Winter Well: Speculative Novellas About Older Women

ww-coverWinter Well, edited by Kay T. Holt (2013), is a collection of four novellas that certainly run the gamut of genres that might be categorized as “speculative fiction.” The first, “To the Edges” by M. Fenn, is set in an apocalyptic near future United States undergoing social collapse. Next is “Copper” by Minerva Zimmerman, a futuristic tech noir detective story. “This Other World” by Anna Caro is more straightforward social science fiction, set on an alien planet. The final offering, “The Second Wife” by Marissa James, is straight-up fantasy.

What ties these four novellas together is that the protagonist in each is an older woman going through a time of personal change as well as societal upheaval. In each story, the main character must set aside her previous life and discover a reservoir of inner strength and resolve to move forward into an unknown future. The strongly related themes and central narrative voices of each novella tie together these four very different offerings into an interesting, thought-provoking collection of feminist speculative fiction.

While clearly these are new writers just finding their voices, all four of these novellas were absorbing reads with only some rough edges showing. My favorite was the second offering, “Copper,” about a tech-savvy insurance investigator trying to locate her own hijacked uterus; I would definitely read more novels by that author. The third offering, about a revolt on an alien planet, reminded me strongly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing and was probably the most polished of the four. The other two novellas didn’t stand out as much in my mind, but definitely showed promise.

I would recommend this unique collection to any reader who is interested in science fiction by women and about women.

First Impressions: The Snow Queen

These are my first impressions after reading The Snow Queen (Joan D. Vinge; 1980) in May 2011. Some spoilers.

9175EUqkY+LThe Snow Queen is an epic story set on a distant planet, about the fall of one queen and the rise of another. The novel is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson and tackles such weighty themes as immortality and the power of knowledge.

The strength of this novel lies in its world building. The planet of Tiamat is a fully realized world, an ocean-covered planet orbiting twin suns. Two tribes live there: the sea-going, island-dwelling Summers, characterized by a fear of technology and a superstitious worship of their sea goddess, the Lady; and the Winters, who live in the Northern regions and the shell-shaped city of Carbuncle, embrace technology and freely trade with the Offworlders.

Tiamat’s culture and history are shaped by the oddities of its planetary and solar system orbits. Every 150 years, it moves closest to one of its suns, bringing a long summer to the planet. This signals a complete power shift, as the Summers move north from the equatorial regions and the Snow Queen abdicates to the Summer Queen. In fact, the Snow Queen and her consort are sacrificed to the sea in a paganistic ritual following a multi-day festival similar to Carnivale or Mardi Gras.

During the same period, the planet orbits close to and then away from a black hole that enables interstellar travel to other planets in an empire called the Hegemony. While Tiamat is close to the black hole, the Hegemony maintains a presence there, sharing technology with the ruling Winters. When the planet starts to orbit away, the Offworlders must leave, and they destroy all technology before they go to keep Tiamat from advancing too much without their influence and perhaps declaring independence. The Offworlders’ interest in Tiamat comes down to the planet’s one valuable asset: immortal sea creatures called Mers. The Mers’ blood, called the Water of Life, can be harvested to provide ever-lasting youth.

The Snow Queen takes place at the cusp of this great Change. The 150-year-old Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has been scheming to maintain her power after the Summers take over. Her plan involves cloning herself, producing her Summer twin, Moon. But even though the two look alike, they are diametric opposites in personality. Arienrhod is self-absorbed and power-hungry, emotionless in her extreme age, a manipulator of everyone she meets. Her young twin Moon is compassionate and empathetic, someone who inspires adulation and devotion in everyone she comes across.

Moon has become a sibyl, a prophetess who can answer any question. Through this power she taps into an ancient network of knowledge and discovers the true significance of the Mers and why they must be protected. This prompts her to compete for the mask of the Summer Queen and the power to, as she puts it, change the Change.

Moon and Arienrhod are both in love with Moon’s cousin, Sparks. His character is probably the novel’s biggest flaw, because it seems implausible that these two strong women would go to such lengths for him. Sparks is narcissistic, petulant, and tends to make rash decisions or sulk when things don’t go his way. His character doesn’t improve or change much over the course of the story. He commits atrocious crimes, witnessed by Moon, who still wants to be with him even when much more attractive options are available to her.

This is a long novel that probably could have been a good deal shorter, but there is enough action and interesting dynamics to keep the reader involved. In fact, I would like to know more — about the ruling planet of Kharamough, for instance, and its rigid class structure, which we visit only briefly. Clearly, the novel is setting up for a sequel, since many conflicts are left open-ended and the resolution is not quite satisfying as a result.

The Snow Queen won the Hugo Award in 1981. The sequel, The Summer Queen, was published in 1991, and a third novel in the trilogy, Tangled Up in Blue, was published in 2000. Vinge also published a novella, World’s End (1984), set in the same universe.

First Impressions: Grass

These are my first impressions after reading Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (1989) in March 2010.

Grass-sheri-tepperIt is a trope in science fiction to have far-future humans colonize alien worlds and then cut ties with Earth. This enables the story to be told on an alien planet but with familiar, human characters. Here, the planet is Grass, which is covered entirely with grass and peopled by two groups of humans: the aristocracy, who live on estancias out in the grass and do little but participate in mysterious, dangerous Hunts; and the working classes, who live in the planet’s only town and spaceport, where they are protected by the swamp forest that surrounds the town. To this world come an ambassador family from Earth, on a secret mission to find the cure to a plague that threatens all of humanity, which sets the plot in motion.

Tepper has built an intriguing, complex, and sinister world in Grass, and a lot of the suspense of the novel is in learning about the planet’s native species and discovering the true nature of the Hunts. But some of the secrets, when revealed, strained my disbelief. All in all, this is an entertaining (if long) story, a worthwhile reading that could probably have used a little more editing and focus.

Grass was nominated for both the Hugo and Locus awards in 1990. In 2002 it was included in the SF Masterworks collection. It is the first novel in the Arbai trilogy.

First Impressions: The Sparrow

These are my first impressions after reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996) in December 2011.

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“…Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God’s will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances,” he continued with academic exactitude, each word etched on the air with acid, “is that I have no one to despise but myself. If however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.”

It’s hard to describe the exhilarating sense of emotion I felt while reading this book. I don’t consider myself a religious person, and this book is unquestionably about religion and our relationship with God. I am a spiritual seeker, though, and I found this novel to be one of the most meaningful examinations of our purpose as humans that I have ever read. It is not an easy read, and it offers no easy answers. But despite its horrors — and some truly horrific things happen in this story — it is a beautiful, life-affirming read.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because part of the joy of reading The Sparrow lies in discovering it. Russell parcels out the story in bits and pieces, to prepare the reader for what’s coming. So, just a bare-bones summary, then: a group of people discovers radio signals — recordings of beautiful singing — coming from the Alpha Centauri system. One of these people, Emilio Sandoz, is a Jesuit priest, who interprets the singing as a sign from God. He spearheads a Jesuit mission to travel to the planet of Rakhat, four light years away, and meet the Singers.

Russell tells the story of the expedition mainly in flashbacks, alternating with scenes set in the present, after Sandoz has been rescued from Rakhat, the only survivor of his mission, a broken and despairing man. This structure allows the story to unspool slowly. The reader knows that Sandoz’s ultimate experiences on Rakhat were horrific, that he loses everyone he cares about and is somehow brought to a state of utter degradation, but we don’t know exactly what happened to him (until the end), or why. We are seeking, like Sandoz, for the the meaning of suffering and loss, searching for God somewhere in the universe. Even though it concerns aliens and space travel, The Sparrow is a very human story, a quest that mirrors one of our first stories: the story of the Fall of humankind.

When Sandoz and his friends arrive on Rakhat, it is literally a Garden of Eden, and the aliens they encounter first are like the innocents before the Fall. But Russell doesn’t make it that easy for us. The fundamental mistake that the human visitors make is interpreting this alien world through a human worldview. Russell’s tale of first contact is meant to mirror Europeans’ first encounters with Native Americans. Early on, the narrative includes a historical account of a Jesuit priest who was tortured and mutilated by the Native Americans he tried to convert, was rescued, but returned to America to be recaptured and ultimately killed. This story mirrors Sandoz’s journey in many ways. He is not interacting with primitive humans, though, but with alien species that at a very basic level he does not understand. Russell does a terrific job of making these beings truly alien and showing how the humans’ failure to acknowledge their alienness leads to the downfall of the mission and irrevocable changes on Rakhat.

However, the humans are just as alien to the Rakhat natives, and through their eyes, Russell leads us to question our own sense of morality. Sandoz is judged harshly by almost everyone upon his return, and to me, this is one of the most distressing truths of the novel: the lack of compassion we show our own.

The Sparrow is a book of contrasts. The planet of Rakhat is both incredibly beautiful and the scene of almost unimaginable horrors. The human characters are good, intelligent, loving people, yet the novel doesn’t flinch from depicting humanity’s failings, most especially our capacity to misjudge, misinterpret and, even out of good intentions, make the worst mistakes. And while this story is full of God, it doesn’t definitively answer for the reader the question of what God is or whether God even exists. For its contrasts, its challenges and its beauty, I absolutely loved this book.

First Impressions: The Dispossessed

These are my first impressions after reading The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974) in April 2007.

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You shall not go down twice to the same river, nor can you go home again. That he knew; indeed it was the basis of his view of the world. Yet from that acceptance of transience he evolved his vast theory, wherein what is most changeable is shown to be fullest of eternity, and your relationship to the river, and the river’s relationship to you and to itself, turns out to be at once more complex and more reassuring than a mere lack of identity. You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.

Long after I closed this book for the night and lay waiting for sleep to catch up with me, I thought about what I’d read, about the ideas posed by the novel’s premise and characters, and the implications for my own life and our society. That’s a sign of a book that’s definitely worth reading.

The story is set in the future on a distant planet, Urras, and its moon, Anarres. The culture on Urras is similar to ours: capitalist, competitive, with a huge gap between haves and have-nots. One hundred and fifty years ago in Urras’ history, a group of anarchists rebelled against this way of life. They settled on — or were exiled to, depending on your point of view — Anarres, a desert world where they built a subsistence society based on the premises of no government and no ownership of private property.

Despite the difficulties of their environment, life on Anarres is like a simple Eden. No one goes hungry while others eat. No one goes without a sheltered place to sleep at night. People work and study at what they enjoy, travel where and when they want, and everyone communally shares the necessary but non-glamorous jobs. Without commercialism to occupy them, people spend their time working, learning, and socializing. Even an eight-hour workday is considered unusually long.

Of course, there are problems in this utopia, which have at their root the conflict between the continued survival of the society and the human drive to assert ourselves as individuals, to push the boundaries and explore new ideas. Without a government, Anarres is ruled by societal approval. Challenges to the status quo are unwelcome, and the challenger is often shunned.

This is the situation that the main character, a physicist named Shevek, finds himself in. He is on the cutting edge of theoretical physics but unable to progress in a society that does not want his work. So when he begins communicating with physicists on Urras, he becomes convinced that he needs to be the first Anarresti to travel back to Urras in order to shake up his own society and return them to their anarchist roots.

The Dispossessed plays on the theme of time in many ways. The narrative is divided into two timelines: the present, when Shevek is living on Urras, contrasted with the Shevek’s past life on Anarres and growing discontent with his own society. Shevek’s physics are also concerned with time; applications of his theories could make possible faster-than-light space travel and instantaneous communication across space to other known worlds, including our Earth (called Terra).

The four cultures of humans portrayed in the nvoel — Urras, Anarres, Terra, and another planet called Hain — also represent four possible timelines of the human species. Urras is most like modern-day culture, if exaggerated; consumption, possessions, and power are all highly valued. Terra’s future warns of the consequences of such excess, a planet made desert by the waste of previous generations, now trying only to survive. Contrasted with these outcomes are the alternate paths proposed by Hain and Anarres. We are not told much about Hain, only that it is a very advanced civilization, which helped save the Terrans. It seems only fitting that when Shevek finally returns to Anarres, the only person who wants to accompany him and learn from him is Hainish.

This novel is rich and meaty, full of ideas and keen observations of human nature. Like the dusty plains of Anarres, it takes some time to get used to LeGuin’s dry writing style, which incorporates hard science and spare prose. But give it time and you will find many fascinating landscapes to explore.

First Impressions: The Word for World Is Forest

These are my first impressions after reading The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin (1972) in February 2011.

51bwBCenQsL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_This short novel is a retelling of the story of the Fall of Man from Eden, but set in Le Guin’s Hainish universe and written in her very readable style. The Eden is a forested planet 27 light years from Earth called Athshe, and the innocents are ape-like, green-furred cousins to humankind. They live in a utopia under the forest canopy, in harmony with nature and one another. Violence is unknown to this society.

Then people arrive from a severely resource-depleted Earth, and as we are wont to do, we immediately set out to destroy paradise. We cut down the forest and enslave, rape and murder the natives. From us, the Creechies (as they are derogatorily called by the colonists) learn how to fight and kill, and then they fight back.

But this isn’t just a black-and-white tale of evil humans and innocent aliens. In learning how to be violent, the Creechies are changed. Not only do they now know how to fight humans, but they have also learned how to fight one another. And once knowledge is acquired, it cannot be forgotten. So by fighting us, the Creechies become more like the humans they seek to defeat.

Le Guin’s take on this very old story is thoughtful and fresh (even though it was first published 35 years ago). I really enjoyed this quick read, as I enjoy pretty much everything I have read by her. I’m glad it was reissued in a really beautifully designed paperback edition.

First Impressions: Worlds of Exile and Illusion

These are my first impressions after reading Worlds of Exile and Illusion by Ursula K. Le Guin (an omnibus of three early novels of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle published in 1995) in July 2013. Slight spoilers.

67999The science fiction novels of Ursula K. Le Guin, often collectively called the “Hainish Cycle,” are not intended to be a series in the conventional sense. They are meant to stand alone and be read that way. But collecting three of her earliest novels into one volume gives the reader the opportunity to read these as a series, revealing connecting themes and making for a very satisfying way to experience Le Guin’s futuristic universe. The stories in themselves are ripping adventures, as well, with two quest tales bracketing a story of war.

The three novels take place thousands of years apart, at pivotal points in the conquest of a galactic empire called the League of All Worlds, which includes Earth, by aliens from a distant galaxy. Each novel also sows the seeds for the future evolution of humanity, which will enable them to defeat their conquerors and establish a new galactic alliance.

In the first novel, Rocannon’s World, a ship from the League of All Worlds is visiting a planet where several intelligent species have been found. The humans are studying the aliens for possible inclusion in the League. One of them is Rocannon, who is staying at the home of one of the natives when his ship and all his shipmates are destroyed by an unknown enemy. Rocannon deduces that this is the Enemy that has been foretold, alien conquerors from a distant galaxy, against which the League has been formed to resist. On his ship was a device called an “ansible,” that enabled communication at faster-than-light speeds, with which he could have warned his home planet. He figures that the enemy aliens also has an ansible, and sets out with a few companions, riding big flying cats, on a quest to reach their base in the south of the planet and send the warning so that the secret base may be destroyed. It is a hazardous journey, and along the way, Rocannon encounters natives with telepathic ability, which is called “mindspeak,” and which he begins to learn.

The second novel, Planet of Exile, is set thousands of years later on another planet called Werel, which has been colonized by humans from the League planets. They have lost all contact with their home planets and have been stranded on Werel for generations. They have built a walled city on the seaside and are holed up there, keeping themselves apart from the intelligent natives, who think they are witches because they can mindspeak and possess technology. Gradually, their numbers have been dwindling, due to the alienness of the planet where they have settled; they are being rejected as a foreign body.

Werel has a very long orbit around its sun, which makes each season last for a lifetime. A person born in fall may never know spring. As Planet of Exile opens, winter is near, and a great wave of people are emigrating south, destroying everything in their path. The colonists join with the nearby natives to resist them. At the same time, the colonists discover that they are adapting to their new environment after all, which means that humanity won’t die out on Werel.

The third novel, City of Illusions, was my favorite of the three, although all of them are terrific reads. City of Illusions is set on a future Earth, a thousand years after the time of Planet of Exile. A man wakens in the forest with no memory of who he is or where he came from. He only knows that he looks different from the people who discover him. Gradually, he learns that the few remaining people of Earth live under the rule of a conquering enemy called the Shing; both the people and the Shing practice telepathy. The man sets out on a quest to reach the capital city of the Shing and find out who he is. What he discovers about himself sows the seeds for an eventual rebellion against the conquering aliens. This novel was so compelling and exciting that I really wanted there to be a sequel.

There is not one, really, although the next novel to take place chronologically is Le Guin’s most famous science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. But that is set on another planet and after another thousand years or so has passed. Interestingly, her other most famous sci-fi work, The Dispossessed, takes place before Rocannon’s World does, just before the ansible is invented, although she wrote and published it much later.

Le Guin’s imagined worlds are a fantastic blend of advanced technology and high fantasy, combining faster-than-light space travel, magical powers in the form of telepathy, and incredible beasts like the flying cats of Rocannon’s World. Her worlds and her people are richly imagined and wonderfully detailed, and her writing is pitch-perfect: fast moving but still philosophical when it needs to be. I have never disliked one of her novels, and the three collected in this volume are no exception to that rule.