Sorry about last month's missed column. I didn't have much to write about; September's meeting was our annual picnic, so it was a free-for-all (i.e., no topic). October's meeting on computer art would have been great had I not been one of the presenters. Henry does some of the neatest stuff! I apologize for putting people to sleep.
Speaking of things to apologize for (I seem to have a lot of these lately), I may wind up apologizing for misleading you into thinking I'm running again for president. I have not actually decided yet; some of my friends seem to want me to run again, but I'm finding the job increasingly stressful. This is partly due to feeling guilty about spending time away from my husband on one of only two days per week that I get to see him at all, and partly due to my horrible tendency to want to avoid doing anything at all during the rest of the week. I'll have to decide for sure by the upcoming November meeting, though, because that is our election meeting (for those who don't know or don't remember). As has been mentioned in past Sigmas, this meeting is in the brand-new Mt. Lebanon library. Directions were in last month's Sigma and will most likely be repeated in this issue. It is also our annual book sale, so bring books to sell and money to buy other people's books with. (And to enter the raffle with!) But DO NOT bring food. Since the library is new, they are not happy with the idea of groups having snacks in the facility. On the bright side, we won't have to clean up after the meeting.
See everyone there!
by James Alan Gardner
Review by Christina Schulman
If someone wrote a Star Trek novel from a redshirt's point of view, it still wouldn't be as bitter and amusing as Expendable by James Alan Gardner. When the human race joined the interstellar League of Peoples, the humans were given scientific advances that allowed them to make everyone healthy and beautiful and long-lived. And once death of unnatural causes became unheard-of, deaths among the crew of the space-faring Vacuum Fleet had a devastating effect on morale. However, the Admiralty discovered that crew don't get nearly so attached to members who aren't physically attractive, for the same reason that a dead puppy on the road is more upsetting than a flattened armadillo.
So if an infant is born deformed or disfigured, all the resources of twenty-fifth century medicine are brought forth to cure it -- unless it's sufficiently smart, healthy, and psychologically pliable to be trained for the Explorer Corps. Explorers land on hostile alien planets, make contact with hostile alien uglies, and die with appalling frequency, which is why they call themselves ECMs: Expendable Crew Members. Explorer First Class Festina Ramos discovers just how expendable she is when she and her partner are ordered to escort a senile admiral to Melaquin, the planet from which no Explorer has ever returned.
Festina is a very wry narrator whose prickly cynicism doesn't quite hide her idealism. The introductory shipboard scenes are very amusing, but events take on a more serious tone after the Explorers land on the planet. Gardner is improbably successful in setting such a bitter tone with a minimum of angst.
The narrative is broken up into short (one to four page) sections with subheadings. Usually this chops up the story and profoundly irritates me, but here it made it easy to put the book down and pick it up again later. This makes Expendable an ideal book for cynics with short attention spans, so of course I loved it.
The rest of you will probably like it too.
"Sentients!" Prope said in a hushed tone intended to be dramatic. She had assumed yet another pose, staring at the monitor through narrowed eyes, her head lifted to show the clean white edge of her jaw. " Do you suppose this could be a world of sentients, once great, now fallen? Yet even though the planet lies barren, something has been left behind. Something that has killed before and will kill again..."
"Shit," muttered Chee. "I told the council we shouldn't let Vacuum officers take Pulp Literature as an elective."
|Book Type:||Hard SF (It even says so on the back cover.)|
|Soft Sci-Fi fans:||C-|
|Hard Sci-Fi fans:||A|
|Fantasy Only Fans:||Stay far away from this book.|
|Plot:||A / D -see below -|
|Setting:||A++++++ -Really nifty environment.|
Flux by Stephen Baxter is a story about artificially engineered humans living in a neutron star. I think it is in the middle of a series that Baxter is working on, but it is capable of standing on it's own. Overall, I'd give it a "B-" with an adamant suggestion that you not read the book unless you're looking for hard sci-fi. The science (including the setting of the book is first rate, and I like the pre-history of the story included in the work. However, the book suffers from several very sharp stylistic weaknesses related to trying to the author's attempted use of devices that he isn't capable of handling. The plot development is rated as such because the author attempts to do a Tolkienesk type of duoplot for the second half of the book. The book would have been much better and more palatable to non-hard-sci-fi readers if he would have kept to the main plot and left out the secondary events (or, at least minimized them). It didn't read as if there were two plots -even though that's what the author clearly intended to do.-. It felt as if there was a main plot and events that were occurring parallel to the plot that had some bearing, but that were so predictable that the author shouldn't have done anything but make the occasional slight mention that they were occurring. The book also looses a bit of steam about midway because the author starts fully integrating the "local" lingo of the characters, and, there again, he's no Tolkien. Some of the lingo that is supposed to be serious -especially the made-up profanities- become highly annoying. Finally, the characters all act as if they are high-energy astrophysicists, instead of farmers, nomadic herders, and political administrators (I have a lot of trouble buying the explanations that the author gives, when he even bothers to do so.) It isn't a bad read, but it's not the kind of a "smooth ride" that you get from someone like Bradbury or Clark (in his better works).
I am usually content to wallow in mediocre fantasy, but lately I have been so overexposed to clumsy prose that it's making me ill, and if I encounter one more earnest farm boy with a sword, I shall scream. As an antidote, I picked up Damon Knight's Humpty Dumpty: An Oval, and immediately zipped right through the first hundred pages in sheer relief at the deft writing. It's a surreal stream-of-consciousness story about a man who has been shot in the head and finds reality slowly going to pieces around him -- or starting to show through the cracks.
Wellington Stout wakes up in a hospital room in Milan after being shot in the head by a disgruntled waiter. The bullet remains lodged in his brain, but the only apparent ill effect, other than headaches, are the voices in his head that insist on providing uninvited commentary in aphasic punnery. It turns out that Stout traveled to Italy for his stepdaughter's wedding; as a favor to his brother, he stopped in Milan to deliver a package. The mysterious package has disappeared in the confusion, and the mysterious intended recipients are unsympathetic toward his plight. Stout is forced to pursue a slim clue to the package's whereabouts to England, then to America. Along the way, he has to dodge a secret order of dentists, menacing shoe salesmen, alien soldiers, battle frogs, and raining fragments of an alien planet.
Knight perfectly evokes that peculiar logic of consciousness that some dreams have, where free association causes location and events to shift in impossible ways that make perfect sense to the dreamer. As Stout travels across America from his birthplace to his boyhood home, figures from his childhood and bizarre creatures pop up to chase him or accuse him or give him a lift.
There are, of course, multiple interpretations of the story, and knowing that this is certainly the author's intent doesn't make it much less disorienting. Wellington is either hallucinating the whole mess while he lies in a hospital, or hallucinating it while he rambles across a continent and a half, or saving the world, or destroying it. Or perhaps his life is circling before his eyes as the bullet strikes. Or all of the above.
"Cis, I wasn't in New York on the twenty-third. That was the day the meteor hit. They diverted my plane to Boston."I found the second half of the book overlong, disjointed, and increasingly confusing. The overall story in Dhalgren was opaque, but at least the individual episodes made concrete sense; in Humpty Dumpty, events grow increasingly more unbelievable (including a direct nod to Slothrop's sewer dive in Gravity's Rainbow), and less connected to one another. As the story crumbled further and further into disjointed surrealism, I kept reading, assuming that Knight would provide a startling and brilliant revelation at the end that would somehow cleverly explain everything while maintaining the validity of the different interpretations. If this epiphany is in there, it's too well camouflaged for me to find.
She looked at me sorrowfully. "That was one of the things you kept talking about. And being persecuted by dentists."
That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the book; I did. I just wish I understood it better. The writing is effortless and wry; the wordplay is clever; the puns are dreadful (particularly the title, the true awfulness of which didn't sink in until I finished the book). Knight gradually sketches in Stout's character and history to portray a man who was never notably deep or tragic or interesting until he was shot in the head.
Be warned that this is a book that will mess with your head for days after you finish it. I highly recommend it to anyone who didn't instantly doze off in Lit class when Joyce was discussed, particularly if you're also paranoid or mentally unbalanced. And if any of you have a coherent explanation of the ending, kindly send it to me.
Robin McKinley has been my favorite fantasy author since I first read The Blue Sword as a teenager, and it has been five years since her last novel appeared, so I was delighted to find a new novel of hers. Rose Daughter is another retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast. The plot is very similar to that of her lovely first novel, Beauty, but she has stuffed a very different story into it.
Beauty is, of course, the youngest daughter of a wealthy widower. The eldest daughter, Lionheart, is daring and loves horses; the middle daughter, Jeweltongue, is clever and loves wordplay; Beauty is shy, and loves gardening, and she loves roses above all other growing things. When her father's business fails, they are left with nothing but a small country house named Rose Cottage, so small and distant that even the creditors don't want it. The sisters are happy in the new life they make for themselves at Rose Cottage, despite rumors of a mysterious curse; but then their father takes refuge from a blizzard in an enchanted palace, and when he takes a rose from the breakfast table to bring to Beauty, the Beast demands his youngest daughter in return.
As I said, McKinley has written this plot before, but this version is calmer and more thoughtful, with a somewhat Gothic atmosphere. The pace is generally leisurely, but the writing has such charm that I was never less than completely absorbed in the story. She writes with contagious affection for her characters and their surroundings. Things animal, vegetable, and mineral, both magical and mundane, are so animate that they are nearly characters; the people are so prosaic in the midst of all that wonder that they seem real enough to wander in from the next room and offer you tea or recite bad poetry at you.
An author's note at the end explains that McKinley had no intention of writing Beauty and the Beast again, but this novel happened to her unexpectedly. I'm glad it did. Rose Daughter doesn't have quite the energy or the emotional oomph of her earlier novels, but it's a lovely, charming, gentle story.
"Is that all that matters?" she whispered, as if the Numen might hear and answer her. "This is a story like any nursery tale of magic? Where any maiden will do, any -- any -- monster, any hero, so long as they meet the right mysterious old women and discover the right enchanted doors during the right enchanted midnights..."
Science Fiction readers are no strangers to the series format. Many well-known tales of fancy have come from science-fiction series, not the least of which being Amber, The Lord of the Rings, and Pern. Some authors become quite taken with the series idea, and further subdivide their series into other, smaller series. Anne McCaffrey's DragonRiders of Pern series follows such a pattern, and gives readers a simpler method of referring to groups of related yarns within the whole Pern universe. The Harper Hall Trilogy is one such subdivision, and moreover, is one worth lauding.
With the exception of one of Ms. McCaffrey's short stories, "The Smallest Dragonboy," the Harper Hall Trilogy is the only portion of the Pern series that is of a readable nature for young adults. That's a blessing, to be sure, because the trilogy presents so much within its pages that could be of worth to a young person reading it.
The series speaks to any child with a dream in life. As McCaffrey weaves her tale of trials and tribulations for Menolly, and later Piemur, she makes one point plain to her readers, the point that through whatever adversity one faces, things are bound to be all right in the end, provided that one is willing to try, work, and think.
Menolly's story, which begins in DragonSong, the first novel of the trilogy, depicts family life at its worst. Menolly is not only abused, but she is abused for partaking in that which she loves with the very fabric of her being: music. With no one trained to use this hallowed medium to impart knowledge to the minds of Half-Circle Sea Hold's children, Menolly attempts the task. After being caught "tuning," or "composing," after giving a lesson, Menolly is soundly beaten and discouraged from doing the work of a harper, who should, after all, be a man. (!!!!!) Her strict parents, however, fail to realize Menolly's true worth as a fantastic musician.
Menolly lives through several different obstacles, but her life's path finally brings her into contact with the master of all the musicians on Pern: MasterHarper Robinton. McCaffrey never created a character so unique, and at once, so familiar. Robinton knew of Menolly's songs, and, in his charming and compelling way, offers Menolly the offer of her lifetime. He offers this girl, someone who should never have been a musician, according to her parents, an apprenticeship in the HarperCraft. What more could the lass do than accept?
The second novel, DragonSinger, chronicles Menolly's transport from one end of Pern to another, namely to reach the HarperCraftHall, and another chapter in her life. Menolly always fancied herself as good, but she never thought being a musician on Pern meant all that she faced in her new life. Her new teachers and fellow students turned her life into one fraught with stress. Still, her life holds a beacon of peace. Through all her trials, MasterHarper Robinton, and his journeyman, Sebell, buoy Menolly's confidence and help her to further believe in herself. McCaffrey illuminates such a moral in an ingenious manner. What more important lesson is there for any child with a dream?
The third and final novel of the series, DragonDrums, brings Menolly's tale full circle and begins the tale of another's trials. That another is Piemur, a young lad gifted with a practically angelic boy soprano voice. Piemur is nearly 14 in this novel, and, as is the case with most boys his age, his voice changes. What was once his only bulwark of success in this Craft is now taken from him. He suffers much dejection and self-deprecation, but through it all, finds an incredible opportunity presenting itself to him that he would never have been offered had he kept his boyish treble voice. A door in his life had been closed, but a marvelous window opened. Here is another moral of much import to a child pursuing his or her future!
I myself am a high school student and an avid reader. Of all the books I have ever read, I can think of none better for me as a young adult making her way in her school and her world than these three texts. Every day I encounter teachers and classmates not at all unlike Menolly's and Piemur's. Every day I continue to take solace in times of failure or rejection that my life is not altogether different from what those two unique individuals encountered, and every day I hope to meet a future as vivid as theirs.
Long live Pern!
The Golden Compass (published in Britain as Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman has been marketed to young adults, so it's easily overlooked by those of us who tend to wallow in the SF section of bookstores. However, it's a tremendously inventive, engaging fantasy, reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci novels, but more somber. It's well worth a wander to foreign aisles.
Twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon have grown up (well, nearly) in Jordan College at Oxford, in an alternate world where the Church has retained tight control over the government and science. The technology in general use, such as naphtha lamps and zeppelins, is old fashioned, but the story also refers to atomic craft and "coal-silk," which I assume is nylon or polyester. (The natural sciences are considered a branch of theology; I particularly liked the Holy Semiconductor.) This world also has monsters and magic, though, and it's hard to tell where the dividing line between magic and "theology" is. The golden compass of the title is an intricate truth-telling device that guides Lyra on a journey to the far frozen North, in search of answers about disappearing children and a mysterious theological phenomenon called Dust.
The story is gripping, but I was more enchanted by the world that Pullman depicts, particularly by the daemons. Every human being is linked to a daemon that must stay within a few feet of its person. Children's daemons shapeshift, but they settle on a single animal form during puberty. Telepathic animal companions have been done to death and beyond, but the daemons are strange and fascinating and utterly integral to Lyra's society.
Pullman performs a number of other improbable feats. His Child Of Destiny motif isn't cloying. His villains, amoral people who are doing Horrible Things to children (did I mention that you might not want to read this to little kids?), are occasionally sympathetic; and the characterization is on the whole complex and believable. Most astonishingly, Pullman has created talking polar bears that are miles away from cuddly.
Trilogy-haters should be warned that an author's note at the front states that this is the first book of a trilogy called "His Dark Materials." The second novel will be set in our universe, and the third will move between the universes. The end of The Golden Compass doesn't exactly leave the reader hanging, but the story is certainly not complete. I'm greatly looking forward to the sequel, The Subtle Knife.
It's been a long time since I read a fantasy that sucked me in as thoroughly as this one did. I recommend The Golden Compass very highly, particularly to fans of Diana Wynne Jones and Diane Duane.
Bobby Nansel sold the story "Xiaoying's Journey" to Gardner Dozois at Isaac Asimov Science Fiction Magazine.
Past ConFluence guest, editor David G. Hartwell announces that Peter Hartwell born 4:16 pm Friday, Oct. 17, 6 lbs 13 oz. Kathryn and baby doing fine in Northern Westchester Hosp., Mt. Kisco, NY.
Flonet Biltgen sold the fantasy story "A Glimpse of a Distant Relative" to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.
November 12th at 7:30 P.M. - C. J. Cherryh speaking at the Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church gymnasium hosted by the F.O.R. Sto-Rox Library. Phone 771-1222. If you have any questions, contact:
South Fayette Township Library
515 Millers Run Road
Morgan, PA 15064
The editor would like to thank Nancy Janda for the wonderful artwork she did for Sigma last month He would also like to thank her and Lara van Winkle and Amy Finkbeiner for printing and mailing the newsletter, despite the fact he got it to them so late!
Fun Fact: A dwarf spheroidal galaxy has been discovered on the opposite side of the Milky Way's center. It is three times closer than the Large Megellanic Cloud.
The November 8th meeting is at the new Mt. Lebanon Public Library on Castle Shannon Boulevard from 1-5 pm. It's an easy walk from the trolley and from at least two bus lines. There's also ample parking. However, as it is a new facility, there's a strict no food rule, so please leave the snacks home. To get to there from just about anywhere other than the South Hills, you go straight (south) out of the Liberty Tunnels (I-579) onto West Liberty Avenue, and keep going and going and going until well past it becomes Washington Road (at the big churches, where you can really tell you've left the City). Turn left onto Castle Shannon Blvd., and the library is the first driveway on the right. If, before you leave Washington Road, you reach the Galleria on the right of (Heaven forbid!) South Hills village on the left, you've gone too far.
December 13th will be at Ann Cecil's residence in Dormont for the Annual PARSEC Christmas Party.
January 10th's meeting will be at the Allegheny Branch of the Carnegie Library, and the meetings for February through May will be at the Squirrel Hill library. Topics are TBA.
To Contact PARSEC
mail: PO Box 3681, Pittsburgh, PA, 15230
President: Kira Heston
Vice President: Wendy Kosak
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.