Currently I am reading Paul Di Fillipo's Steampunk Trilogy, which is a collection of 3 stories set in the mid-1800's. They feature a mix of historically real figures and characters of the author's own invention. They are written in a style that is half pastiche, half parody of notable Victorian novelists, most especially Jules Verne, but also taking occasional swipes at Edgar Allan Poe and (I think) H. Rider Haggard. (I'm not done with the book yet).
This sort of SF/Fantasy is a new addition to the canonical question set: What if (something were true or false)? What if this goes on (some trend extrapolated)? What if that happened differently (alternate history)? [apologies to Damon Knight if I've misquoted his categories]
Since this purports to be a story in our own history, it's not an alternate history. At least on the surface, this book joins Blaylock's Homonculus, Power's Anubis Gates, Gibson & Sterling's The Difference Engine, and even Flynn's In the Country of the Blind in the mini-category: What if we just didn't know what really happened?
The Steampunk Trilogy also strains for a Swiftian touch - satire with malice aforethought - though it sometimes confuses the savagery of Swift's attacks in Gulliver with crudity. Di Fillipo is of course attacking modern stupidities in the guise of Victorianisms. He flails away at racists, creationists, and sexists, and takes especially strong aim at those who wave the mantle of science to cover their own egotism or crass insensitivity, who refuse to admit any responsibility for the side-effects of their discoveries.
So why am I not laughing? Why do I find this book unfunny, mildly irritating, and relevant to this month's topic? Primarily because of the way Di Fillipo abuses women in the stories. As a satirist, he puts us in the bigot's point of view, but lets us see reality reflected in other MEN's actions and words, even when the viewpoint character is ignoring or missing their point. The women, by contrast, stay firmly in the background, sexual objects whose only deviation from the Victorian view is to reveal a consistently sluttish nature.
I'm not advocating writing stories like Suzy McKee Charnas, or Suzette Hadin Elgin (how come they both have 3 names, and first names that are variants on Susan?), in which ONLY women are intelligent or sensible. I think that in SF/F, with its vaunted capability to hold a mirror up to our times, authors should be allowed to make the mirror a fun-house mirror as well as a prophetic mirror, or a flattering mirror, or an optimistic mirror. I simply reserve the right to reject images that seem not to be so much a reflection as a distortion, the results not of a mirror but a distorting lens.
Our panel talks in the next meeting about facets of Women in SF. I'm sure we'll all enjoy the flashes of illumination they bring to this complex topic.
Thanks for a very pleasant afternoon of May 9. I can't recall a book talk that has been more enjoyable for me. If I were still a sci-fi enthusiast, I'd join your group in an instant. It's not often that I meet people who celebrate their uniqueness the way each of you does.
Best wishes for Confluence '98 and all your future club events.
Fred Bortz, a.k.a. Dr. Fred
The record for the longest comet tail is a 3-way tie held by Comet Hyakutake, March 1996, Comet Halley, April 10, 837 A.D., Comet Tebbutt, 1861. (Darn! I only saw one of those! -Ed.)
Roger Schlobin's scholarship is well known and respected in Science Fiction's academic circles. His work has a reputation for comprehensiveness and depth. He has been published not only by small firms like Garland Publishing, but also by large and respected university presses. I therefore looked forward to Urania's Daughters. I had hoped to learn more of female genre writers, and anticipated this work going far in filling the vast terra incognita which is women's Science Fiction.
However, while this work may be, as Schlobin describes it, "The largest checklist of women's Science Fiction to date," that honor is due more to the paucity of competition than to the quality or comprehensiveness of Schlobin's work.
Urania's Daughters purports to be a checklist of 375 female authors covering 830 science fiction, book-length, English language novels, collections, and anthologies published from 1692 to 1982. Like Newton, Schlobin stood on the shoulders of giants and acknowledges his debts to the reference works of Bleiler, Tuck, and Reginald, among others.
But the problems begin immediately with his subtitle, Women Science Fiction Writers, 1692-1982, which turns out to be a misnomer. The 1692 work to which he refers is Gabriel Daniel's A Voyage to the World of Cartesius, an English translation of the French original. Unfortunately, Schlobin did not here stand on the gigantic shoulders of Webster, whose Biographical Dictionary tells us (among other things) that Gabriel Daniel was a prominent French historian and Jesuit preist -- and very much male.
This misstep not only truncates Schlobin's subtitle, but leads us to another male author nestling among the females: Gabriel Tarde. According to Schlobin, "Ms." Tarde wrote Underground Man, a work also translated from the original French and published in London with a preface by H. G. Wells in 1905. However, the handy Webster's Biographical Dictionary tells us that this Gabriel, too, is a man -- as well as a prominant sciologist, criminologist, and professor of modern philosophy at the College de France.
Now, it is true that there are many sexually ambiguous first names on his list, and in his "Introduction" Schlobin notes that he probably "included a few that should not have been ... because of gender-difficult names." But these examples surely do not fall into a "gender-difficult" category. While I'm perhaps willing to concede that, say, Jean Delaire (who wrote Around a Distant Star, 1904) might be a woman, the Gabriels do not share such ambiguity -- their spellings are the standard male varients of that given name. This male specificity is highlighted by Schlobin's inclusion of the very female varient, Gabrielle Long (a.k.a. "Marjorie Bowen") among his authors.
So, eliminating Gabriel Daniel's 1692 work, Schlobin's new subtitle would be "... 1753-1982," for 1753 is his next oldest listing But here we run into a problem we don't need Webster to correct. The 1753 listing is for Micromegas: A Comic Romance, written, Schlobin tells us, originally in French by a woman named Francoise (sic) Voltaire! By the easy expedient of tacking on "e" on the end of Francois Voltaire's first name, the most renowned of French philosophers and one of his most well-known works have been annexed by Schlobin for his checklist!
Well, that takes us to 1755, and here (at last!) we finally do find an authentic female author: Eliza F. Haywood, who in that year published The Invisible Spy under the pseudonym of "Explorabilis." But, while we at last have a real woman, we also have the problem of incompleteness, for Schlobin really could have found earlier women (even earlier, in fact, than Gabriel Daniel) simply by checking Lyman Tower Sargent's British and American Utopian Literature, 1516-1975 (1979) -- hardly more esoteric than Webster's itself. Sargent, along with other sources Schlobin overlooked, would also have vastly increased the number of his entries. For instance, Sargent tells us that in 1655 Lady Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, published The Inventory of Judgements Commonwealth, the first utopian novel written by a woman! Or, if her series of specific reforms doesn't qualify as fiction, surely her later work, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666), about a utopia at the North Pole, certainly does -- and is still a quarter century earlier than Gabriel Daniel!
Nor does one need arcane reference works to add to Schlobin's list. For instance, the easily accessible Science Fiction Encyclopedia, by Peter Nichols (also, for some reason, not cited as one of Schlobin's sources) lists a number of female writers he omits: Doris Pitkin Buck, Marie Corelli, Margharita Laski, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Polly Toynbee, and Vita Sackville-West -- and this list is in no way exhaustive.
Similarly, the otherwise useful "Dictionary of Pseudonyms, Joint Authors, and Variant Names," included at the beginning of his checklist, contains some glaring oversights. Where, for instance, is "Idris Seabright," the pseudonym for Margret St. Clair? "G. A. Morris" isn't mentioned as a pseudonym of Katherine MacLean and, while we read that "Marjorie Bowen" is a pseudonym of Gabrielle Long, there is no mention of "Joseph Shearing" -- who is also Gabrielle Long.
In his "Introduction," speaking of academic work on female science fiction authors, Roger Schlobin writes, "While Science Fiction scholars may have been quick, they still have not been thorough." To that we can certainly say, "Amen!" Indeed, Schlobin's work here just reinforces the impression that too much science fiction scholarship must often be viewed with a very critical eye, for too often even the "best" is found wanting.
Children of God
by Mary Doria Russell
Review by James Mann
Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow was one of the best SF books of 1996 and a remarkable first novel. That novel, which involved first contact with aliens living on the planet Rakhat (orbiting Alpha Cetauri) worked well on a number of levels. It told a good story, had interesting characters, creating a fascinating alien civilization, and explored some interesting philosophical issues. The ending of the book left me stunned and nearly in tears. I was thus rather worried when I heard that Russell was at work on a sequel. I wasn't convinced that the book needed a sequel and wasn't sure that any sequel could live up to The Sparrow.
Children of God isn't quite as good as The Sparrow. However, although it doesn't have quite the impact of the original, it is still a fine novel in its own right. The book interweaves two stories: the story of Emilio Sandoz and his return to Rakhat and the story of what happened on Rakhat after the original Jesuit mission failed and Sandoz was sent back to earth. The two stories together continue and in many ways complete much of the story of The Sparrow, in a way that makes the book feel like a natural, almost essential sequel.
On Rakhat, war has broken out. The Runa, the herbivore species that were both the servants and the food of the planet's other intelligent species, the Jana'ata, have risen up against their former masters. At the same time, Jana'ata society itself is undergoing great changes, in fact is undergoing a mostly progressive social revolution, lead by the same Jana'ata who was the source of Emilio's brutalization in The Sparrow. Russell does a very good job here of not giving us good guys and bad guys in this struggle. In fact, she even sheds some new light on some things that happened in the previous book, making us look again at why characters did some of the things they did. Both alien species have their good and their bad, and both in their way are trapped by their genes. Catalyzing the whole revolution are Sophia (a human left behind for dead from the first mission), her autistic son Isaac, the Jana'ata merchant Supaari (now an outcast) and his daughter. Much of what happens in the book comes from these four characters and the ways they each attempt to come to grips with the Runa/Jana'ata problem.
At the same time, on earth, Emilio continues to recover from the devastating events of The Sparrow, while the Church tries to convince him to go back to Rakhat, both to help the Church and for the sake of his own soul. Emilio, they feel, can only come to understand what happened to him -- events that have shaken his beliefs -- if he goes back to discover the results of these events. Of course, he does wind up going back, and the new party becomes a crucial part of the resolution on Rakhat.
As a side note, on thing I particularly liked is that, early in Children of God, Russell had the General of the Jesuits essentially produce a short summary of what happened to the first expedition. It was a very nice way of summing up the first novel in a page and a half. Too many writers assume that everyone remembers all the details of a book they read two years earlier. I often don't remember some details, and thus I liked having the short reminder.
If the book isn't quite as good as The Sparrow, this stems in large part from the fact that the story of Rakhat, while well done and rather interesting, is not as interesting as the story of Emilio and his companions. I would at times, while reading about the Jana'ata, really want to get back to Emilio and his companions. They're well drawn and interesting characters and was anxious to find out what would happen to them.
In the end, the book remained satisfying. The ending was strong, and the characters remained interesting to the end. The book will certainly be on my Hugo nominations list next year. (Russell was also on my Campbell nominating ballot this year.)
At the end of Ferman's Devils (download 1 of 2 from the files of Pembroke Hall), young Boddekker seemed to have it made. He was in charge of the hottest account in the history advertising and was well on his way to becoming a partner in the firm he worked for. His bonuses were enough to let him make a down payment on his dream house. And he got the girl, the beautiful Honnikker in Accounting. Boddekker is in Heaven.
Of course, since that was the first of two books, we know good and well that Boddekker's life can't possibly stay so idyllic.
At the beginning of Boddekker's Demons, (download 2 of 2 from the files of Pembroke Hall) Boddekker is uneasy. He never meant for the commercial spot featuring Ferman's Devils to be so successful. He and the Devils can do no wrong. Assault, rape and murder can all be forgiven as long as the money keeps pouring in.
I suspect Boddekker (what the heck is Boddekker's first name anyway?) suffered for a while from what I call "Cobain Syndrome." He had reached the top and it wasn't at all like he thought it would be. It was too easy. Luckily Boddekker had the wit to imagine solutions to his problem.
We are half way through the book before Boddekker realizes he is in Hell. His meteoric rise toward partnership in the Pembroke Hall advertising agency is analogous to traveling through the circles of Hell toward the center. None of Boddekker's colleagues notice anything amiss because they are so well suited for the roles they play. They were born damned. It is Boddekker who has fallen, not them, so it is up to Boddekker to save himself.
You may recall that in my review of Ferman's Devils I promised to NOT read the second book. At that time I had not reckoned with the tenaciousness of Joe Clifford Faust. Mr. Faust is not one to allow his audience to slip away easily. First he let it be known through mutual acquaintances that he would be disappointed if I didn't read the second volume. He flattered me outrageously by calling me his Harshest Critic. Then he introduced me to his lovely wife and alluded that I would be hurting her too with my defection from the fold.
What can I say? I buckled under the pressure and purchased Boddekker's Demons as soon as it was available. I am sure Mr. Faust is still savoring his victory.
Okay Faust, are you happy? I liked the second book. The absurdities of the first book subtly give way to the horror of the second. It is unfortunate that the publishers decided to break the Pembroke Hall Downloads into two volumes. As such it loses a great deal of its impact. I have to wonder how many readers were lost due to this.
I still have difficulty calling the Pembroke Hall downloads Science Fiction. There are a few Science Fictional devices thrown in, such as electric limousines, run away inflation, legalized drug use and rickshaws in downtown New York City, but they are used to signal the reader that "Society has gotten worse." Mundane substitutions could be found for most of these devices with little or no loss to the story. NanoKleen, the miracle laundry detergent made from tiny nanotech machines, is pretty much forgotten. Mr. Faust hinted at some odd side effects from the product, but he never expands upon them. Perhaps he has another set of books in mind?
In the near-future world of Maximum Light, Ms. Kress gives us a vision of economic collapse during a time which should be the best in human history. The human fertility rate is down 80-95 percent and as a result the world's population is dwindling. There aren't enough young people to do the work required to keep civilization running and the old people are pretty much useless.
The United States government is in a state of stagnation. Officially they are searching for solutions to the fertility problems but they refuse to allow certain avenues of research for fear of offending certain special interest groups. Unofficially the government allows and encourages dubious activities among private groups working toward their own solutions. These activities include baby selling, kidnapping, mutilation and murder.
We experience the society of Maximum Light through the eyes of three different characters. Shana Walders is a teen-aged girl without a family. She has been getting by on her wits and extremely good looks for most of her life. Nicholas Clementi is a brilliant physician and an adviser to presidents. He is also in his seventies and dying of a rare disease. Clementi meets Shana when she is foolish enough to tell the truth about What She Saw to a congressional committee. He believes her story about chimpanzees with human faces but knows the government would rather discredit her than deal with the truth.
Cameron Atuli is a dancer with a world renowned ballet company. Something happened to him that was so horrible he had his memory erased. Unfortunately those memories start to return after he meets Shana. Shana has seen his face before, on some chimpanzees.
Shana's investigations (she's actually very intelligent: she'd be a rogue character in an AD&D campaign) cause all three to come together and uncover several conspiracies.
The ultimate culprits in Maximum Light are pollution and the poisoned environment. Ms. Kress extrapolates known problems with the chemicals we use everyday. Many of these chemicals have been proven to cause birth defects in many different animals, including human children.
Maximum Light is a well crafted, enjoyable book with a message. Ms Kress. wants her readers to think. She wants us to do something before it's too late. I just wish it had a better title.
I admit, as a born-again G-Fan, I went into Tri Star's Godzilla with low expectations. And while I did enjoy myself during the film, it wasn't Godzilla. "Gojira" (which is a combination of the Japanese words for "gorilla" and "whale") was created by Ishiro Honda in 1954 as a living atom bomb, the personification of fears of the new atomic age. Remember, this was only a decade after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The US was testing atomic weapons at an alarming pace and the fishing trawler Daigo Fukuryu Maru had just drifted into the poisonous exclusion zone, killing one and dooming the rest of the crew to slow, cancerous deaths. Very powerful stuff.
Of course, this American Godzilla has none of that. Sure, this new incarnation is the result of nuclear testing, this time blamed on the convenient French, but there is no underlying message. Just a big lizard rampaging around the Big Apple making holes in buildings as big as holes in the plot. Why are they using heat seeking missiles when everyone knows it's a cold blooded creature? Why is it that when he stomps down the street, cars jump and buildings shake but when he burrows through the subway no one hears? Why does it travel all the way from French Polynesia to nest in New York? Why do they think that locking the doors will keep the baby-Godzillas inside the Madison Square Garden nest when there's a huge hole in the floor, which is how "he" got inside in the first place? Why, for $140 million, didn't they hire any writers that could actually write dialogue? Why has Matthew Broderick forgotten how to act?
But what bothers me the most about it is the attitude of the producers. When pictures leaked their way out onto the Internet revealing Godzilla's new look, Dean Devlin tried to keep the lid on it by saying first that they were fakes and then, when no one believed that, that they were "decoys", planted to find which of their licensed product producers were to be trusted with the secret. Of course, they WERE the real versions all along and they had been lying to us. And their one concession to the will of the fans, to give him the classic "atomic fire breath," was clearly added to the film as an afterthought. Sorry Dean, I just don't buy it.
We all know and expect that, when any film is remade, there will be changes. It's an entertaining film in a pretty and vacant sort of way, much as Independence Day was entertaining, but it's all form and no substance. And it certainly isn't Godzilla. Trust me, go to this store I know in Dormont called Incredibly Strange Video (above Otto's) and rent Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), vs. Mechagodzilla (1993) and vs. Destroyah (1995) or ask to borrow my copy of Gojira (1954), the one without the US additions of Raymond Burr. That's the "reel" Godzilla.
Long Live the King!
Our June 13th topic will be Women in SF, a panel discussion led by Anita Alverio. It is at the Squirrel Hill Library.
And July 11th we will learn How to write Filk - Randy Hoffman, Barb Carlson, Ann Cecil with group participation encouraged at the Monroeville Public Library.
Directions to the Monroeville Public Library:
Both Mary Soon Lee ("Universal Grammar") and Timons Esaias ("Crash Site") made the Honorable Mention list in Gardner Dozois' Fifteenth Annual The Year's Best Science Fiction.
Tim Esaias' poem "Checklist" is in the June 1998 edition of Asimov's.
Mary Soon Lee resold her story "Monstrosity" to the CONduit 8 Program Book.
Work has begun on organizing the Trial of James T. Kirk for Sexual Harrassment, to be held at Confluence. The defense (and possibly the prosecution, if there is one) needs video tapes of the original series episodes and the first three movies. If anyone can lend us tapes to view, please call Bill Hall (441-2960), Eric Davin (361-2135), or Alan Irvine (521-6406.) Thanks.
Kira Heston is about to hand out the new PARSEC Directories. If you want to be included and haven't given her your information yet, or if you have information that needs to be changed, get it to her soonest! (412) 829-1082 by phone.
To Contact PARSEC
mail: PO Box 3681, Pittsburgh, PA, 15230
President: Ann Cecil
Vice President: Don Turner
Treasurer: Joan Fisher
Editor: G. D. Armstrong
Sigma Art and Layout Editor: Nancy Janda
Meetings: The second Saturday in each month.
Dues: $10 full, $2 supporting.
This page maintained by Greg Armstrong.