Month: January 1997

Glory Season, David Brin

Bantam Spectra, 1993, 772 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56767-5

Some critics say that the difference between literature and the remainder of the “fiction” section is that literature is dedicated to a thoughtful exploration of the human mind. This, they tell us, is why SF will never be anything more than a glorified escapist genre for people who can’t handle the real world.

The appropriate response to these idiots is to pity them, for they are well and truly living in a world of their own.

Any half-decent SF fan already knows the answer to that accusation. But how to tell them that SF is uniquely positioned to examine the real issues that concern the human heart? What tool but SF lets authors examine the relationship between the flesh and the mind? (cyberpunk) The human and his times? (time travel) Man and his environment? (ecological/space stories) The person and the sex? (Gender explorations)

The last category is, to put it bluntly, a pack of troubles. Gender exploration is usually slanted toward feminist fiction (since that’s the underdog) and outright propaganda. Some of it is good (The Maerland Chronicles/In the Mother’s Land, Elisabeth Vonarburg), some of it is stuffy and boring (The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin) and some of it is plainly, embarrassingly bad (Ammonite, Nicola Griffith).

Another addition to the pack is David Brin’s Glory Season.

Now, understand that I like David Brin. His viewpoint is one of boundless technological optimism, which happens to be my favourite philosophy too. Almost everything he writes is thoughtful, inventive, entertaining and utterly readable. Glory Season is a mixed bag, but still upholds most of Brin’s usual qualities.

Glory Season weighs in at nearly 800 pages, and stars Maia, a young woman living on Stratos, a planet long divorced from the human confederation. Stratos’ society is mostly composed of females: Males are the disadvantaged sex. Two “kinds” of females exist on this planet: clones and the more Earth-familiar vars. (At this point, things get a bit complicated and Brin explains them better than myself anyway.)

At the beginning of the book, Maia leaves her home to make her fortune in the world. With her is Leie, her twin-sister. Not quite a var but not really a clone, Maia thinks she can make her fortune on Stratos… And the adventure begins. Maia’s story is intercut with “didactic interludes”, excepts of diaries and works about Stratos’ history. Like the “Ancillary Documentation” in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap series, these bits are tasty, interesting, and don’t really detract from the flow of the story.

And lest anyone be confused, this is a story. Brin never loses sight of the reason people buy his books: Entertainment. Maia will be participant in gunfights, revolutions, betrayals and the usual gamut of adventure fiction situations. To be fair, this is perhaps the weakest aspect of Glory Season: The fast-paced adventures of Maia are sometimes a bit too fast-paced to sustain interest. A quieter, shorter novel could have been better.

Fortunately, Maia’s an interesting protagonist and her coming-of-age is as fascinating as the society surrounding her. The ending is a bit abrupt, but still wrap most things up. It’s evident that Brin has spent a great deal of time thinking about the issues presented in this novel. Fans won’t be disappointed.

Neither conclusive nor embarrassing, Glory Season is a blend of adventure and extrapolation that’s perhaps not dense enough. Nevertheless, still a solid novel from David Brin.

The Talisman, Stephen King & Peter Straub

Berkley, 1984, 768 pages, C$8.75 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-10533-4

People often ask me why I read so much Science-Fiction. Frankly, that’s a very good question that I haven’t got around answering yet. Oh, sure, there are the usual excuses: I grew up with it, I watched Star Trek for as long as I remember, I’ve always been interested in space, science and stuff, etc… Nevertheless, the best answer may still be that, frankly, what else would I want to read?

Other genres are boring or limited in numbers: Techno-Thrillers are fun but few, romance isn’t my cup of tea, mysteries are (usually) mind-fluff, general literature meaningless AND boring, horror usually cliched and fantasy-

I don’t usually read much Fantasy, and The Talisman reminds me why.

Begin by ignoring the names on the cover. Sure, Stephen King and Peter Straub are two terrific horror writers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that The Talisman is horror.

It smells like fantasy, looks like fantasy and reads like fantasy. To wit:

A young boy, wise beyond his years, discovers that he can access a parallel world. His mother’s analogue in this world is a queen, and he must cross America to retrieve a talisman that will heal both versions of his mother. Opposing him are a powerful dark prince and his real-world analogue, a lawyer.

If that’s not the essential Fantasy Plot, what is?

Surely, there are enough dark critters and evil persons to transform this in a dark fantasy, but it’s still the usual plot taking place.

Like most novels by King -even though I suspect Straub might have written most of the book- this book is pleasantly readable… if such a word can be applied to dark fantasy. Characters are well-presented, the adventures of the hero are told reasonably well.

There are a few deviations from the standard plot, mostly dealing with the dual-universe nature of the story, but the thrust of the novel remains the same as countless fantasy trilogies before it. And I can’t help but be ambivalent about a novel that is explicitly aware of hard-SF, yet grossly contradicts its own rules. Oh, and the finale is interminable.

I’ve heard people say this is the best book they’re ever read. On the other hand, some people have called this the worst Stephen King book, ever. As usual, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. In short: Average.

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction, Ed. David Pringle

Carlton Books, 1995, 309 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 1-85868-188-X

I recently detailed in these virtual pages my acquisition of The Science-Fiction Encyclopedia and The Visual Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction. To refresh some readers’ memories, my impression was unarguably positive. After all, how can you argue against 1,300 pages in one case and a page-full of photographic credits in the other?

Well, call me jaded, but the 304 pages and page-full of illustration credits of David Pringle’s The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction (subtitled The Definitive Illustrated Guide) aren’t quite as impressive…

The basic problem is how to present the subject, especially when it’s as diverse as SF. Do you go for the connoisseur, the fan or the general public? Talk about books nobody read any more or go for the quicker, stupider movies? To that, add the challenge of presenting visuals properly: By theme, date, subject, illustrator?

The choices made by the staff of TUEoSF are clear: They’re going for the general public and more accurately, the British general public. The cover illustration features the scantily-clad robot from METROPOLIS. The back cover has Jane Fonda as a suitably curvaceous Barbarella, Akira, Arnold S. as The Terminator and the ship from “2001”. That should give you an idea of the book’s media-oriented content.

For better and for worse, SF is now a genre most readily identified with television and movies. A large part of the encyclopedia reflects this. Of the eight sections, one 60-page segment is about movies, another 50 pages discuss TV and radio series. Other notable sections deal with Themes (40 pages), “creators” (writers and directors, 70 pages) and “Heroes and Villains” (45 pages) The last section is especially puzzling, since it’s not very useful as reference and pretty much unreadable to anyone not familiar with the books and movies discussed.

The British emphasis has its moments: The dry humour that permeates the book (a contribution of David Langford, perhaps?) is often disrespectful, irreverent and -yes- amusing, provided you’re in the appropriate mood. Unfortunately, it also means that UK authors get more than their fair share of representation: Two-shot Brit wonders are discussed while more prolific North-American authors are ignored. (Some nice photos, though)

Also notable for fan-boys like me are the positive comments about Babylon-5. (Even discussing the suspicious similarity with DS9, but underlining the fact that B5 was pitched to Paramount first…)

The commentary is excellent, even if the categories are suspicious. Interestingly, more than a few relevant comments about TV-SF later appeared in an article written for the very scholarly magazine “Science-Fiction Studies” by none other than Brain Stableford… who’s a collaborator to this book. (Amazing coincidence, don’t you think?)

But for your money, keep an eye on the Clute books. They’re more complete, much more informative and contain about as much illustrations that this book.

Courtship Rite, Donald Kingsbury

Pocket, 1982, 409 pages, C$4.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-46089-7

If you should be so lucky as to meet Donald Kingsbury in person, you will be impressed. With his 6-foot+ frame, unkempt white hair and long-winded interventions, he’ll towers above you physically and intellectually. He’s the perfect picture of a British intellectual. He’d make a perfect mad scientist. Instead, he turned to Science-Fiction.

My first Kingsbury fiction was the excellent “To Bring in the Steel” in the Hard-SF anthology The Ascent of Wonder. A good hard-SF tale, it also delved unusually deep into the psyche of its characters. “A mix of Herbert and Heinlein,” I thought at the time.

With Courtship Rite, the comparison with Herbert seems more and more adequate:  it’s a planetary romance of the best, most intricate sort… just as Dune was.

On the planet of Geta, several centuries in the future, a human civilisation has evolved after quite a few centuries of isolation from Earth. Geta is a desert: arid, harsh, barren. Most of the plants are poisonous. The human society has adapted in consequence: Cannibalism is the only source of meat, marriages involve multiple partners, people “decorate” themselves with scars and complex rituals dictate courtship, death, love… This isn’t a “nice” society, nor an easy book to digest. The technological level is barely above medieval despite the advanced genetic knowledge and some scenes are simply brutal.

The story itself is ho-hum: Boys love girl, but chief orders them to marry barbarian princess. Boys stage Ritual of Death to see if she’s worthy and the story goes on from there. What follows is war, pain, death, a more-or-less happy ending, several levels of intersecting intrigue and a fascinating social exploration. The book is immensely detailed, yet effortlessly so: Kingsbury obviously knows Geta like he lived there.

For Courtship Rite is the social equivalent of Hard-SF tales. Geta’s society is meticulously described by affection and -yes- admiration. I was impressed by the originality and completeness of the vision. In many ways, this book is a trip on another planet.

The characters are exceptionally well-drawn. This is a superior planetary romance, on both sense of the term: A smart SF Harlequin book… (albeit an unusually sadistic one) Kingsbury had put a lot of care in his characters and it shows. Whatever the story is, you care for them. What’s more, I got the unusual feeling that the latter part of the book was moved along by the characters; excellent. Each of the book’s 66 chapters is headed by an original epigram -another touch of Dune– and some of them are true gems.

It’s a magnificent tapestry, a very dense, well-written book. I recommend spending a little more time on this book. I didn’t and frankly, I now regret it. A re-reading in a few year will be much more satisfying. It has the depth of Dune, if maybe not the strong narrative drive: The story is uneven and takes more than a while to rev up to speed. Add to that a few technological inconsistencies (the genetic vs mechanical knowledge) and the overall effect is diminished, but still impressive.

Still, it’s a very good read. It’s no wonder it was nominated for the 1982 Hugos. If you can find it in used libraries, don’t hesitate to pick it up. This isn’t for everyone, would make a rotten miniseries, will certainly shock most SF readers in places (even the most jaded) but is worth of attention by mature SF readers.