Nova, by Samuel R. Delany

Delany has become one of my favourite science fiction authors and I’ve wanted to re-read Nova for quite some time. I didn’t fully enjoy it when I was younger, but I’ve recently been re-sampling his oeuvre and a few of his books that had left me cold when I younger are remarkable, intellectual gems; in particular, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (IMHO his SF masterpiece) and Dhalgren (a compelling book that defies categorization and requires a tolerant, tenacious reader).Nova

In Nova, Delany imagines intriguing forms of sensual stimulation: futuristic drugs, music and art, electronic-cyborg-sensations via jacking into computers, and the sensory syrynx. Early in the novel, the syrynx is referred to as an ax, inviting the notion of more than one use: certainly as an innovative, futuristic musical instrument, but also, potentially, as a weapon. The syrynx — an allusion to Pan’s pipe and possibly a syringe — can create music, scents and images.

In the opening scene of the novel a character explains how he became overdosed on sensory input while plugged-into to a spaceship’s computer, perceiving a nova at close-range. An input-overload left his senses permanently disabled:

“We were moving out, boy, with the three hundred suns of the Pleiades glittering like a puddle of jewelled milk on our left, and all blackness wrapped around our right. The ship was me; I was the ship… … It was like the universe was torn and all day raging through. I wouldn’t go off sensory input. I wouldn’t look away. All the colours you could think of were there, blotting the night. And finally the shock waves; the walls sang. Magnetic inductance oscillated over our ship, nearly rattled us apart… … then it was too late.” [p. 2]  

Nova is a short novel, but it is filled with subtle depth. Delany does an admirable job of assembling his universe with judicious measures of information on the economy, the arts, fashion, politics, and the ever-changing mosaic of human society. Mythic stories and characters resound ambiguously throughout the novel, unifying the whole. The novel’s characters are ciphers of mythical personalities (Jason, the Fisher King, Prometheus, Pan …) and the plot sails on the seas of allegory (the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece and the prognostications of the Tarot, to name a few). Individuals are nodes in the galactic web of humanity: their myths and tales are like the warp and weave that connects undulating nodes of a net in the ocean.

The novel’s characters have varied upbringings, allowing a comprehensive view of Delany’s future society. Lorq Von Ray is a rich man from the Pleiades (economic and political rival to the Earth worlds), Katin is an educated, middle-class man (raised on Earth’s moon), and the Mouse (who plays the syrynx) is a poor gypsy from Earth. There are also minor characters, some of whom come from the outer worlds with differing economic and political agendas. And there is a villain, the Prince, from Draco (the Earth-based systems). It is a male-dominated novel: there are interesting female characters (Lorq’s aunt Celia, crewmember and Tarot card-reader Tyÿ, and Prince’s sister Ruby Red), but they are overshadowed by the main male characters, and perhaps this is an unfortunate sign of the times.

Within the book, one character, Katin, wants to write a novel — an archaic art-form — and the book the reader holds, Nova, is presented as his attempt. ‘Nova’ and ‘novel’ share the same root, the Greek word novum, something new. My nova-knowledge is woefully slim, but in the context of the book, a nova not only shatters the laws of physics, but is also capable of providing the material required to shatter the balance of political and economic power; further, it can shatter the psyche.

Nova is a revenge story, a quest story, a space-opera, a story that reverberates with myth, and an economic/political story. It is intelligent and has a heart larger than its parts. It is a good starting point if you are new to the author: perhaps the best, and most accessible, of his early novels (Triton would also be a good place to begin, although the main character is quite repugnant).

I truly appreciate Samuel R. Delany’s fiction; in particular, The Einstein Intersection (1967), Nova (1968), Dhalgren (1975), Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), and the Nevèrÿon series (1979-1987).

I wish he would write more science fiction; if nothing else, perhaps he could write The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, the intended-but-unwritten sequel to Stars in My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand. His justification for not completing the diptych is scrupulous and, even without the sequel, the first book stands sufficiently on its own. Nevertheless….

 

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!

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.

The Automatic Detective, by A. Lee Martinez

Automatic_Detective_coverThe Automatic Detective, by A. Lee Martinez, is part Isaac Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw, part Iron Giant, part Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, part mutant-alien invasion, and part tongue-in-cheek blast of fun.

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To say much more would either confuse or spoil plot-points, but I will point out that the action is narrated by a powerful but not quite indestructible robot and includes many characters, including an evil scientist, a kidnapped family, a beautiful blonde who also happens to be a rich genius, a talking gorilla who is a cab driver, countless mutants, aliens, and more…

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A good summer escape; some of the subtle, and not-so-subtle, humour educed chuckles while I read.

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This is the first novel I’ve read by this author (his covers have, until now, scared me off); it’s not a deep-book, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

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The Fade, by Chris Wooding

The Fade combines elements of science fiction and fantasy and the story is constructed upon an intriguing foundation: the main storyline flows chronologically, but it is interspersed with reverse-order flashbacks that detail significant experiences in the protagonist’s past. The main storyline is a revenge-fueled adventure within a fantasy/science-fiction setting.

The title has several meanings and sets up a twist that, unfortunately, I found to be over-telegraphed, which took some of the fun out of the tale, but I still enjoyed the story more than I thought I would. The novel is presented in first-person narrative, a fascinating way of building a world in bits and pieces. The protagonist doesn’t spend a lot of time describing the wonders of her world (as she wouldn’t, being a native), yet the alien atmosphere is successfully transmitted to the reader (the image on the book’s front cover helped).the_fade_cover

Long before the action in the novel, humans had settled beneath the surface of Callepsa, a moon that orbits a gas giant, Beyl. The surface of Callepsa is uninhabitable, but the cavernous subterranean world consists of countries, seas, warriors, magicians, and intriguingly alien creatures and scenery. War is common, fought by highly proficient warriors and the thaumaturgy of adept magicians.

The protagonist, Massima Leithka Orna, is indentured; a Bondswoman, a servant of the Clan Caracassa. Orna is a warrior/spy/assassin of the clan’s Cadre, which also includes chthonomancers (wielders of magic). Near the beginning of the novel, Orna’s husband is killed in a particularly vicious battle, and she is taken prisoner. Orna is convinced a betrayal caused her husband’s death and her capture, and the rest of the story’s arc documents her escape and her act of vengeance.

I thought the ending was a bit weak; I expected a twist I hadn’t foreseen, but I did enjoy the story and I would read a sequel to this short, exciting novel that left room for more…

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Venus Plus X, by Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon (1918 – 1985) was an excellent short story writer, but I’m not convinced he was a great novelist (More Than Human is his best novel, and it is really a three-part fix-up, expanded from the novella Baby is Three); he seems to have had issues with sustaining an interesting plot past the novella length (Sturgeon has a large body of short works, but his novel output was quite limited).

Venus Plus X (1960) is half story, half lecture, and there is a dated feel to the novel, which, in part, attempts to illuminate the shifting roles of VenusPlusXcovermen and women, but the book’s message is presented from a society fifty years in our past (the message still has importance, but society has moved forward slightly; err, well, most of us have, I hope). The book may have gathered greater resonance today if it had been written from a woman’s point of view; unfortunately, the book has the distinct feel of having been written by a man writing to other men.  A main message is that, in the grand scheme of things, men and women are much more alike than they are different; sex shouldn’t get in the way of commonality of understanding. Additionally, the novel expounds on the human need to feel superior, which drives the marginalization of women, as well as contributing to other forms of overcompensation and prejudice.  

The protagonist of Venus Plus X is Charlie Johns, a young man from the 20th century (circa 1960) who is apparently, without his knowledge or consent, transferred via a time machine to Ledom (model spelled backwards), a futuristic, utopian society. Ledom is a community of hermaphroditic beings, perhaps the next stage in human evolution. For an unknown reason, Charlie’s opinion of the society is important to the leaders of Ledom. Charlie’s experiences in Ledom are intermingled — as a comparison — with short scenes of two neighboring families living in the 1960s.  

Venus Plus X is a quick read, but I didn’t find it particularly edifying or satisfying; if you haven’t read any of Sturgeon’s works, I would recommend seeking out his short fiction, for example: The Man Who Lost the Sea, Slow Sculpture, Bright Segment, The Other Celia, Baby is Three (which was expanded into the novel, More Than Human), Bianca’s Hands, and Microcosmic God.

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Wool, by Hugh Howley

wool-uk-cover-finalWool has garnered all kinds of hype and sales, and even a movie contract.

I thought it began with promise, but ran out of steam and became somewhat slow and predictable like so many similar plots. It weighs in at slightly over five-hundred pages, but could have been slimmed-down to provide a more gripping read.

The set-up is intriguing: there has been an apocalyptic event on Earth, leaving the atmosphere poisonous and unlivable.  A one-hundred and forty-four story, sub-subterranean silo has been built to house the remnants of humanity, which presents some questions, for example: what happened, and why were they so prepared? (These questions are eventually answered satisfactorily). The silo houses a dystopian society and there are several layers of conspiracy, which are revealed as the novel progresses. There are cameras that display the drab, dead outside world, and miscreants are sent out to clean the lenses, and then die in the poisonous atmosphere (for some unknown reason, every ‘criminal’ sent out — called a cleaner — polishes the lenses with the wool provided (hence, the title), even though certain death follows. The reason why every cleaner polishes the lenses is given in the novel, but it seemed tenuous to me).
The author, Hugh Howley, began the novel as an Amazon short story that went viral, leaving fans clamoring for further adventures, which Howley duly created. The original short story was clever and drew me in; but my interest ebbed as the story continued, and after I’d finished about two-thirds of the novel I found myself skipping sections (something I very rarely do: I’d rather stop reading a book than skip anything, but the novel was somewhat predictable after a while and I wanted to make sure it ended as I’d suspected). The story was originally released in small portions on the web, which may be a better way to digest it; read all at once as a novel, the story bogs down.
The characters weren’t drawn in great depth, the writing was a bit flat, and the spontaneous romance between two main characters wasn’t really believable (but was melodramatic); nevertheless, the story was interesting enough, and there was a satisfactory, albeit too neat, ending.

Not quite my cup of tea, but legions of readers loved it.