Wow, all but one of the books in this row (Briar Rose) I have already talked about in some way befort. So, yay, quick post full of copy and pasting. I have extended the other reviews a bit, added a few thoughts on the books now that it’s been a while since I read them, so hopefully this isn’t to repetitive for long time followers.
Word of warning, my cat helped me write this review. I’m pretty sure I got rid of all this contributions, but let me know if I missed any random letter and symbol sequences.
Uplifted Chimpanzees or Dolphins
Brain Wave – Poul Anderson
This title is kind of cheating, since whilst there are uplifted chimpanzees that appear in the story, they don’t play a very big role. This is a story about uplifting humans, and I probably would have talked about it even if I wasn’t forcing it to fill my book bingo card.
The idea behind this story is that for millions of years the solar system was travelling in an energy field that slowed down electrical reactions, including the ones occurring in our brains. When Earth leaves this field, everything with a brain gets around five times smarter, and this has a lot of consequences.
Anderson does a great job exploring the consequences of this change, writing little snippets of people from different parts of the world finding different uses for their increased intelligence or discovering new mental powers. Besides these unrelated parts, there are two main storylines.
The first follows scientist Peter Corinth, his wife Sheila, and other scientists and union organisers he knows as they come to terms with the change, try to guide humanity through the upheavals it causes, and then build a spaceship. Because you know, 1950s science fiction. The second follows Archie Brock, an illiterate autistic man who works as a farmhand, as he deals with his exciting new capabilities, the frustration at realising that he is still “feeble-minded” compared to neurotypical humans, and trying to run the farm filled with rebellious animals with the help of his dog, plus an elephant and two chimpanzees who escaped from a nearby circus.
I enjoyed Archie’s story the most, however it is clear that this was the B story, with all the rebuilding humanity and going to space stuff being the primary focus. That and Sheila’s inability to cope with the change. The Peter/Sheila A-story is interesting. It’s not like I can read a 1950s science fiction story and then complain about them building a spaceship and having an adventure. What I’m saying is I kept longing for the narrative to go back to Archie on the farm. There were funny moments, like the plow horses deciding they were done with working and kicking over the plow, or the first time we see Joe the dog nodding after Archie tells him something. There were also absolutely devastating moments, like when Archie had to pick which one of the very smart, very individual sheep to slaughter in order to boost his and the chimpanzee’s megre diet. We could have seen a lot more of Archie and his “moron” colony and this book would have been better for it. Especially if that escaped tiger that was mentioned early in the story had shown up.
There were a lot of interesting parts for Peter and friends, but one aspect of this story really resonated with me. That was the realisation that whilst people are a lot smarter, individual personalities and prejudices haven’t changed. Arseholes are still arseholes, and people who believe in bullshit are able to use their new mental power to invent better justifications for their bullshit. At one point Peter and his workmate Helga get cornered by a mob chanting ‘kill the scientists!’.
It’s been about seventy years since this book was written, and just before I picked it up the Australian bushfires were at their worst. All over Facebook and in the news I’ve seen people double down on the climate change denial. There were even people in government blaming the Greens for the bushfires. To say nothing of the whole ‘Global Warming is a Conspiracy’ or ‘Dumb Scientists Can’t Even Predict the Weather’ type of comments. I am living in a Western country amongst one of the most educated populations in history, with access to more information than anyone at any time in history has had, and people cling to stupid, harmful, easily debunked ideas. Despite us supposedly knowing better, anti-intellectualism is a powerful thing.
I read this book and wrote this review, including the previous paragraph, back in February. Certain pandemicy events have happened since then that have driven home this point even harder. I imagine the whole world has now seen firsthand the willful stupidity that was driving me crazy back in February.
Poul Anderson called it seventy years ago; you can’t fix stupid. Not even by literally fixing the stupid.
You have to build a spaceship to do that. Spaceships fix everything.
Let’s talk about how well this book has aged. For something written in the fifties and dealing with human intelligence, it could have been a lot more cringe. I’d say it is progressive by 1950s standards. Hell, we even get a female scientist. The big issue is about how mental disability is presented in this book. Terms like moron and imbecile are used a lot, as these were actual clinical terms at the time of both the book being written and it’s setting. There are issues with Anderson’s description of mental disability that will make this book hard to read, but for the time I feel this is a fair expectation. Also, Archie’s choice to work the farm by himself rather than be ‘looked after’ by the super-smart community is very understandable.
I haven’t read a huge amount of Poul Anderson’s work, but I’ve enjoyed nearly everything I’ve read by him so far, and Brain Wave continues that trend.
An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon
Published Sept 2017 (Akashic Books)
First things first; this book is brutal. It is an antebellum plantation in space. I read this before the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests, and even though the issues of racial inequality and the lingering effects of the Atlantic slave trade were not so fresh on my mind at the time, this is still a powerful book.
Fun fact, I didn’t actually know what the word ‘antebellum’ meant before writing this review. I assumed it referred to a specific area of the USA, but it actually means ‘before the war’. I suppose it technically means before any war, but is only really used to refer to the time before the American Civil War.
Back to An Unkindness of Ghosts. It is a very brutal book. There is violence, sexual assault, racist, homophobic, and transphobic attitudes, body horror, and suicide amongst other things. It is not however, gratuitous in it’s depictions of these horrors. Everything feels necessary to realistically depict the true horror of slavery.
We follow Aster, a black, autistic, intersex woman living in the lower decks of the generation ship Mathilda. She works as a sharecropper in the fields that feed the ship, under the eye of a white overseer. Her real job though is a as a doctor to the rest of her lower-deckers. Aster is an amazing character, who is suffering great trauma. The supporting cast is also made up of memorable, haunted characters and I wouldn’t say it’s fun or enjoyable to follow them, because it isn’t, but it was still an amazing experience.
I questioned whether I should use this to tick off the Non-Binary Protagonist tile with this book, since Aster is referred to as a woman with she/her pronouns. But…Rivers Solomon says Aster is a non-binary woman, so I’m counting it. Whilst there are other books with more explicit non-binary or trans characters, I liked reading this book knowing that Aster was non-binary and that her love interest Theo was transgender, because it was interesting seeing these characters in a setting that doesn’t have terms or for such identities.
One thing I didn’t like was the plotting. There is a compelling mystery going on about the connection between the illness plaguing the Sovereign of the ship and the suicide of Aster’s mother, but Aster is kinda dragged along by events and other characters most of the time. She isn’t completely passive, but I was never really excited and eager to see what happened next. It was still a good, interesting plot, it just never really grabbed me.
Many months on, I don’t actually remember a lot about the plot of this book. But I do still remember Aster and the indignities she went through.
Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel
by Seanan McGuire
Published May 2019
This book was not a Locus Award winner when I read it, but I’ll still tick it off. I was planning to read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls for this tile, and I still do plan to read it. So, if using Middlegame to retroactively fill this tile is cheating, then I swear I will actually fill it properly.
I found this book to be a very exciting page turner, and I enjoyed the two protagonists, magic twins Roger and Dodger.
Magic is the wrong word for this story. In Middlegame, it is alchemy that powers all the fantastical elements in the story. It’s basically magic though. Roger and Dodger were created by an evil alchemist in order to embody an alchemic doctrine which would grant god-like power to whoever controlled it. Roger is a prodigy when it comes to words and language, whilst Dodger is a math genius. They are separated at birth and have no idea what they are, but from a young age have a telepathic connection with each other. The book follows the twins through the ups and downs of growing up smart and alone, and all the rocks this causes their relationship. That and the plot of the evil alchemist to use them for his own, mysterious means.
I enjoyed the plot, I was excited to get through it, and whilst I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the audiobook, I didn’t have any major issues with the narration.
One thing that did annoy me turned out to be McGuire’s writing style. She repeats a lot of things, and describes things with conflicting terms. In the Wayward Children series I found this whimsical and magical, but in a longer book with adult characters, it gets old fast.
Written in the 90s
by Jane Yolen
I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time, as the premise really intrigued me. Using a fairy tale to explore the horrors of the Holocaust is a really unique idea, plus Jane Yolen has been an author I’ve been meaning to check out for a while.
It’s hard to say how well either the fairy tale element or the Holocaust story were handled, but I could not put this book down, so Yolen was doing something right. Also, she did a good job of conveying the horrors of the camps. There are some really horrific scenes of pure cruelty. On top of that, we also see Holocaust survivors in the ‘present’ (in the 90s) have reactions to reminders of the Holocaust, which is also very moving, and something that is often overlooked.
The story is about Becca, who growing up always heard her grandmother Gemma telling the story of sleeping beauty. Except Gemma’s version had a few disturbing differences from the classic story. The bad fairy wore black boots and had silver eagles on her hat, the sleep curse was activated by mist, not a spinning wheel, and Gemma never really clarifies whether the rest of the people in the castle get to wake up when Sleeping Beauty does. Besides this story, which Gemma insists is about her, Becca and her family know almost nothing about Gemma’s past. Not even her real name or where she lived before she came to America.
When Gemma dies, she makes Becca promise to find the castle from her story. Becca promises she’ll find it, and after the funeral her family finds a box of photos and documents with clues to Gemma’s past. Becca retraces Gemma’s life and ends up in a small town in Poland with a dark past.
This is a very good Holocaust story, and I did like the Sleeping Beauty element. I don’t know if I’d really consider it a Sleeping Beauty retelling though. I’m also not really that keen on Yolen’s writing style. In parts it was simple, like, maybe written for young adults, but there were also some words and phrases that I think wouldn’t work that well for younger readers. I’m not sure I’ll go out of my way to read more Yolen, but I am glad I read this one.
by George Turner
The sequel (Kinda) to Turner’s Beloved Son. I should have read Beloved Son first, as there were characters returning and references to previous events in the second part, but the book still stands alone and I wasn’t lost or confused. That being said I read Vaneglory in February and eight months later have not felt the need to grab Beloved Son, so in hindsight this book has failed at pulling me into the series.
Turner’s writing style is really nice and he comes out with a lot of highly quotable lines (“As surely as humanity’s middle name is cruelty” really appealed to me.) This book also presents fairly unique immortal mutants, with some interesting powers and a unique perspective on life. Basically, they’ve been around so long that they’re sick of each other, and normal humans are so ephemeral that few immortals bother with them.
I liked the plot, which was about a man named Will being targeted by this mutant company, teaming up with Donald, who had also been dragged into the Company, and then escaping Glasgow just as nuclear dust destroys the city. The two of them then end up going into suspended animation and waking up in a future Melbourne. Their knowledge of immortal people reaches the powerful men of the day and starts a scramble to protect or exploit the mutants. Interesting, but could have been done better. Also, I wasn’t a fan of the ending.
I was quite surprised to find out this book was written in 1983. Whilst it’s not outdated or pulpy, it still had the feel of a much earlier story.
I’ve been a bit hit and miss with George Turner’s books. The first one I read, Brainchild, I really liked, whilst the second one The Destiny Makers, I did not like at all. Vaneglory I feel has been pretty neutral. I did enjoy reading it, but it didn’t really blow me away. I think I will give Turner’s work another chance; I don’t think I can judge him properly until I at least read his big hit, The Sea and the Summer. Even if I decide I don’t like him, I’ll probably still grab his books when I get a chance, because there isn’t a lot of sci-fi Australias out there.
That’s it for this bingo. Hopefully the next one comes around very soon.