Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Local Custom

Science fiction is not really a genre at all. It is an umbrella covering several types of speculative fiction past, present, and future. Perhaps my favorite of these genres is culture building, the examination of far-future civilizations, occasionally set on radically-changed Earths, but more often set on distant planets, with or without alien life.

This genre runs the gamut from lighter stories with their emphasis on plotting and adventure, such as Anne McCaffrey’s Pern stories, to much more intricate explorations by writers such as C.J. Cherryh and Ursula K Le Guin with a lot of stuff inbetween, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar series (and I’m wondering if there is any reason why all of the above authors are female?). I have read 6 Pern novels–the first three and The Harper Hall of Pern series–and enjoyed them, but I have read dozens of Cherryh/Le Guin/Bradley novels and found them much more fulfilling with their increased depth.

There seems to be an entire cult of fans built around the Liaden series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, almost as large as similar to the cults of Darkover and Pern fans. Since the Laiden novels fall into the culture-building genre, I decided to buy the first omnibus published by Meisha Merlin, Pilot’s Choice. The first novel in the book is entitled Local Custom.

The Liaden are an alien race whose society is dependent on duty and obligation much moreso than Terran society. As in many C.J. Cherryh novels, Local Custom is primarily concerned with the interaction of Laiden and humans as members of both societies struggling to understand the other.

The main characters are Anne Smith, a Terran professor of Liaden literature, and Er Thom yos’Galan, a Liaden Master Trader who is the heir of his very rich and powerful Norval clan. Er Thom’s mother Petrella is the head of the clan who believes it is time for her son and heir to participate in an arranged formal marriage for the sake of producing his own heir, while Er Thom and Anne are passionately in love. The novel’s main concerns are the couple’s struggles to deal with each other’s cultural differences, plus Er Thom’s dilemma of balancing clan obligations with his love of Anne. This situation worsens when Er Thom visits Anne for the purpose of bidding her a final good-bye and learns of the existence of their son Shan. This adds a third element since Shan is a half-breed Terran and Liaden, who may or may not acceptable to the clan as Er Thom’s heir. And how would Anne feel about her son remaining behind on Liad for training rather than leaving with her?

The novel is a four-cornered struggle between Er Thom, Anne, Petrella, and Er Thom’s cousin Daav, his closest friend who holds power in the family almost equal to that of Petrella. Daav supports Er Thom, but he also has the obligation of protecting the family, whose all-important prestige might be damaged by accepting Shan into it; nor can he blatantly defy the wishes of Petrella.

Local Custom reminded me of a Victorian novel of manners, since that is basically what it is, but Lee and Miller are such good storytellers that, after a slow beginning Local Custom grew steadily more interesting and the characters more starkly-defined. By the last fifty pages, the novel was so absorbing it sped along like a thriller, while still being basically a novel of manners.

The novel was not without several flaws though. Although Local Custom is obviously influenced by the novels of C.J. Cherryh, it is much simpler than the average Cherryh novel, never reaching the level of sophisticated culture or deft plotting and characterization that Cherryh routinely wields. In particular, the writing lacks subtlety. Er Thom and Anne Smith tend to repeat obvious facts to themselves about their cultures purely for the purpose of reminding the reader in case they missed some subtlety. Consider the following exchange:

The young man stopped, head tipped to one side. Then he stuck out one of his big hands in the way that Terrans did when they wanted to initiate the behavior known as “shaking hands.” Inwardly, Er Thom sighed. Local custom.

He was saved from this particular bout with custom by the perpetrator himself, who lowered his hand, looking self-conscious. “Never mind. Won’t do to drop Scooter, will it? I’m Jerzy Entaglia. Theater Arts. Chairman of Theater Arts, which gives you an idea of the shape the department’s in.”

An introduction. Very good.

A more noticeable flaw is that a large part of the suspense comes from Er Thom and Anne misunderstanding the subtleties of each other’s cultures. And yet early in the book I encountered the following sequence about Anne Smith, who is described as a famous scholar of Liaden literature:

Liaden literature was her passion. She had read the stories of Shan el’Thrasin compulsively, addictively, scratching back along esoteric research lines for the oldest versions, sending for recordings of the famous Liaden prena’ma–the teller of tales. She knew what happened to those foolish enough to threaten a Liaden’s melant’i.

If Anne is so obsessed with Liaden literature, and a scholar as well, how can she possibly be so totally ignorant in her dealings with the man she loves?

Er Thom is one of 300 Liaden Master Traders whose work is exacting, requiring intimate knowledge of the regulations of a thousand ports of call, as well as a sure instinct for what will gain a profit at each. Liaden Master Traders deal with Terrans extensively, making it hard to believe that Er Thom is as ignorant of Terran culture as Anne is of Liaden culture.

And yet, much of the novel’s conflict arises from Anne and er Thom’s inability to understand each other’s cultures at all. This was not very believable.

There was also some over-the-top writing, particularly early in the novel when the authors seemed deliberately to give the impression they were writing what was basically a love story. An example of this is the following sequence:

She was back with him fully, fingers busy with his own clothing. “Er Thom, I need you. Quickly.”

“Quickly,” he agreed, and the passion built to a wave, hesitated in a pain that became ecstacy as it crashed, engulfing them entirely.

Fortunately, as I stated previously, the flaws are not so distracting as to ruin the novel, and they tended to fade away entirely in its second half. The main reason I discuss them is a bit of befuddlement that the authors’ editors did not request a rewrite to smooth them away.

Overall, Local Custom was a promising first novel in the Liaden series, and I am currently reading the second novel Scout’s Progress.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The New Space Opera, part 2

Dan Simmons is a frustrating author, capable of writing the most wondrous far-future science fiction (highlighted by the Hyperion series) but spending more time writing horror and mysteries than sf. “Muse of Fire” is set in a far-future in which humans are under the thumb of a race called the Archons, who themselves are the lowest in a series of three-controlling alien races, topped by Abraxas, the ultimate ruler of life. Humans have been reduced to grunt workers doing the Archons’ bidding with no “culture, politics, arts history, hope, and sense of self.” Apparently what they have retained though is a love of Shakespeare, since the story concerns a planet-hopping dramatic troupe Earth’s Men (which includes both men and women) which puts on Shakespearean plays for the workers. It is a bit hard to believe that such a downtrodden race which remembers none of its ancient past would still revere Shakespeare, and that such uneducated grunts would actually understand the bard’s language, much less the plays themselves, but I was able to swallow my disbelief for the sake of the story, especially since stories about artists of any type are right near the top of my personal pyramid of favorite topics.

Somehow Earth’s Men come to the attention of the Archons who demand a private showing themselves, so the troupe performs “the Scottish play” for them (whose real title is never used, a popular affectation about MacBeth) which creates a domino effect in which the troupe is shunted up the line to perform King Lear for the next highest alien race, then Hamlet for the penultimate aliens, leading to a series of events which culminated with the story’s narrator and his unrequited love performing scenes from Romeo and Juiliet for Abraxas him–it?–self. These events stretched disbelief beyond the breaking point, but it was all wonderful fun and led to some philosophical revelations straight out of Isaac Asimov’s “The Mule.” If you can avoid getting hung up in the logical gaps, this is a fine story to end the book.

I think I made a major mistake when reading The New Space Opera in that I read all the authors who most appealed to me first–Gwenyth Jones, Robert Silverberg, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Kage Baker, and Dan Simmons, leaving all the others for later. Because the next four stories I tried–Paul J. McAuley’s “Winning Peace,” Greg Egan’s “Glory,” Peter Hamilton’s “Blessed By An Angel,” and Ken MacLeod’s “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?” were all saturated with long descriptions of science and technology which so overwhelmed the stories themselves that I quickly lost interest. While I have no problems with futures far advanced beyond our own level of technology, do I really need to learn every final detail about it? Our current world is deeply technologized, but I no little about it and don’t need descriptions of every marvel I use. The same with the future. Leave the technology in the background and write a story around it, not a story which is almost buried beneath it.

So I abandoned both the McAuley and Egan stories, finishing both Hamilton’s and MacLeod’s, but coming away from them with the opinion that both authors were concerned more with pushing an agenda than actually telling stories. Next I tried Tony Daniels’ “The Valley of Gardens,” which started out more promisingly. It was a love story between two people whose races had descended from and apparently evolved away from a single race. Each one lives on a different side of a stone wall, one in a lush valley, the other in a harsh desert. This interesting story was interwoven with scenes of a war between humans and an alien entity which had conquered most of the human galaxy. It was an unbelievable entity, some mindless evil more in tune with H.P. Lovecraft than space opera, and just as humanity’s ultimate defeat seemed inevitable, some incomprehensible deus ex machina defeated it. The rest of the story combined the aftermaths of the war with the interlocked love story in a series of mostly auctorial intervention rather than a coherent story. The ending itself was mostly nonsensical, the main characters seemingly not knowing why they performed the actions they did, and I certainly had no idea how or why it had any effect on the Lovecraftian entity. I am still not sure why Gardner Dozois accepted this story without considerably revision.

Next came James Patrick Kelly, not my favorite author since he tends to jump on every current bandwagon. When cyberpunk was popular, he wrote cyberpunk. Now he has hitched his star to space opera. And the first sentence of the story filled me with politically-correct dread: “Been Watanabe decided to become gay two days before his one-hundred-and-thirty-second birthday.” Then followed a page of technobabble which convinced me enough is enough, and I put the book down and turned to Leigh Brackett’s Sea-Gods of Mars, a massive collection of her important fiction. I’ll go back and finish The New Space Opera sometime, but for now the first 6 stories were good enough that I recommend the book, especially for those readers not afraid of a little technobabble.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Even the finest sf writers do not write a masterpiece everytime, but they are always entertaining even with their weaker novels. Jack McDevitt is one of my current favorite writers with such superb novels as Infinity Beach and the entire Alex Benedict series (A Talent For War, Polaris, Seeker). His Academy series is one step below that series, although The Engines of God was a worthy first entry, replacing the fascination with history of the Benedict series with archaeology. Deepsix is the second novel in the Academy series, and it is mildly disappointing.

Deepsix is a world which was first explored twenty years ago, but was totally abandoned when the initial survey team met disaster after being attacked by a horde of killer birds. Now the world is about to be destroyed by a rogue gas giant headed directly for it. Teams of spaceships head for Deepsix to observe the unprecedented catastrophe, but two unlikely events occur almost simultaneously: one of those teams lands on the planet and discovers some ancient archaeological ruins which indicate intelligent life had lived on Deepsix millennia ago; and the team becomes stranded due to a rather unlikely series of events.

The basic plot is the attempt to rescue the stranded team before the gas giant destroys Deepsix. Much of the plot has the form of a thriller, along with the leaps of logic associated with that form, and the actual rescue struck me as highly unlikely and complicated. Fortunately, McDevitt has not abandoned his love of the past as the stranded team uncovers more archaeological ruins which gradually build up a view of Deepsix’s lifeforms and past. McDevitt has also created an interesting group of strandees, especially famous journalist MacAleister who has a very acerbic personality which immediately alienates the others, and scientist Randy Nightingale who was a member of the ill-fated expedition twenty years previous, and who was skewered in the press as the culprit for the failure, especially by MacAleister. The growth of these two men’s personalities and their relationship is one of the highlights of the book.

Deepsix should satisfy fans of sf thrillers without alienating those who like more wondrous and thoughtful science fiction. I just hope subsequent novels in the series rise more to the Alex Benedict level.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Best All-TIme SF Novellas Prior to 1990

In 1998 and 1999, Locus’s annual poll included several categories of Best All-time Science Fiction and Fantasy (restricting the results to works published prior to 1990). On October 13 I listed the Best SF Novel, so here are the results for Best All-Time Novella. Happy reading!

1 / Vintage Season / C. L. Moore & Henry Kuttner
2 / The Time Machine / H. G. Wells
3 / The Persistence of Vision / John Varley
4 / A Boy and His Dog / Harlan Ellison
5 / The Man Who Sold the Moon / Robert A. Heinlein
6 / Houston, Houston, Do You Read? / James Tiptree Jr /
6* / Who Goes There? / John W. Campbell
8 / The Last of the Winnebagos / Connie Willis
9 / By His Bootstraps / Robert A. Heinlein
10 / The Fifth Head of Cerberus / Gene Wolfe
11 / Enemy Mine / Barry B. Longyear
12 / The Dead Past / Isaac Asimov
13 / The Big Front Yard / Clifford D. Simak
14 / He Who Shapes / Roger Zelazny
15 / The Mountains of Mourning / Lois McMaster Bujold
16 / Home is the Hangman / Roger Zelazny
17 / The Moon Moth / Jack Vance
18 / R&R / Lucius Shepard
19 / The Word for World Is Forest / Ursula K. Le Guin
20 / Behold the Man / Michael Moorcock
21 / Weyr Search / Anne McCaffrey
22 / Born with the Dead / Robert Silverberg
23 / Green Mars / Kim Stanley Robinson
24 / Ill Met in Lankhmar / Fritz Leiber
25 / The Last Castle / Jack Vance
26 / Eye for Eye / Orson Scott Card
27 / PRESS ENTER[] / John Varley
28 / Seven American Nights / Gene Wolfe
29 / The Dragon Masters / Jack Vance
30 / A Planet Named Shayol / Cordwainer Smith
31 / The Death of Doctor Island / Gene Wolfe
32 / Nerves / Lester del Rey
33 / A Song for Lya / George R. R. Martin
34 / The Call of Cthulhu / H. P. Lovecraft
34* / Dragonrider / Anne McCaffrey
34* / Hardfought / Greg Bear
34* / The Queen of Air and Darkness / Poul Anderson
38 / Surface Tension / James Blish
39 / Nightwings / Robert Silverberg
40 / The Brave Little Toaster / Thomas M. Disch
40* / Soldier, Ask Not / Gordon R. Dickson
42 / The Gold at the Starbow's End / Frederik Pohl
43 / Cascade Point / Timothy Zahn

My favorite novellas did not fare too well on the above list: “The Persistence of Vision” was the highest finisher at #3, while “The Last Castle” was #25, “Nightwings” was #39, and “We, In Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move On a Rigorous Line,” by Samuel Delany, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” by James Tiptree, Jr., and “Her Habiline Husband,” by Michael Bishop did not place at all. *sigh*