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The Years of Rice and Salt - Kim Stanley Robinson The Curse of Chalion - Lois McMaster Bujoid The Kappa Child - Hiromi Goto Alien Taste - Wen Spencer Quantum Rose - Catherine Asaro The Visitor - Sheri Tepper
Art by Frank Wu

Issue #81 - May 2002


First of all I would like to say a very deep thank you to all those of you web-readers who sent in subscriptions in response to my plea last issue. If nothing else it is great to know that I have readers in places like Poland and Israel. And of course my provable readership level has gone up substantially. Thank you.

This issue incorporates a couple of small but potentially significant changes. Firstly, having had a mad panic last issue when realized at the last minute I'd been using a lot of American spelling, I have decided to give up and go over totally to American from now on. I have to use it at work, and it is becoming too much effort to keep with British for the 'zine.

Second I have made some improvements to the PDF version of the 'zine so that you now get a list of contents in the bookmarks pane. I'm also considering implementing the "articles" feature, but that requires a bit of manual work so before I do that I'd like to know whether anyone out there would actually make use of it. Comments? How many of you do download the PDF version to an e-book reader?

In this issue

At the Clarke – Gwyneth Jones triumphs in London

Fried Rice - Kim Stanley Robinson's History of the World in Ten Chapters

The Curse of Brain Candy - Lois McMaster Bujold produces pink, fluffy fantasy

Frogs in Space - Hiromi Goto on Japanese mythology, aliens and cucumbers

A Nose for Danger - Wen Spencer's cyberpunk hero is not quite human

Strange Attraction – Catherine Asaro’s particular characters fall in love

Revenge is Sweet - Sheri Tepper gets to destroy mankind again

Miscellany – All that other stuff

Footnote – The end

At the Clarke

Thanks to a convenient business trip, I managed to be in the UK for the presentation of the Clarke Award. This was a good opportunity to catch up with a bunch of good friends, schmooze and, in good publisher’s party tradition, drink lots of free plonk.

As with last year, the presentation took place at the Science Museum. The government has relented on the subject of museum entrance charges so there is now no cost to attend the pre-ceremony festivities. Again as with last year, a series of readings and discussion panels had been organized for the afternoon, and once again we had our Alan Partridge clone to make a mockery of the whole proceedings. (Non-Brit readers who are not familiar with Alan Partridge need only know that he is a creation of comedian, Steve Coogan, and that he is a master of foot-in-mouth journalism.)

You would have through that after last year’s debacle Partridge would have got the push. But Pat Cadigan rather likes him, and as Pat is doing all the hard work of organizing the afternoon festivities, and because no one else wants the hassle of doing that job, Pat gets what she wants. Besides, she’s too nice for anyone to complain. Much.

I mean, I did try to pay attention respectfully, but when Partridge managed to confuse the concepts of a future history (a la Heinlein) with attempts to predict a history of the future, and then cited the Zager & Evans song, In the Year 2525 as an archetypal example of the sub-genre, complete with lengthy recitation of the lyrics, well, I’m sorry, but I had to go walk round the museum for a while so as to avoid collapsing in desperate, cringing hysterics.

I should say, however, that the event was very well attended. We could certainly do with more seating space for future years. And I was delighted to see five of the six Clarke nominees turn up to read from their work, be asked idiotic questions by Partridge ("in what year is your book set and why did you choose that date?"), and meet the public. Connie Willis had a prior engagement and, as a confirmed anglophile, was deeply upset to be unable to attend.

One problem with the structure of the day is that very little time is allowed for food. The panel sessions finish at around 5:30 and we are supposed to be back for the booze at 6:30. This is not enough time to fortify the stomach for a serious night’s ligging, so many of us ducked out on the final set of readings and went in search of food instead. I latched onto the Brighton party (including Tom Arden and Liz Williams), and we picked up Roz Kaveney who led us to an interesting nearby Polish restaurant. It is, I think, the sort of establishment best suited to people who can utter the words "nice" and "cabbage" in close proximity without thinking that they are guilty of some awful oxymoron, but I did very much enjoy my rather more carnivorous dinner.

And so we came to the main event. As the previous year’s winner, China Miéville, was required to open the envelope. Doing his best to look the part, China wore his one and only suit for the occasion, and then had to spend the rest of the evening suffering people coming up to him and saying, "I can’t believe it, you are wearing a suit". I pointed out that Kevin is considering renting a tux for the Hugo ceremony, which I think made the poor boy feel a bit better.

This year the actual presentation took place in the Imax cinema, a warm and dark location. Your reporter, thanks to various events to do with three days giving training courses in Amsterdam, the collapse of the UK air traffic control system and a truly awful hotel near Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, had had only 2 hours sleep in the previous 24 and consequently succumbed to temptation. Thankfully China nudged me awake before I started snoring too loudly, and Paul Kinkaid graciously forgave me for interrupting his speech.

Prior to the announcement of the winner there was a special presentation to Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s brother, Fred, who has worked tirelessly to promote the award over the years. Sir Arthur, being generally too ill to leave his Sri Lankan home, is unable to do as much as he would like himself, and Fred fills in admirably.

The competition for this year’s award was closer than it has been for a long time. As I reported last issue, the panel at Eastercon that discussed the award was unable to come to any conclusion and would have had to resort to a formal ballot to get a result. The real judging panel was somewhat more efficient, and they presented the award to Gwyneth Jones for Bold as Love. This was a surprise to the audience only in that so many of the other contenders were fine works (e.g. Justina Robson’s Mappa Mundi or Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Pashazade) that we had no clue who would win. It was, however, a complete surprise to poor Gwyneth who stumbled through a few quick thank yous and then retreated. This was a welcome change from a certain other acceptance speech from someone called Gwyneth and is, I think, a style that should be encouraged.

With the important business of the day done, the assembled SF literati returned to the more pressing task of finishing up the rest of the free booze. It is entirely possible that many important and amusing things were said throughout the evening. However, after a few more glasses to be sociable I decided that discretion was in order and returned to my hotel, where I slept for about 12 hours.


Fried Rice

Back when I was working as a journalist in the UK I subscribed to Mslexia, a magazine for women writers. I still get it, and the latest issue has a lead article that attempts to define what "men's literature" might be. The author comes up with three main characteristics of male fiction: "a demonstration of knowledge, a comparatively distant authorial viewpoint, and the display of linguistic virtuosity". You can argue forever as to whether this is correct or not, and certainly there are male authors who do not fit the pattern, but if this analysis is correct then Kim Stanley Robinson is the most masculine writer I have ever had the misfortune to read.

Robinson's new book, The Years of Rice and Salt, is in many ways a brave and adventurous attempt to write the definitive alternate history novel. It has many things to recommend it, and a few sections that are quite wonderful. Unfortunately the good bits are, as always with Robinson, buried in a turgid morass of exposition and raw information, such that it takes a vast amount of willpower simply to keep reading. And this is what leads me to think that the analysis that I kicked off this review with might be correct. Because lots of people love Robinson's work, and he's won two Hugos. And I can't understand how anyone could think so highly of his work unless they were some sort of mysterious aliens whose thought patterns were completely different from mine. Or they were men, which amounts to the same thing.

The trouble is that The Years of Rice and Salt is in many ways a fascinating book that leaves the reviewer with tons of things to talk about, so I had to finish the darn thing, painful though it was at times. And now I am probably going to go on excessively about it. But hopefully I will make it interesting reading.

Let's start with the basic premise of the book. The novel is alternate history, and the cusp point in question is the Black Death. Robinson postulates that instead of wiping out a mere 30% or so of medieval Europe, the plague completely wipes out Christendom, leaving the world to be inherited by Asia. I don't want to go into the plausibility of this too much, though it did grate badly on me for several reasons. Indeed, later in the book Robinson himself has historians ponder as to how it could possibly have happened, which shows that he wasn't comfortable with it either. I'm treating it the same way as I treat faster-than-light drives and teleporters. Let's assume it is real and carry on.

And carry on is what Robinson then does, for seven hundred years (and 658 pages). The Years of Rice and Salt is a complete alternate history of the world. Phew! Can you imagine how many books it would take Harry Turtledove to do that? No, wait, don't, it will only tempt him, and at the rate he churns out books he might actually finish it. Robinson, however, at a rate of around a page a year, gets the job done with commendable economy. Indeed, if he had left out all of the information sections he could have done it in half the space. How does he manage it?

Well, that depends on how generous you are feeling. You could say that he cheats; you could say that he is lazy; or you could say that he uses a clever literary trick to give the reader a sense of a much broader historical canvas in a small number of pages. What he does is, for the most part, simply re-write the actual history of the world using different characters. So, for example, the Renaissance takes place in Samarkand, let by a couple of cunning ex-alchemists who manage to combine the talents of Leonardo, Gallileo, Newton and probably half a dozen other prominent scientists as well. Equally steam power is invented in India, WWI is between China and Islam and so on. Everything that happens is immediately recognizable to someone with a good knowledge of history. Indeed, many of the best anecdotes are stolen from real events in the history of science.

I would be prepared to excuse this as a useful literary device were it not for the fact that Robinson spends a fair amount of time speculating about the nature of history. Is it, he asks, a cyclic succession of rising and falling of empires as might fit in with an Eastern religious view of the nature of the cosmos? It is driven by Marxist dialectic? Is it a constant, if stuttering, progress towards civilization? If Robinson is going to ask questions like this then it behooves him to consider that his world might not have developed quite so similarly to the real one. In any case, making so few changes to the timeline suggests a poverty of imagination.

The other thing that Robinson does to tie the whole thing together is to provide a back-story. In the Mars Trilogy he enabled his characters to live through he history of the planet by introducing life extension technology. In The Years of Rice and Salt he does it using reincarnation. The heroes of the book are members of a "jati", a related group of souls, who pass through their many lives together, forever meeting each other in new guises. Robinson assumes (and I have no idea whether this reflects the beliefs from which he acquired the idea) that each member of the jati has a unique character, which is repeated each time that soul is reincarnated. Thus we have the saintly but naive B (all of whose incarnations have names beginning with B), the ambitious and aggressive K, the inquisitive, intellectual I, and the dissolute and venal S (who nearly always seems to get born into royal families).

(As an aside here it might be interesting to speculate as to whether the choice of letters means anything. The author clearly has a great deal of affection for Buddhism, and the B characters are the most Buddha-like in the book. The forceful K's might be a ghost of Europe, and therefore be C(K)hristians, in which case the I's would represent Islam. Maybe.)

We now get to one of the points where the philosophy of the book begins to fall apart. Each time they die, the members of the jati find themselves back in the "bardo" (the parking space for souls between incarnations) being judged by the Gods. In this state they can remember that they are souls with multiple incarnations, and they complain endlessly about how they try to be good and nothing ever comes of it. K once gets sent back as a tiger, which leads to one of the better episodes of the book, but for the most part the cycle of death and rebirth seems pointless. As a reader you expect that by the end Robinson will somehow reconcile this with his philosophizing about the nature of history and come to some sort of conclusion. Instead he settles for a clever Zen trick which, while admirable in its way, will leave a lot of readers bemused.

More importantly, large parts of the book are given over to the discussion of the merits of various religions and forms of government as the characters strive to create a better civilization. This jars badly with the back-story, which assumes that the cosmos is in fact arranged according to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, and that therefore Buddhism must be true, and consequently Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism and so on false.

This too leads us to some of the greatest failings of the book. Before I embark on this I want to say that what Robinson has attempted is exceedingly difficult. It is very hard, when you are dealing with the movements of civilizations, to not deal in stereotypes. Furthermore, you cannot be convincing if you assume that everyone is good. So there will be places in the book where Robinson writes, for example, "the Chinese did this…", and some readers will see that as hugely unfair and prejudiced against the Chinese. But before we can say that it is, we need to establish that the attitude we are complaining about is displayed consistently throughout the book, and is not just an example of bad behavior by an isolated group of Chinese.

To do this properly would require a reading the book several times and taking notes along the way. It was hard enough to read once, so I'm going to have to rely on memory, which is imperfect, but here goes. Firstly I suspect that the Chinese are presented in a somewhat stereotyped manner. I've never lived in China, and I know very few Chinese personally, but I worry about Robinson's portrayal of them.

More worrying still is his view of Islam. Robinson goes to great lengths to point out that Mohammed's teachings, specifically those about women, have been perverted by later commentators in much the same way that Jesus's original teachings were radically changed by St. Paul. So far, so good; but he then assumes that 20th Century Islam will continue to be oppressively patriarchal despite Islamic society having been through the sorts of major social upheavals that affected Christendom (Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, and so on). This is silly. In the face of massive social change Islam would have evolved in much the same way as Christianity did. Perhaps the results would not have been the same, but change would have happened.

I think what this actually shows is not prejudice against Islam, but ignorance of the workings of history. I've already discussed how Robinson shortcut his way through writing his new history of the world. By doing so he has avoided the necessity to think about how history works, and how societies and their institutions change. In a book of this type, that is a major failing.

While I have tried very hard to be fair to Robinson and not accuse him of bias against Islam or the Chinese, I cannot be as generous when it comes to his portrayal of Americans. Of course in his world there are no European-descended Americans like we have today. Instead he postulates a rather dubious mechanism (inspiration by a travelling ronin) to explain how a Native American civilization manages to survive in the claws of a pincer: Chinese colonists to the West and Muslims to the East. This civilization should have been called Marypoppinsdom, because it is practically perfect in every way. It is nice to women and children (and probably small animals too), it is democratic, it never does anything nasty to anyone, and all of the characters in the book keep mentioning how very wonderful it is. And not content with being perfect in itself, it also acts as a force for good in the world. The later sections of the book feature two major popular revolutions, one in Muslim Europe and one in China. In both cases the revolutions only succeed because of the arrival of an American war fleet to back them up. The current incumbents of the White House will doubtless be delighted at such forthright endorsement of their foreign policy.

All of which is a shame, because Robinson can write well, and the book contains some truly beautiful passages. I particularly liked the tragic story of the Chinese discovery of America, and the surreal descriptions of life in the trenches during the Long War. I was also highly amused by the little vignette near the end where one of the K characters expounds on the worthlessness of alternate histories, and B responds, "why do people like them so much, then?" Sadly none of this can make up for the seemingly endless exposition, and for the obvious failings of philosophy.

In summary, The Years of Rice and Salt is a massively ambitious and deeply flawed book that people are going to be talking about for some time to come. It will probably also be a strong candidate for next year's Hugo. So I'm afraid I'm going to have to continue talking about it to explain why it should not win.

The Years of Rice and Salt - Kim Stanley Robinson - Bantam - hardcover

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The Curse of Brain Candy

I've managed to avoid reading Lois McMaster Bujold for some time now on the grounds that anyone who is constantly compared to Jane Austen bears far too much resemblance to things we were forced to read in school to ever be enjoyable. This year, however, the Bujold was the only one of the six Hugo nominees that I had not read, so I figured it was about time I did my duty and found out what all the fuss was about. And having read The Curse of Chalion I am completely bemused.

Now I have to admit that this book is a one-off departure into fantasy and not one of Bujold's famous, multi-Hugo winning Miles Vorkosigan series. I'm therefore not going to judge her entire output on the basis of one piece of beautifully written vacuous twaddle. But it does rather give me the impression that I haven't been missing anything.

To give credit where it is due, Bujold does write very well. I get the impression that she could write something very good indeed if she wanted to, but that she finds writing brain candy less hard work and more profitable. Consequently she's wasting her talent on books that remind me very strongly of Anne McCaffrey novels. It is vaguely possible that Bujold was trying to emulate George Martin's success in the fantasy blockbuster field, but where The Song of Fire and Ice is vicious, brutal and gloriously unpredictable, The Curse of Chalion is hopelessly transparent and hardly ever does anything that might upset the delicate sensibilities of a brain-dead middle class readership.

Thus we have good guys who are honest and reliable and capable and do most things right, and we have bad guys who are transparently naughty, incompetent and come to sticky ends largely through their own stupidity. To be fair, sometimes Bujold's villains are almost as nasty as Martin's Lannisters, but whenever she describes that nastiness it somehow comes over sanitized and sugared and devoid of emotional content so that none of the readers could possibly be upset by such goings on.

I guess I might not have been quite so disappointed if Bujold had actually shown some sign of being able to write fantasy. Instead we have a sort of Hollywood version of mediaeval Europe in which everyone has 20th Century sensibilities and the magic is all carefully explained just like it is in science fiction books. Far too much modern fantasy is simply SF with swords and dragons instead of lasers and spaceships, and The Curse of Chalion is a good example of this.

What I liked least about it was the invented "religion" which reminded me strongly of bad Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. You nick a few ideas from a real ancient religion, tack on some ideas from mediaeval Christianity, and invent a few ceremonies that are largely devoid of meaning. Bujold had clearly thought a little bit about it, but then either could not be bothered to make it seem real, or more likely was unwilling to do anything in the book that took the emotional ambience too far away from the overriding air of pink fuzzy comfort that all is right with the world.

Look folks, if you want something that you can read in the bath after a bad day at work and will require zero effort on your behalf, this is the book for you. Have lots of very sweet chocolate on hand to enhance the mood. But if you want really good mediaeval fantasy read George Martin instead. And if you want something seriously heart-rending with fabulously convoluted plots, villains more than worth the name and endless fascinating intrigue read Dorothy Dunnett. You can then rip up your copy of The Curse of Chalion and use it to stuff pillows: a use for which its soft and fluffy nature is ideally suited.

The Curse of Chalion - Lois McMaster Bujold - Eos - hardcover

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Frogs in Space

"… a transformative tour de force, a raucous romp that includes an immaculate conception, abductions by aliens and intimate encounters with cucumbers."

I've never heard of Red Deer Press before, but someone in that organization clearly knows how to write back cover blurb. Besides, the book is this year's Tiptree winner as well. How could I not read it?

You know, you can debate endlessly just what is meant by Magic Realism and why it is a very different thing from SF and Fantasy and you can get nowhere fast. But you only have to read a book like The Kappa Child to realize that the two things can be very different indeed. The Kappa Child has all of the things that the blurb promised, and the whole book is centered around kappa - mischievous frog-like sprites from Japanese mythology. But when you read the book you get the inescapable impression that it is mainstream, not genre.

In part, of course, that is because the book is centered on character rather than plot. It tells the story of a family of four Japanese girls whose proud, stubborn and foolish father decides to grow rice on the Canadian prairie. One of the girls is the narrator, and she describes her sisters by their childhood nicknames. Thus we have the brash and foul-mouthed Pig Girl (PG for short), the vain and whiny Slither, and the shy and nervous Mice. Together with our heroine they are seen trying to establish sane adult lives in the wake of the seriously disturbed childhood created for them by their violent father and neurotic mother.

At first it seems that our heroine is the most capable of the four, for all that she has ended up working as a shopping cart collector. But we are, of course, seeing through her eyes, and as the book progresses we see how badly she has been damaged by buying into the family neurosis in an attempt to survive rather than fleeing from it as her sisters did.

So what has all this got to do with kappas, immaculate conception, alien abduction and cucumbers? To be honest, not a lot. The Kappa Child is a fine study of a dysfunctional family, and a bittersweet lesbian love story (which is how it won the Tiptree). But the fantasy and SF elements in it are clearly intended as symbolic rather than real. There is a constant air throughout that that the author is refusing to engage with these elements of the tale, that she doesn't want it to be thought that she is actually writing about them. And that is what tells you that this is a mainstream book, not genre.

Now I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. Hiromi Goto's prose is wonderfully playful and she has a great sense of humor. However, I can see a lot of people picking up this book on the assumption that is SF or Fantasy and being very disappointed in a way that they would not have been if they had known what to expect from the beginning.

The Kappa Child - Hiromi Goto - Red Deer Press - softcover

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A Nose for Danger

Wen Spencer is one for the finalists for this year’s John W. Campbell Award, and as I have had cause to correspond with her on other matters I decided to try her book. Alien Taste is an interesting cyberpunk novel with a couple of strange twists. It rattles along at a great speed, and the characters are genuinely multi-dimensional. I think Spencer can do a lot better, especially with some aspects of the plot, but this is a good start and she’s well worth her nomination.

The hero of the book, Ukiah Oregon, was so named because he was found living wild with a wolf pack near that country town when a teenager. Interestingly his adopted "parents" are a lesbian couple – both scientists – who later also adopt a young human girl.

Did I say human? Yes I did, and quite deliberately, because it soon turns out that Ukiah is by no means what he seems. He has phenomenal senses and is able to track anything. This earns him a job as the sidekick of a private eye and a burgeoning career as a finder of lost children, abductees and so on.

His boss, Max, is also a fascinating character, having been a marine commando and later a successful businessman before turning to crime fighting after his wife died in a car accident. She had driven into a lake by after losing control of the car on a fast curve and it had taken a long time to find out what happened. Having had weeks of hellish uncertainty, Max gave up his life to help other people in similar situations.

So far so good: like I said, a bunch of interesting characters; now for the plot. Max and Ukiah are hired by the local police to find a missing woman. Said person’s housemates have been brutally murdered and the police think the killer has made off with the fourth girl who is missing. But very quickly Ukiah ascertains that it is the missing girl who committed the murders, that she is out of her skull on something very strange, and that other people with abilities like him are interested in the case. Now enter the FBI, who know about Ukiah’s strangers and who have been trying to track them down and bring them to justice for decades. But are they really bad guys, and if they are, are they still the only people in the world who can tell Ukiah who he really is and why he was brought up by wolves?

Now that, I thought, was a pretty good plot. I also like the ice cool lady FBI agent whom we first meet fresh off duty infiltrating a punk gang and who eventually becomes Ukiah’s love interest. However, much of the second half of the book lapses into a very silly explanation of Ukiah’s background that involves mysterious alien psychic vampires, a plot to invade the Earth, a space ship on Mars and some outrageous examples of bad guy incompetence. It all ended up sounding like a reject X-Files plot and I’m really disappointed because Spencer had a very good thing going for much of the book. She has a lot of imagination, she cares about her characters, and her pacing is generally excellent. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Alien Taste - Wen Spencer - Roc - softcover

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Strange Attraction

Sometimes you look at the results of the Nebula and all you can say is, "what on Earth were they thinking". Having read this year’s winner, I have little to add to that.

Catherine Asaro, as you probably know, writes romance-SF crossovers. She does it fairly well, I think. Not that I have read a lot of romance novels to compare her work with, but she seems to have all of the appropriate tropes and her plotting is deliberately simplistic and predictable. Asaro is a very intelligent woman – she’s a research physicist in her day job – and I can’t believe that she would write so childishly except on purpose.

The plot of Quantum Rose is classic romance stuff. Our heroine is betrothed so a vicious but cunning nobleman who beats her but whom she has to marry in order to save the prosperity of her small domain and the honor of her family. Then a mysterious and uncouth barbarian makes an offer for her hand and in desperation she accepts. It turns out that the stranger is in fact a fabulously wealthy alien prince who is a sensitive new age guy and really good in bed and the hero and heroine fall madly in love. But for various complicated reasons the nasty nobleman still has his hat in the ring and the heroine keeps thinking that it is her duty to go back to him, until the end when everyone lives happily ever after.

Well, it isn’t quite that simple, because the book is a chapter in Asaro’s extensive Skolian Empire series and the hero turns out to be a Skolian prince, so there is a long digression involving space ships and telepaths and interstellar war, in which our heroine plays a leading role and is thereby able to find means of buying off her unpleasant suitor.

The one bright spark in all this is that the situation is resolved not by conflict, but by peaceful mass protest. The hero’s planet is occupied by the nefarious Earthmen, and he organizes a campaign of non-violent demonstrations and media blitzes to force them to go away. I like that, though I have to point out that when it comes to political protest Ken MacLeod does it so much better. I also note that the book has some other political facets that are much less wholesome. In particular the entire series has a deep and abiding belief in the idea of a genetically superior royal family that is born to rule the galaxy. In addition there is some rather silly stuff about the right of everyone to have enormous families (I think Asaro is a Catholic).

None of the above would have served to drag the book out of the Mills & Boon ghetto in which, at first sight, it belongs. However, remember that I said that Asaro is a research physicist as well as a writer. This has consequences. Firstly, by picking a heroine from a backward planet that no longer understands technology, and then introducing a star-faring hero, Asaro gives herself all sorts of excuses to explain how technological marvels work in very simple terms. I think it is done too obviously and too patchily to give young girls a passion for science, but you never know.

In addition the entire plot structure for the book is based on a series of particle interactions as understood by quantum scattering theory. Asaro sets up her love triangle as a set of three particles, two initially associated and one intruder, and works through the events that lead to the intruder making off with one of the original pair. Asaro maps out the process at a quantum level, and then constructs chapters that mimic the current relationship of the particles.

This is strange. This is the sort of weird thing that you might find Italo Calvino doing. But then Calvino writes seriously intriguing mainstream fiction and Asaro writes simplistic mass-market pap. I applaud her attempts to do something interesting, and to wake up her otherwise moribund audience, but is this book really an award winner? Is it better than (to give a few other members of the short list) George Martin’s A Storm of Swords, Wil McCarthy’s The Collapsium, Tim Powers’ Declare, or Connie Willis’s Passage? I don’t think so. What were they thinking?

The Quantum Rose - Catherine Asaro - Tor - softcover

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Revenge is Sweet

One of the things about being a writer is that you can get revenge on people that you hate by putting them in your books as villains and having nasty things happen to them. Sheri Tepper hates the entire human race, and here again she is merrily committing genocide on paper.

The agent of divine (well, authorial, but Tepper seems to have difficulty distinguishing the two) vengeance is, in this case, an asteroid. Eons ago one did for the dinosaurs and now, Tepper tells us, one is going to do for us as well. Most of mankind will be wiped out in the initial impact. Most of the rest of us will die in the aftermath as civilization collapses around us. Oh well, at least for most of us it will be quick and painless.

Unfortunately for the revenge-obsessed author, she has to leave a few people alive or there will not be any story. Tepper allows various groups of hardy survivors to continue their worthless, miserable lives for a few more decades before setting up the final coup de grace. Chief amongst these are two groups: one of semi-heroic scientists who have built a bunker and prolong their lives through cryogenic suspension so as to be available to aid and civilize any survivors. The other is a group of fundamentalist Christian nutters who have decided that God has let them down and turned to a strange form of Satanism, but otherwise behave much as expected for the standard Tepper villains.

Those of you who don’t like spoilers should stop reading now. I don’t often put stuff like this in books, but I’m desperate to find something nice to say about this book and it isn’t really relevant to the plot. Tepper’s heart is still approximately in the right place, and she does love poking fun at the idiocies of the Christian-Republican establishment. This time she latches onto some of the objections that are being put in the way of medical research, in particular the use of human embryos. Tepper’s bad guys, The Spared, have taken this to a logically absurd routine. Tepper postulates that prior to the asteroid’s arrival medical science had been looking at the possibility of cloning using any live cell. Consequently, any live human cell is a potential human being whose life must be preserved at all costs. Thus, when a person becomes medically dead, any remaining live cells must be preserved in readiness for the day when the person in question can be revived. This in turn means that no one actually dies, and the world fills up with unquiet ghosts.

OK, so it is really a silly idea, but it is rather funnier when Tepper tells it than when I do. And Tepper is quite amusing at times. If only she could stick with that rather than concentrating on making the same political points again and again in ever more strident terms.

The rest of the story is equally silly and massively predictable. The bad guys find that Satanism isn’t all that it is cracked up to be, and the good guys find that they were pre-destined to help God teach the bad guys a lesson. It turns out that the asteroid was indeed an instrument of divine vengeance, and God is now going to send an angel or two to kick human butt until we learn to behave ourselves and do what Mamma Sheri tells us. It is all quite tiresome really and nothing that we haven’t heard from Tepper before.

Unfortunately, of course, such vicarious revenge is never enough. It isn’t real, after all. So I confidently predict that in Sheri Tepper’s next novel those horrible humans, particularly the evil patriarchal fundamentalists, will come to a sticky end once again.

The Visitor - Sheri Tepper - Eos - hardcover

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Eastercon Correction

Farah Mendlesohn writes:

"The chair of the Clarke panel is always responsible for choosing the panelists. I was so slow this year because Edward is usually the Chair and is in the US. And four of the people I had in mind as author panelists went and got themselves nominated. So inconsiderate! But I wouldn't want people to think I stepped in and rescued Eastercon."

My apologies to the Helicon program team for fingering them for this one.

Nebula Winners

Best Novel:  The Quantum Rose, by Catherine Asaro

Best Novella: "The Ultimate Earth", by Jack Williamson

Best Novelette: "Louise's Ghost", by Kelly Link

Best Short Story: "The Cure For Everything", by Severna Park

Best Script: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, by James Schamus, Kuo Jung Tsai, and Hui-Ling Wang

President's Award: Betty Ballantine

Arden Crosses Atlantic

A little bird tells me that Tom Arden’s hilarious fantasy series, The Orokon, is going to get US distribution very soon. Watch this space.

Clarke Wrap

A couple of other significant events occurred over the Clarke Award weekend. Firstly China Miéville’s The Scar got a half page review in the Saturday’s Guardian. The reviewer was a regular on the Guardian staff and usually does mainstream stuff. You could see him gritting his teeth and trying to find faults but eventually giving up and admitting that the book was very good indeed. Lots of column inches is good regardless.

China also featured, along with Paul Kincaid, on a Radio 4 program about books. In a short interview the dynamic duo managed to sound thoroughly erudite (as is essential on BBC book programs) and make a good case for SF. Between them they managed to mention Kafka, Theoroux, Ballard, Atwood, C.P. Snow and Vonnegut, and to plug Mike Harrison shamelessly (and deservedly). Nice job boys.




Wow, got there. And wasn’t I vicious this month. I can’t remember the last time when I liked so few of the books I reviewed. Let’s hope that next month’s batch is better. Also next month I’ll have the Wiscon report. See you then.


Love ‘n’ hugs,


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