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Carnival, Elizabeth Bear

11 Apr

Cover of Carnival

Elizabeth Bear

Bantam Spectra, 2006
ISBN 0-553-58904-0

Review by Paul Kincaid

There was a time, not so long ago, when British science fiction was in the doldrums. What lifted it out and established what has been called the “British renaissance” was a rediscovery through the works of such as Iain M Banks and Colin Greenland of the excitement of traditional SF tropes and topics. Of late we have started to see that same reappraisal of core science fictional ideas in some of the younger American writers like John Scalzi and Elizabeth Bear. Carnival by Bear is a perfect example of such a return. Strip away the sexual politics overlaid on the story, which add complexity to the plot but not necessarily depth to the novel, and this is a book that could have come straight from the so-called golden age.

In broad terms we see Earth and its more local planets under a fascistic dictatorship, while a handful of more distant worlds have retained their more individualistic independence. We follow two diplomats from the dictatorship on a mission to one of these independent worlds ostensibly to return looted art treasures but really to sow the seeds for conquest. Except, of course, that our two diplomats are goodies really, secretly working for the independence movement. Naturally there’s a complication: they discover an intelligent alien on the planet, and it is the alien that provides the means for eventual victory.

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Aliens of the Heart, Carolyn Ives Gilman

29 Jun

Aliens of the Heart cover

Aliens of the Heart
Carolyn Ives Gilman

Aqueduct Press, 2007
ISBN 978-1-933500-17-1

Review by Ian Sales

Aliens of the Heart, a collection of three short stories and one novelette, is the nineteenth volume in Aqueduct Press’ Conversation Pieces, a “small paperback series” which “celebrates the speculations and visions of the grand conversation of feminist sf”. The series comprises fiction, poetry and non-fiction – “essays … speeches … interviews, correspondence and group discussions”. It currently stands at thirty-two volumes, with two more due in August this year.

The four stories in Aliens of the Heart are all set in the US mid-west, arguably the heart of the country. They are all science fiction, though in at least one case the story first appeared in a fantasy anthology. But not only does the “heart” of the title refer to the stories’ geographical location but also to the hearts of the protagonists, all women, all the heart of the relationships which form the centres of the stories, and all the hearts of the stories themselves.

‘Lost Road’ is one of those stories with a simple premise that genre fiction does so well. A middle-aged couple – he is suffering from dementia? Alzheimer’s? – drive from their farm into the nearby town of Lost Road. After their errands, they head home… but they cannot find their way. I will happily admit to a dislike of genre stories which use their central conceit as a metaphor, and then proceed to beat that metaphor to death. I call them “Clarion-style stories”, and you can often find one or two on the Hugo Award shortlist each year. ‘Lost Road’ is similar to those types of stories, but it is, above all else, subtle. As Betty Lindstrom and her husband Wayne travel further from the world they know (though the landscape remains disturbingly familiar), so Wayne seems to recover from his condition. Yet nothing is resolved; the power of the story lies in its refusal to explain or resolve. ‘Lost Roads’ originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, in February 1992, and was reprinted in 2002 in an anthology from Tesseract Books, Land/Space.

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The Maquisarde, Louise Marley

27 May

The Maquisarde cover

The Maquisarde
Louise Marley
Ace, 2002
ISBN 0-441-00976-X

Review by Ian Sales

Ebriel Serique is a Parisian flautist and an unlikely heroine. Happily married, affluent, privileged and admired for her musical talent, she’s almost a model citizen. That is, until her husband, daughter and father-in-law are murdered by pirates while travelling on the family yacht to Menorca. According to Security Corps commander General George Glass, the yacht had sailed through the Line of Partition, was carrying illegal medicines to neutral countries, and so no investigation is planned. Ebriel is grief-stricken, but also angry at Glass. Especially since she knows the yacht did not cross the Line as its intended voyage took it nowhere near it. There is something very fishy about the incident, and Glass is likely responsible…

In the late twenty-first century of The Maquisarde, an economic crash brought on by the end of oil has seen the world split into three main power blocs: the International Cooperative Alliance, or InCo, comprising North America, much of Europe, and Japan and the Koreas; Oceania; and the neutral polities. China, India and the Middle East did not survive the Crash. While all seems prosperous and happy within the InCo territory, an aggressive border policy is in effect in to prevent those outside from entering. In fact, InCo, under its de facto ruler Glass, seems to actively prosecute a policy of maintaining its own prosperity at the expense of those outside the Line of Partition.

Ebriel travels to Geneva and attempts to see Glass. She is denied, and so pours out the ashes of her loved ones in front of the Security Corps headquarters. She is promptly arrested and taken off to a “rest home”, where she is kept drugged and docile… Until she is rescued by a member of an underground network called the Chain. Comprised chiefly of women, the Chain rescues children from around the world, educates them and instills them with purpose, and then returns them to their origins as adults to assist in improving life for those around them. The Chain are secretive because their objectives conflict with those of InCo’s Security Corps. They are run from Starhold, a failed hotel in Low Earth Orbit, by Ethan Fleck, a cross between Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking. (Fleckcells provide the energy the world uses now that the oil has gone.) Continue reading

Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge

26 Apr

Solitaire cover

Kelley Eskridge
Small Beer Press, 2011
isbn 9781931520102
Review by Nicola Clarke

There was no risk in letting herself believe that these trees belonged  to her; the rough trunks, the startling soft meat of a broken branch,  the knobbled twigs rising in rows like choirs. The ground belonged to  her, the human-made rises and falls of root and rock, carefully random,  beautiful. The flowers were hers, stuporous in their mulch: the light  and the stippled shadow, the stones and the rich rot underneath them,  were all part of this place that felt like part of her. For the few  minutes of passing through it, she was drawn into it like a breath.

Back in October (2010), there was a very long discussion thread over at Torque Control – sparked by an interview with Tricia Sullivan – about why so little of the science fiction published in the UK these days is written by women. One of the ideas that came out of this fascinating conversation was that we should celebrate women’s genre writing, both in the UK and elsewhere, by putting together a list of the best sf by women from the past ten years. (Voting is open to everyone, and runs until the end of December 5th; details of how to vote are here: go on!)

I’m still mulling over my own list of nominations, but one of them is certainly going to be Solitaire (2002, returning to print next year with Small Beer Press), by Kelley Eskridge. It’s a coming of age story done as psychological thriller: a compelling portrait of a young woman battling both the system and her self after her world collapses, to emerge older, wiser and sadder from an extremely long dark night of the soul. The first chapter is available online here. Continue reading

Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman

19 Apr

Arkfall cover

Carolyn Ives Gilman
Phoenix Pick, 2010
ISBN 0978-1-60450-454-5

Review by Ian Sales

Osaji lives on Ben, a world much like the moon Europa, with a world-ocean beneath a thick covering of ice. Humans have colonised Ben, but only on the floor of the Saltese Sea in underwater cities, or travelling about in arks which drift freely from place to place. After one such tour aboard the ark Cormorin, Osaji leaves the crew at Golconda – because she cares for her grandmother, who the others aboard the ark consider a liability because she is suffering from senile dementia. Because Osaji has taken responsibility for the care of her grandmother, her options are severely limited. Her sister will put her up, but not for long as she doesn’t want the burden of their grandparent. So Osaji signs aboard another ark, Divernon, but neglects to mention she will be accompanied…

But while settling aboard, and before Divernon’s other crew members appear, a seaquake strikes Golconda and causes great damage. Divernon breaks its mooring, and is unable to return to the city, unable to control its flight from the city. Osaji is not alone, however. Just before Divernon broke free, she managed to rescue an offworld visitor to Ben, Jack. Together, they find themselves adrift in Ben’s waters, propelled by swift currents from the Saltese Sea out into the greater ocean of the world… Where they are witness to strange sights unsuspected by the Bennites.

The story of Carolyn Ives Gilman’s novella Arkfall in part apes the journey Divernon takes in the outer ocean. There is no real direction to it, more of a Vernian surrender to fate and the ocean currents. For a genre which relies so heavily on plot and its consequent narrative impetus, it makes Arkfall a leisurely read. But that doesn’t work against it because Osaji is a wonderfully-drawn character, and the world-building is superb.

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