Schitterende Wereld — Mel Hartman

Cover of Schitterende Wereld

Schitterende Wereld
Mel Hartman
262 pages
published in 2013

Mel Hartman is a Flemish writer of mostly fantasy, whose series Fantasiejagers has been relatively popular in the Low Countries. Because I haven’t been paying attention to Dutch language science fiction or fantasy I don’t know her, but the cover of Schitterende Wereld caught my attention in the library, so I picked it up, browse through the introduction and was intrigued enough to take it home.

Because it turned out Schitterende Wereld (beautiful world or wonderful world) was a homage to the classic science documentary series Een Schitterend Ongeluk (A Beautiful Accident), in which six very different world class scientists got to talk about life, the universe and well, everything. Apparantly Hartman was quite taken by the documentary and accompanying book and it inspired herto write 12 stories based on the work of these six scientists: Rupert Sheldrake, Oliver Sacks, Stephen Toulmin, Freeman Dyson, Daniel C. Dennett and Stephen Jay Gould. That seemed interesting enough to take a punt on, especially since I quite liked that documentary series myself.

Unfortunately this turned out to be a bit of a disappointment though. The stories were pedestrian, puzzle stories with mostly predictable twists and little of the influence of the featured scientists noticable. The characters strive towards two dimensions, the language used is workman like and after reading several of these stories in a row you really notice Hartman’s little tics. Her characters shrug a lot, often violently, as a way to show emotion and every story seemed to have at least one instance of this.

In general, it struck me how old fashioned these stories were. Most of them could’ve been published as minor stories in a fifties Analog or Galaxy. They’re entertaining, but no more than that, with one or two exceptions. It’s a shame, because Hartman certainly has the enthusiasm and will to start such an ambitious project, just failed in making it interesting.

  • Rupert Sheldrake
    • Herinneringen (Memories)
      The first story is also the best one in the book. Martijn suffers from epileptic attacks in which he’s thrown back in his memories as if he travels back in time. When he notices that he can actually influence his younger self’s decisions, he starts to meddle in his past…
    • Toekomstvisies (future visions)
      Anton is a very uncurious fellow with one very special gift: through morphonic resonance he’s able to pick up images of live on an alien planet. This gift is exploited by a company that uses his visions to create new and improved consumer goods, as well as more sinister applications. The twist here is revealed in the title.
  • Oliver Sacks
    • Achter de Muur (Behind the Wall)
      A man who suffers from a condition that means he can only see things that aren’t moving, notices that if he concentrates and looks long enough at a single spot he can see images from another world. He falls in love with a woman he sees there but when he realises her husband is attempting to have her murdered, there’s no way he can save her, or is there?
    • Achter de Spiegel (Behind the Mirror)
      A blind woman suddenly sees a strange woman in her home. Is she a hallucination caused by optical nerves being understimulated, or something more? And does she have to chose between her and her husband?
  • Stephen Toulmin
    • Pas op wat je Wenst (Be careful what you wish for)
      A woman dies in a car crash and lands in Heaven with knowledge she shouldn’t have, then is caught in a bureaucratic nightmare as Heaven tries to make good its error.
    • De Man die nog Tien Vingers te Leven Had (The Man Who Still Had Ten Fingers to Live)
      In future where everybody’s chipped and beggars no longer exists, one of the last remaining beggars has a fool proof way to keep himself alive without being caught in the mazes of a perfect system of control…
  • Freeman Dyson
    • Cyclus van een Persoonlijkheid (Cycle of Consciousness)
      The other stand out story of the collection. With Lifeshift ™ technology, your personality can be detached from your memories and sold on to others, as you try on a personality more suited to your lifestyle. Of course, there’s always room for unscrupulous people to take advantage of the system…
    • Cyclus van het Leven (Cycle of Life)
      An expedition to plant life on a distant planet to enable the survival of humanity, comes to a horrifying discovery when investigating it: they’re not the first there. Barely readable because of the obnoxious protagonist and hoary cliches of the “and then they discovered this strange planet was actually our own Earth” ending.
  • Daniel C. Dennett
    • Mechanisch Bewustzijn (Mechanical Consciousness)
      A singleminded robot guarding the cryochamber of a frozen millionaire throwing himself into the future in search of a cure for his cancer, starts developing faults in its programming.
    • Zonder Bewustzijn (Without Consciousness)
      Slowly, without fuzz, all means of communication disappeared, newest to oldest…
  • Stephen Jay Gould
    • Op Zoek Naar het Einde van het Heelal (In Search of the End of the Universe)
      A ranting astronaut slowly going insane in search of the physical end of the universe. The worst story in the collection.
    • Het Einde van de Beschaving (The End of Civilisation)
      Deeply cynical story about a woman who has herself cryogenically frozen so she can see the future and ends up long after humanity has died out and cockroaches have become intelligent..

The Defiant Agents — Andre Norton

Cover of The Defiant Agents

The Defiant Agents
Andre Norton
222 pages
published in 1962

The danger with relying on Project Gutenberg for your reading is that you end up missing things, like in this case, where the first novel in a series, The Time Traders was available, but the sequel wasn’t and I only noticed once I had started to read this, the third in the series. Luckily the first chapter is all setup and infodumping, explaining how in Galactic Derelict time travel led to the discovery of a fully functioning alien spaceship, from the same aliens as see in the first novel and that in turn led to a warehouse full of navigation tapes. Those tapes were divided by lot ver various countries, including Soviet Russia and of course with the Cold War raging between the West and the USSR, spying is rife. As The Defiant Agents opens, one Soviet plant has manages to get his hands on the navigation tape for one of the most promising planets the west has in its possession, which means a crash expedition has to be launched to colonise it before the Russians do.

That crash expedition becomes literal when it turns out the Soviets are already there and have hunter/killer satellites in orbit, shooting down the expedition’s spaceship. Thanks to a bit of luck and a bit of skill the ship, though damaged, still manages to crash land on Topaz in such a way that their enemies think they’re dead. With the crew dead, the colonists, now less than forty, all volunteers from an Apache tribe, have to build a new home on a world with not just hostile nature to contend with, but also hostile humans as the Soviets who have poached the planet are still there. And it’s up to Travis Fox, once Time Travel Agent, to guide his people.

The reason why Apaches were chosen as colonists is because they, like the other groups of volunteers, had “a high survival rating in the past” and they were suited to the climate of Topaz; the other groups mentioned being “Eskimos from Point Barren” (sic) and Islanders. As with so much Golden Age science fiction, you never quite get the feeling the planet much more than stage dressing, certainly not an idea that planets are huge and don’t really have a uniform climate as such.

As Fox explores Topaz and the Apaches get settled, he runs into the Soviet colonists, which turns out to be Mongols who unlike the Apaches are held prisoner through the use of mind control machines. Like the Apaches, those Mongols had been subjected to Redax training, which leads them to live the lives of their ancestors while crossing space from Earth to Topaz, leaving most confused about which life is real, that of the Russia they barely remember or that of the Golden Horde. In either case, their will to escape the Soviet mindcontrol is great and it’s one such escapee, Kaydessa, that Fox runs into as she tries to flee into the mountains that would shield her from the mind control rays. Through a series of adventures Fox’s Apaches and Kaydessa’s Mongols of the Golden Horde team and overthrow the Soviet dictators and set out to lead a new and free life on an alien planet.

So yeah, there’s no denying that The Defiant Agents, like the whole Time Traders series is a product of its time, of the fifties-early sixties Cold War period. The Russian baddies are pure evil with no redeeming features and there’s that consistent paranoia about their technical abilities, far beyond those of the American heroes, who have to counter with pluck and moxie. Not surprising as this was written in the shadow of Sputnik, when the Soviet mastery of the space race seemed to prove the superiority of their system. Reading from a post-Cold War point of view this seems naive, but of course we know a lot more about the realities of Soviet Russia than could’ve been known to Norton at the time.

Far more importantly is that this is a novel where, save for the talking heads in chapter one, all the major characters are people of colour, either native Americans or Mongols, with only the Russian baddies being white and those mainly exists as obstacles. Even now this is rare in science fiction, let alone in 1962. Robert Heinlein has gotten a lot of credit over the years by making Rico out of Starship Troopers Philipino as well as hinting that Rod out of Tunnel in the Sky is black, but he never wrote a novel as upfront about having characters of colour as this one.

Mind you, the portrayal of the Apaches and Mongols both, while clearly intended to be respectful, is probably somewhat on the cliched side. I’m not too familiar with Apache culture but it reminded me here of the better sort of western movie.

One recurring Norton theme, that of the bond between telepathic animal and human, is also present here, with Fox having a telepathic bond with a pair of coyotes specially bred for this. Interestingly, Norton explains their powers by making them the descendants of coyotes living in White Sands, which is of course where the US had its first atomic tests…

The Outskirter’s Secret — Rosemary Kirstein

Cover of The Outskirter's Secret

The Outskirter’s Secret
Rosemary Kirstein
342 pages
published in 1992

The Outskirter’s Secret is the sequel to The Steerswoman, the second in what’s so far a four book, projected to be seven book series. Kirstein is one of those authors who’ve fallen between the cracks of the science fiction/fantasy field: incredibly loved by those who’ve read her books, but barely known outside that circle of aficionados. The trouble is, for all sort of reasons, she isn’t a fast writer; the first two books in the series were written in 1989 and 1992, the second two in 2003 and 2004, with the fifth scheduled for publishing next year. Perhaps. Which means that, because she’s never been the runaway bestseller kind of author, that her books slip out of print faster than they’re written and you have to luck into finding her books secondhand to be initiated into her cult once you’ve heard people like Jo Walton rave about her. Luckily these days there are ebooks.

The Steerswoman series is science fiction in what looks like a fantasy setting, complete with wizards, dragons and goblins, in which Rowan, the titular steerswoman through her curiosity and intelligence is driven to investigate the nature of her world. Steerswomen (as well as the occasional steerman) are members of what you may call a semi religious order bound to answer any question truthfully as long as in return their own questions are also answered in the same manner. In the first book, Rowan’s curiosity into a peculiar kind of worked blue stone she found made her into a target for a wizard conspiracy. She escaped and in The Outskirter’s Secret, together with her faithful companion Bel, an Outskirter herself, a member of one of the nomadic tribes living in the wildernesses beyond the civilised inner lands, sets out to track down the source of the blue stones, deep in the Outskirts.

The Outskirter’s Secret starts out as a quest story, as Rowan and Bel move out from the familiar Inner Lands into the Outskirts, looking for a tribe to join for the duration, as they wouldn’t be able to survive on their own. It’s a reversal of the first book, where Bel was the one asking questions of Rowan about Inner Lands customs, now it’s Rowan who has to be guided around the dangers of the Outskirts, which are many. This is of course a well known fantasy plot type, the quest out into the untamed wilderness beyond civilisation to find a source of great power and much of what Rowan and Bel encounter could be read in fantasy terms.

So for example a goblin attack leads them to rescue a member of one Outskirter tribe, which gets them accepted into the tribe. The tribe itself is also familiar from countless fantasy stories (and further back, the western pulp stories these were “inspired” by). You got your young warriors and scouts, the usaul honour code and the core of elder men and women providing everything else. The tribe follows its goat herds across the great grassy plains, eking out an existence, moving on once the herd has devestated the landscape, with the goats providing everything the tribe eats. Only here the grass is red.

But this isn’t a fantasy story and the Outskirters aren’t badly thought out fantasy analogues of real world nomadic tribes. This is science fiction, perhaps one of the purest science fiction novels I’ve ever read. The heart of The Outskirter’s Secret isn’t the quest for the downed guidestar, it’s the slow revelation of the true relationship of the Outskirters to their environment as Rowan first wonders at how different their life is from the Inner Lands and then starts to figure out why that is.

The Outskirter’s Secret is a classic science fiction puzzle story, where the reader already knows the big secret of Rowan and Bel’s world and the pleasure lies in seeing the pieces fall in place. This only works if it’s done honestly, if there aren’t any convenient infodumps brought by mysterious strangers clueing in the protagonist to the real nature of her world, if Rowan doesn’t come to conclusions we know are true but she couldn’t possibly have known. As readers we knew or suspected that Rowan’s world is being terraformed and that this explains the dual nature of the Inner Lands and the Outskirts, but Rowan can’t know that, as that’s completely outside her frame of reference.

In The Steerswoman, Kirstein already proved that she could have Rowan come to the right conclusions honestly, when she had her calculate where the blue jewels that actually set her off on her quest came from, based on the spread of where they had been found, “as if a giant had flung them”. That ultimately led her to the conclusion that the source of these stones was actually a hithero unsuspected guidestar that had come down from its orbit, which led her and Bel into the Outskirts in search of it. Which in turn leads her to discover the differences between Outskirter life and that of the Inner Lands.

That process of discovery Rowan engages in alongside the more conventional quest plot is what makes The Outskirter’s Secret one of the great ecological science fiction novels. Through Rowan’s deductions, based on Bel and other Outskirters’ explanations of life in the Outskirts, it becomes clear that it is a border zone between the terrestrial ecology of the Inner Lands and the actual alien ecologies lying beyond the Outskirts. It also becomes clear, early in the novel even, that the Inner Lands and the Outskirts are not static, but that as the former grow, the latter move outwards. This explains the nomadic Outskirter lifestyle, completely dependent on their goat herds for substance. The presence of these herds and the Outskirters themselves as they actively hunt down and destroy Outskirter life, destroys the landscape they move through, requiring them to keep moving.

Behind all of this there’s the overall metaplot that got started in The Steerswoman, the central mystery of the wizards and Slado, their leader and what he’s up to. We get another piece of that puzzle here in the form of the discoveries Rowan makes about the relationship between Inner Lands and the Outerskirts, but much is still unclear. There’s also still the problem of the fallen guidestar and what made it fall.

Two other things that struck me about The Outskirter’s Secret and this series in general is the friendship between Rowan and Bel, one of the best portrayed friendships in science fiction, as well as the general agency and equality of women in this series. There’s no hint of the pseudo equality of so many fantasy series that put men and women in traditionalist, medievaloid gender roles with some handwaving about the power of the village women council or some invented pseudoreligious magical order. Instead, men and women do the same work and have the same responsibilities in Outskirter society, without Kirstein making a big production out of this. It’s just the way the world works.

The other thing that struck me is how much of a comfort read this was for me, even though I’ve never read this series before. From the first scene Kirstein had me at ease, willing to spent as much time in her world as she allowed. It’s rare to have a book so welcoming and with so much to say as well. It’s what makes this book, this series, so special.

On a Red Station, Drifting — Aliette de Bodard

Cover of On a Red Station, Drifting

On a Red Station, Drifting
Aliette de Bodard
116 pages
published in 2013

I wasn’t too impressed with the first story of Aliette de Bodard I read, when it was linked from Metafilter. I found the story, set in a Vietnamese or Vietnam inspired far future “too laboured, too trying to be interesting, but in the end it’s just another Orientalist allegory”. Which is somewhat ironic, as De Bodard is actually of Vietnamese descent… Can a writer be Orientalist if she’s actually writing from her own cultural background? That’s a question we’re going to come back to in discussing On a Red Station, Drifting as it’s at the heart of the problems I’ve had reading this book.

The reason I bought On a Red Station, Drifting, after that rough start I had with de Bodard was because she was nominated for the novelette Hugo and I discovered that her nominated story, The Waiting Stars, was “an excellent slice of Banksian space opera, a story of love, family and two incompatible views of the world”. On a Red Station, Drifting promised to be more of the same. It’s set in the same universe as The Waiting Stars, where the Dai Viet Empire ruling the stars makes a welcome retrieve from the usual Roman Empire model. At the time of this novel however it’s in trouble, with a weak emperor on the throne and rebel warlords springing up and taking over star systems.

It’s this that brings magistrate Linh to Prosper Station, having fled the system she was responsible for after it had been conquered by a rebel lord, then having angered the emperor’s court by writing an appeal for a stronger approach to the rebellion. Now she comes to this obscure part of the Dai Viet empire, to Prosper Station, to shelter with her family running the station. For the administrator running Prosper Station, Lê Thi Quyen, this unexpected cousin turning up on their doorsteps is just one more headache, even more so because she represents everything she hasn’t achieved herself. Linh is a poet & scholar, a magistrate, who mastered the exams anybody who wants to join the imperial services has to pass, with the arrogance that comes of this. Quyen meanwhile was married out, never made it past the exams and only holds her post as there was nobody more suitable.

Worse, because of her actions, Linh could very well draw the wraith of the Emperor on the heads of all of Prosper Station, the empire having the nasty habit of punishing not just those that cause it embarrassment, but also their families to a remarkable wide degree. And to top it all off, the Mind holding the station together, the Honoured Ancestress installed when the station was first constructed, is having senior moments…

My sympathies at first were with Linh, desperate for refuge but only given it grudgingly, who’s quite clearly traumatised with what happened to the system she was responsible for and how she was tricked into fleeing it by her lieutenant, staying behind to fight the rebels. Of the course of the story though they switched to Quyen, who has enough problems on her plate without having an aristocratic cousin come meddling.

On a Red Station, Drifting is a story about family and the limits of family in a society where family and ancestor worship is central to life. The Minds installed in the Empire’s spaceships and space stations are not the only direct link with the past, there are also the implants with ancestor memories/personalities that people like Linh have access to. Implants function as internalised advisors, providing her with the proper ways to act and talk, with the recognition of the correct forms of poetry and calligraphy and the ability to use them. These of course provide a huge advantage in Dai Viet society, but of course also makes people inherently more conservative than they’d be on their own.

The trouble I have with this is that while the Dai Viet empire is not another Rome in Spaaaace, it’s instead Imperial China in Spaaace. It has the cliches I associate with bad Orientalist fantasy or science fiction: an authoritarian society ruled by a despot, ancestor veneration and emphasis on family over individual, the use of poetry and scholarship as a prerequisite for entering and advancing in imperial service, even the very name of the Embroidered Guard.

Is this unfair of me? I can see what Aliette de Bodard was trying to do here, creating a space opera setting based on her own background in the same way Asimov say was inspired by Rome and if this feels clichéd to me, is this her fault as a writer, or mine as a reader for being so easily trigged in seeing Orientalist cliches?

What speaks in de Bodard’s favour is that her setting is complete in its own, not just a background for some western saviour to trip through, or to compare to a more European world. Her Dai Viet empire is neither celebrated nor condemned; it’s just exists as the everyday reality her characters live in. The story’s heart is the intrafamily struggle between Linh and Quyen and the politics shape that, but are not the focus themselves.

So perhaps the flaw is in me, in my ignorance of the Vietnamese and Chinese history that de Bodard has used to create her Dai Viet empire which led me to interpret her setting in pop culture clichés of ancient China and the like. Which is doing a disservice to On a Red Station, Drifting. My confusion about what to think of this book meant it took me longer than it should to read this, but ultimately this was still the powerful story I’d hoped it be and I want to read more of de Bodard’s science fiction.

Ancillary Sword — Ann Leckie

Cover of Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword
Ann Leckie
356 pages
published in 2014

Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice, won about every major science fiction award going: the BSFA, the Clarke, The Nebula and the Hugo, the first time any author won the four most important awards in the field with the same book, let alone with their debut novel. Anticipation has therefore been high for the sequel, not least on my part. Would Leckie been able to keep up the high standard of her debut? Would Ancillary Sword build up on it or be more of the same? Is Ann Leckie really the major new sf talent she seems to be or just a flash in the pan?

The main reason for Ancillary Justice‘s impact was Leckie’s use of gender. The Radchaai culture she created uses female pronouns exclusively, making no distinction between male and female in their language. but it goes further than just mere language. Leckie’s protagonist, Breq, struggles with establishing gender, has to consciously evaluate gender clues even when she does speak a gendered language. Possibly this is because she’s an ancillary — one of the meat puppet extensions of a ship AI — because from what we saw in the first novel other Radchaai had no such difficulties. Breq is also the last surviving part of her ship AI because her ship, The Justice of Toren was killed by the immortal ruler of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, at war with herself.

As Ancillary Sword opens, the civil war between Anaander Mianaai factions has come into the open due to the events of Ancillary Justice. She’s only been able to rule for so long and over such a large volume of space by making use of the same technology that enabled ancillaries to exist, by raising clone bodies and using implants to keep her memories aligned with each over. Over time it was of course inevitable that two or more Mianaais would get out of sync, develop their own vision on how the Radchaai should be run but until now this had been a hidden war. No longer.

Breq is caught up in the middle of it, was in fact its catalyst and now is sent by one faction of Mianaai to Athoek Station where Basnaaid Elming lives, sister to Breq’s old lieutenant Awn, the one she had murdered herself on orders of Anaander Mianaai. Breq only let herself be sent to keep Athoek system safe because of Basnaaid, to atone for her actions.

Once an independent system but long since conquered by the Radchaai, Athoek is one of the major tea producers of the Radch, providing some of its most valued tea, valued especially because it’s all handplucked. Not by the Athoeki themselves anymore, but by Valskaayan workers originally imported from off planet. The station itself is home to the system’s governor and the political elite, as well as the famous garden where Basnaaid works as chief horticulturist. Underneath the garden, in part of the station that doesn’t officially exist anymore, is where the slums are.

When Breq arrives in the system, it’s not long before she finds out the corruption and exploitation inherent in the system as it’s set up. With her power as fleet captain she sets out to change this, though she doesn’t state this in so many words, rather let’s her actions speak. Instead of lodging at the governor’s mansion, she takes up residence in the Undergardens. She also becomes involved in the affairs of the richest of the tea planters, Fosyf Denche and her family.

Whereas you might have expected, after the way Ancillary Justice ended, that Ancillary Sword would revolve around the Mianaai civil war with Breq playing a central role in it, this instead continues the theme of colonial justice that the former book also revolved around. The Radch is a colonial, caste system, with the Radchaai on top and anybody who isn’t Radchaai, who isn’t a citizen, is inferior. Within the Radchaai themselves there are very many fine distinctions, not just in terms of aristocracy, but also amongst the various conquered peoples that have been “civilised”. Some, like the Valskaayans working the tea plantations are still seen as uncivilised if technically with the same rights as other Radchaai.

Breq coming to this system and setting out to change it through the powers vested into her as a fleet captain in service to Anaander Mianaai, reminded me of Nikolai Gogol’s the Inspector General. That idea that corruption can be rooted out if only a honest representative of the czar would visit. But as the Russian saying has it, the cossacks always work for the czar. Leckie, like Gogol, is under no illusions that this is true and shows that the exploitation in Athoek is endemic because of Anaander Mianaai, not in spite of her. Breq herself plays a part in it just as well, helping those she notices for her own reasons, not necessarily changing the system.

The other major theme carried over from Ancillary Justice is Breq herself, her life as the last surviving component of One Esk, as ancillary who no longer has her fellow ancillaries around her. The ship she now captains, The Mercy of Kalr, doesn’t contain any ancillaries, just humans trained by their previous captain to behave as ancillaries. Breq now also misses the abilities she had previously to be omniscient, though through the link with her new ship she can still keep tabs on her officers and crew. That of course also has the useful function of keeping us informed of what happens outside of Breq’s own viewpoint. It’s a clever trick.

I got Ancillary Sword last Thursday and if it wasn’t for me needing to finish the Andre Norton novel I was reading, I would’ve finished it immediately. This is the sort of novel you want to finish in one big gulp until you’re about twothirds of the way through and then you just don’t want it to end quickly. Leckie has only improved as a writer even if the novelty value of her gender relations has worn off. With Ancillary Sword Leckie has proved it wasn’t a gimmick, nor she a flash in the pan. The only thing I can grumble about now is that it will take another year before we get the next book.