When the culture wars returned a couple of weeks ago, I was in the middle of Sheri S. Tepper’s 1998 novel Six Moon Dance. My brain blew a fuse. It was one of those serendipitous moments when what you’re reading informs the news of the day—and vice versa.
Whether you believe the current culture war is about women’s health and access to contraception, or about religious freedom, or both, there’s no denying that reproductive and sexual politics have come into play. Just turn on any cable news station.
When it comes to literary commentary on gender issues, Tepper is a master in the science fiction/fantasy genre. Her novel The Gate to Women’s Country is a landmark in feminist sci-fi. (And a darn good read, too!)
In this Tepper novel, the author turns gender stereotypes on their head. On the human-colonized planet Newholme, a matriarchal society has evolved. A virus that attaches itself to the double-x chromosome means fewer births of live females. Women become treasured, and the families of young men pay dowries to the families of young women to forge families. As in pre-modern times, the marriage arrangements are not romantic but economic. Once a woman has given birth to children—done her “duty”—she can buy the services of a consort, a man who has been trained in the art of pleasuring women.
This is where protagonist Mouche comes in. He is the son of parents who have been unable to produce daughters. These families are unable to pay dowries for their sons because they have been unable to collect dowries for daughters. Their options are few. One option is for the family to sell a son to a Madame who grooms young men to become consorts. And so Mouche finds himself in the house of Madame Genevois, the most prestigious consort house on the planet.
In this house, Mouche will rediscover the “Timmys”—another life form on the planet to which human children are intimately connected. But as children grow older, they are told the Timmys are illusions and must be ignored. But Mouche can’t ignore them. And increasingly, it appears the other residents of Newholme can’t ignore them either. For the Timmys once held the key to protecting this volcanically-active planet, an activity that reaches dire proportions when Newholme’s six moons align.
The above description of Six Moon Dance doesn’t even begin to touch upon this almost-epic work. Suffice it to say there are many more characters, many secrets, and a million-year-old back story that only adds richness and intrigue to Tepper’s commentary on gender, sex and mysogyny. And once the big questions are answered, and you feel you have just finished a great book, there is the most delightful of payoffs.
There are a number of interviews with Tepper out on the web, but this is my favorite one!
There must be a thousand ways for civilization to come crashing down around our heads. You can always depend on good science fiction writers to come up with horrifying scenarios about a world reset. John Barnes has produced a doozy with his new Daybreak trilogy. The first two installments are out, and I’m going to have to wait until 2012 to read the third and final chapter. It’s the perfect time to get on board this exciting techno-thriller.
It’s the final Young Bill Young’s Summer Reads post for the year, and I can’t tell you how happy I am that the current temperature in OKC is a sweet 83 degrees! Labor Day really was the end of summer this year!
Barnes’s Daybreak series is part end-of-the-world horror story, part post-apocalyptic adventure, and part political speculation. The collapse of civilization in Directive 51 is caused by a movement known as “Daybreak”—an Internet-connected group of diverse people (ranging from eco-crazies to stewardship Christians to disgruntled techno-geeks) who have only one thing in common: they all want to bring the Big System down. The release of nanoswarm and biotes destroy rubber, plastics and oil products, and the destruction spreads rapidly around the planet, causing a dramatic and quick end to modern civilization. Following the initial collapse of modernity, Daybreak rears its head with additional poxes that are aimed at making sure Earth stays primitive, including radiation bombs that are set off in strategic locations.
While the reader is given some of the gore that follows America’s collapse, Barnes is more interested in what happens to America following such a scenario. Enter National Security Presidential Directive NSPD 51 (it actually exists), the plan that “claims power to execute procedures for continuity of the federal government in the event of a catastrophic emergency.” Despite the directive, it doesn’t take long for the two political parties to flex their muscle, with opposing governments set up in Athens, GA and Olympia, WA. Meanwhile, an informational and research arm of the “federal government” is operating out of Pueblo, CO, charged with disseminating information via steam train to pockets of people around the country. (Are you old enough to remember those Federal Citizen Information Center ads asking you to write to Pueblo for free federal government brochures? Turns out they still have all of that information!)
As the first novel nears its close, the two governments are actually contemplating war with each other, as if Daybreak wasn’t bad enough. It will take the wisdom of protagonist Heather O’Grainne (administrator of the Pueblo operation), the skills of a surviving reporter, and the Socratic Method to try to spare what’s left of America.
The sequel Daybreak Zero opens only two months after the final events of Directive 51, and one year since the first catastrophic events known as Daybreak. In this second installment, we learn that tribes have formed across the country to battle any re-emergence of civilization. We learn that a new Post-Raptural church has emerged that is preparing for the tribulation. More importantly, we learn that Daybreak must be the deadliest meme ever. Those who have incorporated the ideas of Daybreak actually have seizures when trying to go against the meme. And Daybreak is infiltrating the governments of Olympia and Athens, and the research institute in Pueblo.
Some reviewers criticize the “one-dimensional” aspect of Barnes’s characters, but I didn’t find them to be so. No, you will not read pages and pages of philosophical, social and psychological ruminating by the individual characters. But you do get enough insight into the characters to give a damn about what happens to them. And, anyway, this is a story about people who are trying to stay alive while they attempt to bring back some kind of stability to their crumbling world. The meaning of life for these characters, is the meaning of survival.
The site is big and bold, filled with enough information to make any sci-fi/fantasy fan drool. The book reviews are thoughtful and professional, and there are exclusive interviews with authors in the field. Spotlights is a feature which focuses on notable books coming out each month, although it appears they lost interest in including graphic novels a few years back. Upcoming Releases is a detailed listing of titles that are heading our way. (It’s like the biggest buffet ever!)
Or, you may want to start with their substantial Best of Lists, produced by Fantasy Book Critic’s contributors. The feature includes End of the Year Best of Lists, Best of Genres, Best of Upcoming Releases, and any other Best of Lists.
As with many weblogs, the search function isn’t up to par with the best search functions on traditional websites, but that shouldn’t keep you from exploring this great site. It gets a Literary Kitty stamp of approval. Meow!
The late Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction explored race, religion, sexuality, family, community, and “the other.” Like the best speculative/sci-fi/fantasy fiction, her work is a reflection of modern day issues.
I read Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy a couple of decades ago, when the trilogy was published under the title Xenogenesis. The trilogy’s theme of forced human/alien interbreeding is wildly disturbing, but the work is ultimately life affirming as it confronts the reader with what is really means to be family.
I’ve always wanted to read more of her, and finding a 25th anniversary edition of Kindred on a Phoenix bookstore’s sale table last summer was just the impetus I needed.
Kindred is the story of Dana Franklin, a twentieth century black woman who finds herself transported back to the pre-Civil War South to save a white ancestor and slave owner named Rufus. Over the course of a few days of twentieth century time—and two decades of nineteenth century time—Dana will find herself transported back on six different occasions to save Rufus’s life. Her first visit lasts only minutes, but some visits stretch into months, where Dana must suffer the cruel consequences of being black in a slave society.
The reward of the story is not in finding out how this time travel is happening. (We never know how Rufus’s life-threatening situations summon Dana to the past.) The reward is following a modern woman as she is thrust back into a barbaric chapter of American history—seeing the horror through her eyes.
Butler has thrust her protagonist into the role of a slave:
• Dana’s involuntary transportation and disorientation reflects the abduction and disorientation of Africans who were captured and loaded onto slave ships.
• Her affection for Rufus, who is a child during Dana’s first two visits, is slowly replaced by fear as he becomes an adult who is all-to-ready to wield his power.
• Her role as a house slave puts her in conflict with field slaves, and her education and command of English makes her suspect among both slave and slave-owner.
• She is beaten and whipped at the whim of a master, and threatened with death.
• Choice is taken from her: even as Rufus grows more cruel, Dana cannot let him die; for until a certain child is born, this would mean the “deaths” of herself and all of her ancestors who would never be born.
Reading about the past is one thing. Living it is transformative for the protagonist. There is a touching scene, where Dana considers attitudes about certain slave “classes.” She is observing the resourceful and respected (among slaves) cook Sarah, a woman who has suffered the loss of all but one of her children as they were placed on the auction block:
She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. The house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom—the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose, and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about the hereafter.”
Butler allows Dana an act of retribution toward the end of the book, but it is bittersweet at best. It is an act that condemns the horrors of the past, even as it is performed with a familial sadness.
Kindred is terrifying as an adventure, masterful as social commentary, and heartbreaking as family history. There’s a reason this book is a classic.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s tribute to the ground-breaking Butler following her death in 2006.
An Interview with Octavia Butler, from 2003′s “If all of Rochester Read the Same Book” program.
Working with youth librarians has inspired me to pick up some children’s books and young adult novels that are quite appropriate for adults as well — Neil Gaiman‘s The Graveyard Book and Suzanne Collins‘s miraculous Hunger Games Trilogy, for example. Although marketed to younger readers, they sacrifice nothing when it comes to imagination, artful writing, and expert plotting. Like all good fiction, they have plot points open to interpretation, they beg for analysis, and, more than anything, they’re fun to talk about!
A book jacket quote from the The Times in London says it’s “one of the best fantasy novels written for a long time.” I agree with “one of the best,” but I would say this is more a work of science fiction.
Incarceron takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that has picked itself back up with some unique solutions. Because of the devastation wrought by war and technology, people in the former UK live under a peculiar protocol of behavior and lifestyle (think Victorian England) in order to prevent change, technological progress and the possibility of future devastation. The idea is to create a paradise “free from the anxiety of change.” Another paradise is also envisioned: Incarceron, a prison that “could be no kinder or more compassionate (a) guardian for its inmates.”
The two worlds live apart and ignorant of each other, with each side believing the other is a paradise. This is far from the truth. Outside is stagnant, depressive and filled with dangerous political intrigue. Inside has become a downright nightmare that would be at home in a Harlan Ellison story.
Only the Warden of Incarceron knows where the prison exists, and the story revolves around the warden’s daughter Claudia and a young Incarceron inmate named Finn. The two find themselves with keys to the prison, technological wonders that allow them to communicate with each other. Scattered bits of memory convince Finn he has lived outside the prison, and he wants to escape. Claudia is convinced Finn is, in actuality, the “dead” prince Giles who was cheated out of his rightful title by her father and Giles’s conniving step mother, the Queen.
What follows is a trip of wonder, danger and surprise as Finn and his band navigate within the vast prison to find a way out, and Claudia navigates the deadly political games in the outside world. Surprise is the key word here, and readers can’t help but experience a jaw dropping moment when they discover where and what Incarceron is.
There be spoilers here: Three Oklahoma youth librarians discuss Incarceron in this podcast, and it’s a delight. Careful, though, if you’re planning to read the book. If that’s the case, better to devour this great novel, then come back and listen in on the discussion.
Before she became the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years—she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Bellafonte.”
Thus begins Justin Cronin‘s epic, The Passage. Epic at 766 pages. Epic in the scope of the story. Epic, as in: expect some sequels to this modern vampire tale. This is the Stephen King story you’ve been waiting for all these years.
OK, I’m sure there could be people who will be upset by that King comparison. Maybe they would be upset because King Rules! Or maybe they would be upset because they believe Cronin writes on a higher level. After all, Cronin is a literary darling who has picked up a PEN/Hemingway Award, a Stephen Crane Prize, and the Whiting Writer’s Award; while King is the book world’s undisputed, uhh… king of horror and suspense.
I’m not insulting either writer. I employ the comparison for simply one reason: I haven’t felt this way about a horror novel since King’s The Stand. It’s that intense. It’s that good.
Science gone wrong leads to a post-apocalyptic world in both novels, but King’s work is firmly rooted in the ancient supernatural struggle between good (God) and evil (The Devil), while Cronin is content to imply that any seemingly supernatural goings-on (telepathy, blood-lust, near immortality) are qualities of our genes that have perhaps lain dormant for millennia—qualities that have been activated by a scientific experiment to extend the human lifespan. (To say this experiment has military implications isn’t surprising, given the stereotypes of the genre, and it isn’t giving anything away.)
Little Amy is the only subject of this experiment to retain her human identity; the other, older guinea pigs are transformed into creatures that can only be described as vampires. These creatures escape the lab and the world falls around Amy, but she continues to live, aging at a much slower rate. The savage beasts recognize her as one of them, so they do not attack her; and they recognize her as someone who can answer the question their minds continually ask: “What am I?”
Following our introduction to Amy and her transformation into a near immortal, we travel almost 100 years into the future to meet a struggling community of surviving humans. Amy eventually joins the survivors, and travels with them as they seek a way to save their haven. Ultimately she confronts one of the original 12 vampires that were created prior to Amy’s transformation, and events are set in motion that will continue in Cronin’s next two books, The Twelve, and The City of Mirrors.
Like in King’s The Stand, the ultimate payoff in Cronin’s work lies in watching the creation of a new, loving family in a harsh and unforgiving world. If you ask me, you couldn’t ask for anything better after the apocalypse.
And there’s gonna be a movie.
The Eyre Affair is Fforde’s first novel, and it introduces us to Next, a Special Operative in literary detection and a veteran of the Crimean War. (No, you heard me right.) It’s the 1980′s but there are many things in the book you simply wouldn’t recognize. Fforde has crafted an alternative world where the English are still fighting the Crimean War with the Russians, Wales is a separate republic, Churchill was never prime minister, time travel is more than just a possibility, Dodo birds have been brought back via DNA to serve as household pets, and the alteration of an original manuscript can change all printed copies of the work. In this universe, England is under the heel of the Goliath Corporation, an entity that helped England recover in the past, but has since pursued the almighty dollar at the expense of civil liberties.
Bring in Archeron Hades (love that name), the most evil of evil geniuses, who has a plan for the latest invention of Next’s uncle, Mycroft. Myrcroft has invented true bookworms (genetically-engineered creepy crawlers who can actually read and are nourished by prepositions) that work in conjunction with his Prose Portal to open a doorway into a book. If you open a doorway into the work via the original manuscript and alter anything, all printed copies of the work are altered. When Hades abducts Jane Eyre, the novel ends in all copies at the point of her abduction. After all, the novel is told from Jane’s perspective. No Jane, no novel. And that’s a big problem in a world where a debate about Shakespeare (did he or didn’t he write those plays?) can quickly turn to fisticuffs.
All of this sounds preposterous, of course, and it’s to Fforde’s credit that he’s able to pull it off with such finesse. No question that the work is suspenseful, but the author can’t help but have his fun via wordplay and literary allusions. (Next’s boss is named Victor Analogy.) There’s a great scene toward the end of the book where the bookworms are expelling an excess of their natural waste products: apostrophes and ampersands. Fforde writes the remainder of the scene utilizing excess apostrophes and ampersands. And then this:
Please!” pleaded Mycroft. “You’re Upsetting The Wor’ms! They’re Starting to hy-phe-nate!”
I literally cracked up during this scene. Fforde’s sense of humor shines through in such an original way.
This is obviously a book that requires that “willing suspension of disbelief” in order to find its treasures. But if you can take the journey, the treasures abound: romance, adventure, murder, conspiracy, comedy.
Check out what Fforde has to say about his first novel.
Will I read more Thursday Next? You bet! The sequel is Lost in a Good Book and, yeah, that’s what I’m planning to do.