Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

February 12, 2010

Pennterra – Judith Moffett

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 7:57 pm

This is a colonization[1] novel, and a Quaker novel, but any similarity to The Dazzle of Day is fairly superficial. It begins in media res, with the colonists thoroughly planted on Pennterra, and already firmly in contact with the native hrossa[2], while the other ends as the travellers reach the surface of their planet. Another dissimilarity is that Pennterra has many characters who aren’t Quakers, and the cultural dialogue between them enriches the text – though it would have been interesting to have seen someone cross over properly, or even be in much doubt about their position.

The book was written in 1987, and it shows in the future it depicts – Earth has been ruined, worn out, broken. The overcrowded population are starving, living on algae cakes, so presumably everything went Malthusian. And mass colonization of another planet is still a real possibility. The irresistable comparison, for me, is Anne McCaffrey’s >Decision at Doona, and that was from 1967, so it’s almost certainly an influence.

As regards themes, it’s mostly about food, and sustenance, and how to keep right relations with the world around us. It’s a constant ethical quandary for Quakers and other thoughtfully spiritual people, and this book gives an interesting perspective on it. I don’t think it’s a story that only SF could have told in the same way that The Dazzle of Day is, but it’s still a very good and powerful one.

The Quakers – all scientists – gradually find out a lot of the way this new world works, and find clearness on the restrictions the natives have placed on their expansion. On Pennterra, there are no predator/prey relations; all consumption is a gift. This is… not an easy thing to get used to, even for the Quakers, and we see quite a bit of their bitterness and resentment at being casually denied the future they were expecting.

Moffett does a good job of showing us how they find the nature of the planet out, mostly by giving us excerpts from their diaries-cum-informal-lab-notebooks, making no distinctions between biological research, botanical studies, practical anthropology, and conversation between friends. At the same time, we see the characteristic painful Quaker honesty about themselves and their reactions to their work.

The pacing of discovery is good, without playing I-know-something-you-don’t-know tricks on either reader or characters; it might have been good to have seen the author coming down less heavily on the Quaker side, but then I may well be seeing more of that than there is there as a Quaker myself.


[1] Which isn’t the same as a colonial novel; nor is it a postcolonial novel. It’s an interesting beast all of its own. There are some problematic aspects to casting humans as the colonizers (though they’re explicitly multi-racial) and aliens as the colonized party, but otherwise it provides a very interesting vehicle to look at huge differences in cultural practice and needs.
[2] A deliberate in-universe reference to CS Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy – the hrossa there are natives of a planet whose people did not Fall.

November 25, 2009

Werewolves & other bullies

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 3:20 am

Something else that always annoys me in fantasy: werewolves. It’s like every other time I turn around these days, there’s a pack of furry arseholes obsessed with establishing their one-dimensional dominance hierarchies by glaring, snarling, and beating each other up.

Why do people find this interesting? It’s not fun (even if you happen to be the bully on the top of the pile) and it doesn’t make for much more than formulaic stories. Trying to get something done despite being surrounded by idiots who think it matters that they can beat you up? Sounds far too much like a crude caricature of school, to me, without even the blessing that it stops after five years. Apparently, if you’re a werewolf you’re stuck playing dominance games for the rest of your furry life, and the way to get things done is to learn how to beat people up yourself.

It could be that it’s a variant of the waaaaaaah-modern-life-SUCKS feudal wankery which used to afflict fantasy so badly – you know the one, the stories which hark back to a simpler, nobler age, where the loyal, sturdy peasantry took an uncomplicated delight in their simple lives while dedicated, honourable nobles protected them from dire threats. While living in their huge castles and eating vast amounts of meat every night. In the werewolf variant, nobody has to bother with democracy, or consensus-building, or social niceties, or a chores rota; it’s straight back to the firm mutual bonds of kinship and community, where everyone knows their place and the solution to a crazed or incompetent leader is to rip his throat out.

Of course, it could be a cunning way to problematize this sort of community – I’ve seen the occasional werewolf story where someone (usually a female someone) tries just to opt out of the power structure, and gets slapped down and dragged back in[1], on the “join in our way or stay at the bottom” principle. The problem is, I’ve never yet seen a story where the fucked-up society gets changed, and the impulse to rip out your political opponent’s throat gets treated as an embarrassing display of bad manners.

Most authors seem to deal with that by giving werewolves some sort of implanted mystical dominance hierarchy crap, “like real wolves”, so that otherwise sensible people become compelled to play silly buggers with Greek letters, and get driven into a rage by challenges to their status. So the message there is that certain types of people[2] are just naturally what they are, and the social structure of your community is decreed by mystic woo-woo biology? Dodgy literature[3] at best.

I would say, this is the kind of subgenre that’s crying out for an Octavia Butler; but she took on much broader targets, and ones that posed a lot of difficulty to a large proportion of her SF-reading constituency.

I can’t think of a social message from werewolf stories except “bullies are bad” and “dominance hierarchies are an annoying waste of time” – and frankly, SF/fantasy readers generally know that already. It doesn’t necessarily stop them engaging in that behaviour amongst themselves, but then that’s domination systems for you.


[1] If my memory doesn’t fail me, then one of Kelley Armstrong’s novels (Bitten?) has a scene where two male pack members drag a woman back so the pack can force her to get pregnant by a man of their choice. This one actually comes the closest I’ve seen to fixing them, when the woman points out that it wouldn’t happen if they didn’t all cooperate with the psycho on the top of the pile.

[2] There are no non-people. If it’s in a book, and it talks, it’s a person – what we see from it is an illustration of something about people. Nobody ever gets a free pass because “werewolves are like that”. It’s as bad as “all orcs are minions of evil”. Nobody is ever condemned by genetics to be a minion, let alone evil. The idea that some people are natural Alphas and the rest of us are peons makes me see red.

[3] Similarly, there is no non-literature. Nothing gets a pass because it has bad art on the cover or gold lettering for the title. It all deals with the human condition, with life and hope and relationships between people.

September 15, 2009

Frances Hardinge – Verdigris Deep

This book is difficult to describe. It’s about families, mostly, but not in the everything-is-a-metaphor-for-your-parents’-divorce sense so tiresomely common in children’s lit. There is a divorce, but it isn’t where we think it’s going to be, and the well spirit is just that.

It’s a book about learning to connect and to value friendships, and about forgiveness – about learning to tell what we, and each other, really want. The well spirit does some monstrous things, and gets described using some really grotesque imagery, but that doesn’t make her a monster to be opposed utterly in the way a less skilled writer might have done.

June 25, 2009

Mike Scott Rohan – Run for the Stars

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:48 pm

This is his first book, and completely unlike the others – interestingly, it’s the only one where he published as Mike rather than Michael. It’s fairly standard early 1980s if-this-goes-on SF – the Cold War became hot, the Earth is run by a hereditary bureaucracy, and the Big Bad polity is “the African junta”. Pleasantly, though, the only dark-skinned characters we see are good guys.

What it most reminded me of, from the blurb, is McCaffrey’s Decision at Doona – brave throwbacks escape a crowded, repressed, enervated Earth for the stars. It’s not a fair comparison, though, and not only because it’s very much a 1980s vision of the future rather than a 1960s one – the focus of Run for the Stars is almost entirely on the preparations to leave, and on opposing the evil bureaucracy who don’t understand the Importance Of Space, and they don’t even get to the colony planet before the end of the book.

It’s also a first contact novel of sorts, though the only contact they have is a short exchange of maser-radio messages and a couple of missiles. It’s a downbeat sort of book, given that the take-home message seems to be that civilizations decay and change, and that alien governments can be paranoid and evil too. Pleasantly, though, we have sympathetically drawn pacifist characters (religious pacifist, at that) and the one space battle is to preserve rather than to destroy.

Overall verdict: slight, but interesting enough.

June 12, 2009

Molly Gloss – The Dazzle of Day

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 10:11 pm

This is a beautiful, spare, wrenching story, about a generation ship populated by Quakers. They’re approaching their destination, and need to decide whether to leave the ship for the new world, and whether they can. It’s one of those stories that probably couldn’t be told without being SF.

Reading it is like eating good bread – warm, slightly sharp sourdough, good nourishing plain food well made – with the occasional piercingly strong black olive of a perfectly turned phrase.

The title is a quotation from a Walt Whitman poem. Surprisingly, the poem (Gloss uses excerpts from his poetry, up to half a dozen lines, for chapter headings) talks about turning away from the dazzle of day, and using the darkness of the night to see the stars. Quaker metaphors often use the term ‘light’ to describe, well, anything important, and often this is sunlight… but every star is a sun, no matter how far away, and the inside of the Dusty Miller is lit by xenon lights. The lights, like everything else in the artificial biosphere, are maintained with the same fierce, uncompromising dedication that the Friends in this book bring to maintaining their own interpersonal relationships.

It’s not a happy religious utopia; there are conflicts, struggles, unhappinesses, the occasional mean-spirited gossip about people perceived to behave wrongly. But people work with mindfulness, and we see that reflected in the things around them; a tool, a ceramic bowl, a crematorium furnace. A world. Two worlds.

When I was thirteen or so, I learnt a good word: apotropaic. Standing against the darkness. One of the questions this book leads into is about being strong enough to stand in the light.

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