Aliens, Martian Colonies, and Dwarves
1997 Hugo Nominees Reviewed
You just have to love Hugo season. These annual awards presented to the year's best speculative fiction are always a ripe cross-section of what is happening in the science fiction/fantasy genre in any given year. This year was especially tasty, and contained a strong Austin contingent, fitting since the award is voted on and presented at LoneStarCon2, the 55th annual World Science Fiction Convention, the granddaddy of all science fiction conventions and, this year, it will be on Central Texas turf in San Antonio.
Unfortunately, probably the weakest book of the five nominees for Best Novel happens to have been penned by one of our own. Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon (Baen, $5.99 paper) bitterly rants about stereotyping and prejudice while committing those very same violations. Moon's Ofelia, the only character in this book who is fully drawn and has complex emotions, is an old woman who decides to remain on a random earth-like planet after the heartless corporation that founded it decides to disband the colony. Ofelia chooses to stay in order to escape a society that she finds heartless because it forces her to wear shoes and does not allow her a surplus of time to tend to her garden. Granted, she would probably not survive the journey to the new planet, a fact which is implicitly confirmed by later reports from the generic soul-less corporation.
After a brief hide in the woods, Ofelia enjoys her independence, which can occur because, conveniently, autonomous machines have miraculously been left to do all of the work in the now deserted colony that would require more than one person. Ofelia's time alone is invaded, however, when the previously undiscovered, indigenous "aliens" show up. Then some more humans. Then Ofelia proves that her isolation and her exposure to a new form of life has not tamed the selfish and mean spirit that gave her the guts to stay behind. You do develop some sympathy for her, if only because every other character in the book comes off as magnitudes more selfish than our heroine and there is no good guy in the bunch.
Perhaps I missed something. Maybe I just have a deep-seated fear of little old ladies who are everything they complain about. Or, perhaps I simply expected a Hugo nominee to be able to play more than one monotonous note.
Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling (Bantam, $22.95 hard), however, manages to weave a whole symphony from the same starting point as Moon -- one little old woman. Maya, the protagonist in the Austin-based author's book, is said little old woman who becomes bored with her safe, sane existence and decides to try a radical new longevity treatment with some unexpected side effects. She ends up running away to join some neo-bohemians in Europe while she searches for her own holy fire, Sterling's metaphor for a moment of self-discovery that can illuminate an entire life.
Sterling's pages are strewn with one nifty idea after another, including wearable computers, talking dogs, and virtual palaces. While gee-whiz ideas are crucial to any great novel within this genre, Holy Fire is truly about so much more. Centuries-old cultural conflicts are once again rammed at each other against this shiny new cyberpunk backdrop in order to stir up the mind of the reader about age and class issues. But this is not a perfect book. Sterling, perhaps in some echo of Maya's meandering journey, also wanders off track in a search for an obscure thought that never quite materializes, almost as if the conductor of this symphony was distracted by the brand new instruments he had just discovered and forgot to keep the whole orchestra on the same page.
While Sterling's novel is a fine illustration of what science fiction really can be, Starplex by Robert J. Sawyer (Ace, $5.99 paper) is a fine illustration of what every non-science fiction reader thinks science fiction is. Starplex reads like a bad Star Trek episode, full of thinly veiled sermons given by stock morality play characters who travel through worm-holes in the space-time continuum.
Starplex is the name of a new-fangled ship designed to act as envoy to newly discovered life that may be flitting around the universe. The good guy ship's leader, who is not called a captain in Starplex, is weathering a mid-life crisis when he and his crew come into contact with a new species made of a previously undiscovered form of matter. In the process of establishing communication with this new space critter, the four species of life forms already on the ship -- human, dolphin, pig-like Waldahud, and gentle Ibs -- butt heads and learn to accept each other's culture. Along the way, they realize that they have discovered a process for immortality and the good guy ship's leader learns what love means.
This is not to say that it is a poorly written book or that it is not full of really interesting ideas. But it seems uncertain what it really wants to be and simply becomes a rehash of plot techniques from episodic television. It doesn't take itself seriously enough to be a true speculation about co-existing with other species and it is not satirical enough to be viewed as a comment on modern life. Nor are there enough explosions to make it a really good space opera.
To call Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen, $6.99 paper), simply great space opera would be the equivalent of calling space itself really, really big. This is an incredible novel that manages to comment upon growing older, being humiliated, and learning to live your life after a tragedy. This is a simple book that manages to encompass many facets of the human condition while telling a damn good story set on a galactic scale.
Memory is the latest installment in the Miles Vorkosigan saga. It is not a sequel. Personally, this is the first and only book that I have read in this series. While Bujold's story does hint at a larger framework of novels, reading all of them in some arcane order is in no way integral to understanding this particular work. But they do provide an exciting list of books to check out when time permits.
I hope that my time will permit soon because I really enjoyed Memory. Bujold's style is both lucid and fluid. The main character Miles, a man who has spent many years as part of a rogue, counter-intelligence sort of organization that travels to exotic planets to do the government's dirty work, has succeeded despite the limitations of his frail, dwarf-ish body. Then he hits 30. And, to quote Bujold herself, "thirty hits back."
Miles finds himself trapped on his home planet of Barrayar and immersed in a rigid class system that he has spent years trying to escape. All of his maneuverings against it only ensnare him more as he searches for true love and a would-be assassin. Bujold, however, keeps this book from becoming nothing but bleak introspection and self-pity. Her black humor and genuine concern for this character make this a sharp, clever, and thoroughly enjoyable novel.
While Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (Bantam, $6.99 paper) is neither as clever as Memory nor as immensely fun, it is a spectacular example of what can be done in this oft-dismissed genre. It provides a reality-based example of what truly needs to be done before we can explore the solar system, let alone bop about the galaxy as if we were walking across the street, and creates a few characters that are as unforgettable as they are brilliant.
Blue Mars is stunning in its detail, scope, and density. Robinson has created a book that takes that big, red ball of dust that Pathfinder is now exploring and turns it into a world with water on which humans can survive without any special gear. But it was not miracles and wishes that achieved this transformation, it was hard-working, intelligent, and flawed people who were forced by a myriad of circumstances to get the job done. The rebirth of Mars does not occur without conflicts, however, and two factions are at odds with each other -- the greens who want to speed up the changes in every way possible while the reds want to keep Mars pristine -- a conflict not dissimilar from current battles in this country, or this city, today.
Robinson uses these world-making characters to carry his story. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one character and we get to see the world through both green and red eyes. However, his attempts to keep a human presence in the book often become overwhelmed by long technical passages that would be fascinating only to a NASA engineer, and his limited use of dialogue slows the pace of the book to something akin to Sojourner's crawl.
Perhaps the larger problem is that this is the third book in the trilogy, a real trilogy in which it is virtually necessary to read Red Mars and Green Mars, in that order, to really understand what is going on in Blue Mars. Not knowing the history or the characters make reading this book a chore more than a challenge, even though you start to get oriented after the first few chapters and marvel at Robinson's amazing grasp of this highly technical information. But this book, and the two that lead to it, is a stellar example of what can be done when the science is treated as an equal partner to the fiction and the reader is left to wonder at the author's ability to minutely extrapolate a possible future for humanity.
As any author will tell you, it is an honor just to be nominated. These nominees are a great sampling of all that is happening in this diverse and rapidly growing genre. Heck, who can resist a good book that has a planet as its main character? Or an old woman? Or a middle-aged man with issues? -- Adrienne Martini
Have you noticed how more and more women are playing drums these days? It's no longer unusual to see a woman playing drumkit in a rock band, or timpani in the symphony, or djembe in a world beat group. All I can say is, "Thank God!" Or Goddess, according to When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm by Layne Redmond (Random House,$18 paper), which suggests that women in ancient times were the proprietors of rhythm and sacred drumming. Her evidence is outlined through pages and pages of artifacts, reliefs, and hieroglyphs of women playing frame drums (large single-headed tambourines with or without jingles) from Paleolithic times through early Christianity.
Redmond, a performer and teacher of frame drums, is on a mission to create a bridge between today's woman and the ancient goddess drummers of the trans-Mediterranean past, claiming that today's woman can reconnect her spiritual universal purpose and replace a missing part of her psyche through the frame drum.
As a woman drummer myself, I'm all over that. As a graduate student of Ethnomusicology, however, I'm being taught to read critically and analytically and to question everything. And I did that, especially since the book is presented in a scholarly format, as a historical, archaeological work.
With that in mind, When the Drummers Were Women is more comfortable in the New Age section, near Mickey Hart's Planet Drum and Joseph Campbell's mythology series, and the scholarly format is mostly a disguise. Redmond talks about her "geographic and scholarly travels," though she doesn't hold any scholarly degrees. She begins discussions with generalized, unreferenced statements such as "Recent scientific investigations into prehistory..." and "Archaeologists agree that the roots of Hinduism are very old." Many of her facts are simply her opinions and much of her position is anti-science and anti-religion. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but you wouldn't likely find a section on "the rape of the goddess culture" in a textbook or scholarly journal. She also offers prescriptive advice such as, "We are faced with the necessity of evolving a new social structure. If we are to survive, we're going to have to resurrect the values once associated with female-based religious systems..." That's a pretty heavy agenda for a history book.
By limiting her exposition to frame drums, she has failed to address other drumming avenues and cultural histories, and therefore, has formed an incomplete mission statement about women's relationships with drums and rhythm. My experience playing frame drums hasn't necessarily given me a spiritual bond with the Great Mother Goddess. However, at certain times, I've played African drums, drumkit, or even snare drum in high school drill team and have gotten a complete emotional and spiritual rush.
So I'm coming to you as a woman, a drummer, and a budding scholar to suggest that, while this book has some enlightening stories and pictures, when you read it, use your powers of analytical thought to reveal if her claims are really ethnographic data or just what she thought sounded cool. For instance, according to Redmond, every hieroglyph of a vertical line equals a vulva, every picture of a nude woman equals a goddess, and the bull's horns in the ancient caves really represent the female reproductive system.
On the other hand, I did find valuable her explanations of women and rhythm in conjunction with the moon cycles, menstrual cycles, and birthing in ancient times, which essentially says to me, Hey, women are all about rhythm, why wouldn't they naturally find profound expressions through drumming? -- Sherri Baby Canon
The paranoid little comp- endium How to Hide Things in Public Places by Dennis Fiery (Loompanics Unlimited, $15 paper) is the kind of "How To" book that Loompanics Unlimited specializes in: not how to fix the bathroom sink, but how to Fight the Man.
To that end, How to Hide is a straightforward book, a detailed collection of public hiding places for that special little something you want to keep from prying eyes. Most are rather obvious, although some, I'll admit, are downright clever. Construction sites, in Fiery's lilting prose, have "more crannies than your Granny's fanny." Other good spots: snowbanks, supermarkets, and port-a-potties. Poor spots: roadkill, cemeteries, condiment bars. Fiery also includes such helpful addenda as a Rubbish Anti-Discovery Scorecard (RADS) and a table of all possible Simplex lock combinations.
How to Hide is a good book to read on public transportation: even if you don't get any raised eyebrows you're promised a lot of elbow room, and it's always a good timekiller to pretend you're part of the lunatic fringe. But even as you laugh at the lurid cover of How to Hide -- a seemingly hunted man stuffing a small package into the top of a fencepost -- you have to wonder who the audience for this book is. Fiery has some suggestions. Your mother might want to purchase some marijuana, for instance, but wants to keep a low profile. You have some valuables ("guns, drugs, jewels, pornography") that you want to hide so they can't be traced back to you. Or, more ominously, "a terrorist wants to plant a bomb in a public building, one that must remain hidden there for hours or days without being discovered." Step right up, eager terrorists, and get your copy of How to Hide Things in Public Places. (Fiery includes a disclaimer denying responsibility for the misuse of the information contained in the book.)
While anti-authoritarian literature can be raucously entertaining, it can be more than a tad disturbing as well. It's an old dilemma: How to Hide, along with other Loompanics titles such as Techniques of the Professional Pickpocket and Escape from Controlled Custody, are direct descendants of the venerable Anarchists Cookbook. But anarchy has lost some of its glamour in the past decade -- at least to the liberal mindset -- as the image of a fuzzy leftist revolutionary is replaced by that of a right-wing hatemonger (a shift that has made the similarities between the ideologies all too plain).
It goes without saying that I would not want to live in a country where How to Hide Things in Public Places couldn't be published -- it's mostly harmless, and besides, the right to free speech includes the right to be disturbing -- but I can't help but shudder at its possible use. -- Jay Hardwig