Reviews, October 2014

A world that won’t stay saved

Branch Point — Mona Clee

Mona Clee’s 1996 debut novel Branch Point is a product of the mid-nineties, the period after the fall of the Soviet Union and before the endless War on Terror. While it acknowledges the dramatic changes in Russia, its sensibilities remain informed by Cold War anxieties. Given how many nuclear weapons remain (then and now), that’s not an unreasonable stance.

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“Death is no friend to man, not ever.”

Malevil — Robert Merle

Today’s translated work is Robert Merle’s Malevil, first published in French in 1972 and translated  into English by Derek Coltman in 1973. I remember it being pretty popular in the 1970s, enough that it got a movie adaptation in 1981, but as far as I can tell it has almost entirely fallen into obscurity1 and out of print. That’s a pity, because Merle has some interesting angles on well-tested tropes.

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Once, women had lived with men; the thought was appalling.

The Shore of Women — Pamela Sargent

1986’s The Shore of Women takes us to a time in the distant future after nuclear war has nearly destroyed civilization. Just as it happened in Suzy McKee Charnas’ novel Walk to the End of the World, those in charge after the war decided to lay all of the blame on one sex. This time round, the people in charge are women and the ones assigned scapegoat status are the men.

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“Within this car, a family is burning alive.”

The War Game — Peter Watkins

There’s a cognitive deficit that shows up in my family on my father’s side frequently enough that I have wondered from time to time if it’s an example of nature or of nurture. It is an inability to tell if, when an opinion on a matter is solicited, the person or organization asking is actually only interested in a positive answer1. I myself am entirely free of this deficit but I know it when I see it in others. Peter Watkins seems to have at least a touch of it because I would wager that at no point did BBC say to him “please produce a short piece on the subject of nuclear war for The Wednesday Play that both the BBC and the government will conclude is too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting,” and yet that is exactly what he did.

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When the Cities Ended

The Long Tomorrow — Leigh Brackett

The great war between the American-led allies and their enemies killed untold millions as cities burned across the planet. In the aftermath, victorious America resolved that the means to preventing another nuclear war was to prevent great concentrations of people. Accordingly, the 30th Amendment forbids communities of more than a thousand people and limits density to no more than two hundred buildings to the square mile.

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After the Golden Age

A Gift Upon the Shore — M.K. Wren

What I (re)learned from this is my memory of books I have not read in twenty-three years can be unreliable.

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The best of the Heinlein juveniles

Citizen of the Galaxy — Robert A. Heinlein

Some of this will come across as negative so I’d like to begin with “Citizen of the Galaxy is in many ways the most ambitious of the juveniles and it was that ambition that put Heinlein’s blind-spots out where I could see them.” This could easily have been a much more straightforward, much less interesting space adventure book.

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Return to Hiroshima

Barefoot Gen — Keiji Nakazawa

Like Masuji Ibuse, Keiji Nakazawa (1939 – 2012) was a native of Hiroshima. Unlike Ibuse, Nakazawa was in Hiroshima on August sixth, 1945 and while he and his mother survived the destruction of Hiroshima, his father, two sisters and younger brother died as a result of it. Nakazawa’s manga series Barefoot Gen is a thinly veiled autobiographical work, telling the story of the destruction of Hiroshima and the immediate aftermath from a small boy named Gen, just the same age the author was when Hiroshima was destroyed.

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“they rejoiced to find an enemy they could conquer at last.”

Walk to the End of the World — Suzy McKee Charnas

Sorry about the cover image. For some reason none of the nice images of the original Gene Szafran would let me save a copy. 

Rather like yesterday’s Canticle, Walk to the End of the World examines the Earth transformed by nuclear war – the Wasting – but where the mob in Canticle turned on the intelligentsia deemed responsible for nuclear weapons, the handful of high officials who survived the final war in their hidden Refuge decide that the true villains were not the men who finally pushed The Button, because that would mean accepting responsibility. Instead they decide to blame  all who opposed them and so made that war inevitable:

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“The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the old clean currents. He was very hungry that season”

A Canticle for Leibowitz — Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. was a respected and prolific author whose career as a published author was confined for the most part to the 1950s. Despite the comparative brevity for his career, he won two Hugo awards in that time, one for “The Darfsteller” and one for the only novel he ever published while alive, A Canticle For Leibowitz. If modern audiences know Miller at all, it’s usually for this novel.

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I am not going to explain how much of my courtship doctrine was based on this book and ones like it aside from admitting it was not a small fraction

On Thermonuclear War — Herman Kahn

On Thermonuclear War came out in 1960, a time when a world without nuclear weapons was something a lot of people had actually grown up in, rather than a peculiar fantasy of a few idealistic deviates. The years between 1945 and 1960 had seen some breath-taking advances in technology but sadly the doctrines available remained comparatively crude. This book was Herman Kahn’s attempt to address this gap. Since the outcomes are distinguishable, the US should chose policies that selected for the least bad outcomes and the only way to do that was through rational analysis. 

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Trust the US to turn procuring weapons of mass destruction into something sordid

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II — Denise Kiernan

While accounts of the development of the atomic bomb will mention women like Lise Meitner and perhaps Ida Noddack in passing, for the most part the story of how the atomic bomb came to be is framed as a male one. In fact, there were were thousands of women, blue collar and white collar, involved in the Manhattan District. In Girls of Atomic City, author Denise Kiernan tries to cast a little light on groups generally consigned to the shadows.

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In which archaic sexism and racism provide unwelcome distraction from dubious physics

Time for the Stars — Robert A. Heinlein

1956’s Time for the Stars feels like a regression for Heinlein, a book that if I did not know when it was published I would have said was one of the earlier juveniles. It’s also oddly downbeat, in that the protagonist’s most significant contribution to the world is something he could have done at home, something that makes his other efforts almost pointless.

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“The deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because they are possible to find.”

The Making of the Atomic Bomb — Richard Rhodes

I am using the wrong cover for this because for some reason I cannot seem to save a copy of the image of the cover of the 25th Edition.

I am embarrassed to admit that despite the fact I have a collection of books on the theory of nuclear weapons, this is the first time I have ever read this impressive work. Although the author occasionally interrupts the narrative with issues quite irrelevant to the origin of nuclear weapons – peculiar objections to Extinction Level Events and other side issues – there’s a lot of detail in this book and it is well worth the trouble of hunting down.

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“It was most odd”

Black Rain — Masuji Ibuse (Translated by John Bester)

Shizuma Shigematsu, his wife Shigeko and their niece Yasuko all survived the Monday, August 6, 1945 attack on Hiroshima, experiencing the event from the perspective of varying distances from the epicenter. Shizuma was nearest the explosion and Yasuko sufficiently far away to suffer none of the immediate effects like translational injury, thermal burns or prompt radiation injury from the explosion itself. While husband and wife suffered from radiation illness in the years since, Yasuko herself appears to have escaped unharmed. 

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Same river, different shore

Tea with the Black Dragon — R.A. MacAvoy

I was just having a conversation about how context affects my reading of a book. I loved Tea With a Black Dragon back in 1983. The copy I read is the same copy I read in 1983 but my experience reading it was very different.

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“Tell them Death is God now; he is alive, he is walking.”

Them Bones — Howard Waldrop
Series Three, book 4

All things being equal, I’d love to have reviewed Them Bones as a Tuesday Rediscovery but as far as I can tell 1984’s Them Bones not only isn’t available in ebook form, it’s not available in any form. This is a great shame.

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“We are the lantern bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”

The Lantern Bearers — Rosemary Sutcliff
Eagle of the Ninth , book 4

While I know I read this when I was a teen, I was actually only ten when I first encountered it and while I didn’t like it much at the time – because I was ten and this isn’t really a book for a ten-year-old – I reread it several times that year. In part that is because even though I didn’t like it I did find it fascinating but the real reason was we were living in Brazil, we had gone three months without any books in English1  to read and this was in the big case of school books that finally caught up with us around Christmas. It was actually my brother’s allotment of course books for grade nine but I didn’t care. I read all the books in that box over and over, except maybe the math books.

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If you are considering reading the Raksura books, start with this one

The Cloud Roads — Martha Wells

Moon thinks of himself as a “shifter”, but why he can change from a wingless to a winged form is a mystery to him, along with why those are the only two forms in his repertory. There are lots of different intelligent species in the Three Worlds, enough that not every variety is known to every person, and since his family died when he was young, Moon never learned what kind of person he is.

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Like a kinder, gentler Battle Royale… IN SPACE!

Tunnel in the Sky — Robert A. Heinlein

1955’s Tunnel in the Sky takes us to a future Earth jam-packed with people but rescued from an ongoing Malthusian crisis by the timely invention of interstellar gates. With access to the hundred thousand Earth-like worlds1 scattered through the Milky Way, there is enough room for everyone to spread out while breeding like mice, at least for a time – I make it about 600 years before all one hundred thousand worlds are as crammed with people as the Earth is.

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The observer effect is universal

Reluctant Voyagers — Élisabeth Vonarburg

When I selected this, I had no memory of the plot at all despite the fact my copy of the book is well worn. It seemed suitable that issues of history, forgotten and rewritten, play such a central role in this novel of the mid-1990s so I thank the endless series of head injuries I have suffered for their contribution to this reading experience. 

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At least I still know how to spell “Drapetomania”

The Sardonyx Net — Elizabeth A. Lynn

I have only myself to blame for this. I could have gone with the Chronicles of Tornor or   A Different Light but no, I snagged this one even though there was a quiet voice at the back of my head saying I didn’t enjoy The Sardonyx Net the first time round. Well, now at least I remember why I didn’t like it.

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I hated this book

The Soul of the Robot — Barrington J. Bayley

Although I think of Barrington J. Bayley as a charming oddity from the 1970s, I see his career actually began in the 1950s and continued into the Aughts. Still, of the sixteen Bayley novels of which I am aware, nine are from the 1970s and only three date from later than the mid-1980s. Apparently he was influential on a number of higher profile authors, all of whom will probably be happier with me if they stop reading now.

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Discontentment in utopia

Don’t Bite The Sun — Tanith Lee
Biting The Sun, book 1

1976’s Don’t Bite the Sun is apparently the first volume in a trilogy but while the second book, Drinking Sapphire Wine, saw print in 1977, the third volume was never published. I only just discovered there was even supposed to be a third one and I have no idea what it would have been about. My copy is the first printing of the mass market paperback and I read it in a way a reader coming to it could not today, on its own and without reference to the sequel. I am going to tried hard to replicate that experience here.

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Enter the Heinlein Girl in Charge

The Star Beast — Robert A. Heinlein

1954’s The Star Beast is notable for a couple of things. Of all the Heinlein Girls in Charge, The Star Beast’s Betty Sorenson is the girl most in charge and in Mr. Kiku we find an extremely uncommon figure for SF, a sympathetic career bureaucrat.

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Love and engineering; a recipe for armageddon

Devices and Desires — K.J. Parker
The Engineer Trilogy, book 1

Mezentia, queen of the industrialized cities! Also the only industrialized city of note thanks to its habit of closing guarding its secrets through all available means, up to and including casual genocide; it is a very bad thing to give Mezentia the impression some of their intellectual property has fallen into your soon to be extremely and brutally dead hands.

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fantasies light and dark, from and about Japan

Phantasm Japan:

For some reason the cover says this was edited by “Haikasoru” but that is a stand-in for Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington. As explained in Mamatas’ introduction, the intention here is de-exoticize so if you’re looking for something to reinforce an impression of Japan as Other and Enchantedly Unknowable, look to other works for support in that endeavor.

Washington for her part makes a point of thanking the translators; they often go unnoticed (and I think in at least one book I am considering for review, uncredited) but anyone who has read a bad translation next to a superior one will know how crucial they are. Lesser publishers could learn from Haikasoru. 

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