Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles_Mutants_and_MicrobesI recently filled a hole in my science fiction library when I bought a book by Lois McMaster Bujold, an author that I hadn’t read before. Ms. Bujold has won countless awards, but I’d never gotten around to reading one of her novels, likely because I’d shied away from the science fiction genre about the same time she was rising in prominence.

Perhaps I didn’t choose the perfect place to start (i.e.: it’s not a Miles Vorkosigan novel), but I came across a good deal on an omnibus collection and read the first story in the book, Falling Free, first published in 1988.

Falling Free is a story about quaddies, an experimental group of humans who have been genetically engineered to work in a zero-G environment. The quaddies’ distinguishing characteristic is a visible anomaly: they have been bio-engineered to have an extra set of arms instead of legs. The quaddies are exploited and the protagonist, Leo Graf, feels compelled to aid them.

Although I enjoyed the novel, it read like a book published in the 1950s, à la Robert Heinlein, but with more realistic female characters. Falling_Free_BujoldThe writing was pulpy in sections, and I was too aware of the author’s manipulations as I read: any difficulties in the story seemed destined to ‘work out’, so I felt little anxiety as I waded through the plot. For the most part, the characters are flat representations and the romance seemed like an awkward add-on to the tale. I grew to like and care for some of the characters, but none of them are strong enough to last as favourites in memory. The ending was satisfactory, but brusque.

The story moved along quickly and, once I settled into the tale, it was an enjoyable enough reading experience, but the novel is a bit too light and straightforward for my current reading preferences (I’m sure I would have loved it thirty years ago: perhaps I’ve just gotten old and difficult to please). It was decent, basic space opera, but I expected more sophistication in an award winning book from 1988 (it won a Nebula Award for best novel).

Perhaps I’ll search for a representative Miles Vorkosigan novel (I’ve read that he is an intelligent, complex character), but Falling Free didn’t inspire me to delve deeply into Lois McMaster Bujold’s oeuvre. There is a Miles Vorkosigan novel in the omnibus I purchased (Diplomatic Immunity), but I’ll wait a while before reading it. If there are any Bujold fans reading this, let me know what I should read to hook me!

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Retrospeculative View, 1990

Before I dive into the speculative world of 1990, I should point out that my reading preferences were undergoing a transformation around this time: I was shifting away from genre fiction, toward more literate works (I’m sure that sounds pompous, but I can’t think of another way to explain the phenomenon). As I’ve been writing these posts, I’ve noticed that there are more and more science fiction and fantasy novels — and even more of the shorter works of speculative fiction — that I’m unfamiliar with (I’m aware of notable and award-winning novels but I haven’t necessarily gone out of my way to read them). I’m quite familiar with works before the mid-1980s, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to amass a list of works I can reliably comment on. With that in mind, I’ve decided that this will be my final Retrospeculative View post using this particular format (I’m in the germination stages of deciding what future posts will look like; as of this moment, the ideas are nebulous).

Some of the short speculative fiction of 1990:

The Hemingway Hoax, by Joe Haldeman (Hugo & Nebula Award for best novella)

A Short, Sharp Shock, by Kim Stanley RobinsonTHH_Haldeman

Fool to Believe, by Pat Cadigan

The Manamouki, by Mike Resnick (Hugo Award for best novelette)

Tower of Babylon, by Ted Chiang (Nebula Award for best novelette)

Bears Discover Fire, by Terry Bisson (Hugo & Nebula Award for best Short Story)

The Utility Man, by Robert Reed

Cibola, by Connie Willis

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sandman #19), by Neil Gaiman (Writer) and Charles Vess (Illustrator) (World Fantasy Award for best Short Story)

Bones, by Pat Murphy (World Fantasy Award for best Novella). Pat Murphy also won the Philip K. Dick Award for her collection of short stories, Points of Departure. She was also the co-founder (along with Karen Fowler) of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 1991 (the award was in honour of Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree, Jr.)

 Movies released in 1990:

Edward Scissorhands. From Rotten Tomatoes:  “The first collaboration between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands is a magical modern fairy tale with gothic overtones and a sweet center.”Christopher_Lloyd_BTTF_III

Back to the Future III. The third (and final) in a franchise; this time, a science fiction western.

Ghost. A romantic-fantasy-thriller that made tons of money.

Total Recall. A film based on PK dick’s short story, We Can Remember It for you Wholesale (1966).

Some of the notable novels of 1990:

The following six novels I haven’t read but they seem interesting and/or others enjoyed them:

The Vor Game, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Hugo Award winner). The sixth full-length novel published in the Vorkosigan Saga, and it is included in an omnibus titled Young Miles (1997). Until recently, I hadn’t read anything by this author; however, I just finished her novel Falling Free, and it’s an interesting story, but hasn’t really convinced me that I need to read more (I will try one of her Miles Vorkosigan novels, which seem to be the fan-favourites).

tehanuTehanu (The Last Book of Earthsea), by Ursula Le Guin (Nebula Award winner). Although this book was written by one of my favourite writers, and is widely considered to be among her best work, I was never drawn into the Earthsea series.

Thomas the Rhymer, by Ellen Kushner (World Fantasy Award winner (tie: see below) and the Mythopoeic Award). This fantasy novel is derived from folklore, and an eponymous ballad about Thomas Learmonth (a 13th-century Scottish laird) depicting his mythic romance with the Queen of Elfland and her gift to him of prophecy, which carried with it the inability to tell a lie.

Only Begotten Daughter, by James Morrow (World Fantasy Award winner (tie: see above)). From Wikipedia: “The story is about Julie Katz, the new Messiah, who is the daughter of God, and who is spontaneously conceived from a sperm bank donation by her father, Murray Katz, through “inverse parthenogenesis”. Julie struggles with her messianic powers, the mind games of Satan, being hunted by fundamentalists, and the silence of her mother, God.”

Pacific Edge, by Kim Stanley Robinson (The John W. Campbell Memorial Award), the third of his Three Californias trilogy: each book in the trilogy depicts three different possible futures, all set in California’s Orange County (The Wild Shore is post-nuclear, The Gold Coast is cyberpunk, and Pacific Edge is utopian).

In the Country of the Blind, by Michael F. Flynn (Prometheus Award winner). From Amazon’s review: “In the 19th century, the British scientist Charles Babbage designed an “analytical engine,” a working computer that was never built–or so the world believes. Sarah Beaumont, an ex-reporter and real estate developer, is investigating a Victorian-era Denver property when she finds an ancient analytical engine. Sarah investigates her astonishing discovery and finds herself pursued by a secret society that has used Babbage computers to develop a new science, cliology, which allows its practitioners to predict history–and to control history for its own purposes. And it will stop at nothing to preserve its secret mastery of human destiny.”

Novels I read & enjoyed that were published in 1990:

The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling. I enjoyed this steam-punk novel, but the story was a bit slow and dry, and I never became attached to any of the characters. The identity of the narrator is unknown until the end of the novel, and knowing who wrote it changed my view of the book substantially (the narrator’s identity was, no doubt, detected by other readers, but I remained ignorant until the reveal). Interesting, and I’m glad I read it, but I’ll probably never revisit it.

The_Eye_of_the_WorldThe Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan. The beginning volume in an incredibly successful fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, which I believe now consists of 14 lengthy novels). I read The Eye of the World when it was first published and enjoyed it enough to read the second, which I also thought was pretty good. Unfortunately — in my opinion (fans please don’t throw stones) — the series became absurd and too long, and I stopped caring and reading. Others loved the entire series, so it would be best to look elsewhere for more positive reviews…

The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons: good book, great writing, but a disappointing sequel to Hyperion, which didn’t require all its threads to be neatly tied (and this book contradicted some of what transpired in Hyperion). Simmons wrote two more sequels (Endymion and The Rise of Endymion), which were both admirable science fiction novels, but they also did not live up to the brilliance of Hyperion.

Eight Skilled Gentlemen, by Barry Hughart. This was the third and, sadly, final fantasy-mystery involving Number Ten Ox (the narrator, a brawny peasant) and Master Li (a Sage with a slight flaw in his character). Highly recommended.

And my choice for Retrospeculative novel for 1990 is…

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks. This isn’t quite my favorite Banks’ novel (that distinction would go to The Player of Games, a lighter novel in tone and heft), but it is a very close second. Use of Weapons is built with an interesting structure of alternating chapters with opposing time-streams…Use_of_Weapons

One set of chapters moves forward in time (Chapter One, Two, etc.) and recounts the efforts of Diziet Sma and a drone, Skaffen-Amtiskaw (both of Special Circumstances), to convince a man named Zakalwe to return to duty for one more assignment.

The other set of chapters moves backwards in time (Chapter XIII, XII, etc.) and depicts Zakalwe’s previous assignments, eventually concluding with his life before being recruited by the Culture.

Within chapters there are several flashbacks and the novel includes a prologue and an epilogue. All of this creates a somewhat confusing plot, but all becomes clear by the end. Although the book was a bit darker than I prefer, I thoroughly enjoyed how the two main threads slowly entwined.

Sadly, Iain M. Banks passed from this realm in 2013, but he wrote many enjoyable novels (both mainstream fiction, as Iain Banks, and science fiction, as Iain M. Banks). I don’t think he ever quite created the work of pure science fiction genius that was within him, but Use of Weapons was close.

King Rat, by China Miéville

I had previously read Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The City & The City; now, I’ve finally read Miéville’s debut novel, King Rat, which is intriguing, shows some of his promise, but is not as compelling as his later works.

King Rat is an urban fantasy set in a gritty, mucky, surreal London, beyond the ken of humans. The protagonist, Saul Garamond, becomes caught in an ancient power-battle: King Rat, Anansi (the Spider King) and Loplop (the Bird King) plot revenge against an infamous, magical flutist who is preserved in human myth for his deeds in a small German town (note: if you’re curious, Anansi is a major character in West African folklore, and Loplop is the bird-like alter-ego of artist Max Ernst).King_Rat

Saul’s human existence is turned upside down when he is falsely accused of murdering his father. Saul is sprung from jail by King Rat, who turns out to be a close relative. King Rat is untrustworthy, but he takes Saul under his wing and, together with Anansi and Loplop, they plan to battle the evil Piper.

King Rat includes many of the imaginative elements found in Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels (particularly Perdido Street Station), but Miéville’s first novel doesn’t provide the depth found in his later works. King Rat is a lighter read than the Bas-Lag stories (King Rat’s feathery 320 page trade-paperback is much easier to carry about too: both Perdido Street Station and The Scar are more than twice the weight).

I enjoyed King Rat, but I should have read it prior to being spoiled by Miéville’s later works.

A final note: In case you happen upon the Kirkus Review of the novel (which contains a few minor spoilers), please note that the reviewer didn’t read the novel carefully enough: the plot does not contain a “troublesome flaw”: King Rat lied about many things, one of them being the family history of Saul’s mother .

Retrospeculative View, 1989

Some of the short fiction of 1989:

The Mountains of Mourning, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Hugo & Nebula for best Novella)

Time-Out, by Connie WillisTTTA

A Touch of Lavender, by Megan Lindholm (Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogdenher; her other pseudonym is Robin Hobb)

Great Work of Time, by John Crowley (World Fantasy Award for best Novella)

The Price of Oranges, by Nancy Kress

Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another, by Robert Silverberg (Hugo Award for best Novelette)

At the Rialto, by Connie Willis (Nebula Award for best Novelette)

Boobs, by Suzy McKee Charnas (Hugo Award for best Short Story)

Ripples in the Dirac Sea, by Geoffrey Landis (Nebula Award for best Short Story)

Some of the ‘speculative’ movies from 1989Adventures_of_baron_munchausen

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third in a franchise.

The Abyss, a James Cameron science-fiction thriller: pretty good, but a disappointing ending.

The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, a Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) movie: a bit slow & muddled, but ultimately fun

Batman, the first of a franchise

Field of Dreams, an adaption of W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe (the book is much better)

Books I haven’t read that created some buzz:

A Fire in the Sun, by George Alec Effinger, a sequel to When Gravity Fails. I did read When Gravity Fails, which was quite well-written, but it didn’t appeal to me so I skipped the sequels (in 1991 Effinger also published The Exile Kiss, a third novel in his Marîd Audran series).

The Boat of a Million Years, by Poul Anderson. The novel traces the lives of a group of immortal humans from their lives in the ancient past and into the distant future.the-childs-garden

The Child’s Garden, by Geoff Ryman (Arthur C. Clarke John W. Campbell Award winner). I’ve read good things about this novel and it is on my ‘to read’ list. It apparently triggers emotional and intellectual reactions, but is difficult to digest. I’ve enjoyed other novels by Ryman; in particular, Air.

Subterranean Gallery, by Richard Paul Russo (Philip K. Dick Award). The novel depicts an underground artistic community in a post-apocalyptic California.

The Healer’s War, by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (Nebula Award winner). The author was a nurse during the Vietnam War and she apparently draws on her experiences to tell a mystical tale of the war. The main character is a nurse in the Vietnam War who is given a mystical amulet by an elderly patient before he dies. The amulet allows the nurse to perceive auras, and she embarks on a spiritual journey.

Some of the notable novels from 1989 that I have read:

Prentice Alvin, by Orson Scott Card, the third in the Alvin the Maker series. The series felt to me like it was leaking oil at about this point and I began to lose interest (I may finish reading the series for completeness, but I’m not particularly excited about the idea).

Grass, by Sherri Tepper. I’d heard wonderful things about this novel, but when I read it a couple of years ago I wasn’t particularly impressed. The initial set-up was good, but the story didn’t evolve in a way I appreciated and I wasn’t drawn to any of the characters (the main character, Marjorie, had potential, but I lost interest in her as the novel progressed). I probably won’t read another novel by this author, although I should point out that she has a large fan-base, so you might want to check elsewhere for differing opinions.

Madouc by Jack Vance (World Fantasy Award), the second book in the Lyonesse series. I loved this series when it first came out, but haven’t found the time to re-read it and cannot recall all the particulars. I do, however, remember being transported to an alternate realm because of exceptional world-building.

Eden, by Stanislaw Lem. A minor Lem classic that left a lasting impression on me. Eden starts slowly, but gains allegorical momentum. At first, the aliens on the planet seem very exotic; but, by the end of the novel, I felt they were not so very different from humans at all. Recommended, especially if you’re a fan of the author (note: the novel was first published in Polish is 1959; the English translation by Marc E. Heine was first published in 1989).

My pick for the Retrospeculative novel of 1989 is…

simmons-hyperionHyperion, by Dan Simmons (Hugo Award winner). This should be considered for any list of best science fiction novels of all time: it’s a classic of the genre (although, for some obscure reason, it wasn’t short-listed for a Nebula Award). Much has been written about Hyperion, and I’ll keep my synopsis brief (do a quick Google search for tons o’ information). There were sequels (Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and Rise of Endymion); and, although all the sequels were good science fiction, none of them captured the brilliance of Hyperion (which was, I believe, initially written as a stand-alone novel).

Hyperion follows a structure similar to The Canterbury Tales (not that I’m an expert on that tome!): it is a framed story involving seven pilgrims journeying to the planet Hyperion. All but one of the pilgrims tells their tale, forming the major sections of the book, and each tale is steeped in a different sub-genre. One of the characters is a clone of the poet John Keats, who never managed to finish his epic poem Hyperion (Keats did complete The Fall of Hyperion and Endymion, which contains the famous first line: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”). Hyperion contains a depth not often encountered in the science fiction genre. Highly recommended!!!