grow their towers (structures that are entirely of bone) higher and higher, but they also demand human sacrifices. This is all presented as matter-of-fact. We know that this wasn’t always the way things were because the characters refer to a time they call The Rise, in which people rose up in the towers above the clouds; which they had to do because invisible monsters called skymouths, that have single central eyes and tentacles, live in the clouds and they’ll eat you. We also have hints of the previous world, where there was once metal and now there’s not. However, they still have glass, so I assume it’s not the process of forging metal that’s been lost, but rather, they don’t have the materials. One might think that they have trouble getting things from the ground when they live so high above the clouds; but obviously they get sand from somewhere, so . . .

Almost everything the people use is made from the parts of the skymouths; sinew, bone, etc.; or perhaps the bodies of birds (which are, of course, not in short supply,) or spider silk, or what plants they can grow in pots. Wilde is wonderfully consistent about this and does not allow anything to be made out of anything else, though I think she overdoes it a bit because she has to constantly point out that the knives are made of bone. I think this is redundant, because of course the knives will be bone by default and in the course of the first person point of view, I doubt that our protagonist, who was raised in this society, would take any special note of a knife made of bone.

Wilde’s acknowledgements thank scientists who taught her about bone and about wind currents, but I wish she’d also consulted meteorologists and planetologists, because my sci-fi mind, which took a course on meteorology in high school, knows that humans can’t breathe well if they are high enough in the atmosphere to be above the clouds, which is why we have oxygen masks for depressurized airplane cabins; not to mention that I’m not sure by what laws of physics bone towers could reach such a height without shattering, but I did point out this was a young adult novel so I’ll let it go.

The people who run everything are called Singers, who can control the skymouths with their voices. People have become extremely insular and superstitious, and hold the Singers in almost as much fear and reverence as a powerful priesthood. This is by the design of the Singers, who control people with laws that are enforced by abandonment in this harsh world or by sacrifice to the city. This is possible because there is no paper and writing must be carved on to bone chips, and so most of history and the knowledge of law is maintained through long songs of remembrance, which of course are subject to the same sort of changes and manipulation that any oral history is subject to. Our protagonist, Kirit, has the Singer’s ability, but her mother has rightfully made her afraid of the Singers and so she doesn’t want to join them. She of course is manipulated into doing so anyway.

At this point, the book becomes a fairly typical teen fantasy novel. The protagonist is uniquely talented so she is bullied and people are jealous of her (I personally don’t know why she didn’t punch a certain character named Sellis in the face, or perhaps even pitch her off of a high ledge. People must fall to their deaths all the time and the city doesn’t seem too particular about its sacrifices.) The situation that the character is in is the fault of her parents, whose sins she must fix and who are completely incompetent at protecting her from harm. There is a rigid, stratified society based on thousands of years of history that the protagonist obeys, then sees the flaws of and smashes to bits, despite the fact that doing so puts the entire society in danger (in a way I see the point of liberation from tyranny, but I’m sure there had to have been better ways). She is pitched against her best friend in how best to resolve the issue. I am delighted that the victory is at least somewhat Pyrrhic.

I don’t want to be too hard on Wilde; this is her first novel, and this was written for teenagers. Plot holes and tropes are required tools of the trade. But as a grown-up, I found this a challenging read because of my impatience. It did improve about halfway through but much of it was, to me, a bit tedious.

I am also not entirely certain that our heroine sends the right message. Ultimately she stood up against the tyrannical order at risk of her own life (something I certainly have no intention of condemning,) but she was such a *good* girl. She put up with far more abuse than I would want my daughters putting up with because Violence Is Not the Answer. I think as a species we’re generally agreed that for tyrannical orders without regard for human life, violence is *often* the answer.

So, three stars, because it was good, and it probably deserves the award; but it’s probably better for young readers than for middle aged women like me.

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Book Review: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

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Wildspace: The Spelljammer Fanzine

Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1)Gateway by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes, I really did devour this book in a single day. Part of the reason is that I was down with a cold, so really couldn’t do anything else and thus had the time to do so, to be fair; but mostly it was because I thought this was an amazing book and once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.

The basic plot, in case you missed it from other reviews: near Venus and Mercury, in a perpendicular orbit to the elliptic, is an asteroid covered with ships created by an ancient alien race that they call the Henchee (though they don’t tell you where the name comes from). It was discovered when alien ruins, created before we climbed down from the trees, were found on Venus, and one of the ships was found there. The person…

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Book Review: The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

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The Fifth Head of CerberusThe Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s been quite a lot of reviews of this book on Goodreads, so I think I’ll make mine brief.

This was a brilliantly written book in which three novellas — one a gothic horror novella about cloning, another a dreamscape fantasy novel of an alien world, the third being an almost Kafkaesque story of totalitarian imprisonment and suffering — interconnect. This is pure literary science fiction, in which the plot is not the point, but the theme, and that theme is Colonialism, racism, and institutionalized Colonialism and racism, and the role of identity and memory.

The protagonist of the overarching story is an anthropologist named John V. Marsch, though he never once is the viewpoint character, except by proxy in the final story through scattered and deliberately disordered journal entries. He might be descended from the aboriginal race (or races) of the twin worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. It is generally accepted that there was at least one, and possibly more than one, aboriginal race of shapechangers who took on human forms when the human colonists came; and it is generally accepted that the humans wiped them out. However, Veil’s Hypothesis, which was invented by one of the incidental characters you encounter, suggests that the indigenous race forgot they were ever of another race, so they have intermingled among humans and the only real difference is that they have bright green eyes and they can’t use tools well. This is further complicated by a belief of the aboriginal peoples in a race called the Shadow People, who once used tools but don’t anymore, and who can manipulate thoughts and dreams. And they may once have been humans in an ancient first wave of colonization that has been long forgotten.

You will find none of this explained in the story, by the way. These details are gleaned from reading between the lines in the process of the existing stories to form all the pieces of the puzzle.

What it has to say about identity, memory and Colonialism is brilliant and thought-provoking. How memory is unreliable. How Colonial arrogance leads to a sociopathic lack of empathy and the cheapening of human life. How institutionalized racism creates unwarranted and irrational distrust in people. How it leads to the persecution of a class of people which is cloaked in “righteousness.” How identity depends a great deal on not only genetics and experience, but on one’s personal narrative. How truth depends greatly upon one’s point of view.

The writing is also brilliant. The language is amazing, and the clever, interweaving plot elements are mind-boggling. I will probably have to read it again just to pick up on all the subtle nuances I missed the first time around.

So why did I only give it a three rating? Well, to be blunt about it, I was not intending to read poetry; I was reading a novel. I found that Wolfe was so concerned with his theme and the unfolding puzzle that I could get invested in none of the characters and none of the plots, with the exception of the second story, which had the character acting in such a bewildering way at the end of it that I’m still not sure I know what really happened. In general the novel left me with a feeling of confusion and dissatisfaction. So, it was great writing, yes. But did I really enjoy it? I feel a little bit like the morning after from the time when I discovered alcohol-soaked parties in the SCA in my youth. I’m *told* I had a good time. My face hurts from smiling and my throat is hoarse from yelling and laughing. But if that’s true, why does my head hurt and why is there such a bad taste in my mouth?

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Book Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Gentleman Jole and the Red QueenGentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that is probably written mostly for the fans of the Vorkosigan Saga. But that doesn’t mean that other people wouldn’t find it interesting and thought-provoking also. Let’s start by clarifying — this book is primarily a planetary romance; that is to say that it is a science fiction story that takes place on a single planet and that centers around a particular relationship’s development. It’s also a story about retirement, and about learning who you are in retirement. It’s also a story about a grown-up child learning that his parents are real human beings. It’s also a story about parenthood, and legacies, and about giving love its due while there’s still time to do it; after all, nobody ever said on their deathbeds, “I wish I’d spent more time working.”

So, speaking strictly of Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing, as one of my favourite authors, I would say it’s typically complex, typically character-driven, and typically human. It does what a good science fiction book is supposed to do; considers how technology might change and challenge the human condition.

It is not a space opera, not unless you take it in the wider context of the whole saga. It is not an intergalactic spy novel. It is most definitely more literary fiction/romance novel than science fiction action/adventure. Lovers of action need not apply.

That said, I liked it very much because it quite neatly tied up a lot of loose ends in the saga and established the legacies of characters I have come to care about very much over the years.

I would have read this book regardless of what was in it because I am a dedicated fan of the Vorkosigan Saga, but I selected this book as part of two reading challenges I am doing. One was a Space Opera challenge (https://www.worldswithoutend.com/roll…), and the other is an LGBTQ Speculative Fiction challenge (https://www.worldswithoutend.com/roll…). For that reason I will address the LGBTQ elements specifically. SPOILERS follow!

(view spoiler)

Some critics and reviewers have expressed their unhappiness with what they see as “shoehorning past history” in creating the discreet, behind-the-scenes relationship that the entire novel’s premise rest upon, but I think that’s really just a reluctance to admit that Aral’s character has always been bisexual, though expressions of that were obviously limited in the political climate of socially-backwards Barrayar. I think that this has always been going on and that Bujold had it in the back of her mind from the beginning, as one of those salient details the writer always knows about, but the reader might not; especially since our viewpoint character through most of the series has been Miles Vorkosigan, Cordelia’s and Aral’s son, who was being kept deliberately out of the loop for a number of reasons; the homophobic society, the political ramifications of what might be seen to the very traditional Vor as “adultery,” and even the very normal awkwardness from discussing one’s personal and sexual life with one’s adult children (which might rightfully be considered none of their business). I love this aspect because it also shows that Miles, for all his cleverness, is not infallible, especially when it comes to his deliberate personal blind spots.

I like the idea of this relationship very much. Bujold treats both LGBTQ relationships and polyamorous relationships as something unconventional but no more complicated than many other relationships might be. As a polyamorous bisexual person myself, I laughed aloud when Cordelia lamented how complicated all the SCHEDULING had been! That made me wonder if she’s been there, or if she just happens to be really good friends with someone who has.

Another central piece of the plot is that some of Cordelia’s ova and Aral’s sperm has been saved, and enough of it is viable that not only can Cordelia choose to start some new sisters for Miles, even at the age of 76 thanks to uterine replicators, but enough enucleated ova of Cordelia’s have also survived (that is, ova with no cellular nucleus) that it is possible for the scientists of the time to meld DNA from Aral’s and Jole’s sperm (taking an X chromosome from one and a Y chromosome from the other) and create a child who is, in a way, born of all three of them. The dilemma as to whether Jole, at the age of fifty, will do this or follow the path of his military career, is part of the central conflict of the novel. (hide spoiler)]

I want to address this for a minute, because the technology to do all of this is not some invention of the far future. This will be possible within a decade. Uterine replicators are currently being tested on animal fetuses. And the sort of technology that combines an X chromosome from one donor and a Y from another into an enucleated ovum, which is where all the RNA building instructions are located, is how Dolly the Sheep was cloned. It’s how it works.

I think this has some beautiful implications for LGBTQ and infertile people wanting to start families in the future. Wouldn’t that be a marvelous thing? As a woman who has suffered miscarriage, I love the idea of uterine replicators and I can tell you, I would have been extremely glad of such a thing myself. I can hear the Christian Right beginning their outcry now at the “unnaturalness” of it all, but they can lose a baby to miscarriage before they argue with me about it, otherwise they can quite frankly go to hell.

There’s so many ethical and social implications of this technology that it really should delight any dedicated science fiction fan. Bujold has already dealt with many of them throughout the series — the implications of children sired by rape, of mothers exposed to dangerous chemicals, of crazy depots trying to assure their genetic legacy, of genetic engineering. We could trace some of those out in different directions. For instance, if bearing a child does not become necessarily entirely a mother’s burden, should potential fathers have the right to decide to raise a child in a uterine replicator if the mother doesn’t want to keep that child? If so, should the mother be tapped for child support? How about the dangerous chemical exposure issue — could it possible, or *should* it possible, to legislate women who are chronic dangerous drug abusers to put their fetuses in uterine replicators so that we wouldn’t have crack babies anymore?

Anyway, I thought the book was well worth reading. I will of course collect it because I collect the Vorkosigan Saga. But I’ll hold out for a trade paperback or a cheap hardcover. Good, satisfying, an excellent conclusion to the series, but in and of itself, not *great,* not like some of Bujold’s past books. It suppose it suffers by that comparison, and I suppose that’s not entirely fair. Still glad she wrote it though.

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