Reading the oldies (pre-1994): would you give this book to a child? v. 6

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Reading the oldies (pre-1994): would you give this book to a child? v. 6

1LolaWalser
Edited: May 9, 2019, 1:27pm

The impetus for this thread arose in this discussion: Science Fiction for Children?

I explained what I was aiming to explore in the first post in the first instalment of the thread:

Reading the oldies (pre-1994): would you give this book to a child?

In brief, the focus of the thread is character representation in science fiction and fantasy published before 1994. The analyses, at least those produced by me, are NOT meant to be reviews--be prepared, for instance, to see literary, pioneering, technical etc. aspects of the work neglected, while any number of what may seem minor points could be discussed in detail.

Everyone is invited to contribute, whether you adopt the format I follow (in which case your information will be added to the summaries) or not.

Discussion of the premises or how they affect any given title, situation etc. is always welcome.

The summary of links: titles 1-20; titles 21-40; titles 41-65; titles 66-100.

A searchable collection of titles up to date: SFF-LT-Read.

Links to titles 101-120. The numbers are links to posts; the titles are touchstones. Asterisks (*) indicate authors awarded the "Grand Master" title by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

101. They shall have stars by James Blish
102. Why Call Them Back From Heaven? by Clifford D. Simak*
103. The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett
104. The Final Circle of Paradise by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
105. In the days of the comet by H. G. Wells
106. Fee, fei, fo, fum by John Aylesworth
107. The Primal Urge by Brian Aldiss*
108. Gather, Darkness! by Fritz Leiber*
109. The Return by Isidore Haiblum
110. The Pride of Chanur by C. J. Cherryh
111. Star Well by Alexei Panshin
112. The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester*
113. Servants of the Wankh by Jack Vance*
114. I am legend by Richard Matheson
115. Orbitsville by Bob Shaw
116. Communipath Worlds by Suzette Haden Elgin
117. Timescoop by John Brunner
118. The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke*
119. What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown
120. A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick

2LolaWalser
Edited: May 9, 2019, 3:32pm

A basic analysis of representation in the first 120 works and their authors.

There were 120 titles by 95 unique authors (note: for the purposes of this post, brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are considered a "single author"). Author sex, race, orientation, minority status are given according to what information was available; please add or correct if possible.

A number following an author's name (e.g. Vance 2) means that there have been multiple works by that author, so that they need distinguishing by the order in which they came up (Vance 2=the second title by Jack Vance).

AUTHOR DIVERSITY

Women: 13/95 ; 14% (Norton; Randall; Dibell; Tepper; St. Clair; Hambly; Lee; Steele; Le Guin; Holly; Brackett; Cherryh, Elgin)

Persons of colour (PoC): 0/95 ; 0%

Relative minority, sexual orientation: 4/95 ; 3.8% (Gerrold; Clarke; Disch; Cherryh)

Other relative minority: 0/95 ; 0%

REPRESENTATIONS OF DIVERSITY IN THE WORKS

a) Main characters

Women: 7/120 ; 6% (Panshin; Pratchett; Lee 1 and 2; Steele; Varley; Cherryh)

PoC: 5/120 ; 4.2% (Norton; Heinlein; Panshin; Dickson; Pratchett)

Relative minority, sexual orientation/gender: 2/120 ; 2% (Gerrold; Varley)

Other relative minority: 0/120 ; 0%

b) Works with ANY appearance of:

Women: 114/120 ; 95% (none in Norton; Lem; Clarke; Campbell; Van Vogt 2; Lafferty)

PoC: 52/120 ; 43%

Relative minority, sexual orientation/gender: 22/120 ; 18.3% (Leiber; Brunner; Gerrold, Farmer, Moorcock; Randall; Ballard; Asimov; Robinson; Leiber 2; Pohl; Silverberg; Disch; Le Guin; Sturgeon; Kotzwinkle; Lee 2; Gernsback, Varley; Aldiss 3; Bester; Dick 3)

Other relative minority: 7/120 ; 5.8% (Moorcock; Stapledon; Tepper; C. Smith; Dick 2; Vance 2; Robinson)

RELATIVE SEXUAL MINORITIES

What are the attitudes to non-heterosexual/transgender characters and behaviour?

--Positive/tending to positive: 11/120 ; 9% (Gerrold; Randall; Tepper; Pohl; Disch; Sturgeon; Lee 2; Gernsback; Varley)

--Negative/tending to negative: 14/120; 12% (Leiber; Farmer; Brunner; Moorcock; Farmer 2; Wilson; Leiber 2; Silverberg; Le Guin; Kotzwinkle; Strugatsky 2; Bester; Brunner 4; Dick 3)

OTHER RELATIVE MINORITIES

What are the attitudes to characters in other discriminated-against categories?

--Positive/tending to positive: 3/120 ; 2.5% (Stapledon; Tepper; Robinson)

--Negative/tending to negative: 3/120 ; 2.5% (Moorcock; Dick 2; Vance 2)

For the last 100 titles I looked at whether there were Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT) passes and fails. Overall, there were r-BT passes (at least two male characters conversing about something other than women) in 95% of the cases, but BT passes (at least two female characters conversing about something other than men) happened only in 23% of the cases, even with the lowest standards for conversation (e.g. a mere two lines such as "Where are you from?" "I don't know.")

3LolaWalser
Edited: May 9, 2019, 3:24pm

4LolaWalser
Edited: May 13, 2019, 1:52pm

No. 121

 

The Green Gene by Peter Dickinson

Publication date: 1973 ; Story date: contemporary

Cover blurb: "When the Irish and the Scots turned green!"

Main character: P. P. Humayan AKA Pete, Indian, medical statistician, PoC

Secondary characters: Dick Mann, official at the Race Relations Board (RRB); Francis Leary, journalist; Dr. Gideon Glister, Humayan's host; Glenda Glister, 16 year old, the Glisters' younger daughter; Kate Glister, Glenda's older sister; Sirri Palati, male, Indian, restaurant owner, PoC; Zachariah Zass, American ambassador, Jewish.

Minor characters: Mrs. Glister; Moirag McBain, green, Glisters' maid; Tarquin ffoster, Mann's subordinate at the RRB; Anna Lewis, green, member of a political group; Selina, prostitute in a brothel; The Director, top official at the RRB.

Many other named and unnamed mostly "Celtic" (Irish, Scottish, Welsh) characters, male and female.

Representation of women: Reflecting the times. Men hold all the positions of power and prestige, in larger society as well as within the subversive groups. Women, however, aren't depicted particularly unsympathetically. Humayan does think of Glenda seriously as a witch, but in a way that's a tribute to her forcefulness and intelligence. Anna Lewis, described as "very intelligent", is chosen for a dangerous mission thanks to her courage and competence.

Representation of race and ethnicity: I'm out of my depth here, I know little about the Irish/Scottish/Welsh history and understand even less. Someone better informed would no doubt notice more than I did and be able to comment more interestingly. Clearly, the "Celtics" are pitted against the "Saxons" in an oppressive society in which the latter discriminate against the former. In the analogy with, say, the USA, the Saxons would be whites and the Celtics blacks. (The American ambassador refers to them as "pickles" and their green offspring as "pickleninnies".) The green phenotype is easy to pick out for the purposes of discrimination, but some apparent whites have a dormant green gene and are actually "Celtics". Similar to how "one drop of blood" concept in America is used to separate whites from "white-appearing" "blacks".

A slew of "Celtic" subversive factions are engaged in guerrilla/terrorist warfare against the Powers That Be but also against each other. Bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, torture are part of the daily routine.

While the Brits are satirised, both Indian characters, for all their quirks and failings (superstition, lechery) are shown as better people than most of the rest. British, or English society (most of the action happens in London) is shown as deeply racist, with Humayan getting racist abuse from both the whites and the "greens". The oppression of the latter is powerfully indicted but without sentimentality or idealisation.

Representation of any kind of minority: There's a mention of two gay men at a party, "two Christian queers" (so quips the 16-year-old Satanist, Glenda). The Director at the RRB is gay and carrying on with an employee. Humayan uses this information to suit himself but without a sense that he objects to homosexuality.

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): BT fail, r-BT passes.

Not a book for a small kid, but I liked it a lot. Funny and moving. A keeper.

5LolaWalser
May 13, 2019, 1:46pm

Up next: Seetee Ship by Jack Williamson

6LolaWalser
Aug 20, 2019, 7:47pm

No. 122

 

Seetee Ship by Jack Williamson

Publication date: 1951 ; Story date: 2190

Colonists in outer space attempt to exploit antimatter.

Main character: Rick Drake, spatial engineer

Secondary characters: Karen Hood, niece of Interplanet Inc.'s boss; Paul Anders, captain, Interplanet's spatial engineer; Ann O'Banion, Rick's childhood friend

Minor characters: Austin Hood, High Commissioner; Rob McGee, engineer; Mikhail Ivanovich Protopopov, ship captain; Luigi Muratori, Protopopov's crewman; Suzuki Omura, Protopopov's crewman; other all male characters.

Representation of women: Both Karen and Ann are intelligent, competent, working women. They are very much love interests and secondary to the men, but no less admirable for that. Pretty amazing when I think of the usual treatment.

Representation of race and ethnicity: Protopopov, Muratori and Omura are lazy stereotypes--the Ukrainian a stupid big bear with sly cunning eyes, the Martian-Italian small, dark, shifty-eyed, the Venusian-Japanese "toothy, bespectacled, efficient little man"--truly a cartoon characterisation.

Representation of any kind of minority: Muratori has a limp, unclear if congenital or from some injury.

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): BT fail, r-BT passes.

Would I give this book to a kid: yes. Clumsy writing, the big enigma's solution is all but signposted from the start, but still fun.

7LolaWalser
Aug 20, 2019, 7:48pm

Up next: Spaceling by Doris Piserchia

8ronincats
Aug 21, 2019, 9:18pm

Wow, it's been a while, Lola! Has it been a busy summer?

9LolaWalser
Aug 21, 2019, 9:31pm

>8 ronincats:

Urk, yes--annoyingly busy, but truth be told, the real problem is finding heart for this, when we're living in this insane homicidal clown show... 😖😵🤡😱😱😱

10Lyndatrue
Aug 21, 2019, 10:28pm

>9 LolaWalser: I suppose that it helps to be old, at least right now. I lived through Nixon (and having the phone tapped, and mail opened in such a way that there was no doubt). We have, right now, someone who is crazy, but our advantage (and disadvantage) is that he's dumb.We just have to survive the next two years, and then it will be generational in the knowledge. I hope to be gone before our country is in this fix, again.

I feel that we owe the world an apology.

In lighter news, Doris Piserchia is a writer I'd not heard of, and after looking a bit, I went out and bought three of her works (local, independent book store). One of them happens to Spaceling, so I'd better get busy before you post about it.

XXOO

11LolaWalser
Aug 22, 2019, 10:13am

I hadn't heard of her before either, I'm enjoying the book so far. Really like the travelling + transforming between dimensions.

12SFF1928-1973
Aug 22, 2019, 12:51pm

>9 LolaWalser: Please don't let current events interfere with my favourite LibraryThing thread! I need this stuff to cheer me up, more so now that Boris Johnson is somehow Prime Minister! No matter, I feel like he will be gone by Christmas.

13daxxh
Aug 22, 2019, 1:52pm

>7 LolaWalser:. I read Spaceling when I was a kid. I don't remember a lot of the plot details, but I remember that I liked it. I might go back and reread it to compare my thoughts with yours.

14LolaWalser
Aug 22, 2019, 2:59pm

Aww, it's so cool to see the interest... makes me feel guilty about the delays and how bare-bones it all is... I promise to make a better effort.

15kgriffith
Aug 22, 2019, 3:35pm

Lola, what an amazingly cool project, I'm so glad I paged through my Talk module for the first time in ages today! I wish I'd known about it sooner, but now I can dig through the older posts and threads to catch up :)

16LolaWalser
Aug 22, 2019, 3:43pm

>15 kgriffith:

Oh myyy, thanks!--honestly, it was a totally hackneyed idea even back in the last ice age when it started (were we ever so young once?) but if you do look at the original discussion it may justify it a little... It's amazing how much has changed in the last few years...

Still, Dead Horse Flogging Dept.--yep, that's us, open until the last tree burns down or a nuke goes off, whichever happens first. :)

17iansales
Aug 22, 2019, 3:43pm

Doris Piserchia is bonkers. Well, her fiction is. But in a good way. They haven't always aged well but they're always fun to read.

18kgriffith
Aug 22, 2019, 10:20pm

>16 LolaWalser: I did, though I admit to skimming and didn't do a deep dive into the arguments -- I've heard/made them all at one point or another myself :) It was a timely thread despite its origination date because just this morning I saw a Litsy post about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which I listened to with my brother while we were packing and moving house last summer. We didn't finish it together and I bailed on it because I didn't read any straight white dudes in 2018 unless their work was assigned. The Litsy review acknowledged the problematic themes, but also the philosophical questions it raised, and I did find his world-building quite cleverly done, so I put a library hold on the audio and will probably finish it after all.

19bnielsen
Edited: Aug 23, 2019, 7:53am

Hmm, I have Earth in Twilight but I haven't read it. Hmm, 40 members, but no reviews. Not a good sign :-)

20LolaWalser
Aug 23, 2019, 11:18am

The following contains mild spoilers.

No. 123

 

Spaceling by Doris Piserchia

Publication date: 1978 ; Story date: unspecified future

Mutant humans travel between different dimensions.

Main character: Daryl, "muter", 14 year old, female

Secondary characters: Gorwyn, male, director of Mutat, a school for "muters"; Kisko, male; Croff, male; Lamana, female, Native American; Padarenka and Mikala, AKA "Pat and Mike", twin sisters, Gorwyn's "runners"; Tedwar, male; Wheaty, male; Deron, male

Minor characters: Erma, female; Bass, female, Erma's henchwoman; Olger, female, Daryl's housekeeper; Deider, female, fisherwoman; Lieutenant Solvo, Lamana's father, Native American; Dr. Oregon, male, Native American; Chameleon, female, Native American; Bud Jupiter, male; Orfia Kint, female. Other male and female characters, named and unnamed.

Representation of women: There's a moderate preponderance of men in authority roles, but also a sense that women might appear in any of them too. For me this is conveyed especially in the way minor female characters pop up all the time even in "unusual" professions--farmhand, fisherwoman, gangster--or as drivers of plot. I think this is one of the instances where being a woman makes a difference for an author--men might remember to include a "leading lady" (usually, though, in tandem with the main male character), but rarely populate the bigger picture with men and women equally. IOW, I'd say men's stories much more than women's tend to the "Smurf village" view of the world--a bunch of dudes with only one or few women around.

So, here we have a world where men and women are agents and players about equally. Daryl is pursued and victimised by men and women. The worst villain, at least in terms of physical violence, is a woman, but so is Daryl's best friend.

Representation of race and ethnicity: There is a group of Native American characters, and a couple throwaway references to them that nowadays appear a tad insensitive ("redskin", "are you going to scalp me?") but there is no doubt that they are presented as admirable and basically the only good people.

Representation of any kind of minority: Nothing explicit, although there might be some hints that make "shipping" Daryl and Lamana seem like the thing to do. (Shipping (fandom))

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): A rare occurrence--there are multiple BT passes involving a variety of female characters! I'm used to seeing at most just two female characters passing this test; this could be a first of a kind, actually. Multiple r-BT passes too.

Would I give this book to a kid: yes.

21LolaWalser
Aug 23, 2019, 11:23am

Up next: Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

22Maddz
Aug 23, 2019, 4:57pm

>21 LolaWalser: One thing to take into consideration is that 9PinA is the first book in a series of 5 (and in turn is the first series of 2). If you can, read the series as a whole.

23DugsBooks
Aug 24, 2019, 11:28am

I have thought for a while that the Amber series would translate well to cinema- especially the Nine Princes first book. I like the transition from an established boring existence to a twist in reality with mutant extraterrestrial hounds bounding in through a window.

Some of last books in the series are a little less stellar IMOHO.

24LolaWalser
Aug 24, 2019, 1:29pm

>22 Maddz:

Hmm, I believe I have all five books but wasn't aware there was yet another series linked to it... eek.

>23 DugsBooks:

Yes, one third in, and the "visuals" are striking and very beautiful.

25Maddz
Edited: Aug 24, 2019, 2:15pm

>24 LolaWalser: The second series is the subsequent generation and as >23 DugsBooks: comments is not as good as the initial 5. I would recommend reading the first 5 as a unit and only read the second 5 if you wish.

There’s also 4 prequels by John Gregory Betancourt about which the least said the better.

26LolaWalser
Aug 27, 2019, 12:34pm

No. 124

 

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

Publication date: 1970 ; Story date: contemporary

A battle for succession takes place on various planes of reality.

Main character: Corwin, prince of Amber

Secondary characters: Princes, Corwin's brothers: Random; Julian; Bleys; Eric

Minor characters: Princes, Corwin's brothers: Caine; Brand; Princesses, Corwin's sisters: Florimel (Flora); Deirdre; Moire, queen of Rebma; Rein, male, minstrel; Dworkin, male, grand artisan of Amber; Jopin, male, lighthousekeeper; Oberon, Corwin's father; Carmella, PoC, Florimel's maid on Shadow Earth; other mostly male characters.

Representation of women: Women are throughout in subordinate and minor roles in a way that seems to assert that their standing is not the same as that of the men. Only the princes seem to be able or allowed to compete for the throne, with the women limited to throwing their support behind one or another male. As Deirdre says, although Eric imprisoned her, she managed to escape because her "sex and lack of ambition" made him guard her less carefully.

The assymmetry is established at the very start, with Oberon's fifteen sons and only eight daughters. Moreover, while they all had the same father, they have different mothers, so presumably there is some system of polygyny and concubinage in place.

All talk of heritage mentions only fathers and males, as if men gave birth to men.

Both Corwin and Random (the latter twice) refer to their sisters as "bitches" (Corwin: "What of my sisters? Forget it. Bitches all, they.") and while presumably there accumulate many reasons for bitterness in a nest of vipers such as is Amber's royal family, these outbursts don't connect for us to anything specific, justifiable. If anything, we only see both Florimel and especially Deirdre give aid and support to Corwin and Random. Even the "off-stage" Llewella is helpful, providing information.

Moire takes Corwin to bed which he gloats about caddishly ("I gave her her ballad"). Still, he seems to be the only "nice" one among the brothers. Random had driven Moire's daughter to suicide and in punishment, Moire demands that he marry a blind woman of her court at least for one year. Corwin commiserates with the unknown blind woman in advance (one can't help wondering just what horror does Random get up to with women?) and goes so far as to promise Random regency and more if only he would treat her well.

Representation of race and ethnicity: Florimel's maid is Puerto Rican and "mole-flecked with a swarthy complexion". She doesn't "speak". Neither do the "big red guys", a red-skinned people, who form Bleys' army and who see Corwin and Bleys as, literally, gods. They also like warmth and suffer very much from the cold. I suppose it's up to the reader to decide if they can be read as a wholly alien fantasy people, or if they remind you of something. Me, they can't help reminding me of something.

And so does Dworkin. He's a five-foot tall hunchback with a long hooked nose and beady black eyes. The mystical cards and patterns that guide communication and travel between the planes and members of the royal Trumps are all his doing. He chatters and giggles and seems as buffoonish as he's brilliant.

Representation of any kind of minority: As mentioned, Dworkin is a hunchback and more or less a kind of "medievalising" cliché. I guess you could count it an improvement in that he's a brilliant creator and not just an amusing servant. But he is ALSO the amusing servant. Is he also somewhat... Jewish-y? Gypsy-like? It's gonna be subjective, but I do get some jenesaisquoi-s thataway.

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): BT fail, lots of r-BT passes.

Would I give this book to a kid: yes.

27LolaWalser
Aug 27, 2019, 12:40pm

Up next: Algorithm by Jean Mark Gawron

28LolaWalser
Edited: Sep 1, 2019, 12:32pm

The following contains spoilers... probably.

No. 125

 

Algorithm by Jean Mark Gawron

Publication date: 1973 ; Story date: unspecified future

A killing game is afoot... and no one knows the rules.

Main characters: Danton, Proet, male, possibly black? ; Wunderdamen AKA Wunder, "wealthiest woman on Earth"; Guillemet, female, Wunder's chief of security

Secondary characters: Savage, male, self-styled assassin; Alphy, AI, identified as female but may assume male traits; Forty-Seven AKA "Juggler", male; Commander Bohdan Potocki AKA Boz, male; Haleck, Proet, male, gay?

Minor characters: Gwalmlch, Proet, male, PoC, not-straight?; Morgana, Proet, female; Mirror, male; Ernst the Executioner; Ann Treblinski; Billie, female, AI? ; other characters of various genders etc.

Representation of women: It's a relief to be able to say something definite about a story I didn't understand at all, and that's that as far as female representation goes, it's fine. Well, some may not be delighted to hear that the "wealthiest woman on Earth" is, among other business concerns, a brothel keeper (on a site called "Whore Hill" no less), but at least it's equal-opportunity whoring in a society that seemingly sets no store by gender roles. (However, early on, page 10, there occurs a comment about linguistically prejudiced gender expectations--one of several instances, I'd say, where the author addresses a topic of his present from the vantage point of his in-future scheme.)

Most interesting is that two "off stage" but foundational characters, the architect of the city and the mathematician (architect of city's science), are both women.

Representation of race and ethnicity: Because Gawron often describes the colour of his characters--skin or hair or clothes etc.--but in unusual constructions, I may have missed some People of Colour. Gwalmlch and Danton are certainly PoC, but probably not the only ones.

Representation of any kind of minority: It might be questioned whether sexual minorities are truly minorities in a framework that is as queer (if I may use this term) as this. There is no sense that narrowly defining sexual orientation matters, or that any one "preference" is "better" than other. The young proet Haleck wears makeup and mentions accommodating a male client in Wunder's brothel. Gwalmlch, it's cryptically remarked, has a penchant for "following boys and old ladies". I'd hate to have to define a "sexual orientation" (I do think it was about sex) on that basis, so I'm filing it away as "not-straight". The Novak of the ubiquitous "Novak transformations", but not an active character in the story, is or was, a gay woman.

As to gender, it is most directly destabilised by the AI Alphy, the computer identified as "she" (and whose holographic projection is female-looking), but who likes to switch between a baritone and soprano voice. ETA: Although this ruins Gawron's gradual reveal to the end, it seems necessary to point out for the sake of discussion the likely connection between Alpha Novak the mathematician and her "avatar"? Alphy the AI. If Alphy is--in some way--Alpha, and female because Alpha was female, then perhaps Alphy is "genderfluid" because Alpha was gay. But there are also other non-gender-conforming details, such as that Guillemet, the woman to whom Danton is instantly attracted to, is a seven-foot "giantess" who towers over him.

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): There is one two-sentence BT pass between Guillemet and an unknown woman; multiple r-BT passes.

Would I give this book to a kid: yes, and ask them to explain it to me. :) If I ever manage a course in linguistics and differential topology, it would be worthwhile getting back to this.

29LolaWalser
Sep 1, 2019, 11:57am

Up next: The Skylark of Space by E. E. "Doc" Smith

30LolaWalser
Sep 1, 2019, 12:10pm

I see that there's a Gay Men>Fiction tag on Algorithm--could anyone please tell me if Gawron is gay or other etc.? I did a quick google with his name and "gay" but I'm not getting a direct answer (as a friend of Samuel Delany--one of the dedicatees on Algorithm--and the author of at least one preface to Delany, that's pulling a lot of noise).

31mart1n
Edited: Sep 1, 2019, 12:45pm

>30 LolaWalser: He has a wife; can't rule out him being bi I suppose.

The book sounds intriguing! He's an academic in the field of computational linguistics apparently. Nope, me neither.

32Lyndatrue
Edited: Sep 1, 2019, 1:16pm

>30 LolaWalser: You have done it to me again. I had other missions today, but I am, instead, off to pick up the copy of Algorithm which is at my local used bookstore (I hope; they at least list it as being there). A book that seems to have a focus on Computational Linguistics? I'm fascinated. I'll report back here when I manage to read it...

Considering when it was written, I'm certain that I have a reasonable background in the field, and I really am very interested in it.

33LolaWalser
Sep 1, 2019, 1:47pm

>31 mart1n:

Hey, thanks. Haha, yes, in the absence of direct information, there's never excluding bi/poly/omnisexuals I guess!

The book is truly intriguing but a tutored read would be oh so welcome. As it stands, I'm leery of applying my mostly university-level math on a field (linguistics) I've no formal education in at all. Actually I'm surprised, seeing that Gawron is an academic, that he resisted the temptation of giving some hints to the concepts he used in references, footnotes and suchlike.

I think it's safe to say--although this is spoilery as heck too--that the broad framework suggests that both the roles of "assassin" and "victim" are probabilistic and "called forth" from a myriad possibilities not just by pre-determined algorithms but by subsequent (unknown until the moment they happen) events. The acted-upon, through their own actions, bring about the intended consequences even in the absence of a plan of action.

The game exists because everyone expects the game. The assassin(s) may or may not be pre-determined--no one knows. The victims need to be "chosen" but in the process may be assassins themselves.

However, there are other aspects to the story, and it's this I'd like explained the most: the fluidity of gender/sexual orientation, is it only a decorative feature of the story (for instance, as a way to signal the alienness/futurism/science-fictioness of the setting?), or is it an organic part of the mathematico-linguistic scheme? I'd bet the latter, and I was hoping that remark I mentioned (page 10) was an introduction to the problem, but I never saw it worked out.

I suppose I may as well quote the bit:

Returning to the digression. We are asked, for the sake of 'convenience', to refer to the assassin as 'he', to his presumed complement in this exercise, the victim, as 'she'. Topologically, of course, it is all utterly indifferent. It is only the interface we are interested in, not either area, only the interface that yields so-called--call it softly--truth. But mathematicians are not as androgyne as their subject and we have nevertheless, through one of those left-to-right agreements, after the manner of threading screws and defining vector multiplication, decided to call one system, the one into which we substitute new laws, the female. A simple orientation. We are now asked to further orient things by calling this female system a 'victim'. But are we only to take this literally? That is, will the victim realize an altered consistency, that is, be rent, distorted, torn, that is, have a hole shot through? Or are we to leap to the far more dangerous figurative conclusion and assume that the victim is a woman?

34LolaWalser
Sep 1, 2019, 1:49pm

>32 Lyndatrue:

Oh that's great Lynda, please do write about it! I'd definitely want to understand this better (or at all!) :)

35LolaWalser
Sep 1, 2019, 2:15pm

A couple of details that made me wonder about Douglas Adams perhaps reading this book--there are at least two mentions of a Guide to Interstellar Hitchhiking, for example:

... who was the author of the same adored Guide to Interstellar Hitchhiking, already, in its eighteenth smash week, a classic of a classic-hungry age...


Is this remarkable or a common coincidence?

And also, Alphy the computer gets headaches and may be grumpy, moody etc. Now I think the "funny robot" genre was already ancient by this time but after the "hitchhiking" guide I of course immediately thought of Marvin.

Incidentally, the final page is signed Paris '73 New York '76--both well before Adams, no?

36mart1n
Sep 1, 2019, 3:14pm

>35 LolaWalser: There have been various suggestions that Adams ideas weren't always quite as original as one might hope. Though in this case, Algorithm wasn't published until 1978, and the Guide radio series was broadcast in spring of that year, so a particularly unlikely example of the idea whose time had come?

37LolaWalser
Sep 1, 2019, 4:25pm

>36 mart1n:

Oh, I wouldn't say there's a similarity in the ideas--and certainly not themes!--between the two, it's just that title... Could Gawron have inserted a nod to Adams at the last moment if he had heard the radio show? Seems a tad farfetched--was it even broadcast in the US/or did Gawron happen to catch it in the UK...

Just wondering if anyone else noticed the similarity and what they thought about it. Maybe "Guides to Hitchhiking in Space" are some old sf trope?

38kgriffith
Sep 1, 2019, 6:57pm

>28 LolaWalser: I'm with >32 Lyndatrue:, completely intrigued and may need to read it myself :)

39Lyndatrue
Sep 1, 2019, 7:57pm

>34 LolaWalser: I will have to try for another copy, elsewhere. The book wasn't actually there, any more. They searched not just in SF, but in all sorts of places, vaguely possible, to mostly unlikely. Nope. My heart is broken.

40ScoLgo
Sep 1, 2019, 8:54pm

>39 Lyndatrue: Looks like they have copies at Abe Books

Or... if you prefer an independent source with no connections to Amazon: Biblio.com

41andyl
Sep 2, 2019, 6:58am

>35 LolaWalser: and >36 mart1n:

Also Algorithm didn't get published in the UK, and although some of the specialists might have had a copy in but I wouldn't have thought that many people would have picked it up even with a prominent blurb from Samuel R. Delaney (sic) on the front. The original radio series was pitched in 1977 before Algorithm was published.

I would say that both Gawron and Adams were riffing on the name The Hitch-hiker's Guide to Europe which was first published in the UK in 1971 and in the US in 1972.

42SFF1928-1973
Sep 2, 2019, 7:39am

I'm looking forward to your review of Skylark, which I regard as a seminal work of Science Fiction. It should probably be viewed through that prism. I seem to recall the gender roles are fairly traditional.

43RobertDay
Sep 2, 2019, 10:43am

>36 mart1n: I'm with martin on this one. No-one knew who Douglas Adams was when HHGTTG first came out; there was even speculation that he was a Big Name Author writing satirical sf under a pseudonym, because he got it so right. Adams came out of Cambridge and the Footlights Revue lot before going to work for the BBC, but was unknown to CUSFS (Cambridge University SF Society), who were reasonably close to the mainstream of UK SF fandom at the time.

So indeed, yes, a case of ideas whose time had come.

44LolaWalser
Edited: Sep 7, 2019, 1:17pm

No. 126

 

The Skylark of Space by E. E. "Doc" Smith

Publication date: 1915 ; Story date: contemporary

Scientist discovers source for a space drive, builds starship, has adventures in space.

Main character: Richard Seaton, chemist

Secondary characters: Dorothy Vaneman, Seaton's fiancée; Martin R. Crane, Seaton's friend and financier; Marc C. DuQuesne, chemist; Margaret Spender, secretary; Dunark, Kondalian prince; Nalboon, Mardonalian prince

Minor characters: Perkins, male, thief; Brookings, male, head of Steel Corporation; Shiro, male, Japanese, Crane's servant; Sitar, Dunark's principal wife; other named and unnamed mostly male characters.

Representation of women: Overall it was considerably better than expected--but first of all, I was surprised at how much space was given to women and "girly interests". That's due mostly to the "anthropological" side of the Earthlings' exploration of a new world with interesting customs of rampant nakedness and polygyny, but still.

Dorothy is a rich society girl but also holds a doctorate in Music and is an accomplished violinist (all the good characters are described in superlatives and Seaton is the typical boy-wonder Gary Stu). She shows spirit and courage and throughout acts to help rather than hinder (the usual function of a hero's girlfriend is to get in trouble). Moreover, she serves as a model for the less resilient Margaret; together they face off the villains with aplomb.

It's a pity though that every show of strength on the women's part is accompanied by comments that underline how unusual (yet desirable) that is; e.g. Dorothy impresses DuQuesne with her coolness and presence of mind, but we're told she only manages to be that way because she has his example to follow. There's also quite a bit of "oh me, poor little woman, must keep my wits about me so I'm not a clinging vine to my darling" going on--not terribly reassuring and very different to the stalwart men. There's also a lot of comment on women's appearance and time spent on taking care for it.

The women on Osnome, though, are a far cry from Dorothy and Margaret--just the classic submissives with little individual value belonging to men with harems.

Representation of race and ethnicity: Shiro is the stereotypical Asian servant present in so much of entertainment from this era: efficient, loyal, inclined to know difficult words but not much grammar. DuQuesne has a couple of "elderly colored servants". And the villain, if you care, is a sinister dark haired man (so dark his nickname is "Blackie"), with a French name. Aren't they all!

The aliens again seem coded as noble and not so noble savages. They appear dark-coloured (thanks to the atmospheric conditions), which is--significantly I'd say--seen as ugly by the Earth people, they run around naked except for some jewellery, they have psychic powers but less evenly developed tech, they have polygyny, and, last but not least, slavery and summary executions of lawbreakers.

Still, it's notable that they are treated/understood as the Earth people's equals, to the point that the latter get married according to the alien ritual, which, it's suggested, may be even better than anything on Earth as it depends on the compatibility and prognosticated longevity of a marriage.

Representation of any kind of minority: None.

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): BT fail and many r-BT passes, but, I must acknowledge a very long conversation between Dorothy and Margaret--possibly the longest conversation between two female characters I can recall--where they talk a LOT about things other than men.

Would I give this book to a kid: yes, but maybe now's as good a time as any, as I seem to do at least once per thread, to recall these answers concern individual books, and the usual "passing" of any individual book does not mean that the attitudes on display are necessarily tolerable.

Rather, that it's rarely a problem of any single book (or what have you) disseminating obnoxious views, but the accumulation of such examples, especially in a situation of pre-existing inequalities and injustices of all sorts.

Which these threads are meant to illustrate in aggregate, although I always regret the clumsiness and the "dancing about architecture" aspect of it.

45LolaWalser
Edited: Sep 7, 2019, 12:38pm

>42 SFF1928-1973:

I'm sorry it's not a true review but I imagine you can't be short of those! It was very entertaining. I suppose the influence of Burroughs was great; still, Smith seems to me kinder and more charming--although not even as good a writer as Burroughs.

46LolaWalser
Sep 7, 2019, 12:41pm

Up next: World Without Men by Charles Eric Maine

This was acquired recently and smuggled on top of the Pile, breaking the Laws of the Pile, because that cover lured me magnetically...

47RobertDay
Sep 7, 2019, 1:10pm

>44 LolaWalser: EES began writing Skylark as early as 1915. Interestingly (and according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/smith_e_e), he was helped by a neighbour, Lee Hawkins Garby, who provided input on matters such as dialogue. She was credited as co-author on the first book edition, but got quietly dropped in subsequent reprints.

48LolaWalser
Sep 7, 2019, 1:17pm

>47 RobertDay:

That's VERY interesting! Wow, if she was credited as a co-author then it must've been something more substantial than, say, mere verbal criticism... it would explain perhaps the chimerical nature of Dorothy's character and dialogue... how she's action girl one moment and then goes all faint and weak-kneed the next etc.

As for the date--thanks, for consistency's sake I'll push it back then to whenever the writing can be dated, as I did in other cases.

49RobertDay
Sep 7, 2019, 4:53pm

>48 LolaWalser: The Encyclopedia is fairly clear (and I recollect from the days when I read Doc Smith in some detail) (when I was MUCH younger) that the co-author was responsible for a lot of the nature of the female characters in 'Skylark' and its sequels. Interestingly, I seem to remember that in the Lensman books, Kimball Kinnison's other half (whose name escapes me) was quite a strong character, even though she embodied contemporary female tropes and roles.

It also gives the writing span for 'Skylark' as 1915-20, which certainly makes it one of the earliest works of pure genre sf I can think of.

50iansales
Edited: Sep 8, 2019, 4:27am

>49 RobertDay: Clarissa Macdonald or Macdougal. And while she's a major character, she's forever bewailing that women are not as clever as men.

51SFF1928-1973
Sep 11, 2019, 3:56pm

>46 LolaWalser: No spoilers here but if the entry on this site is anything to go by World Without Men should be very interesting!

52LolaWalser
Oct 13, 2019, 3:42pm

The following contains SPOILERS.

No. 127

 

World without men by Charles Eric Maine

Publication date: 1958 ; Story date: 70th century, with flashbacks to earlier times

A world populated only by women is an oppressive, robotic nightmare. Jesus 2.0 to the rescue!

Main character: Aubretia, journalist

Other characters: Women: Valinia, Aubretia's girlfriend; Gallardia; Cordelia; Koralin, scientists; Aquilegia, Aubretia's previous girlfriend; Rona and Lecia; The Mistress, governor of the women's society; unnamed girl, caretaker in the "last men" reservation; E. J. Wasserman, managing director of a biochemical company; Anne Gorste, wife of Philip Gorste.

Men: Philip Gorste, biochemist inventor of "Sterilin"; Rinehart, businessman; Slade; Ingram, Gossing; Dewer; Pettifer, scientific and business staff at the company; Brad Somer, journalist; Old Gavor, the last man.

Representation of women: I thought this would be a lark but instead it was an annoying, depressing slog. Corniness, random sexism--to be expected. But as I've had occasion to mention before, it's much harder to dismiss preachy misogyny, systematic denigration, gender essentialism. And here we get that galore.

Fifty centuries after the last of the men disappeared--nature's revenge for contraception--there is a peaceful global society of women with tech and industry, media and entertainment. All of that is rotten though because women are essentially incapable of real intellectual curiosity, being purely pragmatic, so all real science has died and the ladies only tinker in the labs for the nefarious purpose of surreptitiously inducing parthenogenesis to keep the numbers going.

"...the feminine mind saw neither sense nor security in space travel."--but more fundamentally than that, the feminine mind apparently rejected rockets after an abortive attempt ("abortive" in the text) because of a failure to conceive the phallic design that, as we all know, proper rockets must have and men naturally imagine. IOW, ladies don't fly because dickless. You'll think I exaggerate but Maine keeps repeating this theme.

"It was the female viewpoint, essentially practical and in no way visionary, using technology for what it could give with no interest in abstract research for its own sake, that prevailed."

But the lacklustre intellectual life is not the worst of it--that would be the oppressive, brainwashing, totalitarian state which is, we are given to understand, the natural outcome of a society of women. To top it all, this society is really controlled by a computer and women little more than dumb and duped pawns.

"There are no people any more, only women."

Presumably we ought to be more sympathetic to the few female characters who are subversive although Maine's cardboard characterisation makes it difficult to care.

Representation of race and ethnicity: The unnamed girl who has a long conversation with Old Gavor (before he knocks her unconscious and then rapes) is described as "olive-skinned", for what that may be worth.

Representation of any kind of minority: You might think Maine overdoes it with female incapacity for intellectual and any other kind of freedom; wait until he unleashes about the perversion of Lesbianism. (sic)

Given that women, if they want sex lives at all have no choice but to have sex with other women, everyone is technically homosexual. This is the final and worst perversion (sic) imposed on the society by the original sin of contraception. Women, insofar they are Lesbian (and here all are), are "twisted" and "abnormal". Their pleasure is a lie and a sham and down with that sort of thing.

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): Heh, that's the funniest. I thought for sure this will have a ton of BT passes--there were maybe two, and barely. The ladies converse a lot but mostly about the mythical men and bringing them back. r-BT pass.

Would I give this book to a kid: no. As if there's a kid alive today who doesn't have this incel drivel on tap all day long.

There's a funny afterword.

PUBLISHER'S POSTSCRIPT

While the manuscript of WORLD WITHOUT MEN was being prepared for publication, the staff of Ace Books were startled to see two news items, appearing independently, which unexpectedly underline the credibility of Charles Eric Maine's novel. One appeared in a story in the New York Times, for Oct. 16, 1957. This told of the announcement at a meeting of a "planned parenthood" {sic} society of advanced work on a synthetic steroid tablet to be taken orally to create a limited period of sterility. ...

The other item is from the Nov. 9, 1957 issue of Science News Letter, the cover of which featured a photo of a healthy young turkey created by parthenogenesis without the aid of a male parent. ...


53LolaWalser
Oct 13, 2019, 3:46pm

Up next: Starmasters' Gambit by Gerard Klein

54LolaWalser
Oct 13, 2019, 5:00pm

This is curious--it seems there's a somewhat (?) different version of World Without Men, with the title Alph. Sure sounds like the same story but looking at the reviews on that Other Place, the character of the male baby appears perhaps at the beginning, not the end of the book. Also, minor point, but I notice several people mention "500 years" since the disappearance of men--it's defo five thousand in my version. Also, it's in five parts, not three.

If anyone knows something more about the differences, what they are or how they came about, please share...

55melannen
Oct 14, 2019, 1:51pm

I don't think the differences are significant to this project, as Alph is one of the very few books that has ever earned the coveted "Threw it at the wall instead of finishing" rating from me, for reasons very familiar from your review. Though I never finished it, so I may have missed something.

56Dilara86
Oct 14, 2019, 2:30pm

>53 LolaWalser: Now, I'm curious to know the verdict on this one, as I read Stamasters' Gambit (Le gambit des étoiles in French) as a pre-teen, when I had next to no critical thinking skills. I think it was originally published as adult literature, but subsequently reissued by a children's/young adult publisher's series in France. It is being marketed to children right now. Gérard Klein wrote it in the fifties, when he was 18 - it was his first novel - so I don't expect a very progressive outlook on gender roles... By the way, since I know you can read French, the 1980 preface is available online, as is the 1986 one. I'm half amused, half annoyed by his justification for the lack of female protagonists, in the last paragraph. Women are actually central to the novel, symbolically.

57LolaWalser
Oct 14, 2019, 8:25pm

>55 melannen:

"Threw it at the wall instead of finishing"

Haha, really! By the time I got to "there are no people any more, only women" I was thoroughly jaded, but all that aside--it was so boring! Rife with infodumps--and that of 95% inaccurate, outdated data or plain kookiness.

I was wondering about Alph because if the baby boy shows up at the beginning I'd imagine there are implications for a different plot, taking up where my version ended, with the subversives hiding the baby and whatnot, but yeah, in any case I seriously doubt the story gets improved.

>56 Dilara86:

Oh, I didn't realise it was French, cool, I think we had only a couple non-Anglo titles so far... Thanks very much for the link, I'll save it for last, I just checked and the DAW is from 1973.

He was eighteen?! Wow. I seem to recall dimly someone else's book was written when very young--Alexei Panshin was it?--and of course the shorter fiction of the "golden age" pulp sf boasts many a schoolboy author.

Eager to start on it ASAP now!

58melannen
Oct 17, 2019, 5:06pm

I think I had picked it up on a rec for "books with lgbt characters" and yeah, no. I may have judged it less harshly if I hadn't been expecting well-done lesbians.

Memories are very vague but iirc he shows up in the sense of "he exists, he is shunted off to some secret hiding place offscreen by people who aren't named characters, he is not relevant again until after I gave up on the book."

I remember having a general sense that at some point this boy would reappear and become important, but he hadn't yet. I suspect it was something like adding an intro to establish his existence and maybe some minor timeline shifts, but not any really major changes in focus.

59LolaWalser
Edited: Nov 3, 2019, 10:41pm

No. 128

 

Starmasters' gambit by Gérard Klein

Publication date: 1958 ; Story date: unspecified (very) far future

A reluctant spaceman hits on the solution to the central cosmic mystery.

Main character: Jerg Algan, male

Other characters: Nogaro; Stello; ; Jor Tial; Paine; Sarlan; other named and unnamed characters, all male.

Representation of women: None. There is a single brief mention of crowds of "men and women" on planet Ulcinor, where everyone is masked in public, with the remark that only the women's slighter build visually distinguishes them from the men.

Even before I read the preface Dilara86 linked above, where Klein mentions Simak's City as one of the books he'd loved, I was reminded of that novel in particular at this point (p. 18 in the DAW edition): "one month of traveling made a son older than his father". There's a similar moment in Simak (I believe I commented on it) which also somehow conveys that fathers beget sons and that's the whole and only human heritage there is. In combination with the distant-future view that encompasses all of time and space, also present in City, the comparison is irresisitible. I don't mean to make too much of it, one is just reminiscent of the other.

Compared to other stories that omitted women, their absence is perhaps less bothersome here because so much of the story is spent in Jerg's head--the dude mostly talks to himself. Still, it's easy enough to see that the young author couldn't (didn't , anyway) envisage any sort of "equality" of genders even in that gajillion-years distant super-tech future.

Representation of race and ethnicity: Nogaro is several times described as a "brown man" with very dark eyes and hair. The other few (more numerous) characters whose hair and skin are described all appear to be white.

Representation of any kind of minority: None.

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): BT fail, lots of r-BT passes.

Would I give this book to a kid: argh, every time I get to this question I hate on myself and the mess I made of it. :)

I've no special objection to this book, as I've had no special objections to, what, 98% or so of any before. So that's a "yes" from one angle. But would I care to see the attitudes to gender etc. on display here propagated, or myself seen as someone OK with them, let alone their champion?--no.

Perhaps this ought to be a two-part question. One part to remind us every time that the problem is rarely of an individual title being so toxic it warps young minds on mere contact. That would account for almost every answer being "yes". The second part to recall that every individual title exists in a world of toxic opinions, and adds its piffling weight to great burdens. That would account for quite a few of the "yesses" getting modified to "no".

60LolaWalser
Nov 3, 2019, 9:29pm

Up next: When They Come From Space by Mark Clifton

61LolaWalser
Nov 3, 2019, 9:35pm

>58 melannen:

well-done lesbians.

My favourite! :)

>56 Dilara86:

I'm half amused, half annoyed by his justification for the lack of female protagonists, in the last paragraph. Women are actually central to the novel, symbolically.

Ha, yes, that was some very funny pretzeling apologetics. I wouldn't be too hard on the guy, could have been worse, frankly I often wish some even much older authors elected to shut up about girls instead of, deliberately or inadvertently, looking like giant pervs.

62LolaWalser
Edited: Nov 3, 2019, 9:36pm

Oh, speaking of which, any thoughts on the upcoming Asterix with an important female character who is not Cleopatra? :)

63Dilara86
Nov 4, 2019, 2:30am

>59 LolaWalser: Wey! Back from an SF convention just in time for your enlightening review. Incidently, Gérard Klein wasn't at the convention, and that's a first. Hopefully not for any serious reason. I almost missed his rambling, self-centred questions to the guests...

>61 LolaWalser: frankly I often wish some even much older authors elected to shut up about girls instead of, deliberately or inadvertently, looking like giant pervs.
I totally agree.

>62 LolaWalser: Adrenaline (the new Asterix character who is not Cleopatra) is everywhere in France at the moment. I heard an interview with the new authors (Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad) that sounded encouraging. At the very least, Adrenaline is not drawn in a sexualised way. It's funny that they had to make clear that she was not inspired by Greta Thunberg, but by the illustrator's daughter. If they also made the portrayal of the Black pirate less racist and dropped his cringy "Caribbean" accent, I'd be fully happy...

64LolaWalser
Edited: Nov 4, 2019, 1:19pm

>63 Dilara86:

If they also made the portrayal of the Black pirate less racist and dropped his cringy "Caribbean" accent

Oh yes, he's awful and it's awful to hear he's still being characterised that way! (The last Asterix I've read is Le Fils d'Astérix from, wow, 1983?! Yeah, I never warmed up to the post-Goscinny period.) Not that I had the slightest inkling of that as a young 'un, he was just a funny character--and I remember also how unsurprising, normal it was, how totally familiar, that a black character would be depicted as a dumb clown with muscles. The comics and books and television etc. we consumed were filled with such representations, and with nothing better to at least counterbalance them.

I think there must be a huge nostalgia trap here, and it must be working against the proper updating of the setup. People of a certain age demanding more of the same. Are French kids today as much into Asterix (and Tintin) as my generation was?

they had to make clear that she was not inspired by Greta Thunberg

Lol! Well I for one am looking forward to Greta characters... I haven't read about this, I only listened to a short notice on France Culture by a woman who registered some misgivings--that Adrenaline is still damseled or something along those lines.

In combination with the "teenage rebel" expression of the character, I got the vibe of that little Spanish pest from Asterix in Spain, done as a girl. We'll see.

But there are a couple of things which I think is fair enough to mention in advance--would it kill them to get collaborators (one hardly dares suggest writers and/or artists) who are not white men, or consultants or something, and, think bigger than just the one character, no matter how "important". It's not just that women don't get to be main characters--the problem is also that women get pushed into the background or simply omitted. Eschew the Schtroumpfs model, IOW, of one "special" woman in a world of men.

65Dilara86
Nov 4, 2019, 2:13pm

>64 LolaWalser: Yes to all of this...
Just to clarify, I don't know whether they changed the Black character or not. I just hope they did.

66LolaWalser
Nov 4, 2019, 3:49pm

>65 Dilara86:

Tell us more about the convention if you please! Did you go to any special talks, is there some particular author or title you follow? Do people cosplay in France?

67anglemark
Nov 5, 2019, 3:31am

>63 Dilara86: I didn't know this about the Caribbean accent! The accents of the characters don't survive into the Swedish translations. Except for the Arvernian accent...

68Dilara86
Edited: Nov 6, 2019, 3:02am

>66 LolaWalser:
I went to the Utopiales (https://www.utopiales.org/) SF convention in Nantes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I go every year, at least for two of the three/four days. It focuses on science, SFF literature (including bande dessinée) and films (including shorts). There are also a couple of rooms for roleplaying and tabletop games, and a cosplay competition at the end of the last day (so people do cosplay in France, but it's a bit of an afterthought at the Utopiales, whereas it's huge at Japan Expos).
This year, it was heaving, and I missed a number of talks because they were full. I still managed to hear Jo Walton, Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner talk about the place of politics in fantasy, Gwennaël Gaffric, Nuonuo Wang and Ran Zhang talk about Chinese science-fiction, Alain Damasio, Denis Bajram and Yannick Rumpala talk about French political SF, Laura Fernandez, Johanna Sinisalo, child psychologist Agnès Florin and Eric Gauthier talk about humour, language and SF, and Ketty Steward, Sarah Doke and Baptiste Beaulieu talk about (French) inclusive grammar. I attended author talks with Philippe Bihouix, Jean-Laurent del Socoro, Johanna Sinisalo, and food scientist Catherine Renard.
And my favourites: organised chats between authors and translators called L’auteur et son ombre (The author and their shadow). They're always enlightening. This year, I saw Ellen Kushner and her translator Patrick Marcel, and Ada Palmer and her translator Michelle Charrier. A couple of years ago, I saw Becky Chambers and her translator, Marie Surgers, who was clearly enthusiastic about The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and very grateful that she was given it to translate: she was stuck translating Larry Correia novels and it was sapping her will to live. She told Becky Chambers that she loved her in front of the audience – which I’m realizing sounded a lot more powerful in the original French than in English – and it was all very moving.

>67 anglemark: I'm very curious about the Arvernian accent in Swedish!
The "Caribbean" "accent" is just your standard racist trope: dropped 'r's and next to no grammar. With a couple of exceptions, accents are not reproduced in Asterix comics (thankfully! It would be very tedious very fast), only regional and national speech "mannerisms".

69RobertDay
Nov 6, 2019, 8:01am

>67 anglemark: >68 Dilara86: In the days when I read Asterix (first in French and then English), I was amused by the way accents and languages were handled graphically; so signs and speech bubbles for Goths (and Ostragoths and Visigoths, where necessary) were in Gothic font (don't forget, this was in pre-word processor days, so the ability to switch font seamlessly within a piece of work was still a novelty), whilst in Asterix and Cleopatra, Egyptian was represented in speech bubbles containing hieroglyphs. In particular, at one point Obelix is interrogating a local, and he asks one of Cleopatra's stewards, "How do you say 'Start talking'?". The steward's reply is in the form of a hieroglyph; Obelix's interpretation of that was the same hieroglyph, just **very badly drawn**....

70LolaWalser
Nov 6, 2019, 12:35pm

>68 Dilara86:

Thank you, that sounds fabulous! Love the anecdote about Chambers' translator--I had to google Correia, I'd forgotten he was actually the initiator of that Sad Puppies thing. Yecch.

How mixed is the Utopiales crowd? I have no sense of how popular/whether sf and fantasy are with French women in general. Is it older people mostly?

>69 RobertDay:

I have that etched in my memory, loved those details so much. And the "flowery talk", with speech bubbles framed with flowers, when someone is being sarcastically nice right before an outburst.

71LolaWalser
Edited: Nov 8, 2019, 1:43pm

No. 129

 

When They Come From Space by Mark Clifton

Publication date: 1961 ; Story date: contemporary

The right person in the wrong place makes first contact with aliens.

Main character: Ralph Kennedy, honest industry computer expert whom a bureaucratic mistake turns overnight into the Pentagon's chief extraterrestrial psychologist

Secondary characters: Harvey Strickland, media magnate and Boss Of Everything, including the US government; Sara, Kennedy's secretary-girlfriend; Dr. Frederick Kibbie, government scientist and waster of money; Dr. Gerald Gaffee, same as previous; Shirley Chase, administrator, middle-aged spinster

Minor characters: N-462, government agent; Tom Higgins, leader of the Senate majority; Miller, Strickland's secretary; "Bex; Dex; Jex; Kex; Lex", aliens; other named and unnamed characters, all male except for Kennedy's receptionist at the start of the tale.

Representation of women: Very much "the fifties" standard--women are few, stereotypical, and all in small subservient roles. Of the hundreds, even thousands of professionals employed, none seem to be female and the "male subject" figure of speech is particularly noticeable here where there is so much talk of humanity vs. aliens--it's all "Man this, Man that".

Shirley the middle-aged executive administrator nevertheless runs junior errands and is explicitly described as being "maternal" toward her 40-something boss. Although mature and well-paid, with a long career at the Pentagon, she doesn't seem to be expected to care for personal independence--Kennedy's girlfriend becomes her roommate, as if the two were schoolgirls.

Sara seems like a nice, intelligent person but very much the "background vocals" to the man in her life, selflessly serving him and demonstrating commendable astonishment and gratitude when he gruffly proposes (actually he barks at her to "stop nagging him!"--they are not married... "yet". She swoons. Ah, romance.)

In fairness, this is a humorous book so these things don't appear that grim.

Representation of race and ethnicity: No characters appear to be anything other than white. However, some of Clifton's attitudes to race do come across several times, and, while they are progressive (at least for the times), the way this is expressed is unfortunately through the racist thoughts of the despicable villain, Strickland. In one instance he is wondering what might happen if the as-yet-unseen aliens turn out to be human-like, with pretensions to "human rights" (quotes in text), and what that slippery slope might lead to, such as questions "is a Negro really a man?"

Earlier, Strickland is thinking that he needs to find a scapegoat to blame for the nuclear destruction he is himself demanding and goes through a list of choices:

Some niggers here, some Jews there. Catholics here. Protestants there, Irishmen, Swedes, Polacks, wops, kooks, commies and homosexuals everywhere.


Representation of any kind of minority: None in character. However, as with the subject of race, there are, besides the above direct mention, several allusions to homosexuality. Every time it's satirical--Kennedy making fun of the need to prove that he's not "weird" and welcoming the presence of Sara on that account; the fan letters the aliens receive from girls offering to sleep with them to dispel rumours that the aliens are "that way".

There is also a mention of the Kinsey report and what that revealed about the red-blooded American male.

While it's clear that in this society homosexuality is seen negatively, I'm not sure how much may be assumed about Clifton's personal attitude. But, I would cautiously put his satire of the clichés about masculinity as a sign of "tending to positive" on the issue.

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): BT fail, lots of r-BT passes.

Would I give this book to a kid: if I knew the kid was mature enough to recognise satire and not get a thrill from slurs, I guess yes. But not for our original eight-year-old. As with so many of these, some cautionary talk would be necessary, it seems.

72LolaWalser
Nov 8, 2019, 1:46pm

Up next: Patternmaster by Octavia E. Butler

Milestone!

73LolaWalser
Nov 8, 2019, 2:12pm

The Wikipedia entry on Clifton is interesting:

Clifton's fame ebbed quickly, and he received the 2010 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award for unjust obscurity.


74Cecrow
Edited: Nov 8, 2019, 2:59pm

>73 LolaWalser:, eeeeek, really? The guy who wrote The Forever Machine? Unjustly heralded, seems to be the more typical view.

75LolaWalser
Nov 8, 2019, 5:15pm

*curious now*

NO SPOILERS PLS :)

76LolaWalser
Nov 8, 2019, 5:23pm

Actually, go ahead, god knows if and when I might run into it. What gives? :)

77Dilara86
Nov 11, 2019, 2:29pm

>70 LolaWalser: The Utopiales has never been a sausage fest, I don't think. The audience always was somewhat diverse, as far as age, gender, ethnicity and disability are concerned. But it definitely is more mixed now that the new team have made a concerted effort to have more diverse guests on stage, and have a sign language interpreter for some (but not all - there's still some way to go) of the talks. The tone and atmosphere are definitely more inclusive now than 7 or 8 years ago. I remember, on the fiction side, when there were fewer women and no non-white writers on any of the round tables. There would be one or possibly two all-women panels about female-coded topics (feminism and SF, the female body in space...) at 9:30 on Sunday morning in front of an all-female audience, as opposed to several all-male panels. The science side was always more diverse. This year, they've also had more activities for children, possibly because last year, Sabrina Calvo pointed out that the convention had made a lot of progress on every front, except for age discrimination.

>72 LolaWalser: This is going to make a change from the usual golden-age SF output.

78LolaWalser
Dec 30, 2019, 2:56pm

>77 Dilara86:

Apologies for not replying sooner--I could have sworn that I had! I spent December recovering from some health problems which must have discombobulated me more than I realised... Thank you very much for sharing your experience at the Utopiales.

79LolaWalser
Edited: Dec 30, 2019, 3:12pm

The following contains spoilers.

No. 130

 

Patternmaster by Octavia E. Butler

Publication date: 1976 ; Story date: unspecified future

Power struggles among a telepathic people living in a harsh environment.

Main character: Teray, male

Secondary characters: Amber, female, Healer, PoC; Coransee, Housemaster, Teray's brother and rival; Joachim, Housemaster, subordinate to Coransee; Michael, Journeyman; Iray, female.

Minor characters: Rayal, Patternmaster, father of Teray and Coransee; Jansee, Rayal's lead wife, mother of Teray and Coransee; Suliana, female, "mute" (non-telepath); Lady Darah, Housemaster; an unnamed male Clayark; other male and female Patternists and mutes.

Representation of women: It's noticeable that there's a certain difference between what we're told "in theory" about the position of women within the Pattern, and what may be observed "in practice" during the story's plot. Theoretically it appears that women enjoy equality with the men: they may have a House of their own, i. e. become Housemasters, and, given that the Pattern was invented by a woman, presumably even be the Patternmaster. The strength of a Patternist doesn't seem to depend on gender and therefore mixed-gender combat happens; and women may triumph over men.

In the story, however, we observe mostly men as Housemasters (Lady Darah being the only exception) and the main fight is a three-way power struggle between three men.

But it's the organisation of the households of the (male, we are given no details about the female) Housemasters that points to a serious assymmetry in how the genders are treated. The system, at least the one we observe and are told the most about, is one of polygyny, with the Housemaster exercising absolute power over all the women in his household, whether wives, slaves or "outsiders"--this means, for example, that they can't refuse him sexually, that he's "allowed" to rape them.

The women in the households, at least Patternist women, seem to be able to take other secondary partners and even have children with them, but it's not clear to me whether this depends solely on their will, or whether it's something that needs to be negotiated with the Housemaster. I would expect the latter, as, for example, Rayal's "lead" wife Jansee has to ask his permission before she can contact her children.

Basically, although we're given theoretical reason to think the genders are equal, in the main we observe women in secondary roles and merely following and supporting men. The bulk of the women we "meet" in the story are slaves and subordinates, some horribly abused. Iray goes from being a young wife (presumably the "lead" wife) to a would-be Housemaster, to being just one of many wives of an enemy. I'm not sure whether it's better or worse that she eventually reconciles herself to the situation and makes it her choice.

Amber, the "independent", is forced to submit to Coransee sexually and he's not even doing it for "her" sake, but to humiliate Teray.

Personally, I'm ambivalent about this picture. On the one hand, the potential and the strength of the women is inspiring. At the same time, some really terrible things happen to women--to a whole lot of them, and systemically, as to the enslaved "mutes".

Representation of race and ethnicity: Unless I missed something, it would appear only Amber, of the Patternists, is described unequivocally as a black person--she is "goldenbrown" and her hair "a cap of tight black curls" that are "softer than they appear". Given the setting (dry and hot climate), the social organisation reminiscent of (vaguely, please forgive me) "Africa", and Butler's own race, I imagined everyone as black--but, curiously, at least three mute women are white or likely white, given that they are blonde, red-haired, and the third with long jet-black hair falling down her back.

Did Butler leave race mostly ambiguous and up to the reader's imagination? It would be interesting to hear how people see this.

Perhaps more important on the issue of otherness, is the existence of Clayarks. They are "diseased" mutes, therefore people of some kind, although the Patternists treat them like vermin (and, to be fair, are shown equal hostility). Their colouring, where mentioned, is golden or yellow, like that of lions, to whom they are generally compared--they run on all fours, can sit on their haunches like cats, but they possess language and technological skill.

Representation of any kind of minority: Amber is bisexual. Her "second", i.e. her second lover (whether would-be or actual we are not told), was a woman Housemaster named Kai (this is only information conveyed in talk). Given that Amber and Kai could plan their union, presumably such things are not against the rules. However, Amber's "first", who was also her schoolmaster (unpleasantly, it's apparently common for schoolmasters to sleep with their students), was infuriated by this relationship and caused trouble for the two women that set them apart.

Amber also feels obliged to ask Teray whether he too finds this infuriating, which implies that homosexual relations, whatever their "legal" status, nevertheless can't be assumed to be seen as equal to the heterosexual, tolerated in the same way.

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): BT fail, lots of r-BT passes.

Would I give this book to a kid: yes. I might add I found it fascinating and a completely engrossing, truly interesting read. Something really new.

80LolaWalser
Dec 30, 2019, 3:23pm

Up next: The Forever war by Joe Haldeman

81LolaWalser
Mar 21, 8:53am

To be or not to be...

this thread=Hamlet

82LolaWalser
Mar 21, 9:05am

130's not such a bad number to end. It's, what, almost a book every two weeks for five years? Amazing, all things considered...

83LolaWalser
Mar 21, 10:02am

But 150 would be better, amirite?

84melannen
Mar 21, 10:58am

I would like to see it keep going!

85RobertDay
Mar 21, 11:06am

Well, I'm content to carry on reading as long as you're prepared to carry on writing. Though I find the definition of "oldies" a little troubling when it includes books I remember being first published...

86LolaWalser
Mar 21, 11:34am

yaaay, signs of life...

Everything is absurd so why not this...

Think nothing of it, Robert, oldies are goldies. :)

87ronincats
Mar 21, 12:14pm

I also will continue to read as long as you are willing to keep posting.

88LolaWalser
Mar 21, 1:53pm

Gather 'round the campfire! (six feet apart please)

89Lyndatrue
Edited: Mar 21, 2:54pm

I'm glad to see the signs of life. Me and the White Rabbit are quietly hunkered down, and await your next review.

90Diabolical_DrZ
Mar 22, 12:57am

Always appreciate these

91ChrisRiesbeck
Mar 22, 12:38pm

I also have enjoyed these entries. My library includes many books from decades back and I jump around quite a bit. Your analyses have added another critical lens to these bifocals beyond the quality of the writing and the datedness of the science. For example, there's an entire paragraph in my LT review of Leinster's The Wailing Asteroid that's there solely because of what you've written. Thanks!

92LolaWalser
Mar 22, 12:54pm

Thanks, guys, as long as anyone's getting a kick out of it, it helps to feel less embarrassed about keeping at it in these, well... tragic is only right for them... times.

Let's see how far the thread outruns the virus...

93melannen
Mar 22, 4:39pm

I think catching up on piles of old unread books is the perfect thing to be doing in these trying times. It would be my plan if I weren't stuck in an endless cycle of trying to fit them all on my shelves instead.

94Sakerfalcon
Mar 24, 6:52am

I really enjoy this thread and will certainly keep reading if you keep writing!

95LolaWalser
Mar 24, 9:57am

Great to hear, thanks. The much-delayed installment will be delivered today (preview: I have not loved this title and look forward to moving on)

96LolaWalser
Mar 25, 9:51am

I keeled over at eight thirty yesterday, haven't been to bed that early since I was a kid. Draining times...

97SFF1928-1973
Mar 25, 11:37am

>95 LolaWalser: I too would like to see this thread continue. I'll be interested to hear what you found to dislike in The Forever War!

98LolaWalser
Edited: Mar 25, 11:53am

The following contains spoilers.

No. 131

 

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Publication date: 1972* ; Story date: 1990s-3143

Warfare in space transcends centuries, orphaning surviving veterans.

*As mentioned before, by "publication date" I aim to capture the moment of the story's origin, the earliest reported instance of its shaping. As it seems the version I read was expanded and modified in several waves since its serial publication in the 1970s, a single date may not be adequate here. Just to say I'm aware of this--and it does complicate some judgements one might make about the book's attitudes and message.

Main character: William Mandella, promoted from Private to Major over more than ten centuries

Secondary characters: Marygay Potter, soldier, Mandella's girlfriend; Beth Mandella, Mandella's mother; Captain Charlie Moore, male, one of Mandella's subordinates and friend; Diana Alsever, medical doctor

Other characters: a large cast of male and female mostly military staff; many incidental characters (servers, bodyguards etc.)

Representation of women: Since I don't know what the original story looked like when it appeared in 1972, I won't try to judge whether Haldeman "updated" stuff, and what. In general terms this was very reminiscent of Heinlein. There is present the notion that the genders are equal, but that notion doesn't correspond necessarily to how we'd understand equality now.

Private soldiers are about equal numbers of men and women but the higher ranks are noticeably occupied mostly by men. The earlier segments display some "hysterical", "airhead" clichés about women that sit uneasily alongside the characterization of everyone as comradely and boyish (the soldier being eminently an avatar of the male).

This is a military that not only allows sexual relationships, but enforces compliance with any individual's desires (as long as those are heterosexual, at least in the 21st century). No one is allowed to say no. Haldeman makes a joke of it by describing the only two female soldiers among eighteen male as haggard around the edges. When Mandella's group joins them, the eighteen "sex-starved" men throw themselves at the new women, no pleases asked.

Needless to say, the world in which no woman is allowed to say no is probably not one to any woman's liking. Haldeman theoretically places the men under the same obligation, but that doesn't make sexual coercion any better.

By the last segment, though, some 700 years later, it seems only voluntary relations are entertained.

As with Heinlein, my impression here is of a vision of the sexes and women that is blind to its own shortcomings, while appearing progressive. Allowing that a woman may be a capable soldier is not the alpha and the omega of equality if there is a distinct unwillingness to show men being subordinate to them. Recognising that women have sexual appetites that deserve as much consideration as male appetites would be a positive, if only there were, equally, allowance for the right not to have sex imposed on one--on anyone.

For what it's worth, I think writers like these have missed (but not only them, it's a common feature) the dimension of friendship. Until such authors (men in general) learn to accommodate friendship with women in their worldview, both respect and peace will be lacking in how they deal with people who happen to be female.

Haldeman actually comes close to divining something of this, by the end of the book (and perhaps written later than the 1970s?)

It was dawning on me that I had not the slightest idea of how to conduct myself socially. So much of my "normal" behavior was based on a complex unspoken code of sexual etiquette. Was I supposed to treat men like women, or vice versa? Or treat everybody like brothers and sisters? It was all very confusing.


Representation of race and ethnicity: Racial and ethnic egalitarianism is mostly assumed, although no notable characters are shown as something other than white, or American (mostly the descriptions are neutral). But there is a hint, again by the end of the book, that racism may exist. For one thing, getting rid of racism by enforced "mixing" is a social policy. Mandella the living fossil meets people who are mostly "Polynesian" looking. He wonders about the two soldiers who retained their "pure" aspect, whether they are getting abuse.

The obsession with the idea that humanity is on the path to becoming all beige is a weird one. First, this is not how the genetics of skin colour work. Second, this obsession is common among white supremacists, making the point about science of dubious value. It's not about the scientific truth for them.

I'm not saying Haldeman was espousing such views, just that they resonate most unfortunately.

Representation of any kind of minority: This is the feature of the story that dates it the most and the worst. Haldeman views homosexuality and gender-nonconformism as negative, perverse phenomena, but the twist is that he presents them as the inevitable outcome of the trajectory of the society of his times.

So by the end of the book, Mandella is the one who gets called "Old Queer", being one of the few heterosexuals remaining, while the majority of the population is raised to be homosexual.

Mandella's discomfort and revulsion don't result in physical aggression, at least, but there is very strong messaging that something "normal" and "natural" and good was lost with the old world, and the new one is a mad nightmare (quote: "perverse grotesquerie") culminating in a society of clones with billions of bodies but a single consciousness.

Mandella escapes this horror to one of the refuge planets where he can live as in the archaic past, with a wife giving birth in pain etc.

Now, this would still count as a happy ending if Haldeman hadn't overegged his homophobic pudding by giving Mandella as companions a couple of his ex-comrades, a man and a woman who voluntarily chose to be reprogrammed to heterosexuality and then, of course, married to each other... Like, can we have one or two wrongs a time, please, not a whole bunch...

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): BT fail, lots of r-BT passes.

Would I give this book to a kid: no, and you know why not most of all? For the swivel-eyed Patriot Movement loony diss of universal health care, packed with xenophobic anti-UN sentiment for good measure.

See, in Mandella's 21st century "Geneva" and "UNEF" rule everything and are the cause of the general dehumanisation. It's thanks to Geneva's imposed "Universal Medical Security System" that everyone gets ratings that sort them into jobs (or no jobs) and as more or less worthy of medical care--get a zero rating and you're good for the crematorium, worm.

It just boggles my mind that Americans, of all people, buy into this crap.

Universal healthcare is your damned RIGHT, girls and boys! And if anyone is pushing you into premature death, it's the frikking American capitalism, not Geneva and black helicopters. Ugh.

99LolaWalser
Edited: Mar 25, 12:09pm

Up next: Donovan's brain by Curt Siodmak

100paradoxosalpha
Mar 25, 12:19pm

>98 LolaWalser: And if anyone is pushing you into premature death, it's the frikking American capitalism

I wish it were only "if." But watch those fatalities roll in.

101DugsBooks
Mar 27, 1:11pm

::raising hand:: I like poking around on this topic when I can.

102LolaWalser
Edited: Apr 12, 12:18am

No. 132

 

Donovan's brain by Curt Siodmak

Publication date: 1943 ; Story date: contemporary

Disembodied brain exerts uncanny influence.

Main character: Patrick Cory, mad scientist

Secondary characters: William Schratt, village doctor and drunk; Janice, Cory's wife; Anton Sternli, erstwhile employee of W. H. Donovan; Herb Yocum, photographer and blackmailer; Fuller, male, lawyer

Minor characters: Franklin, Cory's "colored man"; Cyril Hinds, murderer; Chloe Barton, Donovan's daughter; Howard Donovan, Donovan's son; other named and unnamed, mostly male characters

Representation of women: We see everything through Cory's narration, and he's an utterly callous nutter, so Janice's "real" character comes through in a "negative", so to speak. He forgets she exists and goes for weeks without speaking to her, he's always irritated and furious with her, speaks of her with contempt and even hatred, yet she serves him with a nun's devotion and anticipates his every need and whim. Gradually we learn that she's the one with the money, that she provided Cory with a house and equipment, that she loves him dearly and selflessly. So, basically, she must be off her rocker too. Chloe is also depicted by Cory extremely unflatteringly. Dr. Schratt carries a torch for Janice, as Sternli did for Donovan's own abused unloved wife. In this book two (or three, counting Hinds the matricide) worst men are misogynists, while the good male characters are ennobled by their unrequited loves.

Representation of race and ethnicity: Besides Franklin, who never speaks, there's a mention of only one other PoC character, also a servant.

Representation of any kind of minority: None.

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): BT fail, r-BT passes.

Would I give it to a kid: this is the sort of thing much better in a B-movie version but no special objections aside from the usual concerns about the datedness and scant treatment of character.

103LolaWalser
Apr 12, 12:21am

Up next: Synthajoy by D. G. Compton

104iansales
Apr 12, 8:54am

>103 LolaWalser: One of my favourite sf novels.

105RobertDay
Apr 12, 9:34am

>103 LolaWalser: Now there's a writer not many people will remember (outside of a select few, many of whom will be reading this anyway).

106LolaWalser
Apr 12, 11:26am

Never heard of 'im, but I'm liking this a lot so far.

107iansales
Apr 13, 4:48am

>106 LolaWalser: The way the narrative moves back and forth in time is really cleverly done. Compton was one of the best writers UK sf has produced.

108Sakerfalcon
Apr 13, 10:46am

>103 LolaWalser: Interested to see what you think of this one, as I have The continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by Compton on my TBR pile.

109iansales
Apr 14, 1:12am

>108 Sakerfalcon: That's his best-known novel. It was filmed by Bretrand Tavernier as Death Watch.

110LolaWalser
Apr 14, 3:17pm

>107 iansales:

Agreed, the structure is superb.

>108 Sakerfalcon:

I'm just about to post my nit-analysis, which is NOT a proper review (and even so way too long, ack, I just noticed), but I can safely say I'd recommend on the basis of this reading Compton already just for general reasons, regardless of the details I discuss here. Recommend, that is, as long as you know you don't mind sf of this era in general.

111LolaWalser
Edited: Apr 14, 4:26pm

The following contains spoilers!

No. 133

 

Synthajoy by David G. Compton

Publication date: 1968 ; Story date: 1988

A murder mystery wrapped in the enigma of tangled real and imagined events.

Main character: Thea Cadence (née Springfield), Edward Cadence's wife and assistant

Secondary characters: Mrs. Craig, psychiatric nurse; Dr. Edward Cadence, co-inventor of Sensitape; Tony Stech, Jewish, co-inventor of Sensitape; Dr. Harvey, psychiatrist

Minor characters: Dr. and Mrs. "X" (Malinder), subjects of "Sexitape"; Jacob Stech, Tony's father; Rachel Cadence, Edward's mother; Dr. Mbleble, male, black; Pam & David Springfield, Thea's parents; Siemens; Vincent-Clarke, male, counsels; Pheeney; Bunk, male, gangsters; Pastor Mannheim, subject of a Sensitape; other named and unnamed male or female characters.

Representation of women: In terms of this rubric the great strength of this book is that it has a female narrator who is intelligent, witty, passionate and compassionate. I do note that, to me at least, she sounds very much like a person of her class and situation might in the sixties, not the story's supposed eighties. This is not a criticism nor a quibble--just an observation that Mrs. Cadence's ideas, concepts, manner (and for that matter those of all the other characters) are likely to ring to us very strongly of a specific past and place and obsessions, which does impinge on what one makes of the story. Briefly, it's an attack on modern psychology and psychoanalysis (specifically Freudian) and the desacralisation, codification, uniformisation of the interpersonal relations, the self etc. that followed in the wake of psychology's novel scientific ambition.

Further comment demands that I go into the story a bit (warning again: complete spoilers!)

It opens with Thea Cadence, 32 years old, under guard in a psychiatric institution undergoing a process of "penal psychiatry". Through a combination of drugs and Sensitape therapy, she is meant to achieve the mental state of contrition for the crime of killing her husband. But her wardens, Dr. Harvey and Nurse Craig, may have some other goals in mind, which remain murky (one conjectures that the real aim is to keep Thea whether she's innocent or not, and render incapable of interfering with the Sensitape business.)

The Sensitape is a medium that captures a person's emotional state (sensations), which can then be played into another's mind and experienced as one's own. While Edward and Tony were the ones to develop it, the lightbulb moment for its concept came from Thea. Not that she makes anything of this other than to feel guilt for her part in creating the monster (as she and Tony come to see the invention). Despite her intelligence and ability, Thea is very much a "retro" wife to her brilliant husband--even more so, because she can passionately put even that intelligence and ability into his service and nothing else. To later readers it can't help being obvious how normal, inevitable she finds it to be the nurse (all are female) who sets her cap at a doctor (all are male), with Napoleonic cunning and strategy that might have outstandingly served some ambition other than capturing a man. But it's like this is not even on the table and never could have been on the table.

Nurse Thea married promising young doctor Edward when she was twenty, after getting the calculated approval of his formidable mother, Rachel. Rachel Cadence is herself a social scientist, a statistician, thoroughly imbued with psychological novelties of the hour, and she has raised her son "scientifically" (so, probably she's to blame for how he turned out). There's no doubt that Compton doesn't mean us to like this character, that he treats her with sarcasm, and yet I'm not inclined to dislike her just because he tells me to. What's her great sin? She stipulated the conditions of her pregnancy with her husband before getting pregnant: that she would have one child, for whom she'd delay her career until he was three years old. So? No mention of the dad considering any such modifications to his career plans or paying any attention to child rearing at all.

This sort of thing, however, points to the notion of womanhood that is diminished if not ruined by reason--women are only good insofar they are blindly loving, "emotional" and not rational. Men are spared such demands. Edward isn't bad because he is infinitely ambitious and lives for his work alone, but because his ambition is bent on domination and destruction of values.

There are no other women to contradict this reading. Nurse Craig turns out to be deceitful, as Thea suspected in the beginning, and not Thea's champion. She is evil by association at least.

Mrs. "X", the woman who makes the "Sexitape" that ushers the huge commercial success of Cadences' enterprise, becomes Edward's mistress. Lack of emotions is not her problem, rather their vulgar source ("her brain is between her legs"--Edward's words). Thea doesn't relate to her in any way.

Which brings me to sex. The funniest thing I find Compton did is turn Freudianism on its head--instead of it being used to cure a woman of her frigidity, here it, as it were, turns a woman frigid. :D

The making of the Sexitape breaks Thea. She is monitoring the sensory output along with Edward and Tony as they are recording the "X"s screwing for science. While the men remain cool and scientific, Thea fortifies herself with alcohol and at the end throws up. From this episode, which signifies the birth of her moral revulsion at the project, she finds herself unable to have sex with Edward, she finds him disgusting.

Representation of race and ethnicity: There's the Nigerian sexologist Dr. Mbleble, referred to with "Negro" a few times, and also described, awkwardly at best, as six foot seven with head and shoulders of "a big black bull". Not gonna lie, I don't think it's a mere coincidence that such a specimen of African manhood is a "sexologist", or that for a character of a "sexologist" the choice would fall on a strapping black man. (ETA: Also... Maybe "Mbleble" is a legit African name somewhere and I'm being paranoid, but given Compton's evident liking of puns, I feel I need to note that I'm picking an association of bleble to => blabla => "mumbo jumbo".)

Even deeper are the ramifications of Tony's Jewishness, and that's not in subtext. Thea (who's in love with him even after she lost him) first mentions his being Jewish with a touch of aggression and coyness--he's "not quite English", you see. Before they got together, she informs us, she used to refer to him always with his full name, "Tony Stech", as if it were ridiculous, as if she were ridiculing him. To me it seems a talisman meant to keep them apart, to keep her always aware of his foreigness (a ridiculous trait, particularly to the English), even as she's finding him more and more precious and dear and near.

This could be something I'm projecting from my other observations of how the English see, think of, treat Jewishness (but it could still be right...) Anyway, there's quite a bit more to show that Thea is acutely aware of Tony's ethnic otherness and that this means something specific and large, is not a trifling ornamental detail.

His father, Jacob Stech, whose death she witnesses, she describes as "the old Jew" and sees him as archetypal. To Thea Jews represent a more authentic life, a real life. She is attracted to the bond between Jacob and Tony (Edward's father is out of the picture, supplanted by the mother) which she sees as "peculiarly Jewish". After Jacob dies, she unnecessarily goes to Tony to inform him of the death, but the real motive is: "I was there because I was cold, and already dead, and I wanted to see how Jews kept warm and alive."

Before they attempt to make love the first time, they break the ice by Tony telling Thea "you're a bloody Goy" and she replies "and you're a circumcised Jew", which, er, ranks up there with Larry David and his Palestinian paramour sweet-talking each other in bed... so I guess maybe SOME people would find it encouraging...

A last startling detail on this matter is Thea passing by (remember it's 1988 or so) posters screaming (in caps) "death to all Jews" next to "feed starving India".

Representation of any kind of minority: None I noticed; Thea remarks disdainfully to Harvey that she and Nurse Craig are not "Lesbians".

Bechdel test (BT) and reverse Bechdel test (r-BT): Possibly for the first time ever there's a BT pass on the first page, and several more. r-BT passes too.

Would I give this book to a kid: not a pre-teen, otherwise depending on maturity. Clearly Compton wrote this for adults, whatever age that may be.

112LolaWalser
Apr 14, 3:27pm

Well, that is already a huge post and I didn't want to embiggen it further by speculating about Compton's philosophy here, so I'll just note as a starting point, should anyone be interested, that Dr. Edward Cadence presumably stands for the downfall of Western civilization as tradition knew it and we can take it from there. ;)

113LolaWalser
Apr 14, 3:43pm

Up next: Two planets by Kurd Lasswitz

114LolaWalser
Apr 14, 3:59pm

Curious, not one review of the Compton here? I'll check the Other Place later.

115iansales
Apr 15, 2:36am

>111 LolaWalser: Tbh, with Compton's novels I've always ignored when they were putatively set because the whole book reeked more of the time it was written. The views you've mentioned - the casual racism, the casual antisemitism, the gender roles - all accurately reflect the views of the English middle class in the 1960s, and you'll see them time and time again in films and television programmes made at the time. You'll even see it quite a lot in literary fiction of the time. None of which, of course, makes them acceptable.

As a prose stylist, Compton has always struck me as one of the genre's best. He also writes superb characters, often female, and does lots of interesting things with narrative structure - in The Steel Crocodile, the narrative switches between two viewpoints, but they overlap so you seem the same scene from two viewpoints.

Incidentally, he started out writing crime, as Guy Compton, and the ones I've read have been a bit rambling and more of a character study than an actual crime novel per se. His early sf novels are of mixed quality. He also wrote a few historical romances under the name Frances Lynch. A friend of mine met him back in the 1990s and said he was a completely miserable bugger. Seems about right.

116paradoxosalpha
Apr 15, 10:59am

This whole discussion opened my eyes to Compton, who hadn't previously been on my radar. Thanks!

117Sakerfalcon
Apr 15, 11:03am

>111 LolaWalser: Thanks for this! I will move Katherine Mortenhoe up the TBR pile.

118LolaWalser
Apr 15, 11:42am

>115 iansales:

Yes, even for a purely commercial attempt (if this was so), this is a cut or five above average. I hope I come across more of his stuff--including that crime writing you mention, sounds just like the sort I'd like.

Regarding antisemitism, I presume Compton would have been surprised (at least back then) to hear such accusations because this seems to be a case of "positive discrimination", with the minority standing for a humane ideal and gifts that the dominant group lost (or never had). I think today it's recognised as the trope where the White (in various sense) person gets "saved" by the Ethnic--enriched, ennobled, taught wisdom etc.

I must say I didn't get a sense of him being a miserable person, rather the contrary (jokes--but that is superficial). What I wonder about is whether it's correct to suspect prudishness in his worldview. I'm a little dismayed that--as I read it--he sentenced Tony and Thea to a platonic relationship. (It's possible I interpreted this wrong, would love to hear if so.)

>116 paradoxosalpha:

Your review of this would rock.

Aside from the topic of the thread, it set me thinking a whole lot about vicarious feeling, vicarious living, the idea of ownership of experiences and sensations, can a feeling not be "real" and so on.

I have to say I don't entirely understand what Compton's philosophical objection to sharing emotional experiences was.

Insofar he objects to spending one's life living someone else's experiences instead of trying to gather one's own, I follow.

But I don't see why experiencing someone else's experience at all would be a moral failing.

119LolaWalser
Apr 15, 11:46am

>117 Sakerfalcon:

I'm looking forward to hearing about that, whenever.

120iansales
Edited: Apr 16, 2:11am

>118 LolaWalser: I don't think his crime novels were published outside the UK, although they clearly made their way to some of the "colonies" as I managed to buy a first edition that at one point had belonged to the library of the Windhoek Hotel in South Africa... He returned to crime (but near-future crime) for his last two novels - Justice City and Back of Town Blues. They might be easier to find in the US.

I noticed something similar in his Farewell, Earth's Bliss, which features a black POV character that is handled with remarkable sensitivity for the time. But the book is still full of lots of everyday casual racism. Not sure it maps precisely onto the Magical Negro trope - which is US, rather than British - but there's definitely a sense they're emblematic of their race rather than representative.

Finally, here's the first line of Chronocules, originally published in the UK under the title Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, and Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil:

About twenty years before this story begins – give or take a few years, the Simmons s.b. effect being untried and seriously (not that it mattered) inaccurate – the desolate silence of Penheniot Village, at the top of Penheniot Pill which is a creek off the small harbour of St. Kinnow in the county of Cornwall, was shattered by the practised farting of young Roses Varco.

121RobertDay
Edited: Apr 16, 6:48am

>120 iansales: " I managed to buy a first edition that at one point had belonged to the library of the Windhoek Hotel in South Africa..."

One of the joys of book collecting, of course, is to find a copy of a book with its own history. A few years back, I acquired (for ordinary s/h paperback prices) a few John Brunner Ace Doubles which had Jim Barker bookplates inside, showing them to have come from Brunner's own collection...

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