Walk to the End of the World (1974) by Suzy McKee Charnas

WalkToTheEndOfTheWorldThere’s going to be a lot of defensive denial from readers who look upon my copy of Walk to the End of the World (1974) by Suzy McKee Charnas with “The terrifying science fantasy about a world ruled by men” blurbed on the cover. Knee-jerk responses will vary from “pshh, that’s not fantasy, that’s reality” to “that would never happen this author is a man-hater.” The cover image of an enslaved woman kneeling before two stern-faced men is equally contentious. (cover below, for I could not bear to make it the lead image for this post. this red one over here isn’t much better.)

So let’s take a moment to readjust our worldview: Systemic slavery of women exists today, in larger numbers than you think. It exists in first-world countries, with an estimated 60000 slaves in the US, most of them women. Even conservative states in the US are taking action, explicitly designating Human Trafficking Task Forces to differentiate from smuggling and immigration issues, while educators are being trained to identify victims of slavery, just as they do victims of child abuse and neglect. Moreover, areas of economic boom have the highest rates of slavery in the first world.

And no matter where you find it, or in what form, slavery today is overwhelmingly gendered, with men subjugating and controlling women against their wills, all over the world.

Continue reading

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Inferno (1975) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Inferno1Abandon all hope… she’s reviewing another NivPourn book.

A comedy: less divine, more contrapasso. Perhaps a small penance for those bloggers who make fun of old classics, including that awesome time-travel story you loved when you were eleven and now you haven’t the social-awareness and maturity to admit to the shortcomings of things you enjoy. I’m sure I had it coming.

In Inferno, Larry and Jerry’s 1975 novel serialized in Galaxy, science fiction writer Allen Carpenter (Jesus reference! Jesus reference!) dies after a drunken fall at a science fiction convention. He recovers to find himself in a timeless void until his guide, some guy named Benito, rescues him from a bottle and takes him through the vestibule and into the ten circles of Hell. The rational, agnostic Carpenter prefers to think he’s in a far-future theme park called Infernoland. Modeled off of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, Niven and Pournelle parody the pedantic mindset of the Hard sci-fi writer.

But, when even Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are surprised by the success of one of their books, you know you have stumbled upon an INSIGNIFICANT MOMENT OF GENRE HISTORYYYYY.
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The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson

TheYearsofRiceandSaltHappy and angry. Happily angry. Everything, all at once. That’s life, boy. You just keep getting fuller, until you burst and Allah takes you and casts your soul into another life later on. And so everything just keeps getting fuller. [290]

Two souls, Happy and Angry. The Monkey and the Lion. Their fates intertwined, they reincarnate to new lands, always to rediscover one another, always to redefine their relationship, and, most importantly, to drive history forward. Continue reading

The Unsleeping Eye/The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974) by D. G. Compton

TheUnsleepingEye1While the benefits of disease eradication are oft desired, the ramifications of such a world are not hard to imagine: overpopulation, senescence, entropy. Speculative fiction has played with this trope for ages, resulting in stories that span from the optimistic to the apocalyptic to the zombie apocalyptic. Some might argue that it’s overdone, but that doesn’t stop writers from continuing the trend, because it’s something we all want, we don’t have, and we should fear what we don’t have because we might not ever have it or understand it, and also vaccinations might cause zombies.

But leave it to D. G. Compton to find a new angle on the whole brave new disease-free world trope. In The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (published in the U. S. as The Unsleeping Eye– my copy, and later as Death Watch, after the movie), D. G. Compton ignores those obvious consequences (although we get a slight flavor of societal decay in the background), and instead twists his tale to illuminate the effects of the absence of disease on a media-suffused, yet “pain-starved public” (p. 31). Continue reading

My Thoughts on the 1939 Retro Hugos: A Sampling

Pigeons_from_Hell

Read with caution.

thetimetrap

Avoid this.

Who_Goes_There-_(John_Campbell_book)_1st_edition_cover_art

Read this.

Due to the likely obstacles that come with obtaining the rights to 75-year-old fiction and converting it to digital format, the 1939 Retro Hugo packet was released just five weeks before ballots were due, with incomplete categories that were riddled with typos. Plus, I was offline for a month.

But, no worries! I didn’t vote, but I got some of the reading done! Here are my thoughts: Continue reading

Palimpsest (2009) by Catherynne M. Valente

palimpsestLewis Carroll meets Anne Rice (the erotica years) in this surreal urban fantasy about four individuals who travel to the city of Palimpsest via a sex portal. Yes, you read that correctly: In order to visit the city, instead of going down the rabbit hole, you need to go down someone else’s hole.

Sorry.

Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente is an adult fairy tale in every sense, and not for the pearl-clutchers who may accidentally pick up this book expecting a story about medieval manuscripts. But, that’s not to say that this is a one-handed read, either. Fans of the recent boon in erotic fiction probably won’t be satisfied. The sex happens in the real world, among ugly, destitute characters who view sex as a mere gateway, and sometimes obstruction, to their dream city. There may be a few titillating phrases here and there, but this is not erotica. Sometimes, the sex seems incidental, as if all the good portals have already been taken.

The Synopsis
A beekeeper, a locksmith, a bookbinder, and a blue-haired train enthusiast notice the appearance of a map-like tattoo on their bodies after a strange sexual encounter. This tattoo acts as a calling card to other people with similar tattoos who lure the main characters into a series of casual sex, followed by a dreamy visit to the area of Palimpsest that corresponds to the map tattooed on their partners’ bodies. The more strangers one hooks up with, the more areas of Palimpsest one gets to visit. The story follows the four characters as they discover more secrets of the city with each sexual encounter, while their lives in the real-world erode and collapse. The group seeks to become permanent members of the Palimpsest society, but there is a strong bias against immigrants and a vague war, which may or may not still be happening, that permeates the landscape. The city is populated with surgically-altered animal people, rambunctious trains, unfinished clone children, and a wealthy empress-type woman who seems to control the whole thing with her clockwork insects.

Valente’s flowery, buttery language is the first thing readers will notice, and it can either charm or repel. The pages brim with adjectives and adverbs, colors and textures. It’s like reading a fabric cabinet. The initial pages are heavy with this technique, layered on top of ornate vocabulary, which feels pretentious, especially after reading the Shakespearean epigraph. But the pretense wears off as the story falls into its own rhythm and shakes off just enough of the gilded vernacular to feel genuine. Personally, I enjoyed the prose, but I can imagine some of my fellow SF readers might recoil.

A great strength of this story is its ethnic and sexual diversity, which has won Valente accolades. The main characters are American-Hispanic, Japanese, Russian-American, and Italian, and they participate in various forms of sexual relationships, both during and prior to their exploration of Palimpsest. Even the occupations and hobbies of these characters drip with sexual connotations that allude to the represented orientations: a woman with a honey hive, a man who matches keys with locks, a woman thrilled by trains, a man preoccupied by the opening and closing of books. The diversity is appreciated, but it doesn’t matter in the end when these characters are doing anybody with a tattoo for a chance to visit the city. I wish these relationships had reached an intimacy beyond sex and desperation (it would be nice to see some healthy sexual diversity in fiction), although that would defeat the purpose of the story.

And that’s where my apprehensions are raised. This story seeks to be modern and inclusive, but it can also be read as a haunting analogy about addiction at the cost of reality, health, and intimacy.  It’s not a groundbreaking analogy, and I fear that comparing sex to drug use perpetuates our society’s unhealthy attitude toward sex. The story’s association of sex with degradation brings to mind sterile, Puritanical views of copulation. “Don’t sleep around or Palimpsest will take you.” It’s almost like Palimpsest is the sexual bogeyman. The real world doesn’t need a fairy tale like that. The real world has STD’s and unwanted pregnancies.

But it only matters if Valente is trying to tell us something, which I don’t think she is. This is more tour guide than storybook, and Valente’s urban landscape and quirky freaks matter more to her than any social commentary or character growth.The plot is minor, and what exists includes annoying holes and vague, unsatisfying explanations. The story is dotted with hints about the Palimpsest war, but is never fleshed out. The single action sequence is awkward and leaves much to be unraveled. Also, how exactly does this sex portal work? Why no condoms? Does Palimpsest require exchange of body fluids? Can one diddle oneself? Beyond these questions, character motivation is slim and sometimes contradictory. People change without much elaboration.

But it’s pretty! And quite brief at only about 200 digital pages. Fans of Valente would probably agree that she has stronger works to sample her imaginative ideas and flowery language. Ultimately, the plot of Palimpsest won’t drive the reader to turn the page. It’s easy to put down this book and forget about it, but for the surrealists out there, the florid prose and landscape may be worth a look.