The Earth of the near-future has faster-than-light travel of a particularly powerful sort; the entire Milky Way is just 90 days from Earth. Habitable worlds are common enough1 and much to the Dominion of Earth ‘s surprise generally inhabited. How to adapt when there are millions of alien civilizations on the Dominion’s doorstep?
Although still an amnesiac, the man known as Poldarn has reunite with his people after a generation of separation and although he cannot remember why it was he had to flee all those years ago, no doubt such matters are of the distant past and could not possibly come back to haunt him now.
Amnesia isn’t the only thing dividing Poldarn from his devoted family; everyone else on the two islands of the raiders are telepathic, and in a society where households run smoothly thanks to what is almost a group mind, Poldarn is the odd man out, a stranger in a practical-minded community beyond such petty superstitions as religion or volcanoes.
So, bad news about volcanoes; turns out they are real….
Maskelle was once of figure of some significance in her native Celestial Empire – the human Voice of the Adversary, the great being charged with fighting evil - but having blotted her copybook with a bit of business involving a false prophecy and a trail of dead bodies she was consigned to exile in the provinces, far from the center of power. Now, after years of exile, she is returning home to Duvalpore, summoned by the Celestial One.
Many great empires style themselves the center of creation. The Celestial Empire is unusual in that this is true, the world is centered on the sacred mountain in the Empire. For the priestly functionaries of the Empire, a map in the sacred mountain can literally be the territory. For the most part the Empire has used this power to carry out rituals necessary for the functioning of the universe.
I used to have two rules: always read books by people named Sean and always try books by Australians US publishers went to the trouble of acquiring the rights. Like a lot of arbitrary filters, those worked until they failed catastrophically1 but I was well pleased with discovering Australian author Sean McMullen.
Lights up on a world much like Earth but with crucial differences and the siege of the city of Larmentel by the glorious imperial might of the armies of Emperor Warsovran. Unfortunately for Warsovran’s soldiers, their grand skills at siege-craft were learned from the scholars of Larmentel and the scholars kept their best tricks for themselves. Things are not going well but they are about to become much worse.
For the life of me I cannot recall who recommended Moran to me but while my mass market paperback is a first printing (I think), I know I did not find it on my own. I remember a figure – tetrapod, bipedal, endothermic, homeothermic, and tachymetabolic - raving about The Long Run in my store decades ago convincingly enough that I made a point of buying it. Having bought it, I then tracked down every other Moran book that I could – Armageddon Blues, Emerald Eyes and later, The Last Dancer. Then silence fell. Publishing is a cruel and arbitrary world and it seemed that like so many other authors, Moran had been cast out into the shadows.
Happily, his books are once again available; the link is at the bottom of this review unless, ha ha, I forgot to include it. A sensible person would add it right now; I wonder what I actually did?
Onwards to The Long Run, and if I ever sound a bit negative, do remember this book was good enough to make me a Moran completist1.
Science fiction has a long, colourful tradition of books about people with very special powers, abilities focused in specific privileged lineages through extended eugenics programs. See, for example, Doc Smith’s Lensmen series, Heinlein’s Howard Family stories and Larry Niven’s Known Space. Generally being a participant in these programs isn’t a bad thing, even though it constrains one’s choice of mates somewhat, and I cannot help but feel the fact most of the authors who come to mind are white and middle or even upper class – not the groups usually subjected to such programs, upper class inbreeding aside – plays a role in how the whole affair is portrayed.
I think it is safe to say Octavia Butler, one of the very very few African American science fiction writers active in the 1970s, had an entirely different model in the back of her mind as to how the whole directed breeding program would work out in real life. Until about 18651 the US had a distinct population whose activities were overtly closely monitored and closely controlled; a pattern that just leaps out at anyone who isn’t a mouth-breathing libertarian or worse is that despite whatever the propaganda of the day said, the program was not being run for the benefit of its subjects.
One reason I don’t get all het up about how slowly new installments in the serial of The Knights Who Say Fuck are coming out is because I don’t read that series but a more important one is because I have been waiting for more installments in the Anthony Villiers series for most of my life; mere half decades between volumes do not compare. I discovered Panshin’s light-hearted (or at least seemingly light-hearted) series when I was 17. I am no longer 17. I do not have in my possession the fourth or subsequent books in this series and as long as I don’t have them I do not have the spoons to spare for lesser series. But I am not bitter because I do have the first three and those three are treasures.
Given how the Baen brand has evolved over the years,”Baen Books” does not make one think “Lamba and Tiptree-nominated author” but in the 1980s Jim Baen reportedly made a point of looking for good new female authors and his enhusiasm for gay-bashing SF1 had not yet blinded him to works of quality featuring protagonists outside the usual hetrosexual limits. Post-Del Montefication, it may be hard to believe this ever came from Baen, but it did.
And the cover wasn’t even that bad.
I don’t know for a fact this was overlooked when it came out a decade ago but I remember that Bantam Spectra didn’t seem to be doing a stellar job of promoting their authors at the time and Williams move to Night Shade is at least suggestive.
What I actually set out to read what Williams’ Banner of Souls but whatever place I thought was an intuitively obvious place to file it wasn’t the W section of my paperback/trade/ARC F&SF library. I hope to stumble over Banner of Souls at some point but until then have a review of an entirely different book. As it turns out I have apparently been confusing by copy of this with my copy of Banner for over a decade and had never actually read it so this really worked out in my favour. Although I still want to reread Banner of Souls.
This is the book that made me ask on Facebook if it makes sense to talk about an Andre Norton lineage of SF writers. In many ways it’s what you might get if Norton had been a better writer. In others, it’s what you might get if the X-Men used a draft to gain recruits.
We can learn many things from older works of SF and what I learned from this one is that rereading it made me sad.
This will be comparatively short, I think.
As so often is true, I reread an old book to discover what I remembered about it is not necessarily what it is about. I remembered this as a romance set against a plot about overthrowing an oppressive order but that’s not exactly correct.
Near the beginning with a fairly contrived history lesson framed as a good-bye from a beloved teacher to his two priviledged students; this allows the author to drop a fairly weighty infodump about the next twelve centuries. Short version: a combination of resource shortages, ecological crises, plagues and the odd nuclear war bring our civilization down and what replaces it is the Concord, a star spanning feudal society divided into three castes: Elite, Fesh and Bond. This culture is able to provide a high standard of living for the hundred thousand or so Elite and a fair one for the somewhat larger class of Fesh, the trained class who keep the wheels of civilization turning in two different stellar systems but the cost is the brutal exploitation of the Bonds who make up the vast majority of the population.
Reading this, the conclusion I come to is that either I never actually read it – which is sad because I do have a copy – or I managed to completely forget the plot. The books tend to jump back and forth between the civilized Inner Lands and the more wild regions; this is a return to an Inner Land-focused plot. The author also likes to shift between sub-genres from volume to volume; this would be a caper novel.
This picks up a thread mentioned in passing in the first book; Janus, one of the few male Steersmen, has resigned from the order and because he will not say why, has been placed under the Ban. Until he explains himself, no Steerswoman will answer his questions.
Having survived the events of the first book, Rowan continues to follow up on the mystery of the gems, fragments of what she now knows to be a fallen Guidestar, one of the four mysterious objects in geostationary orbit above the surface of her world. Where the first book took her around the comparatively civilized Inner Lands, this time she decides to journey to the location where the main body of the Guidestar fell, a location on the far side of the Outskirts, the homeland of her barbarian companion Bel.
There will be spoilers
In what fellow FASS member Mark Jackson-Brown charmingly refers to as “the Before Times1”, book distribution in Ontario was pretty patchy and while I remember that word of mouth on rec.arts.sf-lovers was very positive about The Steerswoman, I didn’t manage to find a copy of it for my own until 1993, four years after it was published. I can tell this because when I look at the back of my copy it has a sticker from A Second Look Books dated 1993. Which I guess means the author didn’t make any money off me so let’s move quickly on to the next paragraph.
These books are what SF should aspire to be; it is a shame they are not more widely known.
There will be some spoilers.