Update on Sable’s summer reading challenge, and a short review of “All the Birds in the Sky” by Charlie Jane Anders.
Update on my Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge and my Worlds Without End reading challenges! Plus a short review of “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin and my observations regarding 1920s science fiction, what it tells us about the early 20th century, and what we can learn from it today.
Update on my Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge and my Worlds Without End reading challenges! Plus a short review of “The Return of Tarzan” by Edgar Rice Burroughs and a short editorial on racism in old novels vs. portraying a racist society.
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.
I read this book because I’ve been meaning to read C.J. Cherryh for some time, and also because I was doing a challenge to read 15 space opera books by the end of the year. However, this book is not space opera. It’s a planetary romance. That being said, it’s a really good planetary romance, centered on a fascinating alien culture with about 17th century technology that reminded me very much of an Indus Valley sort of culture, with lots of formalities and strange social customs and caste systems and interconnecting (and internally clashing) racial divides. The plot? Picture Avatar if things had gone poorly.
Admittedly it uses some time-honoured sci-fi tropes that the artsy sorts would tell you immediately mean that it must not be taken seriously, but keep in mind it was written in 1976, first of all; and secondly, I say so what? I think people are far too hung up on being original, and they try so hard that they often lose the elements that make a good *story*. Cherryh is much more interested in character and story than in making sure that her universe obeys hard science, which is downright refreshing in the midst of the modern obsession.
Above all the strongest part of this book were the incredibly well-realized characters. I loved each and every one of them, despite and maybe because of their flaws, and even the villains are empathetic. Cherryh remembers that old saying that a story is something happening to someone you care about, and she has made me care about these characters. Enough that the ending annoys me somewhat, since it is clear that there will be more books to follow this one. I understand there are sequels; and therefore, quite a lot remained unresolved.
It’s a chewy read; the kind of thing you have read in pieces to fully grasp the nuances. You can’t just sit down and devour it. To be honest, with time running out in my late-begun reading challenge I selected it in part because it seemed a thinner book than many others I have and I thought it would be a quick read. Don’t you believe it. But it was worth it.
I have found that in looking at descriptions of this book, it is often “dismissed” as “theology.” I think that does this book a grave disservice. Certainly there are theological themes; it is well known that Lewis was a devout Christian, wrote about it, and his fiction also often focused on Christian themes. But one never hears his classic Chronicles of Narnia being *classified* as “theology,” although of course the main tale is the retelling of Biblical themes in many ways. No one hears that about Lord of the Rings as written by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien either; though literary critics point it out. And in the realm of science fiction, while literary critics, again, do not miss the references, no one *classifies* Ender’s Game or Dune as “theology.” Perhaps this has something to do with the rest of the trilogy, which I have not read, but taken alone I don’t understand this.
Out of the Silent Planet is among the most awesome science fiction books I think I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and I think the only reason it’s not considered a classic in the field is because of the bias of “pure reason.” Keep in mind that this book was written in 1938, so one cannot expect that it should conform to modern science in the wake of the Space Age. But its science is actually spot on when founded in scientific theories that were, as yet, untested at the time of this book’s writing; much like Frankenstein and War of the Worlds.
The protagonist, a professor of languages named Ransom, finds himself kidnapped in a misadventure to be taken to Mars (called by a different name by its inhabitants) to be offered to those inhabitants as a sacrifice. It turns out that this is not what the inhabitants want him for and a fantastic adventure ensues. I expect that why it’s often interpreted as “theology” is because Lewis uses the Christian mythology as a framework for an extraterrestrial cosmology that involves beings that might possibly be described as “extra-dimensional”. That this extra-dimensional understanding involves godlike beings who are the “lords” of the worlds they inhabit, and that this is fairly consistent as an extraterrestrial interpretation of Christian cosmology, is almost incidental; the moral cautionary tale, however, is not. But if you’re going to not consider a book seriously because there’s a moral cautionary tale hidden in it, you might as well give up on the genre.
Lewis’ Martians are among the most interesting aliens I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about. The cultures he created, and the difficulties in a human trying to understand, and be understood by, an alien culture, is the stuff that we geeks read this genre for. Ransom spends a great deal of time among the Martian cultures and learns their ways and their language (remember that he is a professor of languages) and he develops a close friendship with one member of the three sentient races that inhabit Mars, while in the meantime he is pursued by the two men who brought him to the planet in the first place; one of whom views himself as a man of intelligence and reason who wants to ensure the immortality of humanity — at all costs, including that of the sentient species who inhabit Mars and any others that might exist — and the other of which is interested solely in money. Unlike many other books in which the “peaceful primitives” are overwhelmed by the warlike humans that invade them, thus requiring defense by a violent action-hero protagonist, the Martians find the humans incomprehensible and ultimately silly. This does not make them any less a danger to Ransom, however.
Lewis’ vast alien Martian landscape, as imagined by a man who had only seen a blurry pink image with dark blotches and ice caps on it through a telescope at that point, was an absolute delight. And solar radiation was more potent outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, gravity was minimal and artificially created and air was limited in the spaceship, and Mars was cold, had lesser gravity, and thin oxygen at its higher elevations. Lewis’s low gravity Martian landscape was truly fantastic, more like the crazy surface of comets as we are currently familiar with them. I was taken by its beauty and the scope of its imagination.
In short, read it. It was amazing.
Cities in Flight is an omnibus edition of four related books written by James Blish in the 1950s and 60s. Each one is a stand-alone story but they interconnect. The essential premise of the plot is that three factors — the Cold War, the discovery of anti-aging drugs, and the invention of anti-gravity technology — results in a mass exodus of entire cities from Earth, who then spread out among the stars as independent city-states. Some colonize planets; others, called “Okies,” wander from planet to planet doing odd jobs for pay, which sustains their civilizations; but just like hobos throughout history, they are routinely harassed by the police and seen as ne’er-do-wells. It is about one such Okie city, New York, New York, that Blish writes.
The first story, “They Shall Have Stars”, is not really about the characters, but it introduces the necessary technology and geopolitical pressures that create his world. “A Life for the Stars” is a twisted bildungsroman in this unique sociopolitical landscape that Blish has created (which is a wonderful thing in and of itself; considering the sociopolitical consequences of new technologies!). “Earthman, Come Home” is arguably the most character driven book of the series. And “The Triumph of Time” is ultimately about how we human beings confront mortality; but, more than that, how we confront inevitable oblivion.
My favourite character is John Amalfi. And I love how utterly ordinary Blish’s characters are. No chiseled jaws and rippling pectorals here; just ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations in a cavalier, almost Wild West pioneer spirit. That Wild West aspect was intentional on Blish’s part. Reading the appendix you discover that Blish was directly inspired by Spengler’s “Decline of the West.”
However, there were some flaws in the characterization as well, and some characters were better realized than others. Chris, the viewpoint character of “A Life for the Stars,” was terribly undeveloped. He existed for the sole purpose of exposing Blish’s politics and science. I could have taken him or left him. And I do have to say that I find it tiresome that these men writing classic science fiction, who were so progressive in terms of many of their ideas and technology, never seemed to anticipate that women would eventually be just as likely to be in positions of political and military leadership as men. Blish even pointed out how women never end up getting selected to serve as “Mayor” (which in this story is actually a eugenically-democratically elected Emperor of a city-state) by the computers that do that selecting. I guess it was really hard for men in the 1960s to accept that their skills in this department were not genetically superior to those of women. 😉 I have to give that a pass, though, because it is ridiculous to expect works of previous time periods to conform to the standards of the present day.
I like how the events of one book have effects that ripple into the others while, at the same time, being entirely stand-alone works (though “They Shall Have Stars” might have looked better as a story in Analog or Asimov instead of as a book.)
Some of the other readers in my book club were baffled and irritated by some of the science, which reduced their enjoyment of the book. I can see their point. The anti-aging drugs weren’t that terribly well developed and probably drew back to what was cutting edge science when the book was written, which of course is now completely obsolete. And it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense to me either; it was just discovered that some chemical compounds prevented come kinds of cellular degeneration, and the ones discovered later were also effective at eliminating mistakes in cellular regeneration because they were able to cure cancer while the earlier ones were not (but the cancer still didn’t kill you, which is interesting.) But I was okay with the McGuffin personally; largely I think because I also read a lot of fantasy. I don’t really care how it works, to be honest. I accept that in this universe that’s the way it works, and on I go.
In the middle of the Space Race there were thought to be two major obstacles to interstellar flight; a way to overcome and/or create gravity, and the amount of time it takes to get between places in such a vast universe. Blish’s solution was people who don’t age and spindizzies. Which also inadvertently solved the radiation problem, which is one of the big concerns that is currently delaying a manned mission to Mars; apparently outside of the Earth and Moon’s magnetic field there’s a whole slew of radiation from the sun that’s really harmful to us. I’m not even sure they were aware of all that in the 1960s, when those two books were written, but that problem is solved at any rate.
I’ve also read some arguments against some other aspects of the technology being obsolete, such as the use of vacuum tubes, but here I don’t agree because there’s some very good arguments for using vacuum tubes in deep space. Consider how computers and satellites malfunction when there’s a major solar flare; do you want that happening to the computers upon which your life depends in deep space? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Still, to some extent I feel we must accept that classic sci-fi is often, by nature, going to have bad science, because our knowledge of how things actually work has increased considerably over the past two hundred years, and in exponential ways. Let’s not forget that Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells were writing perfectly acceptable science fiction for their time.
However, as I said, I can see why that lack of explanation about the anti-aging drugs could diminish enjoyment of the books and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Especially when the physics and quantum physics were so excellently done! Blish’s explanation for anti-gravity, and dealing with anti-matter, stands the test of time even today, even after all we’ve discovered about those subjects since.
The conclusion was fascinating, and also how the characters reacted to it was great. Overall, despite some significant literary flaws, mostly I think in the inconsistency in styles between the stories, I really enjoyed these books, and I see why they are considered to be classics of science fiction. Highly recommended!