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Women in sf reading challenge #10: City of Pearl, Karen Traviss

To be honest, I had not really expected to enjoy City of Pearl by Karen Traviss. From what I’d heard about the novel, it seemed the sort of science fiction I don’t especially like. And Traviss is known as an especially mercenary writer. No matter how talented she may be, such an attitude is unlikely to create works I would find appealing. Nonetheless, I picked the book as one of my dozen for my 2011 reading challenge, and though I may have slipped a little towards the end of last year, I had every intention of reading and blogging about the twelve listed novels.

And so I came to City of Pearl with, I admit, a few preconceptions. Some of them were indeed met, but I was surprised to find myself enjoying the novel more than I had expected.

Shan Frankland is a hard-as-nails police officer in a near-future in which corporations dominate ineffectual governments. All crops are genetically-engineered and trademark, such that no foodstuff can be grown without paying a license fee to a company. When Frankland is offered command of a mission to Earth’s only interstellar colony on Cavanagh’s Star’s second planet, she accepts the mission. But she doesn’t know exactly why, because whatever was told to her to persuade her to accept was part of a Suppressed Briefing, which only releases information into her memory in response to certain triggers.

The mission arrives at Cavanagh’s Star 2 and finds a situation it had not expected: a small low-tech human colony with an extremely small environmental footprint living under the aegis of an alien race, the wess’har. The aliens are actually native to Cavanagh’s Star 2’s twin planet, and are on Cavanagh’s Star 2 to protect that planet’s native squid-like aquatic race, the bezeri. Who had been almost polluted to extinction by a third alien race, the isenj, who had colonised the world. The wess’har wiped out the isenj colony, but now allow the humans to stay on sufferance. Aras is the wess’har responsible for the planet and its ecosystem, and he has been given this role because he has been infected by a native parasite, the c’naatat, which has made him immortal and almost impossible to kill.

Though Frankland tries to keep a tight leash on the scientific team she has brought to Cavanagh’s Star 2, they cavil at her restrictions and continually seek to subvert them. This makes tensions high within Frankland’s mission, a situation not helped by her high-handed and take-no-prisoners attitude. When a second starship from Earth turns up, having departed fifty years after the first, it seems Earth has formed an alliance with the idenj, who determined to take back Cavanagh’s Star 2. During a skirmish with the isenj, Frankland is mortally wounded, but Aras, who has come to value her, infects her with c’naatat. Now she can never return to Earth.

I liked Frankland, and the best parts of City of Pearl were the parts which focused on her. Unfortunately, the aliens are all single-note: the wess’har are literal and unbending, the bezeri are enigmatic, and the isenj are numerous. The scientists are all characterised as venal and selfish, and only the military characters appear to possess any redeeming virtues. The human colonists on Cavanagh’s Star 2 are treated like simple back-to-the-land peasants, and the novel makes little or no judgment on them or their way of life. A lot of City of Pearl is in Aras’ point of view, and he’s neither convincingly alien nor especially interesting.

There’s a fixity of views throughout City of Pearl which I found a little off-putting. The wess’har are very literal and do not compromise. Frankland is very much convinced her own opinion is always correct. The entire cast – with the exception of those Traviss villanises – are straight from the US mode of science fiction, with its Rational Competent Men. Though many in City of Pearl are actually women. Or alien. There’s no subtlety or complexity in the novel. The scientists are wrong, the isenj are wrong. And that’s it. I can see how such binary views might appeal to some readers, especially genre readers, since populist genre fiction seems incapable of psychological depth.

There are apparently a further five Wess’har books, but I’ll not be bothering to read them. While City of Pearl managed an interesting meld of near-future sf and space opera, it was too much like military sf in tone to really appeal to me. Traviss’s prose is readable and well-paced, though to be honest I kept reading more because I liked the character of Frankland than anything else.

Oh, and the titular city is the wess’har capital on their world, and it makes perhaps a half dozen appearances in the novel. Frankland visits it toward the end in order to seek permission from the wess’har elders to stay with Aras. It’s a somewhat peripheral element of the story with which to title it.


Women in sf reading challenge #9: Shadow Man, Melissa Scott

If I’ve had trouble reading the books for my challenge in their proper months, it’s not because reading them is proving a, er, challenge. On the contrary, it’s because I’ve made a change in my reading patterns which makes the books I chose for the challenge less of a conscious or deliberate act of selection of reading material. I now read more books by women writers, and so the dozen books of my reading challenge are just twelve among many. In that respect, the challenge can be counted a success – and only nine months in, too. Nor have any of those nine books been bad books, though a couple I didn’t enjoy as much as the others.

Which brings me to Shadow Man by Melissa Scott, September’s book for the challenge. I was aware of the book’s reputation before choosing it – in fact, it was that which likely led to its selection. However, that reputation had not really prepared for what I found when I started reading it. Because what Shadow Man is, is Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness through a funhouse mirror. It is also a more political novel than the political The Left Hand of Darkness. Comparisons are inevitable, even though LeGuin’s novel takes place on a world with one gender and Shadow Man takes place in a universe with five genders. Both novels have placed the treatment of gender – culturally and legally – front and centre.

In the universe of Shadow Man, the use of a drug to offset “FTL shock” has resulted in a far greater than normal incidence of intersex and hermaphrodite births (miscarriages are also correspondingly higher). The Concord Worlds now recognise five genders – woman, man, fem, mem and herm; respectively, she, he, ðe, þe and 3e. (Unfortunately, I kept on reading the pronouns referring to herms as if they used the Arabic ﻉ (‘ayn) rather than the numeral 3.) These five genders have led, in turn, to nine sexual preferences, and this has bearing on the plot of the novel.

On the world of Hara, a colony planet re-contacted 100 years previously after several centuries of independent development, the law and society only recognise two genders – man and woman. So the herms, mems and fems must take on the role of one or the other – though there is apparently a facility for herms at least to legally change gender. The Traditionalist Harans feel that true humans have only two genders, and they do not want to join the Concord. The Modernists want the other three genders to be recognised in Haran law. It is the battle between these two groups which drives the plot of Shadow Man.

Warreven is a herm, but legally male, and works as an advocate in the Haran legal system. Years before, 3e almost married the son of the Most Important Man – the de facto ruler of Hara – but 3e refused to change legal gender. Now, 3e fights for gender rights in the courts. Mhyre Tatian is the manager of a middle-sized Concord pharmaceutical company’s operations on Hara. The world’s biggest export is its drugs, all derived from the local flora. Also important is “trade”, which is prostitution, mostly involving the three genders not recognised on Hara.

Warreven is involved in a court case which looks set to play a major role in the fight for gender equality. But the Most Important Man doesn’t want that to happen, because as long as things muddle along as they presently are doing, a delicate balance between the Traditionalists and the Modernists is maintained. But his son, Tendlathe, is a staunch Traditionalist – a blinkered, chauvinist and conservative Traditionalist of the worst kind. In an effort to keep Warreven from the courts, the Most Important Man has him elected as his clan’s seeraliste, the person responsible for selling off the clan’s surplus crops. Meanwhile, the Interstellar Disease Control Agency, the organisation responsible for preventing the spread of diseases – a variety of HIVs were also created by the FTL drug – also wants to prevent that case from going to court for their own reasons. Tatian is caught in the middle as one of his employees is a key witness. When Warreven offers Tatian the entire clan surplus in return for the employee’s testimony, it kicks off a series of Traditonalist attacks on the Modernists and the “odd-bodied”.

Scott makes no concessions when introducing the world of Shadow Man. It’s straight in at the deep end. There are one or two info-dumps streamlined into the narrative, but they provide little more than local colour. The story is told from the points of view – alternating – of Warreven and Tatian. From Warreven, we see what it’s like to be a herm in a society that does not recognise it as a gender, and we get the politics which affects that. Tatian provides an outsider’s view of Hara and its culture. Though both mention at various points some physical attraction between them, it never amounts to anything.

As a sf novel set in a strange and interesting world, with a pair of likeable protagonists, Shadow Man succeeds. There’s an air of exploration to the story, as it spends a great deal of time savouring the culture of Hara before the somewhat abrupt final confrontation. Yet the action never moves outside the capital city, though places elsewhere on the world are often mentioned. It makes for a languid read, a story in which the politics of the climax seems to page by page subsume the story of Warreven and Tatian – in fact, for at least half of the book, they’re barely acquaintances.

But it is the gender politics for which Shadow Man is known, and I found them a little problematical in places. For a start, the thing driving the gender politics in the story is “trade”. It’s almost as if the odd-bodied genders are defined by the roles they play in prostitution. There’s a level of prurience implicit in the Traditionalist response to herms, mems and fems, and given the focus on trade it’s not hard to understand why they might hold such an opinion. Perhaps Shadow Man needed to show a Concord world’s society as contrast, because all the reader has with which to compare it is the situation in the real world. It’s also worth noting that the genders in Shadow Man are defined by biology – it’s the secondary sexual characteristics and equipment which determine which gender a person is. And while the book’s glossaries helpfully explain the nine sexual preferences – there is a glossary of Concord terms and one of Haran words – those sexual preferences make only a few appearances in the story. Haran society is dual-sexed, and the story treats all interactions as such, acknowledging the existence of sexual preferences beyond woman-man but not really exploring them. And this is in a novel whose story describes the start of a sexual revolution comparable to the fight for gay rights in the real world. In fact, Shadow Man‘s penultimate chapter is very much an analogue of Stonewall.

Literalising a metaphor is not uncommon in fiction, and is an excellent tool for commentary. I’m not entirely convinced that literalising sexual preferences as biological gender necessarily helps discussion, though in Shadow Man it has resulted in an interesting universe. It’s a pity Shadow Man doesn’t explore more of it. Which is not to say it’s a bad novel by any means. I enjoyed it and thought it good. I’d happily recommend it. I am somewhat surprised it has never been published in the UK. It seems to me it would fit in quite happily with a number of sf novels which have been available here over the years – not just the aforementioned LeGuin, but also books by Storm Constantine, Samantha Lee, Mary Gentle, or even Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy…


Women in sf reading challenge #8: Spin State, Chris Moriarty

There are those who believe science fiction is a predominantly pessimistic genre, and certainly many of the futures that sf novels posit can hardly be called utopias. Of course, much of this depends upon your personal politics – a neoliberal fantasy, for instance, would likely appeal to a plutocrat, or to someone so deluded they think they actually stand a chance of becoming one. Yet such futures are common in science fiction, and often the protagonist – ie, the character with whom the reader is asked to identify – is a victim of this society, a person whose agency does not stretch much beyond what they can actually grasp with two hands. Frequently too they are fighting on two fronts: both against the enemy, and against those for whom they are ostensibly fighting.

Personally, I don’t think such futures are either desirable or inevitable, nor do I think they’re especially necessary for dramatic purposes. Perhaps it’s a peculiarly US perspective, that general antipathy towards anything smacking of state or state apparatus, whereby, by definition, a protagonist must battle their own government as much as they fight the enemies of their nation.

Spin State by Chris Moriarty is a case in point. It was my August read for this year’s reading challenge (see here), and, above caveats aside, I found it an intriguing blend of hard sf, cyberpunk, coal mining and quantum physics.

Catherine Li is a soldier for the UN; she is also a genetic construct. She has hidden the latter fact, claiming only descent from a genetic construct grandmother, otherwise she would not be able to serve in the UN military. After a raid on a secret Syndicates laboratory goes slightly wrong, Li is assigned to Compson’s World to look into the death of genius physicist Hannah Sharifi. Shortly after her death, an encrypted file was sent by Sharifi to UNSec, the UN’s military. Li’s commanding officer wants her to find the private key to the file – Sharifi was working on a way to artificially culture Bose-Einstein condensate, and if she discovered a means of doing so it would have profound effects on the balance of power between the UN and the Syndicates.

In the future of Spin State, Earth has spread out to a number of exoplanets, mostly using STL transport. However, by the use of quantum entanglement, information can be sent FTL. As can some people – most typically UNSec soldiers. But this process requires Bose-Einstein condensate, a mineral with pre-entangled qubits. There is also a side effect to such FTL travel: decoherence. Memories must be backed up or they disappear. And for soldiers, those memories are often edited to remove sensitive or classified information.

There is one source of naturally-occurring condensate: Compson’s World. Where Sharifi was running her experiment. And, incidentally, Li’s home world. But more than that: like Li, Sharifi is a genetic construct – in fact, they are clones from the same template. On arrival at the station in orbit about Compson’s world, Li immediately finds herself thrown into the middle of what appears to be a corrupt satrapy. The importance of the condensate means Compson’s World is entirely corporate-owned, and its workers are treated like the meanest of slaves. Because harvesting the condensate is a dangerous and dirty job: it has to be dug out of coal seams in deep underground mines.

It was in a chamber in one of the mines that Sharifi had been performing her mysterious experiment. She also died nearby. Though her death has been ruled an accident, Li soon learns it was murder. But what exactly was the physicist doing in the chamber in the mine, why would that lead to her murder, and what is in the encrypted file sent to UNSec?

Spin State is an unholy mixture of cyberspace, military sf, murder-mystery and coal-mining. And I use the term “unholy” approvingly. That mix shouldn’t work, but it does. Extremely well, in fact. Perhaps the big secret driving the mystery element of the plot is not difficult to guess, but Moriarty loads up her story with more than enough in the other areas. At one point, there is a covert infiltration by Li of Alba, UNSec’s headquarters in orbit about Earth. There is the jockeying for power and control ofthe mines amongst the various factions on Compson’s World. There’s the Cold War between the UN and the Syndicates. There’s Li’s relationship with the AI, Cohen. And there’s Li’s own somewhat corrupted identity, built upon redacted and lost and rewritten memories. Also many of the population of Compson’s World are ex-IRA and have fought in the (re-ignited?) Troubles.

There is as much going on in the universe of Spin State as there is in the story. The novel opens shortly after the UN defeated its enemies, the Syndicates. Li was instrumental in this victory during fighting on the Syndicate world of Gilead. But those memories have been redacted, so she’s not entirely sure what she did to become a decorated hero. The Syndicates, worlds populated entirely by genetic constructs, each of whom are treated as little more than components in a vast system, sounds like a place worth exploring, but in
Spin State they are little more than ersatz Commies in the Cold War of the novel’s universe.

Then there are the AIs, which are not just hugely-sophisticated and sentient computer programs but networks of AIs, some of which are only semi-sentient and some of which have been added in what were effectively hostile take-overs. These AIs live in the novel’s version of cyberspace, streamspace (also referred to as the spinstream), an interstellar FTL network. I’ve never been convinced by cyberspace as a sf trope – it was built upon a computing metaphor, and the link between it and its operations and implementation has never struck me as especially plausible. In Spin State, Moriarty uses a full-on VR-style cyberspace and, Matrix-like, Li often “dives into the numbers” beneath the actual metaphor.

But these are minor quibbles. Spin State is a novel dense with ideas, dense with plot. Li is an engagingly cynical heroine, although perhaps a little too often she is blown hither and thither by the machinations of more powerful players. Not to mention she is sometimes a little too slow on the uptake. Compson’s World is a nasty place, and the coal-mining aspect is handled extremely well (although the industry as described is surprisingly crude, given that the novel is set more than a century hence). I really liked the idea of the Syndicates, and thought they were worth exploring more. The AIs I found less convincing, and the concpet of “shunts”, by which AIs “borrow” the bodies of humans, felt a little 1980s to me. I also was very much intrigued by the UNSec practice of redacting the memories of its soldiers. There is, I think, more than one novel there in that concept alone. It’s certainly to Moriarty’s credit that she’s filled a single novel with several novels-worth of ideas.

And speaking of Moriarty… There are no clues to the writer’s gender anywhere on the Bantam trade paperback I read. Even the “About the Author” at the end is careful not to use any pronouns in reference to the writer. But was disguising the author’s gender enough? The main character in the novel is female, and there are anecdotes a-plenty about editors telling writers that female protagonists do not sell (the classic example being Stephen Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need). Certainly Spin State was never published in the UK, and yet the recent success of Gavin Smith’s Veteran proves there is a market in this country for this particular type of science fiction. True, this is now, and Spin State was originally published in 2003, when things might very well have been different. And, of course, there are those references in the book to the IRA…

While Spin State is a type of science fiction I find it hard to truly enjoy, it’s plainly a skilfully put-together novel. I’m tempted to have a go at the sequels, Spin Control (2006) or Ghost Spin (due next year), and I’m very much surprised these books are not better-known.


Women in sf reading challenge #7: Zoo City, Lauren Beukes

I had originally picked Beukes’ Moxyland as one of my twelve books for this year’s reading challenge, but then I met the author at the Eastercon back in April, and Zoo City won the Arthur C Clarke Award… So I swapped one out for the other, even though the latter says on the back, “File Under URBAN FANTASY”. Although, of course, there was that Clarke Award win, which meant the jury at least felt Zoo City could be read as science fiction. Besides, last month’s book for my reading challenge was Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War (see here), and I failed to find a way to read that as sf…

Which is all pretty much beside the point, as I’ve now read Zoo City, and I’m happy to count it as one of the twelve books of my reading challenge – and also one of the twelve books by women writers I read during July, my women-only month.

While Zoo City may display the trappings of urban fantasy, it reads chiefly like a cyberpunk novel, a near-future dystopia told from the point of view of a have-not. Who, in this case, is Zinzi December, a recovering addict and ex-journalist who caused her brother’s death, served her sentence, and was “animalled”. In the world of Zoo City, those who have committed crimes find themselves lumbered with animal familiars as manifestations of their guilt. For Zinzi, it is a sloth. In the world of Zoo City, magic also exists – though it’s not the magic of Dungeons & Dragons or your standard identi-kit heroic fantasy. Mashavi feels more like some sort of extra-sensory talent than it does spell-casting or thaumaturgy (although African styles of magic do make several appearances in the book). Zinzi’s mashavi is finding lost things, and it’s what she now does for a living – because the animalled are the dregs of society, and forced to live in derelict buildings in slum areas of the city. The city in this instance is Johannesburg, and there is a very obvious South African flavour to the novel (Beukes is South African).

After her last client is murdered, Zinzi is forced into accepting a type of job she normally avoids: finding a lost person. The missing person is teenager Songweza Radebe, one half, with her brother S’busiso, of pop twins iJusi . The Spector/Cowley-like figure who controls iJusi, Odi Huron, wants Song back without anyone learning of her disappearance. Zinzi may be reluctant to take on the case, but it soon proves to be even more complicated and darker than she had imagined. The climax of the novel, however, is not Song’s re-appearance but the discovery of a heinous plot to which the disappearance was peripherally linked. While the clues were there, that final twist does come as a bit of a surprise. The plot which drives the story for much of its length ends on a positive note, only to kick off another related, and darker, end-game. This, or its reverse,  is a technique I’ve noticed in other crime novels of recent years.

Zoo City reads like noir. It’s a crime novel which happens to be set in an alternate South Africa in which felons have animal familiars and magical talents. Beukes does throw in the odd “found document” which attempts to put a science-fictional gloss on these aspects of her world, but their success is immaterial. The book doesn’t need to be read as sf, and can enjoyed for exactly what it is. Zinzi’s voice dominates the story and, despite Zinzi’s background and some of her more unsavoury activities, Beukes does an excellent job of making her sympathetic. Zoo City is a fast read, but it’s by no means fluffy. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to (I would normally run a mile, very quickly, from anything labelled “urban fantasy”).

On the front of the paperback edition of Zoo City I bought is a quote from William Gibson: “it feels effortless, utterly accomplished”. He’s right. Zoo City is a polished piece of fiction. For a second novel, it is astonishingly good. I can’t say whether it is better than the books it beat for the Clarke Award, as I’ve not read any of the others. (They were: Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness; The Dervish House, Ian McDonald; Generosity, Richard Powers; Declare, Tim Powers; and Lightborn, Tricia Sullivan.) But certainly Zoo City is a very good book, and not at all an embarrassing winner – which is more than the Nebula Award can say this year…


Women in sf reading challenge #6: The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston

This post is a bit late because I had to reschedule my reading. I decided several weeks ago to make July a month of reading only women writers. But then I was sent three novels by men for review, with a deadline of the end of July. So I moved them to the top of the reading pile so I could finish them in June and not break my promise for July. Anyway, I managed to finish them in time, and so the first book of July was…

When I picked The Year of Our War for my reading challenge at the beginning of this year, I’d heard it argued that the book could be read as sf even though it was marketed as fantasy. I’d also heard it described as “New Weird”, although quite what that means no one seems really sure. But never mind: I wanted to read it, so I bent the rules a little. And, now that I have read it, I have to be honest and say that to me The Year of Our War seems very much a fantasy novel.

Jant Shira is half-Rhydanne and half-Awian. The Rhydanne live high in the mountainous region of Fourlands, are very much used to the cold, and are extremely quick. Awians are very much like normal humans except they possess small wings on their back. Because Jant has the Rhydanne speed and build, and the Awian wings, he can fly. He is the only person who can do this.

He is also immortal.

Two thousand years before, god left Fourlands. He put San, the Emperor, in charge and made him immortal. And in the years since then San has gifted fifty exceptional people with immortality. They form the Circle, and all have superhero-like names – Jant, for example, is Comet. Another member of the Circle is Lightning, a superlative archer, and one of the first people to be made immortal.

Around the same time god left, the Insects invaded Fourlands. These are pony-size ant-like creatures, and they have overwhelmed the northern quarter of the continent. But, after centuries of stalemate, more and more of them are now appearing and encroaching on human-inhabited lands.

The Year of Our War is, I believe, the first book in a series. Certainly, the novel does not resolve the bigger questions its plot asks. A possible source for the Insects is mooted, but not confirmed – and no explanation of that source is offered. Why god left is certainly never revealed. In fact, much of the story of The Year of Our War revolves around a fight for supremacy between a pair of immortals: Mist, the Sailor, and his wife.

There’s much to like in The Year of Our War. The story is narrated by Jant, who is a junkie, and he gives an interesting perspective on the plot. In fact, the entire cast are extremely well-handled. The prose is polished and very readable, although there’s a tendency in the first half of the book to describe everything everyone is wearing, often using unfamiliar and archaic terms. There’s a feeling of depth to the world of the story, as if the author has spent a great many years building it.


Swainston names M John Harrison as an inspiration, and there’s certainly a little of Viriconium in Fourlands. There’s also that same refusal to be ruled by the “clomping foot of nerdism”. Which unfortunately manifests as gaps in rigour. Towards the end of the novel, for example, a famous sword appears and is described as a “katana”. But there’s a lot of cultural baggage that goes with such a weapon, and none of that is present in The Year of Our War. There’s a sense that Fourlands is built from magpie-like borrowings from the real world, but without the history and culture which underpins those borrowings.

The Year of Our War is a not a novel which makes immersion easy – there are too many details which throw the reader out of the world. Sometimes the characters respond in ways which rely on knowledge of the real world, not on knowledge of the world of Fourlands – in other words, they don’t always react like characters in a fantasy novel.The names of people and places seem… odd, as if there are no languages behind them, they’re just random conglomerations of letters. Also not helping is the story’s refusal to provide neat answers – or indeed, provide neat puzzles requiring answers. The concept of god leaving Fourlands, for example, and putting an immortal in charge is extremely cool – there’s an entire novel series just in that – but here it’s merely background. The presentation of the immortals as a sort of superhero team also feels slightly out-of-place in a fantasy world.

As I read The Year of Our War, I concluded I’d be unlikely to ever try its sequels. But as I drew nearer to the end I started to change my mind. And not simply because I wanted to find out what happens. The lack of rigour which had annoyed me no longer seemed to matter. Thing is, I’m not a big fan of fantasy. I’ve read my fair share, but I’ve found little to admire in much of that I’ve read. When reading KJ Parker’s Colours in the Steel last year (see here), I had a similar response to that I was having with Swainston’s novel. That book was a great shambolic monster of a story, which seemed to spend more time on world-building than it did plot. But the engine of its story was driven by such an innovative power-source (and I’m mixing metaphors here, but never mind) that I found myself liking the book more and more as I drew closer to the end. The Year of Our War is less inventive plot-wise than Colours in the Steel, but it does present an interesting – and perhaps even opposed – approach to its world-building. And that, I think, is enough to warrant further exploration.


Women in sf reading challenge #5: China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh

China Mountain Zhang has been on my radar for a number of years – it’s one of those books I’ve heard many good things about, but have never really got around to buying or reading. Until now. And, in one of those moments of serendipity that confirm you’ve chosen the right time to do something, no sooner had I picked the book for my reading challenge then I found a copy in a local charity shop. It could simply be, of course, that I’d not been looking for it before, but since I’d been wanting to read it for many years I don’t think that’s the case.

Whatever. I’ve now read China Mountain Zhang. And I’m very glad I have done so. It is a very good novel. Zhang Zhong Shan is an ABC, American Born Chinese – except he is not really: his father is Chinese, but mother is Latino and he was genetically-engineered to appear pure Chinese. He is also gay. He works as a construction technician in New York in a United States dominated culturally, economically and politically by communist China. Zhong Shan translate roughly as “China Mountain” and is also the Mandarin equivalent of the Cantonese Sun Yat-sen. It is considered a name worth remarking on: as Zhang himself says, “To be named Zhang Zhong Shen is like being named George Washington Jones” (26).

China Mountain Zhang is the story of Zhang, opening in New York on a construction site, and finishing in New York with Zhang working as a freelance organic engineer. In between, he spends time on Baffin Island and at university in Nanjing. The narrative also breaks away from Zhang on several occasions to tell the stories of Angel, a kite-flyer in New York, and Martine, a settler on Mars. Though both narrative threads seem unrelated, by the end of the novel they have touched, or have been touched by, Zhang.

Not one of the characters changes the world though their lives do so. But neither is this a novel of accommodation – no one changes to in order to fit better. In fact, Zhang finds himself less employable, having qualified as a construction engineer, than he had been as a construction tech. And despite homosexuality being illegal in both the socialist USA and China, Zhang never questions his sexuality.

And yet he questions his racial identity repeatedly. He is not really Chinese, though he appears to be. His mother named him Rafael, and he still uses the name among some of his friends. As China Mountain Zhang opens he has been invited to the home of his foreman Qian to meet his daughter. Qian is Chinese but has fallen from grace and been exiled to the US. He does not know that Zhang is not wholly-Chinese, nor that he is gay. Trapped in the identity he presents to Qian, Zhang reluctantly meets Qian’s daughter, San-xiang, and takes her out. They become friends, of a sort – she imagines more to the relationship than is ever going to be the case.

In a later break-away narrative, Xan-siang, who is not attractive – “She is astonishingly ugly. More than ugly, there is something wrong with the bones of her face” (p12) – has cosmetic surgery to correct her appearance… only to fall victim to a predatory man. Her ugliness had protected her, and now she is pretty she does not have the social skills to cope with the attention her looks now cause. Her story is the one unhappy one in China Mountain Zhang.

But before that, Xan-siang runs away from her parents and goes to stay with Zhang. Her father tries use to this to force them into marriage, so Zhang reveals he is half-Hispanic. Qian fires him. Which is how Zhang ends up working on Baffin Island. There, Zhang’s identity – racial or otherwise – is mostly irrelevant. The scientists of the station are more interested in their jobs. However, Zhang’s six-month stint there does qualify him for special entry into a university in China. Which is where he qualifies as an organic engineer. The sections set in Nanjing don’t seem to quite gel as effectively as those set in New York or even on Mars. Zhang is a foreigner, though he does not look like one, and his personal interactions appear mostly limited to his tutor, also gay and with whom he has a relationship. Admittedly, China Mountain Zhang is Zhang’s story, told from his point of view, so perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps too it’s because Nanjing follows Baffin Island, and Baffin is a very limited environment.

Martine’s narrative, set mostly in her holding on Mars, initially seems to belong to a different novel. A link with Zhang eventually appears, but it is peripheral. Martine is an ex-soldier, now land-owner, on a collectivist Mars. A chance encounter with a new settler and his young daughter – both are living in dorms and have no credit and so cannot afford a parcel of land – brings Martine out of her self-imposed seclusion. There’s actually little in the narrative thread which demands it be set on Mars, other than a need for a society on which China has little or no direct influence.

There is a strand of utopianism to China Mountain Zhang. The world McHugh has built is by no means perfect – homosexuality is illegal, for example – but neither is it as unfair or unequal as the real world. It is, however, mostly prosperous and advanced – I think the story is set somewhere near the middle of this century, though I don’t recall an exact decade being named – but the world of the book has settlers on Mars, and people can “jack” into tools and computer systems. Inasmuch as it carries the story,  I found it convincing; but then I’m not wedded to capitalist ideals so I will happily accept a world built on alternative principles.

China Mountain Zhang was very well regarded when it first appeared. It was short-listed for the Hugo and Nebula, and went onto win the James Tiptree Jr Award and Lambda Award. Not bad for a first novel (in fact, it came top in the Locus Poll that year for Best First Novel too). On the strength of China Mountain Zhang, I certainly plan to seek out and read more of McHugh’s fiction.

(This review has been cross-posted on the SF Mistressworks blog.)


Women in sf reading challenge #4: Winterlong, Elizabeth Hand

You’d have thought that with two four-day weekends in April, I’d have had plenty of time to read that month’s book from my reading challenge. Unfortunately not. However, during April I did manage to pick up copies of China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh; The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston; and Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (which I’m going to read instead of the planned Moxyland) – so I’m all set for the next three months at least.

Which is just as well, as April’s book was the last from my list I could just pick off my shelves: Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand. I’ve no idea how long I’ve had the book – but the “£2.00” scribbled in pencil inside the cover suggests I bought it at a convention, probably during the early 1990s. This can’t have been all that long after it was published – Winterlong, Hand’s debut novel, first appeared as a Spectra Special Edition paperback in late 1990, and as a paperback original in the UK a year later. It’s the latter edition I own. I also own the sequel, Æstival Tide, but not the third book of the trilogy, Icarus Descending – which apparently was never actually published in the UK (don’t you hate that? when UK publishers only publish the first two books of a US trilogy, but not the third?).

This year’s reading challenge has given me a welcome excuse to finally read Winterlong (and perhaps its sequel), something I’d been meaning to do for a while. It has always been my impression that I would enjoy Hand’s writing. I’ve read some of her short stories, and around this time last year I read her novella Illyria, and I’ve always thought her writing very good. She writes with a very literary style, closer perhaps to fantasy than science fiction, low on rigour, but with lovely prose – much like a writer I admire very much, Paul Park. So I had expected to like Winterlong

Sadly, I didn’t. There is lush prose – and I like lush prose; I’m a fan of Lawrence Durrell’s writing, after all. But often it seems to tip into florid prose, and, unfortunately, in Winterlong it’s florid prose which dominates. As I read the novel, I couldn’t help thinking that if Hand had applied the writer’s phrase “kill your darlings”, the book would have been half its 440 pages in length. I mean, a sentence like “The black domino of a Persian malefeants with her whip pied the pastel train of a score of moth-winged children trying very hard to perform the steps of a salacious maxixe” (p 171) shouldn’t have made it through the editing process. Which is not say that Winterlong is a bad book or doesn’t have anything interesting to say. It simply reads like a first novel written by someone whose reach exceeded their grasp, who had yet to gain control over their style, whose focus lay too much on the individual word-choices and not enough on the cumulative effect of those choices.

Wendy Wanders is a subject at the Human Engineering Laboratory, a “neurologically augmented empath approved for emotive engram therapy”. She can “tap” patients’ memories and emotional states, ostensibly for therapeutic reasons. But she was autistic as a child, and though her neurological augmentations have “fixed” her – as well as making her empathic – she is still not entirely cured. The HEL is located just outside the City of Trees, which was destroyed hundreds of years in the past, left for nature to run riot over, and is now inhabited by remnant peoples unrelated to the mainstream Ascendant population of the country. From hints and clues in the text, I’m guessing the City is Washington DC.

Things go horribly wrong at the HEL and, during an attack by those for whom the HEL scientists were working, Wendy escapes with the help of a lab assistant, Justice Saint-Alaban, an inhabitant of the City. Once in the City, she disguises herself as a man and joins a troupe of actors. This troupe mostly performs Shakespeare’s plays and Wendy, as Aidan Arent, takes the female roles – yes, that’s a woman pretending to be a man who plays women on stage who, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, disguise themselves as men… (Hand studied drama and anthropology at university.)

Meanwhile, Raphael Miramar, a male prostitute, and one of the most beautiful and desired in the City, has chosen to go and live with his lover, leader of the Natural Historians, hoping to trade commitment for an education. The City is run by the Curators, descendants of various museum staff – the Natural Historians, the Botanists, the Zoologists, etc. There are also Houses of prostitutes, both male and female, who cater to the Curators, and seem to do little else except arrange sumptuous balls.

Raphael’s lover, however, is not so committed to the relationship,  now that Raphael no longer lives the pampered lifestyle of his House, and so is losing his looks. Raphael makes friends with a junior Natural Historian, but inadvertently kills her, and is forced to flee. He falls in with a group of lazars, children infected with diseases spread by viral rains dropped during “air raids” by Ascendant airships, is identified as their god, the Gaping One, and taken to meet their leader, the man who attacked the HEL – who has been resurrected after being tortured to death by the aardmen, genetically-engineered dog-humans, and is now quite mad.

Winterlong is structured as a series of nine parts, each written in the first-person from either Wendy’s or Raphael’s point of view. The opening part, ‘The Boy in the Tree’, was also published separately as a novella in Full Spectrum 2 a year before Winterlong‘s publication. Neither Wendy nor Raphael, it has to be admitted, are especially sympathetic characters. The novel hints at a greater world, with its references to “Ascensions” and a war with the “Balkhash Commonwealth”. However, the story is focused tightly on events within the City of Trees, which has something of the flavour of Delany’s Bellona, something of New Orleans, and something of a Shakespearean Venice or Forest of Arden.

In fact, it’s all very fin de siècle and decadent, perhaps even Gothic; which perhaps explains the prose style. It’s also strangely reluctant to engage too much with the world it describes. Everywhere is dirty, there is sex and death, but it all feels a little sanitised and innocent, perhaps because the prose focuses so much on the appearance and odours of things. It gives the environs of many of the scenes the feel of a set-dressing, rather than a vital, living place within which a story is occurring. When, for instance, Raphael rapes the assistant Curator he has just inadvertently murdered, it’s over and done with in a bland sentence: “Then I ravished her.”

Yet the City is unnatural. It’s not simply the life-style of those in the Houses. Much of the flora and fauna has also been altered – and are known by the term “geneslaves”. There are the aforementioned aardmen, but also willow trees which kill, and an intelligent talking chimpanzee (one of the Players in the troupe Wendy joins). It’s the sort of world which appeared quite often in science fiction during the late 1980s and early 1990s – I’m thinking of Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden (1989), or Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide (1991) – although Hand’s version is more dystopian and post-apocalyptic than most. The City is an interesting place, but the prose often works against the story, confusing what shouldn’t be difficult to parse.

In her review of the full trilogy in SF Eye #13 (reprinted in Deconstructing the Starships), Gwyneth Jones writes that Hand is “a writer who embraces gender difference – whether or not she notices where this embrace is leading her”. Certainly it’s true that there’s much that’s traditional in the gender roles played by the characters in Winterlong. Wendy becomes Aidan and discovers empowerment; Raphael stops being a sex toy and learns evil. The Shakespearean confusions and mistaken identities only work if you accept traditional gender roles. Given the world of Winterlong, it would not be unreasonable to expect some fluidity in this area – Wendy’s masquerade at least hints at the intent – but Hand fails to question the underlying assumptions with which she writes. And the opportunity is lost.

This review almost sounds as if I’m characterising Winterlong as a complete failure. Which is not the case. I thought it interesting, but overwritten. I have the sequel, but Winterlong has not really inspired me to read it, as Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman made me keen to seek out its sequels. But perhaps one day I will get round to reading Æstival Tide and, perhaps also, if I spot a paperback copy of Icarus Descending in a dealers’ room at a convention I might well buy it.


Women in sf reading challenge #3: Dark Space, Marianne de Pierres

Marianne de Pierries is one of several Australian authors published in the UK by Orbit. Her first book, Nylon Angel, the first of the Parrish Plessis cyberpunk trilogy, was published in 2004. Dark Space is the first book of her second series, The Sentients of Orion. It is space opera.

A lone mineral scout with less-than-appealing personal habits accidentally discovers a huge and mysterious alien which lives in the vacuum of space, and which appears to have near-divine powers – he dies, and it resurrects him. His discovery makes him rich, and an industry springs up around Sole, as the alien entity is named, in which applicants to “godhead” have their brain chemistry altered by it. Tekton, a “humanesque” from the planet Lostol, is one such applicant. He has politicked his way to Belle-Monde, the artificial world where candidates for godhead are tested.

Meanwhile, on the planet Araldis (with its unfortunate likeness to the name of brand of glue), Baronessa Mira Fedor has just learnt that she is not to be First Pilot. The heir apparent, Principe Trinder Pellegrino, is, even though he does not have the Inborn Talent which allows him to interface with the world’s sentient organic starship, Insignia. But on Araldis, the men are in charge, and the women are good for nothing but being wives or mistresses. Araldisian society is also strictly hierarchical, with a nobility, a hereditary servant class, and peasant miners. The world’s wealth is derived from its minerals. Its climate is hot and arid. Its culture is Italianate.

Mira runs away. Trinder offends his father by flirting with his new mistress, and is subsequently banished to a Carabiniere outpost in a remote town. And then someone invades the planet, sabotaging foodstocks and the mines, and loosing Saqr, rapacious barely-sentient aliens. Both Trin and Mira survive; they are the last of the nobility. With the help of Rast, a mercenary hired by Araldis’s ruler, Mira must take Insignia to the Orion League of Sentients to beg for help to repel the invasion. Dark Space ends with the launch of Insignia.

There is no “dark space” in this novel. In fact, the first line of the book is, “Dark space is not really dark”. Given that the phrase “dark space” is not common, in science or science fiction, it seems an odd choice for a title. Nor does the prologue into which that opening line leads instill confidence – it is crude exposition, cast as the testimony of Sole’s discoverer, a thoroughly unlikeable rogue.

Happily, the narrative set on Araldis is much better. Mira is an engaging protagonist, and the planet and its culture is interesting. However, the Italianised vocabulary is over-used. I can understand its use for titles, perhaps even for objects unique to the culture such as clothing. But I see no good reason why babies are referred to throughout as bambina and bambino, why children are called ragazza and ragazzo. It’s entirely unnecessary.

Tekton’s narrative is less satisfying. He dominates it and he is not at all sympathetic. He is arrogant and self-centred. His race display their naked bodies in much the same way as people on this planet display their wealth. But then Tekton is pretty much characteristic of all the male cast of Dark Space. I’m all for redressing the gender balance in genre fiction. But to me that means writing strong female characters, writing stories that pass the Bechdel Test. It doesn’t mean populating a story with male characters who are entirely shits. Even Trinder, the male protagonist of Dark Space, is far from sympathetic – and his relationship with Mira is symptomatic of his attitude. Of course, the culture of Araldis is chiefly to blame for the unlikeability of the men… except not all of the men are Araldisian. Tekton isn’t. The rogue who discovered Sole isn’t.

Perhaps I shouldn’t complain. After all, male genre writers of the past and present have treated their female characters as badly, or worse, since the days of Amazing Stories. But the correct response to an imbalance is balance, not a swing in the completely opposite direction.

Yet, despite all this, I actually enjoyed reading Dark Space. I have books two and three of the quartet, and will likely read them too. While I can rue de Pierres’ ham-fisted characterisation of her male cast, her clunky info-dumping, her bizarre choice of vocabulary to render into cod-Italian… none of these actually spoiled my enjoyment of the book.

So, not as successful a read as Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman, nor as interesting a novel as Liz Williams’ Winterstrike – but definitely a more enjoyable read than the latter.


Women in sf reading challenge #2: Winterstrike, Liz Williams

Liz Williams is one of those British sf writers who was first published in the US. Her debut novel, The Ghost Sister, was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award in 2001, but has never received a UK edition. It wasn’t until her second novel, Empire of Bones, that she had a novel published in the UK. And yet, despite writing more than a novel a year since then, and even being shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2006 for Banner of Souls, she’s not a writer who seems to have impinged much on my map of the genre. I’m not entirely sure why. As far as I could tell, her science fiction was of a variety that would appeal to me. Yet I never bought or read one of her books. Perhaps it was because she seemed focused on her Detective Inspector Chen series of Chinese fantasy novels, which don’t interest me in the slightest.

Whatever the reason, it’s a lack I’ve now rectified. Winterstrike is the first book in a planned trilogy. It was first published in 2008, although no sequels have yet to appear. It is set on a far-future Mars which bears very little resemblance to the Mars of science fact. Parts of the story take place on Earth, which is also greatly changed.

There’s a lot of praise for Winterstrike and Liz Williams reproduced on the covers of the paperback edition I read. So it would not have been unrealistic to have high expectations of the book. Perhaps they were too high. While I enjoyed Winterstrike, and thought parts of it very good, it left me overall feeling a little underwhelmed. It may well be that the misleading back-cover blurb didn’t help. It claims the novel is about Hestia Mar who has been sent to Caud, an enemy city-state, “to recover details of an ancient weapon”. Which she finds and passes to her home city of Winterstrike, an act which “has virtually guaranteed the use of the weapon”. Her cousin Essegui, meanwhile, “discovers a plot by creatures who hold the secrets of the Martian past, and its future”. Which all sounds very exciting and science-fictional, but is no real preparation for what the story actually describes.

Hestia is indeed a spy for Winterstrike, looking for data on an ancient weapon in Caud. But when she finds it and passes the data back to her handler, the effects of the weapon’s use are not described until near the end of the novel; and even then it’s peripheral to the main plot. Hestia’s story meanwhile goes off on an entirely different path: while returning to Winterstrike from Caud, she finds herself in the ghostly city of the Noumenon, and stumbles across the army of Mantis, a clone of an ancient despot. Essegui, on the other hand, is searching for her sister, Shorn, who has escaped after being imprisoned in her room for consorting with a man-remnant. But Shorn is not really Eseegui’s sister, nor in fact is she really human. Also important is Earth’s Centipede Queen, who has come to Mars to find Shorn, for reasons not fully disclosed, but which result in Hestia travelling to Earth to tell them their queen has gone missing…

The two main narratives of Winterstrike, Hestia’s and Essegui’s, frequently come close to touching but never quite meet. But they do overlap, often taking place in the same parts of Mars. Such a carefully-braided plot is not especially unusual, but the voices of the two characters are so similar it is sometimes hard to distinguish between them. It’s only when Hestia reaches Earth that the locales differentiate the two threads sufficiently to keep them separate in the mind of the reader. Even then, the novel never quite reveals what’s going on. When Shorn is revealed as a bio-engineered experiment, it comes as a surprise because there’d been no foreshadowing in her character, nor had the existence of the technology to do it been mentioned earlier. Admittedly, this does remain true to the points of view of the narrators, but the revelation still feels abrupt.

As indeed do many of the book’s other revelations. It’s difficult to sense the shape of the story because Hestia and Essegui are in thrall to forces they don’t understand, and their narratives do not allow for an omniscient viewpoint to give the reader greater knowledge. This is not as claustrophobic as it might suggest, but it does mean much of the story has to be read on faith.

Throughout Winterstrike, Williams uses an invented vocabulary to describe many elements of the world,  her word-choices often giving the novel a flavour similar to Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun. Unlike Wolfe, Williams has not used real obsolete or antique terms. For example, the Changed, the bio-engineered races of humanity on Mars and Earth, include vulpen, kappa and demothea. I googled the last word, wondering if it had any mythological meaning… and discovered that  it’s apparently a boy’s name from the Wild West and means “one who talks while walking”. Which, I suspect, was not the intended meaning in Winterstrike. None of Williams’ invented terms are glossed, or entirely clear from context; and it often takes a while for their precise meaning to come clear.

I wanted to like Winterstrike more than I did. The Mars Williams has created is bizarre and fascinating, but, while described as a matriarchy, there didn’t seem much that was, well, especially female about it. In fact, for much of the story, Mars might well have been an alien world and its inhabitants entirely unrelated to humanity. I’d like to read the next two books in the trilogy, but I shall not be waiting with bated breath for them. This is not to say Winterstrike is a bad book, just that I didn’t take to it as much as I had expected. But I may very well try Williams’ other sf novels should I come across them.


Women in sf reading challenge #1: The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein

I forget where I first came across mention of The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. It was in the last year or so, although the book was originally published in 1989. I do know that it’s not well known in the UK. But whenever, and whatever, I read about it, I decided it might appeal, and so determined to keep my eyes open for a copy. Which I found several months later in a local charity shop.

It is not a book , if I had known nothing of it, that I think I would have looked at twice. Had I not known of it when I found it in that charity shop, I would not have bought it. I’d heard it was quite good – but how often do you hear that about books, which promptly disappoint? I’d heard it read as fantasy but was really science fiction – but there’s so much room for manoeuvre in that statement, it’s hard to take it as any kind of useful description. Something brought The Steerswoman to my notice, something persuaded me it was worth reading…

And I’m glad I did. The Steerswoman is a gem. It’s by no means great literature, but it is most definitely appealing.

Rowan is the steerswoman of the title. Quite what these are, or how they came about, is never fully explained. They travel the land, observing, gathering facts, drawing and redrawing maps. Any one can ask them questions, and they must answer to the best of their ability. Should, however, they ask a question and are refused, then they can ban that person from ever being answered by a steerswoman again. There are, incidentally, steersmen, but they are greatly outnumbered. (In fact, The Steerswoman states there are three during the period the story takes place, and that it’s the largest number they’ve had in the organisation’s history.)

While investigating the origin of a strange blue jewel she has found, Rowan comes to the notice of the wizards. She is attacked by one of their soldiers but, with the help of new-found companion, Bel, a barbarian warrior woman from the Outskirts, she fights off the attacker. This only makes her more determined to solve the puzzle presented by the jewel. She returns to the steerswomen’s Archive to discuss her problem with her colleagues.

Bel has told her of a large bed of such jewels in the Outskirts. Rowan and Bel head for that bed, in disguise since the wizards are still after Rowan. En route, they are joined by William, a fourteen-year-old boy who has run away from home with the intention of being taken on as an apprentice by a wizard. He has magic of his own – charms which can do everything from crack stone to make things disappear noisily. En route, they are attacked by more soldiers, but win the fight. They trail the surviving soldier to the wizards’ keep and infiltrate it. But Rowan is captured, and subsequently learns some of the secrets behind the wizards’ powers…

The world The Steerswoman presents is a standard Dark Ages fantasy. People fight with swords, use candles to light their homes, and ride on horses when travelling great distances. There’s nothing especially original or distinctive about it. The wizards are not the rulers of the world, but they are an elite who appear to control everything. They are also split into two factions, Red and Blue, who periodically fight each other.

The Steerswoman is cleverly revealed as science fiction as the story progresses (unlike the cover art to the US paperback). There is nothing overt about this. William’s “charms”, for example, from their description are clearly chemical explosives. The magic lighting in the towns is plainly powered by electricity. The wizards, then, are a technological elite, presenting their science and technology as magic (rather than as, say, divine powers, as in Roger Zelazny’s Lord Of Light).

This slow evolution to science fiction is more subtle and immediate than in Jim Grimsley’s Kirith Kirin, which opens up its story’s universe in a series of appendices and so becomes almost a space opera; or even the hints dropped regarding the Age of Legends in Robert Jordan’s bloated Wheel of Time series.

The Steerswoman is not a novel whose prose shines; but neither does it put a foot wrong. It may resembled some sort of McCaffery sf lite/romance, but it is not in the slightest bit mushy – it features several graphically-described swordfights and a torture scene, for one thing. The protagonists are engaging and the mystery is enticing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Kirstein went on to write three sequels to The Steerswoman: The Outskirter’s Secret, The Lost Steersman and The Language of Power. All four are available in an omnibus volume, The Steerswoman’s Road. I shall have get me that omnibus volume. (Edit: apparently the omnibus only contains the first two books. Ah well. I shall try to find all three books, then…)

A good start to 2011’s reading challenge.