Review of His Master’s Voice and Return from the Stars



Review of His Master’s Voice and Return from the Stars

Jeremy Brett

His Master’s Voice. Translated by Michael Kandel. Forward by Seth Shostak. The MIT Press, 2020. Paperback. 259 pp. $17.95. ISBN 9780262538459.

Return from the Stars. Translated by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson. Forward by Simon Ings. The MIT Press, 2020. Paperback. 295 pp. $17.95. ISBN 9780262538480

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MIT Press’s decision to reissue the translated works of the incomparable, singular cosmic visions of Stanislaw Lem in lovely paperback versions is fortunate indeed for readers of philosophical and satirical fiction. Lem is one of those relatively rare authors of both profound ideas and deep prose; he provides each subsequent reading generation with renewed consideration of the impacts of technology on society, the inexplicability and utter foreignness to humanity of alien intelligence, and the complexities inherent in communication both between humans and between humans and aliens. These are longstanding and important concerns in speculative fiction, and it is a tribute to Lem that he remains, after six decades, one of the preeminent voices asking the kinds of foundational human questions that go to the very heart of the speculative fiction enterprise.

All the more appropriate, then, that these works started being released last year in advance of the 2021 centennial of Lem’s birth; their reissue signals the perennial interest in Lem and his lasting value as a thoughtful writer whose works constitute a truly deep literary dive into humanity’s relationship to the rest of the universe. And small wonder that Lem’s native Poland has declared 2021 the “Year of Stanislaw Lem”: a year of celebrations and commemorations of Lem and his place in world literature. But Lem’s work, with his lasting curiosity about the universe and our place in it, transcends a mere year of remembrance and tribute: in the best traditions of fiction, he is an author for all years, and all time.

His Master’s Voice, first published in 1968 and translated into English in 1983 by Michael Kandel (the version reissued and reviewed here), is centered around two of Lem’s more common themes: the limits of science’s ability to understand the universe around us, and how those limits are reflected in our own behavior. Lem wrote the book during the early years of the mid-20th century worldwide search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and Voice is an artifact of that time when concerted efforts were being made to seek out evidence of alien life and ask serious questions about how we as a species would receive that evidence and interpret messages received. The novel is narrated by mathematician Peter Hogarth, a brilliant, caustic, and self-aware professor attached to a secret US government project seeking to decipher a signal from deep space that arrived on Earth carried by neutrinos. Voice is less a straight narrative and more an extended philosophical essay about humanity disguised as an exhaustive description of the His Master’s Voice Project by Hogarth.

It is also the story of a massive failure, as evidenced by failed hypotheses and theories that the official project record will never show and the public will never see: as Hogarth notes, “the history of His Master’s Voice is the tale of a defeat: of wrong turns that were not followed by a straightened path. Thus one should not wipe away the zigzags of our journey, because those zigzags are all that is left us” (35-36). Finally, it is a chronicle, ultimately, of human insignificance and imperfection. “We stood at the feet of a gigantic find, as unprepared, but also as sure of ourselves, as we could possibly be. We clambered up on it from every side, quickly, hungrily, and cleverly, with our time-honored skill, like ants. I was one of them. This is the story of an ant” (36). Ironically, it is that very imperfection that not only causes its failure (through a lack of suitable intellect) but jump-starts the project in the first place – the initial theory that captured neutrinos are carrying an alien signal is inspired by the inadvertent efforts of con artists and pseudoscientists. Hogarth posits that “[e]very great matter has, among its circumstances, some that are ludicrous or pitifully banal, which does not mean that they do not play an integral role. Ludicrousness, anyway, is a relative thing” (60). Our imperfections and the ironies inherent in human activity are baked right into all our endeavors, Hogarth (and Lem) supposes. Although he notes at one point that “I do not know what it was among the people of the Project that determined finally the Project’s fate” (72), it seems clear that it is something stemming from humanity’s fallible nature that does it.

Explanations for the source and purpose of the signal all fail in the absence of proof. Was it sent containing information for starting life? For building an efficient mechanism for processing information? As a precursor to an alien invasion of Earth? As a symbolic extended hand of friendship? Hogarth himself dismisses all these as the fevered dreams of science fiction and the truth of the signal as being ultimately unknowable. “All these hypotheses (and there were more) I considered not just wrong but ridiculous. In my opinion, the stellar code denoted neither a plasmic brain nor an informational machine nor an organism nor a spore, because the object it designated simply did not figure in the categories of our conceptualizations. It was the plan of a cathedral sent to australopithecines, a library opened to Neanderthals. In my opinion, the code was not intended for a civilization as low on the ladder of development as ours, and consequently we would not succeed in doing anything meaningful with it” (121-122).  For Hogarth, the Senders broadcast their signal too early in humanity’s evolution to be of any use. In addition to the sheer time gap between human and Sender civilization, the project would have been doomed because the definition of words and concepts and contexts would differ between the two so widely. (All that, even so, assumes that the signal is indeed artificial: one Project scientist, Lerner, presents a reasonable case that it is merely a natural phenomenon.) In the end, the Project and Earth both have failed what Hogarth calls “a test of cosmic—or at least more-than-terrestrial—universality” (41), suggesting that much time will still be needed to straddle the gaps between our knowledge and the nature of the wider universe. In this, His Master’s Voice is a pointed rejoinder to the old strand of optimism and scientific progress running through classic science fiction, which Lem himself so derided.

“I took nothing with me, not even a coat” (1).

So begins the wholly undramatic return to his home planet by Prometheus astronaut Hal Bregg, following a long mission of exploration to the star Fomalhaut, some 23 light years from Earth. He comes home to no parades, no media interviews, and no serious reintegration into a society that has long passed him by. (Thanks to time dilation, only a decade has passed for Bregg, while 127 years have gone by at home.) What follows is a perilous new form of navigation by Astronaut Bregg, through a completely altered social order in which his experiences and social mores have no place. 

1961 was a prolific year for Lem: in those 12 months he wrote three significant works – his nightmarish riff on Kafka, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub; probably his most famous work, the graceful Solaris; and finally, Return from the Stars. Return was translated into English in 1980 by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson, the edition featured here in this 2020 reissue. Of those three 1961 works, Return may be the least memorable, but it is still a very interesting, even poignant exploration of the relativity of the utopian concept. And there are moments of literary brilliance: I am always taken with the dizzying and disorienting mood of the first chapter, in which Bregg is emptied out back onto Earth and forced to weave his way through a vast, confusing, and alienating metropolis. His emotional burden is extreme: “[f]rom the very first moment I was invariably behind in everything that went on, and the constant effort to understand the simplest conversation or situation turned that tension into a feeling horribly like despair” (2). He sees things whose function he cannot uncover, geographies he cannot follow, behaviors he cannot decipher; all this, as Lem accelerates the pace and the mass of details, contributes to Bregg’s growing fear and sense of alienation (which the reader keenly feels as well). The contradiction between Bregg’s decade spent inside spacecraft with a small group of fellow crewmembers and his new life in a sprawling city of countless strangers creates a feeling of real unreality that never leaves the reader (and it is a literary precursor to the disorientation felt some years later by American soldiers returning home from Vietnam, thrown back into unfamiliar civilian life with little or no assistance after a year or more of intense tours of duty) in the course of the novel.

That feeling of unreality, of unease, sets Return apart as a utopian novel, wholly appropriate because the Earth to which Bregg has returned is a utopia from the inside, less so from Bregg’s 127 year-out of date viewpoint. Poverty on Earth is gone, war is gone. Resources appear to be unlimited and free to all. People are happy, and no one is being turned into food or killed at the age of 30 or relying for their good condition on the abuse of one single poor child. But… social stability relies on a process called ‘betrization’, a medical procedure performed universally across the globe that eliminates the psychological need or capacity for aggression. As a result, Bregg and his fellow returnees, who go unbetrized, find themselves even more isolated and foreign, in a world where the mission for which they gave years of their lives is no more than a footnote from Earth’s aggressive and assertive past. At one point in the novel, Bregg has a conversation with an aged doctor who notes:

“There is a great deal you do not understand, Bregg. If you intended to live like a monk for the remainder of your days, your ‘I don’t mind’ might be in order, but… the society to which you have returned is not enthusiastic about what you gave more than your life for… Apart from a handful of specialists, no one cares about it, Bregg. You know that?…

The society to which you have returned is stabilized. Life is tranquil. Do you understand? The romance of the early days of astronautics is gone… You are alone. A man cannot live alone. Your interests, the ones you have returned with, are an island in the sea of ignorance. I doubt if many people would want to hear what you could tell them” (75-76)

Bregg, still a man wracked by strong emotions (among them guilt for causing the death of a fellow crew member), is shocked to hear that, thanks to betrization, “everything is now lukewarm” (82) – no hatreds, but no passions; no danger, but no need for adventure; no risks, but no rewards for challenging risks; no struggles, but no strivings. It is a world that runs neither hot nor cold. Lem asks us to consider whether a utopia is truly so – even if want has been eliminated – if human nature has been neutered or cast out of society. And are those qualities that Bregg possesses and notes the absence of, truly desirable parts of ourselves? Do we need them to be truly human, else our existence is ultimately sterile? It is in these questions that Return from the Stars may be of particular interest to researchers of utopian studies or scholars of SF concerned with the exploration of the human condition.

            Bregg’s solution to his crisis is to flee the city, abduct a young woman named Eri (certainly today the most troubling portion of the novel), and wrestle with his emotions, eventually reuniting with several of his fellow returnees and questioning the importance of their deep space mission that ended up robbing them of their lives and identities. It is in the light of a utopia made for others that Bregg clearly comes to see, in the end, a true understanding of himself as a contradictory human being. As Simon Ings puts it in his helpful introduction to the novel, Return is less about a future Earth and more about the story of a single man. “About his impulse towards solitude and his need for company. About the nonheroic risk and beauty of exploration, and about what it means to carry wounds and beauty home to a world that does not care” (xii). These are facets of ourselves that so many of us wrestle with in the real, and Lem asks whether a society can deny space for those of us who think, and act, and feel differently and strongly, and whether that society can still be called a utopia.


Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice..

“Our Bodies Dazzle in the Light”: A Review of Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction



“Our Bodies Dazzle in the Light”: A Review of Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction

Jeremy M. Carnes

Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction. Edited by Joshua Whitehead. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020. Paperback. 194 pp. $18.95. ISBN: 9781551528113.


How does anyone consider intimacy or eroticism in the age of the Anthropocene and the collapse of a world in the ruins of climate change and extractive capitalism? Even more, how do communities that have endured decades of violence and oppressive colonialism love within the apocalyptic? In Joshua Whitehead’s (Oji-Cree/nêhiyâw) edited collection Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, he argues that a turn toward the utopian is a centrally important political shift. He writes, “For, as we know, we have already survived the apocalypse—this, right here, right now, is a dystopian present. What better way to imagine survivability than to think about how we may flourish into being joyously animated rather than merely alive?” (10-11). This point is, I think, the crux of this collection: intimacy, joy, growth, and love can be imagined into the present and future, even in the face of undeniable collapse. Perhaps this is the power of queer love: to face this paradox, love after the end, head-on, unwavering in the truth of potential.

Love After the End is a collection of stories that highlight the joy, love, and eroticism of 2SQ (two-spirit, queer) communities, whether in the love between human and AI-augmented animals or between two-spirit indigiqueers and the doomed planet they leave behind. It is a collection of stories about finding “what we need when we need it: through community and through our relations” (15). Kinship ties and communal love, erotic or otherwise, provide the ground upon which these stories build, showing the life-sustaining power of relations despite settler dominance and the continuation of unsustainable social, cultural, and economic structures.

Many of the stories begin with or concern ecological devastation of the Earth, though the devastation itself is rarely the primary focus. Rather, these stories seem to center on responses to the devastation: personal responses, interpersonal responses, communal responses, and global responses. For instance, in Jaye Simpson’s (Oji-Cree Saulteaux) “The Ark of the Turtle’s Back” we are introduced to a world on the verge of collapse; colonies have been established on the moon and on Mars, using the labor of Indigenous peoples to set up and sustain them. Ni, the protagonist, considers, “It will only be a matter of time before they come to take everyone capable from the Rez to work. The moon’s atmosphere is so successful that their oceans formed sooner than anticipated, and now they’re filling the waters with formerly extinct species. But at what cost? Our brown bodies?” (68). In a final escape attempt, the characters are convinced by Ni’s sister, Dakib, to escape on a series of arks; however, this exodus requires sacrifice: “we’re using energy from Earth’s kinetic core to fuel the trip. Upon takeoff, the core will cool almost entirely and cause significant damage to the planet. The magnetic field protecting Earth from solar winds and solar radiation will collapse and essentially turn Earth into the new Mars” (69). Simpson considers the weight of sacrifice and how much is too much. Should we leave the planet in an attempt to save our communities or should we stay as Ni argues: “Our people woundn’t leave her, and you know it. We would stay until her last breath and go with her. We are the caretakers, and if she dies, we die too.”

A similar complication arises in Adam Garnet Jones’s (Cree/Métis/Danish) “History of the New World,” which tells the story of a family—Em, a Cree woman; Thorah, her non-Native wife; and Asêciwan, their daughter—as they decide between staying on a collapsing Earth or going through a portal to “the New World.” In clear reference to settler colonial discourse, the New World is often assumed to be without history. Indeed, Thorah even argues, “The New World is a blank page…we can make our story there, anything we want” (43). This rhetoric clearly replicates the doctrine of Terra Nullius used to bolster so many settler claims to Indigenous lands. Eventually, and through a complex series of events, Em and Asêciwan decide to stay on Earth, joining an Indigenous camp in the center of Toronto: “A hand-painted sign above the entrance announced our arrival at NAGWEYAAB ANISHINAABEK CAMP: RAINBOW PEOPLES’ CAMP. A HOME FOR INDIGNEOUS 2SLGBTTQI PEOPLE AND FAMILIES” (59).

While the responses to collapse in these two stories are different—and we get similar responses in Mari Kurisato’s (Cote First Nation Ojibwe) “Seed Children”—each story centers 2SQ people and highlights the ways their choices depict love—love for their kin, love for the Earth, love for their partners. Whether in the scene of family ceremony on the departing ship carrying some land, flora, and fauna of the Earth in “The Ark of the Turtle’s Back” or in the decision to stay on a potentially doomed Earth in “History of the New World,” the stories focus more on the effects of having to make such decisions—and the potentials for joy within the decisions—rather than the idea that there is a correct choice to be made. While many of the stories about leaving give voice to the rights and responsibilities within Indigenous communities and in relation to the Earth through individual characters, they all refrain from casting judgment as if staying—or leaving—were the “more Native” thing to do.

A central facet to each of these stories is also the importance of stories themselves as vehicles for cultural knowledge, connection, and kinship. Indeed, story becomes a pivotal tool in considering “intimacy during doomsday” (10). In Kai Minosh Pyle’s (Métis/Baawiting Nishnaabe) “How to Survive the Apocalypse for Native Girls,” we are introduced to Nigig, a two-spirit Anishinaabe girl, as she navigates life and compiles a primer for existing in the apocalypse of settler colonialism. Nigig’s entries include pieces of advice and wisdom, including, “when the apocalypse happens, make sure you bring your kookum” (80), “Everyone has ancestors, but not everyone knows theirs” (84), “Watch those in power carefully” (87), and “Love is good” (82). These instructions and the remainder of the story consider the importance of kinship in creating community and connection, both not always pleasant experiences: “Love is part of Kinship laws—it is the Kinship laws. Of course, in reality Kinship is just as much about hating each other and messing each other up as it is about loving each other, but without Love there wouldn’t be any Kinship at all” (83). Story is about the messiness of connecting, especially in the messiness of apocalypse.

We see this same messiness in “Andwànikàdjigan” by Gabriel Castilloux Calderon (Mi’kmaq/Algonquin/Scottish/French Canadian), which tells the story of A’tugwewinu (Winu) living in a world where settlers have tried wipe out storytellers and carriers of Indigenous cultural knowledge. New storytellers and knowledge keepers become marked with memory markings, which appear “when someone share[s] a story and you truly listened, listened with all your heart” (97). When storytellers touch these marks on their bodies “words would appear in your head, and you would repeat the story back, verbatim, as if you were the one who shared it in the first place.” These markings and those who carry them become targets for the Enforcers—the militaristic, settler presence in the story. Much like in Pyle’s story, Calderon here offers story as a tool for connection; In “Andwànikàdjigan” the connection extends cross-communally, for it is only through real, intimate connection across communities that we can hope to survive and thrive in the face of abusive settler powers. As much as “Andwànikàdjigan” is a love story between the two-spirit Winu and Bel, it is also about the literal power of stories to shake the foundations of settler worldviews and a reminder that, despite settler conceptions otherwise, we are really only stories. [1]

Throughout this collection, the stories course through some of the central sub-genres now associated with Indigenous futurism, some of which provide the structure for the pivotal collection Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction edited by Grace L. Dillon (Anishinaabe). We get stories of slipstream (“Nameless” and “Eloise”), stories of the Native apocalypse (“The Ark of the Turtle’s Back” and “History of the New World”), stories about Indigenous science and sustainability (“Seed Children”), and—coursing through all of this—the central notion of Biskaabiiyang, “Returning to Ourselves.” Yet, what this collection does differently is centering 2SQ stories. As Whitehead writes, “we have put Two-Spiritedness in the front, for once, and in that leading position we will walk into the future, in whatever form that may take, together, hand in hand, strong, resilient, extraneously queer, and singing a round dance song that calls us all back together” (12). So throughout it all, we are offered stories of connection, of the messiness of kinship, and of the potential that lies in the future and in queer love. The trials of history mark queer communities and their stories, but they are not silenced. As Whitehead notes, “we have lived in torture chambers, we have excelled under the weight of killing machinations, we’ve hardened into bedrock—see how our bodies dazzle in the light? (12). These stories, and the bodies in them, certainly dazzle in this light.

NOTES

[1] For more on the importance of story, see Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories.

WORKS CITED

Dillon, Grace L., Ed. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. University of Arizona Press, 2012.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. House of Anansi Press, 2011.


Jeremy M. Carnes, Ph.D., is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Central Florida. His work is situated within both comics studies and Indigenous studies. He is the outgoing Fiction Reviews Editor and incoming Associate Editor for the SFRA Review and co-editor for the forthcoming collection The Futures of Cartoons Past: The Cultural History of X-Men: The Animated Series (UP of Mississippi). He is working on his first book on Indigenous comics.

Review of Border Crosser by Tom Doyle



Review of Docile

Ed Carmien

Doyle, Tom. Border Crosser. Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press, 2020. Paperback, 383 pp. $15.99. ISBN 9781953034144.


Tom Doyle, fresh from his American Craftsmen trilogy (one part Clancy-esque Jack Ryan, one part Kurtz-ish Adept series, all parts wahoo) turns to space opera with his October, 2020 novel Border Crosser. The back cover tells us the novel features Eris, “a charismatic spy with a violent borderline personality and emotional amnesia,” a condition that allows her to bypass scanners meant to assess the intentions of galactic travelers.

            Border Crosser serves aptly as title and descriptor; Eris crosses many a border in her adventures, during which she unknowingly instigates galactic war and an investigation into her employers, with whom she communicates by chatty, light-hearted correspondence (no drudgery of espionage paperwork for her!), ultimately joining her “friends” and family in a frothy resolution of most of the major issues of the plot. She is transhuman, sexually omnivorous, emotionally fragmented yet true at her core, and carries out a character development arc of self-discovery and self-identity. Eris begins as the epitome of a Bond villain: charismatic, violent, cartoonish. In the end she…saves the galaxy? Gaining agency is her game: she retains the charisma, a violent nature, and a “painted in broad strokes” quality. Any galaxy saving serves her goal of self-determination.

            The cover copy fails to mention Eris’s most interesting attribute: a working and productive artist, she crafts her art from the bodily fluids and DNA of those she interacts with. Yes, quite often those bodily fluids. Facing torture at the hands of a minor enemy, she blithely suffers it all—until the villain begins to torch one of her works of art.

            If one refers to the excellent The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by Hartwell and Cramer (2006), it becomes apparent Doyle knows space opera, as the antecedents of Border Crosser appear everywhere one looks in the table of contents. The novel transgresses like Samuel R. Delany, plays on a big field like Robert Scheckley, Lois McMaster Bujuold, and Iain M. Banks, performs on the inner field like Catharine Asaro, and at least glances at the political as might Charles Stross. Any mangling of references remains my fault, as are any blatant omissions.

            This is not to say Border Crosser represents a derivative work. It expresses an original energy all its own. Where Banks’ Culture presents a wealth of opportunity for redefining the human, Eris’s madness expresses a transhuman relationship to technology that would find no place in Banks’ studied, clear, and essentially hopeful works. And where Larry Niven’s Known Space setting postulates a future Earth with cheap teleportation, Doyle offers us a more likely scenario, and merely as a sideshow to the main plot: an Earth with expensive teleportation, where the children of the very upper crust spend ordinary fortunes to leap “into low orbit and on to some antique space station refitted as a microgravity pleasure palace…” to “the bottom of the sea and into an open-water club designed like some silent film fantasy of Neptunian delights.” All of this operates in the service of the spy trope “do something interesting until the villain’s kids invite you to party.”

            Later Eris recreates herself in a (male—another purported border crossed!) genetically constructed body of a species exterminated by one of the junior villains of the piece while at the same time compelling one of a growing number of her “friends” to craft a doppelganger with a limited subset of her memories; this complicates a family reunion through questions of identity (border crossed!). The novel proceeds through the plot with increasing speed; the narrative structure is one that invites closure at several points but resists, instead spiraling out to the next, always wider environment: Eris moves from ship to planet to interplanetary system to ongoing interstellar war to final galactic showdown, and the pace increases to cover the ever-lengthier amount of spiral along the way. Contemplate the path a needle takes from the start of a vinyl record to the end.

            Practiced readers instinctively assess important narrative cues merely from holding a text—one can feel where one is as the pages turn. As I read this novel electronically due to the limitations of Covid-19 precautions, without that page “feel” the novel unspooled unsettlingly, a practice I recommend. At least one natural stopping point went by like a bypassed rest area on a freeway: looks like a good place to…nope, not stopping here! Reading a paper copy of the novel would not have disoriented one in the least—the fingers’ pinch of pages would reveal how much story there was to go. Where good old James Bond (as presented in his Daniel Craig persona) travels through several plots to arrive at his ultimate showdown between the powers controlling his life, Eris spirals up through such a sequence in an extended sprint, all one show, resolving a factional clash playing out around the galaxy while leaving plenty of sequel material to follow.

            Using this text in a college classroom requires fortitude: while the frequent sex is largely un-graphic, it is plentiful and nearly always violent. Eris, a “borderline personality” as the back cover text tells us, stops at murder when inconvenient and not part of her work or art. “Trigger warning?” anyone? The novel presents elements of the transhuman and includes characters who are examples of the posthuman. Gender issues abound, and many a scholar could sharpen their knives for a discourse on Tom Doyle, though I would recommend perception precede action, and caution in any event.

            Doyle includes thanks in an afterward to two different workshops: The Clarion Writer’s Workshop and the Writers Group from Hell. In addition, he thanks a number of editors and commenters who “helped me with this tale.” That the dynamism and hard corners of this novel weren’t rounded off by such group reviews is good. But that also means the author had access to plenty of feedback. It is not a self-indulgent work. It is not easy to keep a train on the tracks when it speeds so quickly along such a spiral. So: caution before judgement. Border Crosser embodies space opera wahoo. Readers of The Space Opera Renaissance might find it hard to place—a call back to the wide-open wahoo of E. E. “Doc” Smith? Yes. Delany-esque? Indeed. Bujold-y galactic spy wahoo? For sure. Banksian enabling tech wahoo? Yep! But by crossing all those borders, it is Doyle-ian. Doyle-esque? Question instead the need for such a categorization. In closing, I suggest letting wahoo be wahoo. Doyle-esque wahoo.


Ed Carmien teaches writing, science fiction, fantasy, and other literatures at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey. He is: a member of the SFWA, a member of the SFRA, section hiking the Appalachian Trail, of the belief C.J. Cherryh doesn’t get enough critical attention, and full of admiration for the current incarnation of the SFRA Review.

Review of Docile by K.M. Szpara



Review of Docile

Adam McLain

K. M. Szpara. Docile. Tor.com, 2020. Hardcover, 496 pp. $27.99. ISBN 9781250216151.


A book like Docile requires a reviewer to provide a strict content warning at the beginning. This book (and this review) contains discussions and depictions of sex, slavery, and abuse. It contains moments of harm that can be triggering for survivors of sexual violence and abuse. K. M. Szpara handles violence and forgiveness with grace and civility instead of gratuitousness and voyeurism. Under Szpara’s pen, these topics become molded into a story that is aware of the harm they can cause and the future that all survivors must live through.

Having inherited his family’s insurmountable debt, Elisha Wilder “chooses” to sell himself into the docile program, a program that allows a person to give up their agency for monetary return. The man who buys Elisha Wilder’s contract is none other than Alexander Bishop III, the inheritor of the company that patents, manufactures, and markets Dociline, the drug that makes dociles docile, numb to the choices they make and obedience to those who bought their contracts. Upon entering the contract, though, Elisha refuses to use Dociline, something usually not done but provided for as a docile’s right. The book then delves into questions around systemic capitalism, consent, and change. Switching perspectives between Elisha and Alex allows Szpara to dismantle the dystopic future he has built and thus provide readers with a possibility of dismantling the dystopic present in which we live.

In the previous paragraph, I provide quotes around chooses to highlight one of the central themes of this book. What is choice and consent? The question occurs over and over again as the characters grapple with being benefited by, trapped in, and assaulted with a system that does not let anyone out. Szpara’s text highlights the sexual and capitalistic system of a dystopian, near-future America, but the questions he poses are universal as we struggle in the relationship between humanity, humanness, and all institutions. Szpara shows a keen awareness of thinkers like Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Louis Althusser, and so many others as he engages in dismantling and deconstructing what agency and consent mean within a system that grips the very soul of humanity; in other words, Szpara’s thoughts, questions, and beautiful eloquence are on par with (and in some cases better than) the writers and thinkers we enshrine in academia, but his text fundamentally undermines that same system that builds up, defends, and obscures knowledge. Indeed, to understand what Szpara is saying and to allow it to work within you, a reader simply needs literacy and empathy, instead of a degree or an intellectual guide.

Docile’s handling of sexual violence, consent, and capitalism is genre nuancing. On its surface, one could see it as a book about the relationship, even a form of romance, between Elisha and Alex, but its complications of this relationship turn it from a simple book into one of the most evocative written in recent years. As with dystopian novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Docile is never what it completely seems and will always evoke reread after reread as we mull over and consider what Szpara is saying about institutionalized control and (the lack of) consent within that system.

But Szpara doesn’t simply portray his capitalism as necessary of anarchistic response or proletarian revolution. Szpara realizes that systems, institutions, and the humans who make up both are more complicated than the necessity of overthrowing them. Docile grapples with the humanity that philosophical treatise and systemic interventions cannot. Through the relationship of Elisha and Alex, readers receive an intimate complexity to what it means to live in a world of systems and institutions. By the end of the novel, readers are not left with a one-way path to an answer, but they are instead given a diversity of intersectional roads by which to travel.

Not only does Docile deliver a resounding critique of debt and prison, but it also provides room for readers to think, consider, and rethink their positions. At every page turn, I found myself questioning how I viewed the systems around me and how I might be able to change them. Docile delivers where fiction is needed most: it is not a systemic takedown of an institution but rather the systemic buildup of awareness and possibility that a reader can gain in experiencing this America that almost is but hopefully never will be. It delivers the perfect package of dystopian philosophizing and fictional questioning that empowers the thoughtful reader to return to reality better equipped to battle our own tyrannies and our own docility.


Adam McLain recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a master of theological studies and holds a BA in English from Brigham Young University. He will be a Harvard Frank Knox Traveling Fellow in Fall 2021, studying 20th-century dystopia and the legal history of sexual violence in the UK.

Review of Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley



Review of Apocalypse Nyx

Adam McLain

Kameron Hurley. Apocalypse Nyx. Tachyon Publications, 2018. Paperback, 288 pp. $15.95. ISBN 9781616962944.


Returning to a world of bug magic and desert warriors, Kameron Hurley delivers yet another identity challenging, religiously provocative, and character-focused adventure in Apocalypse Nyx. Occurring within and between book one (God’s War, 2010) and book two (Infidel, 2011) in her widely acclaimed Bel Dame Apocrypha, Apocalypse Nyx follows Hurley’s aggressive, no-nonsense Nyxnissa so Dasheem through five separate adventures, each showing the depth and complexity of Hurley’s world, magic system, and character development.

The five adventures in Apocalypse Nyx are curated from various novelettes and short stories that Hurley has published in order to continue the adventures of her titular hero. Luckily for readers and lovers of the Bel Dame Apocrypha, or God’s War series as it is sometimes called, these stories were held behind various paywalls in several places. This collection collects them together for readers. Published from 2014 to 2017, the stories provide singular looks into moments of Nyx’s lives and adventures. I would recommend not starting a reading of this series with Apocalypse Nyx but instead reading the original trilogy and then diving into this prequel of sorts.

“The Body Project,” the first story in the collection, gives readers answers to some of what Nyx and her ragtag group of mercenaries were up to between chapters four and five of God’s War. When Nyx discovers the body of someone she thought was supposed to be dead a long time ago, she must solve the mystery of why his body appeared far away from where she supposedly killed him. As with the original trilogy, Hurley seeks to question and complicate the ideas of identity and body in this story.

The second story, “The Heart Is Eaten Last,” takes Nyx to the south, where we delve into Nyx’s complicated family and a past that returns to haunt her. This story delves more into Nyx’s character, showing her cold and hardened exterior while also giving glimpses into her true feelings about a job that is personal to her. Of course, as with any book by Hurley, the idea of emotions and what makes up a human becomes complicated as she layers into her characters various complexities. For readers of Apocalypse Nyx the notion of an individual “truth” within characters is more an ideal than a reality.

In the third adventure, “Soulbound,” Nyx meets an ardent cleric from Mhoria, a religious country that believes in the sacredness of the body so much so that they do not exhume or perform autopsies on bodies. However, this cleric, Abdiel, believes that she must research what her theology teaches her about the location of sin in a body. She eventually runs across Nyx in Nasheen, where Nyx is trying to stop magicians from carrying contraband inside their bodies. Bodies and theology clash through the rest of the story as Hurley weaves conversations and questions motivated largely by the worldbuilding through the rest of the Bel Dame Apocrypha, crafting a pensive and provocative story.

“Crossroads at Jannah,” the fourth story, follows Nyx and her crew on a new mission that leads them into a new hell. As the story progresses, Nyx again causes her crew to question her leadership and willingness to cost them their lives and livelihood. This descending spiral leads provokes questions about will and agency, paradise and hell, and choice and consequence. Not as theologically engaging as “Soulbound,” “Crossroads at Jannah” deals with the practicalities of religious belief and the morals that guide lives.

The collection concludes with the fifth story, “Paint It Red.” An old acquaintance reappears in Nyx’s life and demands Nyx pay her debt. Nyx, not liking personal debts, chooses to take on the mission and learns more about herself and her morals than she thought possible. As a conclusion to the short story collection, this story provides a sharp counterpoint to Nyx’s blasé and reckless attitude from the earlier stories. It shows her dedication to her team and her morals while also not caring too deeply.

As an entry point to Hurley’s world, this book provides intense action and adventure, but some of Hurley’s deft moves and character growth is lost in the serialized shortness of each story. Because it is a short story collection, Apocalypse Nyx provides an ending that feels like the moment after a good dinner but before the dessert. It is epic in proportion, but the book leaves one wanting to read God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture (2012), hopefully for a second time. Apocalypse Nyx is a great reunion of readers with characters, one that appetizes the world, inviting the reader to dine at the full-course meal that is Hurley’s original trilogy.

Review of Supernova Era by Liu Cixin



Review of Supernova Era

Russell Alexander Stepp

Liu Cixin. Supernova Era. Trans. Joel Martinsen. Tor, 2019. Paperback. 352 pp. $27.99. ISBN 9781250306036.           


Liu Cixin, already a well-known author of hard science fiction in his native China, exploded onto the scene in the Anglophone world in 2014 following the publication his well-regarded novel, The Three-Body Problem (as the novel’s title has been rendered in English translation). The Three-Body Problem received nominations for both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction novel, winning the former in 2015, and was the first Asian novel to receive the prestigious award. The critical and commercial success of The Three-Body Problem, and its sequels, The Dark Forest and Death’s End, (the series was given the title Remembrance of Earth’s Past in translation) led to an interest in exploring the whole of Liu’s fiction, and the intervening years have seen the translation and publication of more of the author’s works. Supernova Era is the result of this continuing project.

Supernova Era was originally published in Chinese in 2003, three years prior to the Chinese release of The Three-Body Problem. Joel Martinsen, who also translated Liu’s novel The Dark Forest into English, was the translator of Supernova Era. The novel shows clear signs of belonging to an earlier stage of the author’s development, and a reader who picks up Supernova Era expecting the same brilliance that Liu displays in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series will come away disappointed. The earlier novel does not quite rise to the same standard as the series that launched Liu to international fame. The characters in Supernova Era are somewhat two-dimensional and lack any significant development, and at times the plot feels almost episodic with sudden transitions between major sections within the novel. The prose is also occasionally a bit flat, lacking some of the power of Liu’s later novels.

While Supernova Era may not live up to the excellent standard that Liu set for himself throughout the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, the novel stands on its own and demonstrates one of Liu’s most salient qualities as an author: the ability to propose a simple question and explore how one single change can alter the course of human history or perception. The central conceit of Supernova Era is that a nearby star goes supernova, bombarding Earth with high doses of radiation. In a departure from Liu’s love for hard science fiction and scientific accuracy, he does not dwell much on the biological effects of this radiation other than to say that it only affects older individuals whose DNA is less resilient to change. The result is that, shortly after the supernova is observed, humanity realizes that within a year all those above the age of thirteen will be dead, which naturally has significant ramifications for both the future trajectory of the human species and the civilizations we have spent thousands of years constructing.

The novel unfolds in three main phases, and in each, Liu demonstrates his ability to posit thought-provoking questions about the nature of technology and the human condition. In the first phase, humanity discovers, and must come to grips with the staggering conclusion that the destiny of the world will soon pass to children. This section explores the nature of education and the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next as each nation is forced evaluate and asses each child and train them for a future career in the limited span of one year. In a particularly powerful episode, the Chinese government teaches the children selected to fill future roles as political leaders a powerful lesson in the logistical complexities of running a nation by showing them all the salt that the country consumes in a day – loaded into a series of transport trains. In the second phase, the adults have all perished and the children are forced to grapple with the new order where even small children are thrust into the world of adults, hastily educated and emotionally ill-prepared. This phase of the novel is best highlighted by a heartbreaking episode in which one of the main characters, trained as a pediatric nurse, struggles to care for the last surge of children born before the world’s adults perished. This, and other similar episodes push the novel into the final phase: children rejecting the old world and beginning to imagine what the new world would be. This reimagination is far from utopian and the world’s great powers agree to engage in a gamified version of warfare – potentially deadly but similarly governed by strict rules.

Each section raises poignant questions about education, diplomacy, politics, technology, and the artificial world humanity has constructed for itself. The novel’s consideration of these questions alone makes it worthy of investigation by any serious student of speculative fiction. It is made even more interesting to frequent readers of the genre as it presents a distinctly Chinese perspective on global politics and international relations. In particular, Liu’s depiction of the United States and its cultural values diverges from those found in Western speculative fiction and may be of interest to a new audience now that this novel has been made available in English.

While Supernova Era falls short of the excellent standard set by Liu himself in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, the novel warrants study and contemplation beyond its value as a window into Liu Cixin’s development as a writer. Supernova Era posits a remarkably simple change to our current world – with a reasonable scientific explanation – and allows the reader to observe how human nature plays out in the world that is science fiction. Ultimately, Supernova Era asks significant questions about some of the core constructs of modern society, government, economics, education, and the role of the family, all while providing an engaging work of speculative fiction.  

Review of The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg



Review of The Four Profound Weaves

Jeremy Brett

R.B. Lemberg. The Four Profound Weaves. Tachyon, 2020. Paperback. 189 pp. $14.95. ISBN 9781616963347.


“This tale must be told four times”, said Uiziya, as if reciting a lesson. “Stitched with wind, stitched with sand, stitched with song, stitched with bones. Change, wanderlust, hope, and death. Only then will the ultimate secret become known (66).

Sadly, because of space, I cannot tell this review four times. This is a pity, because a typical review does not and cannot serve the utterly atypical R.B. Lemberg well. They are such a singular writer, their writing rich in both deep strangeness and lyric beauty, such as to be expansively beyond a typical work of fantasy. No writer I know of so populates their fantasy world with so many genderqueer and/or autistic characters (both sorely lacking in most standard SF&F). Their prose greatly resembles the graceful, stunning, nearly intangible carpets that feature in both this novella and its Nebula-nominated predecessor, “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds.” Like those carpets, Lemberg’s fiction, particularly their Birdverse in which Weaves is set, is constructed of countless threads of bright color in the woof and threads of darkness and grief and suffering running crosswise in the warp. The latest Birdverse chronicle, The Four Profound Weaves, is likewise a beautiful piece of craft.

The first of the Four Profound Weaves is woven from wind. It signifies change”. (19) Change, transformation, shifts in identity – these are at the heart of Lemberg’s story. In fact, it is the heart of most of their stories. Intangibles such as wind and hope are woven into graspable objects, from something unseen into something that can be felt, touched, admired. Bones are made into cloths that robe assassins. In Lemberg’s Birdverse magical cosmology, the abstract concepts of geometry, are changed through the mystical use of special naming into usable works of protection and healing. Things and peoples and individuals are always changing in Birdverse.  

Yet, the most noticeable and outstanding characteristic of Lemberg’s Birdverse work is the acceptance and commonplaceness of genderfluidity. Moving between and among genders as a matter of course is a practice that generally escapes comments – to switch genders is much more the norm than the exception, despite some cultural differences on the subject. One of Weaves’ protagonists, nen-sasair, is a trans male who was originally introduced as the woman Bashri-nai-Tammah in “Cloth of Winds” but who transitioned before the beginning of Weaves. At one point he muses about his fellow protagonist, the weaver Uiziya e Lali, thinking:

I did not know that she was a changer like me. I never thought anyone was. I had never met others who went through the change in Iyar. They were banished or imprisoned or hiding or dead. But here, in the desert, changing one’s shape was a matter of ritual, of love, not of desperate secrets. (29)

Nen-sasair is a member of the Khana people (a rough Birdverse cultural analog to the Jews), among whose women both queerness and polyamory are accepted as a matter of course (as they are elsewhere in Birdverse). However, trans people are not. Change for nen-sasair is a psychological necessity and part of the natural order; his native Khana are lacking. They are less, in many ways, for not embracing the fluid nature of ongoing change. Uiziya’s aunt Benesret (the master crafter who creates the eponymous weaves) snorts at the notion that changing gender is foreign to the Khana, or indeed, to anyone. “That’s what he says. Changing is always and forever done. Everywhere, it is done; in open, in secret. He has gone through the change and so, I assure you, have others”. (59) And Uiziya herself notes, “It is not hard to be a changer among my people. I know that it is not true everywhere, but in the great Burri desert, changing your body to match your heart is not a thing to bleed over”. (27)

For Lemberg, change is a beautiful thing, a regular and welcome part of life and the human condition. Early in the novella, they describe nen-sasair’s transformation into what he calls his “true life” in the most poetic way.

But now I was here, far east and away from Iyar, in the great Burri desert. It was here, at this very place, in this dust, on the outskirts of the snake-Surun’ encampment, I had stood in my cloth made of winds, the weave of transformation my friends and my grandchildren had woven for me out of love. I’d lifted my arms to the sky and the sandbirds had come to me, sent to me by the goddess Bird and summoned by the cloth of winds. They were birds of bright fire that fell from the sky and cocooned me, until I could see and hear nothing except the warmth and the feathers enveloping me and the threads of the wind singing each to each until my whole skin was ignited by the sun, my body changing and changed by the malleable flame. And when it was done, I sang.

I sang as the wind and the feathers dissolved into sand under my feet; I sang because my transformation was complete. I sang the dawnsong – the sacred melody that the men of my people sing, standing on the roof of the men’s quarter every morning. (26)

The opposite of change is stasis, and stasis is unnatural. Uiziya and nen-sasair are travelling to the latter’s home city of Iyar to retrieve Benesret’s weave of hope from the Ruler of Iyar (“The Collector”) who hoards the beautiful and rare within his dark coffers in an attempt to stop time like an insect in amber. As he explains, “I want things to remain, sacred and sovereign and unchanging. I want to preserve what is best. It is a noble purpose”. (143) It is to rescue beauty and change from this dark imprisonment (albeit for their own purposes) that motivate the two protagonists to make the journey.

And as it turns out, the Ruler’s actions are even darker than at first supposed. In his behavior he stands in opposition to every one of the Four Profound Weaves: he refuses to embrace the natural inevitability of change, which he calls “a lie”. Rather than experience or trust wanderlust he would rather stay entombed within his palace. “Change is the world’s greatest danger…You rebel, you wander from place to place, you chafe at my rule, thinking that something else, somewhere else, would be better. It isn’t. But I save you. I am the one who is centered and stable, anchoring the whole world from my rainbow-tiered court, unmoved by world’s wildness, contained in my birdcage throne”. (120-121)

Rather than welcome hope and make it free to all, he warps it by offering it as a scrap of bait. As nen-sasair notes of him, “Hope. Hope has been perverted here, in your Rainbow-Tiered Court, into a thing only you can possess”. (145) By contrast, nen-sasair understands hope as a necessity of life, speaking of it in terms that any Jewish person—such as Lemberg themself—would find familiar:

It [the dawnsong nen-sasair hears] was hope. My hope, and the hope of all others of my people who sang it throughout the landmass. The hope that wherever we wandered, exiled, and unwanted, the dawn would still come for us. We had only to hold on. (107)

Finally, the Ruler fails to understand death, the final Weave. He seeks the carpet of death that is woven from bones, but only as a prize and a symbol of power. To that end he slaughters countless rebel woman and stores their bones in his dungeons, ready to have them used as mere tools in the crowning of his great and sterile collection. In the name of stability and a world where the frightening nature of change can never take hold, he acts supremely unnatural in trying to subdue hope and death. But in this, the Ruler must ultimately fail, because Lemberg knows that what is natural, what is true to nature and to oneself, cannot be suppressed. Towards the end of the novella, nen-sasair sings before the Ruler the truth:

“Bird’s feathers made the threads that Benesret wove into her great carpet of song; and the bone-threads Uiziya had made from the women you killed will now sing. Hope and death; the siblings are intertwined, and this is the mystery of the ever-changing desert. Hope cannot be given away, to you, or to anyone. Hope is the song which arises from silence where all our voices had been; all those locked away against their will one day will surge again, come forth with great exuberance, sweep the world in a reverberation of rainbow more true than your Rainbow-Tiered Court.” (168)          

Lemberg ends the novella with hope, hope at the promise of renewal and the excitement of new adventures. This is of a piece with the rest of The Four Profound Weaves, which is remarkable in its truths about the changing nature of life, poetic in its prose, and profound in its understanding of humanity.

Review of Drew Magary’s Portal B (a teleportation love story)



Review of Portal B (a teleportation love story) by Drew Magary

Jonathan P. Lewis

Drew Magary. Point B (a teleportation love story). Independently Published, 2020. 461 pp. Paperback. $13.99. ISBN 9798637737680.


Drew Magary’s voice in his SF novels The Postmortal, The Hike, and now Point B, remains steadfastly blunt: he hammers and harrows his characters and his readers with to-the-point prose and blistering dialogue. He recently told me that “there’s a LOT of dialogue in Point B, because I had written a couple of novels already that were more spare in dialogue and wanted to go the other way. Dialogue is a blast to write.” Coming from the sports blogosphere into popular SF, Magary follows the long tradition in his fiction of posing interesting questions about the possibilities of technological revolution, and then measuring the fall-out of such novums as the end of disease and instant travel through space-time.

Magary, formerly of Deadspin, GQ, and other outlets, now writes for GEN, Medium’s cultural magazine, Vice, and SFGate where he can hurl bile at the inequities and cruelty of our contemporary world. But ultimately, Magary is a humanist in the Vonnegut tradition, looking at how bad actors will always pursue money and power at any cost to human lives, and Point B is a strong novel for the strange times we find ourselves in. 

Because of breakthroughs in “anti-hydrogen,” the novel tells us, people can use their smartphones to instantly teleport from nearly anywhere on Earth to nearly anywhere else on Earth—China, e.g. has locked down the country and so there is no access in or out—but while the tourism business booms for popular destinations, whole industries such as car manufacturing and airline travel have completely tanked. Global climate change is solved because who needs to burn fossil fuels to move about? Whole cities such as Cleveland are abandoned for who needs to live in Cleveland when work opportunities are everywhere and anywhere—temporary housing is easy to come by and travel costs are negated.

Point B follows the adventures of 17 year old Anna Huff as she enters Druskin, an elite preparatory school in New Hampshire. An accomplished diver and pianist, Huff is awarded a full scholarship to the school and finds herself rooming with the daughter and half-sister of the novel’s respective antagonists, Emilia and Jason Kirsh. Huff becomes quickly enamored of Lara Kirsh, but Lara leaves Druskin after just a few days after the girls are caught in a late-night swimming excursion in the on-campus river. Finding friends in two boys named Burton and Bamert, Huff tries to survive her time in detention as a test subject for Jason Kirsh’s attempts to broaden transportation weight-limits from 2 kilograms to 3 in teleportation. Kirsh is a sociopath who, Anna learns, tortured her sister into suicide by using secret teleportation protocols to stalk Sarah.

Point B has a great deal to say about stalking, sovereignty, security, and other techniques of domination in our seemingly always connected world and much of it should give us pause. Magary’s best moments in The Postmortal and The Hike asked us to consider the Faustian bargains we make every day in the name of convenience and connectivity and of life without disease or introspection that can rob us of real meaning. In Point B, when a boy dies on Everest because he can port near the summit without any mountaineering experience, most in the novel’s world take it as a dumb stunt gone awry—the thrill seeker getting his just deserts. But Magary takes it a step further, looking at how the boy’s death leaves a hole in his family and how his mother’s quest for truth leads her to be, the novel suggests, another of Jason Kirsh’s victims who asked too many questions of the purveyors of so-called easy happiness and infinite, instant, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Point B also asks us to consider the impact and limits of education—especially elite educational state apparatuses—in creating responsible citizens when anyone, can step past the old velvet ropes and create Insta-stories formerly only available to the ultra-rich and powerful. How will the powerful set up new boundaries to keep the plebes out? Why spend time in a school when nearly anywhere in the world can be seen and experienced first-hand and what will those who run such powerful institutions as Druskin do to keep their privilege? For the novel, the answer is nearly anything—the Kirshes, mother and son, donate huge amounts of money to the school to buy access not just to power but to control how the powerful continue to exist at all. Magary further uses that cliché of prep school life, the monied dandy with a drinking problem at 17 because Daddy doesn’t love him, to look at the toxic values institutions like Druskin can promote and sustain. (For the record, I also went to a New England prep school and knew a few Bamerts who bounced from school to school with fine minds who only used them to scheme their way into securing alcohol and hiding their Kodiak addictions because why bother studying when the path to financial success was already set in stone through family connections?)

Overall, I recommend Point B and am surprised that Penguin, Magary’s publisher for The Hike and The Postmortal, passed on the novel. It’s a good diversion in these trying times, and like the best of mainstream SF, has a great deal more to say than celebrating a novum like teleportation and what it might offer to us.

Review of Nancy Kress’s Sea Change



Review of Sea Change by Nancy Kress

Jeremy Brett

Nancy Kress. Sea Change. Tachyon, 2020. Paperback. 191 pp. $15.95. ISBN 9781616963316.


It’s a singular book that begins with a runaway self-driving house, and Nancy Kress has mastered the art of the opening line. Sea Change begins with the words “The house was clearly lost.” It’s a funny, yet at the same time jarring, line that instantly tells the reader that something has clearly shifted in the world. And so it has. Kress gives us a United States where normal life is increasingly rare as the effects of climate change and man-made environmental collapse encroach more and more on society. Of course, in our age of climate change this is not groundbreaking in itself, but Kress puts a unique spin on it by avoiding a simple “Us (environmentalists) vs. Them (the government, or Big Business, or terrorists)”. Instead, in Sea Change Kress presents a bio-thriller with a multifaceted setting in which environmental groups battle the government but also compete amongst themselves with different agendas and tactics. The tendency of humanity to fracture runs deep through Kress’s book; however, just as strong is humanity’s endurance in the face of catastrophe. As protagonist Renata notes:

Most of all, I felt fear. Not for myself but for the organization that always hovered between detection and ineptitude, the organization made of dedicated amateurs up against both law-enforcement professionals and a stupid public, the organization that I would protect with everything in the world until we’d succeeded in our quixotic attempt to save that—probably unworthy—world from itself, whether it wanted that or not.

Sometimes the world doesn’t know what’s best for it.

17

Climate change fiction faces unique challenges. It’s easy and even seductive to simply write an apocalyptic dystopia where we’re all going to die and where humans in the last days of civilization carve out meager or desperate existences by feeding on others. That kind of dark pessimism has run through science fiction since its beginnings, carrying into the Cold War with its numberless tales of nuclear holocaust through the environmental disasters chronicled by Brunner and Harrison, into today’s endless, increasingly tiresome zombie apocalypses. However, writers like Kress are also finding a space in their climate change fiction for hope. We need hope, if we are to survive the existential and psychological crisis that climate change represents. We need stories in which humanity actively works to slow or repair the damage it has caused. We need them so very desperately, and as readers we are fortunate enough to have a cadre of hopeful authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Kelly Robson, L.X. Beckett, Neil Stephenson, and others who chronicle our drive to be better, to do better, to fix what we have broken. 

Sea Change is such a work, wrapped in the fabric of a well-paced biothriller. Kress chronicles a world suffering in the aftermath of “the Catastrophe”: a widespread drug is infected by a genetically modified bacterium that picks up a lethal gene; hundreds of children die as a result. In the aftermath, worldwide protests—many of them violent—against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) cause deaths, widespread economic collapse, and government overstrain and neglect. In Kress’s new world, GMOs are outlawed, their ban heavily enforced by the US government (through a powerful new Department of Agricultural Security), with the result that massive food shortages are endemic. And underground organizations fight back. Renata is a member of the Org, a resistance group working, as she says, “to restore genetic engineering to a country that had rejected it, and so feed the United States and the world as climate change, desertification, and rising seas changed the face of the globe” (71). One of the ways the Org fights back is through a covert, fragmented network of isolated farms that use engineered crops. It’s an unusual resistance strategy and one of the things that makes Kress’s book so unique. 

Quiet, determined resistance is the hallmark of Sea Change (although the book certainly has its share of more dramatic actions, much of it hinted at or appearing ‘offscreen’, as it were). Renata moves forward in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy, including the death of a child, caused ultimately by effects of climate change. She and her compatriots operate an underground group, that seeks to change the world, not violently, but rather through the distribution of scientific achievement and accurate information. They operate with a hopeful belief that change is possible.

Near the end of the novel, following a massive pro-GMO information dump across cyberspace by different environmental groups, Renata notes that “seeds had been planted, and the harvest of changed perceptions might grow” (183). Here is Kress’s optimism, here is the hope that people can change their minds for the better, that they can overcome their fears and their distrust to make a potentially better future. This is not easy; Kress expertly and simply delineates what a society permeated by fear and suspicion looks like, and it is not an easy one to escape. But recall that the term ‘sea change’, taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, denotes a substantial change in one’s perceptions. If the change comes, as the Catastrophe did, it must be large-scale and it must produce a long-lasting alteration in people’s behavior. The future of the Earth demands it. Sea Change is a welcome addition to the growing subgenre of climate change fiction that bursts with hope. If nothing else, if we ignored Kress’s clever worldbuilding and her engaging characterizations, that belief in hope makes it worthy.

Review of Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century



Review of The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

Jeremy Brett

Lavie Tidhar. The Violent Century. Tachyon, 2019. (Originally published Hodder & Stoughton, 2013.) Paperback. 316 pp. $16.95. ISBN 9781616963163.


Tachyon’s reissuing of older works (as well as the publication of new ones) by Israeli-British author Lavie Tidhar is an incredibly welcome gift. Tidhar’s concern with shifting perceptions of history is increasingly relevant in an age where an objective chronicle of facts seems increasingly like an outdated product of a more innocent age. In his 2011 World Fantasy Award-winning novel Osama, he told the story of a world in which the 9/11 mastermind is a fictional character. In the masterful 2014 A Man Lies Dreaming, World War II never happened because Adolf Hitler was never made Chancellor of Germany and fled to Great Britain, where he ekes out a noirish life as a ratty private detective. Tidhar’s most recent novel, Unholy Land (2018), is set in a Jewish state planted in East Africa (reminiscent of the real-life Uganda Plan of the early 1900s) where settlers clash with the natives they have violently displaced and which turns out to be only one of multiple potential realities. In Tidhar’s hands, history is a set of alternatives and reality is fluid; it’s an atmosphere that seems downright sensible, even oddly comforting, in a world where many of us would welcome potential different avenues for history to take.

Tidhar is certainly one of our more noirish sf writers working today, given his concern with investigating dark conflicts carried out in the shadows of the world (Dark both literally and metaphorically—the first line in the novel is “A gunshot in the fog,” and one of the opening scenes features a man walking along London’s South Bank, alone on a foggy night, in search of an obscure, out-of-the-way pub: quite noir, indeed). This also might very well earn him the title of SF’s John Le Carre, especially with The Violent Century, which has all the hallmarks of a Le Carre work—espionage carried out by world-weary veterans, shifting loyalties, and desperate attempts to remain human in a tense atmosphere of clashes among faceless international powers. Part of Le Carre’s genius has always been to show the deeply human, deeply ordinary side of espionage, and Tidhar matches him well in Violent Century (adding a dollop of superheroism to give it some spice).

The Violent Century is almost entirely set (except for a few flashbacks and a few scenes set in the present day) in an alternate World War II, fought in the aftermath of a 1932 experiment by German scientist Dr. Joachim Vomacht. That quantum experiment resulted in the creation, all across the world, of people imbued with superpowers. Naturally enough these heroes (or Ubermenschen) are brought into the worldwide conflict by the warring powers, fighting both on open battlefields and in the shadow realm of wartime espionage. This situation may seem similar to, for example, that depicted in the DC comic book series Watchmen (and its 2019 television sequel) or the George R.R. Martin-created and co-edited Wild Cards shared universe, both of which depict the political and social effects of superheroes on a “real” world. And those similarities are, indeed, present. However, those works—despite their frequent moments of bitterness and cynicism—are still rooted in a very American sense of colorful costumed personalities battling each other and who are larger than the ordinary lives around them. Tidhar’s protagonists, though, are, despite their powers, small people rooted very much in the ordinary.

The novel’s ‘heroes’ are British operatives who work for an MI6-like agency called the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs (no Avengers or Justice League here!). British superheroes are dull, with aliases that are stunning in their uncreativity. The two main characters are given the names Fogg (his power is, shockingly, generating fog) and Oblivion (whose power is to negate things and make them vanish forever); their colleagues include Spit (who emits saliva that can fly strong and hard like a bullet), Blur (super speed), and Tank (big and strong). The names are direct and uninspired, as gray as the declining British Empire they serve. By contrast, American heroes are right out of comic books, with bright costumes and names like Whirlwind, Tigerman, and the Green Gunman; Soviet heroes bear equally dramatic names like the Red Sickle and Rusalka, and German ones are called Schneesturm (Snowstorm) and Der Wolfsmann (The Wolf Man).

This very British understatement is part of the plan: as Fogg’s superior ‘the Old Man’ says to him, “We need men like you. Do not be tempted by the Americans, the loudness, the colour. We are the grey men, we are the shadow men, we watch but are not seen” (134). The word shadow is telling, and it recurs throughout the novel: Fogg and his colleagues are “the shadow men of a shadow war” (106). Fogg is called “the shadow man” by his great love, a German woman named Clara (which means “clear” or “bright”) whose power is to, essentially, bring things into the light. And the postwar period is only a pale reflection of that shattering conflict: “Everything else is a shadow of that war” (229). Tidhar’s use of the word stresses that his characters are only obscured reflections of some deeper reality, unlike traditional comic book heroes and villains that bring light and noise and thunder to their worlds. While they will never be mistaken for merely human, Tidhar’s characters are nothing but.

And therein lies the sadness and the fear at the heart of The Violent Century. Why is the century so violent? Because regular human beings have made it so, without the need for superheroes, who are almost afterthoughts to the struggles of real people. Because, as Cory Doctorow notes in his introduction to the novel, “[t]hat’s the real terror, after all: that our lives are tossed around not by the brilliant, all-powerful supermen, but rather by people whose pettiness, fears, and weaknesses are as bad as our own” (v). The real Hitler, the real Mengele, are more monstrous than any supervillain, and the inhumanity that ordinary men can wreak on each other is more powerful than any superpower. That may seem cliché, but it is no less true, as Tidhar works to make clear.

The traditional comic book hero has little place in Tidhar’s world, as the traditional James Bondian superspy has no place in Le Carre’s. There is a wonderfully meta scene set during Vomacht’s 1964 trial (based on Adolf Eichmann’s real-life 1962 trial), in which an American historian of superheroes, Joseph Shuster (in real life the co-creator of Superman), testifies to the definition of a hero, in the process setting apart characters like Fogg and Oblivion from Tigerman and Whirlwind.

Those of us who came out of that war, he says. And before that. From pogroms and persecution and to the New World. To a different kind of persecution, perhaps, But also hope. Our dreams of heroes come from that, I think. Our American heroes are the wish-fulfilment of immigrants, dazzled by the brashness and the colour of this new world, by its sheer size. We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us. The Vomacht wave did not make them. It released them. Our shared hallucination, our faith. Our faith in heroes. This is why you see our American heroes but never their British counterpart. Ours is the rise of Empire, theirs is the decline. Ours seek the limelight, while their skulk in shadows…We need heroes. 

227

It is a beautiful, heartfelt statement about the importance of heroes. However, as Tidhar shows, it is also completely wrong. American heroes help the CIA conduct its secret war in Laos and Vietnam. Russian heroes succumb to alcoholism and are considered abominations by the mujahedeen in Afghanistan who fight Soviet occupation. Former Nazi ubermenschen are reborn in the US as advertising shills for children’s breakfast cereals. And no hero anywhere flies out of the sky to stop the crashing of two planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. “That day we look up to the sky and see the death of heroes” (229). The Violent Century recognizes the very human emotional need for superheroes but hammers home the idea that those same heroes ultimately have little effect on history’s onrush. In the latter part of the novel, Tidhar provides brief passages concerning historical events: despite the existence of heroes, nothing really changes. Atomic bombs are dropped on Japan, the Vietnam War grows and rages, the Berlin Wall is built, the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. In a particularly telling passage, the comic book industry establishes the Comics Code Authority in 1954—just as it did in our world—which chains the very notion of superheroes to suburban, middle-class respectability. In any world, it seems, heroes can be tamed. Someone from our world dropped into Tidhar’s universe would see very little difference between the two.

The Violent Century, like much of Tidhar’s output, is an excellent addition to the literature of shifting perceptions of reality, most obviously represented by Philip K. Dick. It is also an effective counterexample to the artificiality of “genre”—the novel is at once an alternate history, a spy novel, a story of superheroes, and a war novel. Fitting many boxes and at the same time none at all, Tidhar’s novel (indeed, his entire literary career) demonstrates the imaginative power of fluidity to give us insights into the complex nature of our historical reality.