Ascension — Jacqueline Koyanagi

Cover of Ascension

Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel
Jacqueline Koyanagi
331 pages
published in 2013

It was the woman on the cover which drew me to this novel and the subtitle which almost scared me off again. The woman attracted me because it’s not often you actually do see a woman of colour on the cover of a science fiction novel, sometimes not even when the heroine is indeed a black woman. Seeing that got me to pull Ascension off the shelves, but reading the subtitle A Tangled Axon Novel almost made me put it back because it made it sound as if this was a novel in an established series, rather than a first novel. Luckily the inside cover blurb mentioned that this was Jacqueline Koyanagi’s first novel, so I took a punt. Not having heard of her or her novel before, in the end the cover as well as reading the first few pages were enough to make me want to read this.

And I’m so glad I did, because this was a glorious, wonderful mess of a book. Reading it, especially in the first couple of chapters, you get the idea that the author is only showing you glimpses of a much larger universe she’s been carrying around in her head for a long time, therefore occasionally making oblique references to things she knows and which are completely clear to her, but doesn’t quite explain to the reader. That’s the messy part of the book. The glorious and wonderful parts are its characters, its protagonist especially. Alana Quick is a sky surgeon, a starship engineer in the midst of a depression when nobody needs starship engineers because starships are obsolete. Her ex-wife left her for a career with Transliminal Solutions, the company that made them obsolete, her sister Nova has a flourishing career as a spirit guide, relieving rich clients from their anxieties, while her own obsession with space, with the Big Quiet, makes her unsuitable for anything but repairing spaceships even if the hard physical labour does her chronic nerve disease no favours. Having to deal with a debilitating disease while barely making ends meet, is it any wonder she stows away when the Tangled Axon comes looking for her sister? Or that she falls in love with the ship’s glamorous captain Tev — “all blond hair, boots and confidence”?

A love that may seem hopelessly misguided at first, as neither crew nor captain take kindly to a stowaway, though they have no qualms in using her as a hostage to get through to her sister. As to why they’re so desparate to resort to such measures, it’s because the ship’s pilot, Marre is slowly disappearing, dying little by little and only Transliminal could cure her. But you need something to trade to get anything from Transliminal and luckily Birke, the mysterious woman who’s the — boss? CEO? Leader? — of Transliminal in this universe is obsessed with Nova, so they’re gambling that if they can get Nova to agree to work for Birke, her gratitude will give them a cure for Marre. There may even be a possibility of a real cure for the Mel’s disorder Alana suffers from.

As the external threats mount up for the Tangled Axon and crew, it’s the internal tensions that ratchet up. With her sister on board, Alana, who grew up in her shadow, has to deal with her feelings of inadequacy, jealousy and love towards her. At the same time her growning attraction to Tev is complicated by the fact that she’s in a relation with the ship’s doctor, Slip, also the first person in the crew to treat Alana half decently. Then there’s Marre, losing cohesion, with parts of her body dissappearing and reappearing at random, who fascinates Alana; she keeps hearing her in her head. Perhaps the least complicated person on board the ship is the other engineer, Ovie, who just looks like a big wolf occassionally but at least isn’t emotionally complicated like the rest of them. And of course there’s the ship itself, with which Alana from the first feels at home and talks to.

Ascension then is space opera, but one with a love story at the heart of it. It’s not just Alana falling in lust and then in love with Tev, moving beyond Alana’s initial attraction to her as a symbol of everything she ever wanted to wanting her as a person, but also Alana’s re-evaluation of her relationship with her sister, relationships with the other members of the crew, Slip, Marre and Ovie and as always, the ship itself.

And that brings us again to the messy part. Because we see everything through Alana’s eyes and Alana is confused, blinded by her emotions, occassionally lying to herself and like so many people, often worst at recognising her own blindspots, there’s a lot that she tells us that turns out not to be true, or not quite as she thinks it is. This is the core of the novel. Alana is not an unreliable narrator in the traditional sense, but like most of us, she’s build up stories about herself that colour her perceptions. This is most clear when we finally meet and get to know her sister, who isn’t quite the shallow airhead Alana makes her out to be and whose calling as a spirit guide can do more than just massage the egos of rich clients. Alana’s prejudices and assumptions make her (and by extention, us as readers) miss plot developments that might’ve been blindingly obvious with another narrator.

What stuck the most with me in reading Ascension was the underlying theme of disability and chronic illness. It’s not just Alana having to deal with her Mel’s Disorder or Marre very sfnal illness, slowly disappearing from the universe. Tev only becomes a real person, rather than somebody to admire or fuck, when it turns out she lost one of her legs in an industrial accident. She does have an artificial leg indistinguishable from a real one, but only when she’s clothed and she’s still paying it off. For both Alana and Tev their respective disabilities are things they have to live with, not things that define them, but they’re not a DND style kind of weakness either, something to offset their strengths. Alana has to keep her illness into account when working, to make sure she doesn’t make it worse and if she can’t take her mediciation, it will fuck her up; she’s learned how to minimise the impact her disease has on her life, but doesn’t always succeed or have that luxury. It’s a very mature, realistic portrayal of what being chronically ill means and for me personally it worked.

What I also found realistic is how Alana’s health is part of her soured relationship with her sister Nova, who’s perfectly healthy but who as a spirit guide disdains her body. This is the first sf novel ever that I’ve read that could and did talk about health privilege. Science fiction over the years hasn’t done well in showing people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, other than providing a bit of extra glamour perhaps to dark and brooding antiheroes, so to see it handled so well here is appreciated.

In the end, Ascension is a love story as much as a space opera and it worked for me. The relationships between Alana, her sister Nova, Tev and Marre, Ovie and Slip were just a delight to see established and grow. If you like science fiction about strong, queer women of colour dealing with their disabilities, this is the book for you. If you don’t, what’s wrong with you?

Zoe’s Tale — John Scalzi

Cover of Zoe's Tale

Zoe’s Tale
John Scalzi
406 pages
published in 2008

John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War was popular enough to spawn four sequels so far, of which Zoe’s Tale is the third. Military science fiction set in a Heinleinian dog eat dog universe, with hundred of alien races competing for new colonies and humanity only a middling power, the first three novels in the series followed new recruit John Perry and Special Forces specialist Jane Sagan through increasingly high stakes adventures, in the process learning that the Colonial Defence Forces they’re fighting for might not be entirely trustworthy. Things came to a head in the third novel, The Last Colony in which John and Jane, as leaders of the latest colony founded by the CDF had to fight off the Conclave, a four hundred members strong alien alliance as well as the CDF’s own plans to turn the colonists into martyrs. Amongst those colonists? Their own, adopted, daughter Zoë.

As you may have guessed from the title, Zoe’s Tale retells and extends the story of The Last Colony from Zoë’s point of view. On its own it’s therefore slightly less than a whole novel and can only be properly understood if you’ve read the previous novel. Things happen for reasons that are only partially explained, with major plot developments happening off screen, “as you know bobbed” later; at the same time Zoe’s Tale was partially written to explain some of the plot holes from The Last Colony. For me, it had been more than two years since I’d read it, so some of its plot was a bit hazy while reading this; not entirely dissimilar to Zoë’s experiences.

Zoë is the seventeen year old daughter of a defeated adversary, not just adopted by John and Jane, but also the living symbol of Earth’s treaty with the Obin, an alien species with intelligence but no consciousness, until her natural father created a device to give them consciousness artificially. As a consequence Zoë is accompanied at all times by two Obin bodyguards and friends of the family, Hickory and Dickory. One of the main plot threads in the book is her continuing discovery of how much she means to the Obin and the consequences this has for her.

Zoe’s Tale is told entirely through her eyes, first person. Having a fortysomething male writer write from a teenage girl’s perspective is always tricky but fortunately for all his Heinleinian influences Scalzi is much better at writing female characters than he ever was. Not that Zoë is entirely believable: she’s far too reasonable, obedient and mature for her age, unless the plot demands otherwise. Granted, she’s of course not quite the average teenage girl, what with that whole Obin thing, but despite this it still felt a bit off to me.

The novel starts with Zoë and her family coming to their new colony homeworld, then discovering not everything is as it seems and that they’re going to function as bait, though it takes a while for that to become common knowledge. A large part of the story is taken up with Zoë’s adventures on the journey to the new colony and her experience in it, before the Conclave come. This feels somewhat jumbled and episodic and things seem to happen because they happened in The Last Colony rather than flowing organically from the plot. As said, Zoë remains unaware or is only told later about major developments, while in the previous novel you were right there.

Two of the plotlines however are exactly the opposite, showing the details of things only sketched in in The Last Colony, viz what happened with the “werewolf” like aborigines that turned out to live on the planet, as well as the story of how Zoë escaped from the colony to seek help amongst the Obin. These are the strongest sections of the story and the places where Zoë comes to the fore, an active participant rather than an observer.

In the end Zoe’s Tale was a decent enough read, but only because I’d already read the previous novels, if several years before. It’s somewhat weaker than them, largely due to the fact that this was partially intended to repair some of the plot holes in the previous novel.

The Dispossessed — Ursula K. LeGuin

Cover of The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed
Ursula K. LeGuin
319 pages
published in 1974

After the Earthsea trilogy and of course The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed is arguably Ursula LeGuin’s most famous novel. It was one of a small group of novels in the early seventies –including e.g. Joanna Russ’ The Female Man that took the American New Wave and science fiction as a whole into a much more explicit political direction. It’s a novel that’s still controversial today, or at the very least can still lead to heated debates. The Dispossessed has been hugely influential in radicalising whole generations of fans, while there are plenty of conservative science fiction fans for whom its is a symbol of everything that went wrong with science fiction in the seventies.

The Dispossessed, firmly in the utopian tradition of Herland and looking Backward is a travelogue, set on the double planets of Urras, stand-in for seventies America and Anarres, the “ambiguous utopia” of the subtitle. The protagonist Shevek is a brilliant young physicist whose passion for science leads him to travel from his anarcho-syndicalist home planet to Urras because there he hopes to find the support he needs to finish his thesis. In alternating chapters we get to see his journeys to and on Urras as well as his upbringing and life on Anarres.

Anarres is a harsh world, barely liveable with limited resources; it’s dependent on exporting certain rare minerals and metals to Urras to earn some of the support it needs to keep going. Settled two hundred years before in a grand bargain to prevent an anarchist uprising on Urras, the resulting society has been shaped both by the necessities of life on Anarres as well as the ideology of its founders. The result is a classless, government-less society in which everybody is equal and free to do what they want to, yet in everyday life the emphasis is very much on keeping consensus and sharing. There’s little luxury but a lot of camaraderie, everybody working together to survive on an unforgiven world. Or at least, that’s the theory. The reality is slightly different.

There’s no government on Anarres, but there is Production and Distribution Coordination (PDC), grown out of the crisises Anarres had to deal with, which slowly metastatised into something resembling a professional bureaucracy, including politicing and power struggles. The PDC is responsible for coordinating everything that’s needed to keep people alive, for example assigning people to the jobs that need doing. This is supposed to be done based on the needs of the community as a whole as well as the wants and skills of the individual, who is free to reject the assignment or request another, but in practise some more …difficult… individuals find it hard to get assigned to anything but manual labour.

More insidiously, consensus thinking keeps most of the population in line: you’re free to do what you want as long as your neighbours don’t mind. People like Shevek who are slighly different or slightly awkward at fitting in are punished for it, in more and less subtle ways. In an early scene, the eight year old Shevek has independently discovered one of Zeno’s paradoxes, but when trying to explain it is accused of egotising rather than sharing. In another, a man with a similar name to him attacks him without anybody interfering. Shevek accepts that as the way the world works, any dispute being solely between the two people involved and no business of anybody else. In these and other ways a rough consensus is kept, with those unwilling or unable to keep to it punished in informal ways.

As said, Shevek accepts all this, as it is after all the world he grew up in. While it has its flaws and while life on Anarres can be tough due to the harsh conditions of the world by the end of The Dispossessed it’s clear that it is far more honest and fair than life on Urras; people might starve but they starve together.

When Shevek arrives on Urras he is first struck with the richness of it. The world itself is much richer and friendlier than Anarres, but there’s also the wealth of the people at the university, the fact that he is given several rooms for his own personal use, without the need to share with anyone. Or just the simple fact that Urras’ society is rich enough to throw away paper rather than recycle it. It’s only after he gets used to this richness that he’s able to see the poverty it hides, the sickness that made it possible. Urras is of course a slightly exagerrated view of American society in the seventies, including brutal repression of antiwar and trade union protest as well as a cold war between the two most powerful nations on Urras, one the capitalist nation of A-Lo Shevek finds himself in, the other the vaguely communist nation of Thu.

The way LeGuin builds up the contrasts between Anarres and Urras is clever, as she shows the latter at its most desirable, the former at it least in the first chapter, starting with Shevek being driven from his home and welcomed into the opulence of Urras. She’s also careful to make neither society wholly bad or wholly perfect: the appeal of Urras’ wealth to Shevek is understandable, while despite its flaws, it’s also clear Anarres’ society is superior. This may be ambiguous, but it’s still an utopian society, if a very seventies one with its emphasis on shared suffering rather than shared wealth. The politics of The Dispossessed are well thought out, counsciously worked out, without ever getting preachy. Unfortunately however it’s all let down by a huge but forty years on glaringly obvious blind spot: women.

Because the only two major female characters in The Dispossessed are Shevek’s patient, quietly supportive wife and the woman he sexually assaults on Urras. Of course there’s also Odo, the founder of Anarres anarcho-syndicalism, but she’s there to play the role of safely dead secular saint for the Odonists. Though LeGuin contrasts the even more patriarchal than actual seventies America Urras with the supposedly equality of the genders on Anarres, seeing the actual female characters with such limited roles, only there as props for the protagonist, completely undermines this.

At least for modern audiences. Because I’m not sure how noticable this was to contemporary audiences, back in the days when science fiction was largely a sausagefest and it was no more than natural that even women writers would have male protagonists and women where there only as wives and girlfriends. The Dispossessed was neither the first nor would be the last novel to earnestly talk about equality while undermining itself with what it actually does. This failure shouldn’t necessarily stop you from appreciating what The Dispossessed does, but does show it’s still a product of its time and therefore shows some of the unconscious attitudes of that time. It’s progress of a short that we notice it.

The Time Traders — Andre Norton

Cover of The Time Traders

The Time Traders
Andre Norton
191 pages
published in 1958

If it wasn’t for Project Gutenberg I might’ve never read this novel. Though Andre Norton was one of the most prolific US science fiction writer, mostly writing what we’d now call young adult novels, she never was translated into Dutch much so was missing when I went through my personal Golden Age. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to catch up with her, in no small part thanks to Gutenberg’s collection of her works. Because until roughly the seventies, American copyright was only valid for a limited time and had to be explicitly renewed, a lot of science fiction pulp and early paperback stories entered the public domain. In this case, the copyright on the original 1958 hardcover publication of The Time Traders was never renewed, making it fair game for Gutenberg.

I picked this out of the available Nortons for two reasons: it was the first book in a series and more importantly, it was a time travel story. It had been a while since I’d last read a good, old fashioned time travel story and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly. After all, it has time agents who have to travel undercover through prehistoric times to find the ancient civilisation from which the Soviets are getting sophisticated weaponry and technology they couldn’t have possibly produced themselves.

But that does point to the novel’s greatest problem: it was written in 1958, at the height of the first Cold War and it shows. It’s not just that this is a straight arms race between heroic, American time travellers and devious Soviet agents, it’s also that the protagonist, Ross Murdock, is an example of that other fifties bugbear, a juvenile delinquent, mollycoddled by society. He thinks he knows how the game is played until he finds himself being drafted in a top secret project, which we, even if the title hadn’t been a dead giveaway, know soon enough is a time travel project, but which costs him some time to find out. Though gifted with a bit of cunning and some inner strength, Ross at first is not the brightest bulb.

The Time Traders starts with Ross being drafted into the project, blind, as alternative to being sent to prison for unspecified crimes. He at first thinks to play along to bide his time until he has an opportunity to escape the polar base he’s sent to, but when his chance at escape would mean betraying the base to the Soviets, he can’t do it. This finally earns him some measure of trust as the goal of the time travel project is explained to him and he begins his training in earnest.

This second part of the book is dominated by I guess you can call it a love story, between Ross and his mentor, an older time agent called Gordon Ashe. Gordon is the father figure Ross never had and he does his utmost to win his respect. This comes to a head as they go on their first time travel journey together, back to prehistoric England, where the agents have established themselves as foreign traders and established a small base. Of course things go wrong and of course it turns to Ross to save the day.

If I’m honest, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Ross and Gordon’s adventures in prehistory, rather than it all devolving in spy games with Russian time agents. Though much of what Norton shows of prehistoric, iron age Britain may be obsolete or have always been nonsense, she does have a good eye for the small, telling detail to make a world come alive and I would’ve liked to spent more time there. The plot itself is of course dated, especially because it is supposed to be set sometime in the near future, but after a while it didn’t bother me. If it would you, there’s an updated version brought out by Baen Books, if I’m not mistaken, which has updated the Cold War plots. I’m not sure that was needed.

The Time Traders was popular enough to spawn three sequels, two of which (but not the second) are also available at Gutenberg, as well as three much later continuations by Norton plus a junior writer. Again, not having read them, I’d be wary to try these latter. Famous writers revisiting popular series with the help of less famous writers never work out.

Remnant Population — Elizabeth Moon

Cover of Remnant Population

Remnant Population
Elizabeth Moon
360 pages
published in 1996

Elizabeth Moon is a writer I didn’t pay much attention to until a year or two ago. I’d read one or two of her books and they were competently written military science fiction, better written than those of a David Weber or John Ringo, but nowhere near as good as Lois McMaster Bujold’s. When I decided I needed to read more female science fiction writers, Moon was one of the writers I was giving a second chance. Since then I’ve read roughly half a dozen or so of her novels and my initial impression of her has remained roughly the same. She’s a better writer than she needs to be to sell the sort of stories she usually writes and there’s a bit of hidden depth in her mil-sf stories that’s missing from many of her colleagues, that hint at a greater potential. Yet she seems content to keep on writing the same sort of adventure science fiction and fantasy.

Not always though. On two occasions Moon has attempted to write something else than military science fiction, something more ambitious. The most well known of these two novels is of course her Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke winning 2002 novel, Speed of Dark. The other one is Remnant Population, which is a novel about First Contact, between the hitherto unknown indigenous population of an alien planet and the last remaining inhabitant of a failed human colony. As such, it’s a good case study of Moon’s strengths and weaknesses.

To start with the good bits: the protagonist Ofelia, a cantankerous widowed peasant woman not very enamoured of her youngest child and his wife she’s stuck living with. They’re controlling and bossy, always trying to get her to conform to their ideas of what a respectable widow should look and act like. Coming from a conservative society Ofelia has had more than enough of this her entire life. She resists this the way peasant women have forever, through passive resistance and going her own way as much as she can. It’s the same way in which she avoids being taken aboard the evacuation ship when the colony is abandoned, simply by not being there when the ship takes off.

Throughout the next part of the book, as Ofelia struggles to establish her new life alone and starts enjoying herself, we get to know more of her life before she came to this planet, on another colony world; Earth isn’t mentioned and it’s unclear how long humanity has been colonising other systems. It’s clear, both from what Ofelia tells about her life in the colony as on her homeworld that the society she grew up with, despite having star travelling technology is a conservative one, with a large base of only semi-educated peasants to which Ofelia and her parents belong, very much a “traditional” patriarchy, vaguely Latin American in flavour, though that may just be me. Besides this there’s also a much more technocratic, gender equal, westernised elite that works for the companies and the military. Ofelia doesn’t have much truck for them, as these tend to patronise her as much as her family attempted to control her. She’s glad to be finally alone and beyond the control of either of them.

Ofelia doesn’t stay alone for long; new colonists from a different company show up to reclaim the planet while pretty soon it’s also clear that there is actually indigenous intelligent life on the planet. When the new colonists land on a different continent they’re attacked and killed by these aliens, with Ofelia following everything on the radio. Ever since then she lives in fear the aliens will track her down and kill her too and indeed her worst fears seem to be confirmed when they do show up in her village.

It turns out that the aliens are a lot less hostile than their earlier actions suggested and Ofelia now has to learn to live with them and teach them, something she’s not that enthusiastic about, though gets to appreciate more once she gets used to them. For me it would’ve been perfect had the rest of the book explored the first contact and building up of trust and genuine friendship between Ofelia and the aborigines with their “stone age”, pre-literate oral culture, but Moon felt it necessary to complicate the story by having a human expedition return to Ofelia’s world.

This is probably Elizabeth Moon’s greatest weakness:s he can’t write a story without overt conflict for which she needs a villain. In this case the villains are the members of the expedition back to Ofelia’s world, there to determine whether the aborigines are really intelligent and what to do about them. They’re smug, patronising to Ofelia and much much dumber than they themselves realise. While Ofelia manages to establish genuine contact with the aliens, learning to slowly speak their language, the expedition dissolves in petty squabbles, threatening the trust Ofelia had managed to build. In other words, the author’s thumb is very much on the scale at Ofelia’s side.

Making the newcomers more stupid than they should be, making these highly educated and smart specialists too dumb to find their backsides with a map, a compass and a flashlight, cheapens the story. It does fit the overall theme of the story though, which consistently puts Ofelia’s “uneducated” peasant wisdom against the book learning of her social superiors. It’s a deeply conservative message, which isn’t all that surprising coming from Elizabeth Moon, whose writing always has been a bit on the conservative side. The only problem with this here is that she basically has Ofelia defeat straw men, the plot didn’t need these cardboard villains.

Remnant Population then is a flawed but interesting attempt by Moon to write something deeper than the military adventure sf stories she usually writes. It’s unfortunate that she led her worst instincts to take over the last third of so of the story to introduce unnecessary conflict.