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Sandra Newman's The Country of Ice Cream Star is perhaps one of the grimmest and saddest dystopias I've ever read. I've been thinking about it a lot, and I'm still not sure I've unpacked all the horror - horror made all the worst because the teenaged, and most unreliable narrator/protagonist never quite understands how many ways she - and the people she claims as her own, her responsibility - have been used and abused and will in all likelihood continue to be.

There will be spoilers in what follows.

Ice Cream Star's country is the Nighted States - which likely includes all of North America - about 80 years after a plague has struck, killing off some unknown proportion of the population and prompting the flight of almost all white people from the continent. Exactly what happened, and how and why, is very vague, because our narrator knows only the barest bones of the tale, passed through the mouths of children.

What Ice Cream Star knows is that North Americans began dying, suddenly and quickly, from a disease called WAKS, which preferentially affected white people. At some point, the uninfected - possibly only the uninfected white - were evacuated to Europe. Left behind was a population of people of colour. All adults left behind seemed to have died of WAKS, but the surviving children were resistant, living long enough to die, in their late teens, from something else, colloquially known as posies, which may or may not be a variant of WAKS. Posies, of course, calls to mind the 'pocket full of posies' - flowers or herbs carried to mask the smell of death - from the nursery rhyme commonly thought to be a reference to the Great Plague (experts on folklore dispute this interpretation, though). But from the symptoms, and from the identification of posies as a carcinoma, I found myself thinking of Karposi's, and wondering if the original disease may have been mutagenic, weakening immune systems even among those resistant and their descendants, leaving them open to opportunistic infections.

So here we have a continent full of children, raising and bearing other children, living only to 18 or 20 then dying from something akin to AIDS, surviving on the remains of a dead civilisation, banding into groups and passing down garbled, half-remembered, half-fantastical memories of a dead culture.

While the geopolitics of this world are hazy, we gather from what Ice Cream Star knows, or learns from others (equally unreliable), that Russia and Europe have a vaccine or a cure for posies, that people live to a normal old age, and that civilization continues in those places. Russia, at least, seems to be conducting wars in various places around the globe, notably South America and Africa. And the Russians ('roos') keep their armies at strength by press-ganging child soldiers from North America. Aside from this, the rest of the world seems content to sit back and let the poor, black and Hispanic children of North America live their short lives of poverty and struggle.

The story itself is set in and around the former states of Massachusetts and New York, and the former District of Columbia. There are several quite different communities of survivors in this area, but the important thing to hold in mind that all the people in these communities are children. No one who is native to the Nighted States lives beyond 20, and many die earlier, from "posies" or from other illnesses, from accidents, from what is essentially gang warfare. Ice Cream Star and her people live in Massa Woods, where they are relative new-comers, having "come up from Chespea Waters." There are three other established communities in the area, the Christings, the Lowells and the Nat Mass Army. The Lowells are the largest community in the area, and the most technologically advanced, having made efforts to reclaim, understand and duplicate the remnants of the pre-plague culture. They live in a partially restored town and have plumbing and radios and they value science and education. The Christings are farmers, with a social order structured around a highly patriarchal reading/remembering of the Bible - organised by households, one older boy at the head with multiple wives and all their children. The Christings were a significant community in the area until recently, but most of the families have moved out, leaving only one Christing household in the area. The Nat Mass Army is a militaristic and male-dominated community. The boys hold the girls in common as nameless servants and sex partners, with one exception, the consort of the leader, or NewKing, who is always a girl given by the Christings, as a peace covenant. Ice Cream Star's Sengles are a small and relatively disorganised group, surviving by hunting, scavenging, trade, and 'thieving.'

Later in the novel we encounter two more cultures, each based in a city, with a much greater retention of knowledge and technology. The first of these is based in Ciudad de las Marias, formerly New York City. The dominant class, largely Latino, have imposed a form of theocractic rule on the black majority, in which the rulers of the city are a "Maria" - chosen in part through her ability to locate a light-skinned boy to serve as her "Jesus" - and a group of 12 "apostles" who witness her acquisition and then act as her counselors and the rulers of the "burrows." The Jesus, of course, is usually killed following the inauguration of the Maria and her sacred marriage to him, at her hands. The other community is a rigidly stratified military culture based in Quantico - formerly Washington D.C. - and devoted to the preservation of the Capitol area.

When Ice Cream Star captures a "roo" separated from his company of kidnappers, and learns from him that his people have a cure for the posies, which her beloved brother and leader of the Sengles has recently contracted, a course of events is started that will disastrously affect the communities of Massa Woods and Quantico, and lead to massive upheaval in Marias.

Fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star is a disturbingly ambiguous hero. She becomes leader of the Sengles just as the roos have launched a major campaign to collect child soldiers in the Massa Woods area - by deception if possible, force if necessary. Their standard ploy is to offer the posies cure to those who go with them, then turn those they lure or forcibly capture into fodder for their interminable wars around the globe. Pasha, the roo that Ice
Cream Star captures, uses a variation of this ploy first to save his life and gain Ice Cream Star's trust, and later to manipulate her into initiating a war that will destabilise the entire area from Massa Woods to Quantico.

But Pasha is only one of many who use, deceive, abuse and manipulate Ice Cream Star. During the course of the novel, she is manipulated into unhealthy and deceptive sexual relationships, raped, used as a political bargaining chip, forced again and again into untenable situations as she tries to keep her people alive and find a cure for her brother. Her narrative positions her as a leader and active participant in much of this, but as the degree of unreliability of her perspective slowly becomes apparent, it also reveals the degree to which she is unwittingly used by those she encounters.

In the end, she has lost everything and is being taken away to become a pawn in an even larger political game - yet she continues to believe that her sacrifices will bring an end to the suffering of, not just her own people, but all the children of the Nighted States. It's heart-breaking to reach the end and finally realise how much has gone wrong, for Ice Cream Star and her country.

I haven't yet mentioned the thing that most people hone in on at the beginning - the language. Ice Cream Star and most other survivors speak variations of a language that seems partly derived from AAVE, with infusions of French (from Louisiana? From Quebec?), transformed by the powerful cadences of a people dependent on storytelling and oral traditions. I found it easy to read, others have found that it distanced them a bit from the text, making it easier for them to process the brutality of these children's lives thanks to the effort required to read it.

It's a difficult book, a bloody and tragic story, and I can't stop thinking about what it suggests about sexism, racism, colonisation, exploitation, and more frighteningly, human nature.

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Carrie Patel's The Buried Life is an interesting, though flawed, debut novel. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world, in which cities have gone underground and technology has regressed to 18th century levels - trains but no cars or dirigible, nothing steampunkish here in terms of a more developed science built on earlier forms of technology. We are not told anything about the nature of the cataclysm, nor of the time that has passed since it occurred. We do learn quickly that what knowledge has survived is heavily controlled - history is a state secret, some literature of the past is freely available while some is fiercely repressed, and science seems strangely absent. In the city of Recoletta, absolute power seems to rest in an unelected Council, and class distinctions, based on wealth and power, are rigid.

This is a cautionary tale about power, secrecy, censorship and corruption, masquerading as a post-apocalyptic political thriller with murder and mayhem in great supply. It is strong on character and the trappings of a ripping good detective mystery, but doesn't quite manage to bind its disparate goals and narratives together. The solution to the mystery arrives too piecemeal and without appropriate emphasis and completeness for the mystery reader to be happy, and the deeper narrative about how power and resistance too often share the same mistakes seems too slightly woven into the story.

And it is disappointing that in the end, one of the characters that seemed to be a hero was seduced by the sweetness of power - though one might hope that there would be a sequel in which said hero regains the moral clarity needed to look beyond it.

Some good ideas and interesting characters, but not quite satisfying. Still, I'd like to see the story begun here developed further.

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Neal Stephenson's novel Seveneves starts off with a bang - quite literally - and manages to maintain a quick pace for the first two-thirds of the book, despite massive amounts of what would be terminal infodumping in less skilled hands. The final third is rather more leisurely, the narrative twists perhaps a bit too telegraphed, and the conclusion seems rather unconclusive. But what carries the novel despite its flaws is the humanity of the characters and the magnitude of both the initial catastrophe and the urgency of the action.

The trajectory of the story is established from the very first sentence: "The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason." Within a few pages, scientists determine that as the fragments collide in orbit, they will eventually reach a critical point where millions of small to medium particles will begin to fall to earth in a massive and prolonged meteor shower that will destroy all life on earth. Humanity's only hope is to build a space habitat around the International Space Station that will serve as both as an ark and a base from which surviving humans will be able to build a new civilisation in space that will sustain them until the earth is ready for life again - an estimated five thousand years.

The best part of the novel is the first half, which covers the two years between the destruction of the moon and the beginning of the long death of the earth's biosphere, as a flotilla of mini-habitats, small enough to build on earth and send into space, but large enough to serve as homes to a handful of people, grows around the ISS, turning the station into an orbiting village. Taut plotting, a rollercoaster of minor and not-so-minor catastrophes, both in the lives of the station's inhabitants and in the struggle to make a habitat that can give a reasonable breeding population a chance at survival, lots of near misses and a few real tragedies, drive this section forward. Once the Hard Rain of meteors begins to fall and the station's inhabitants are left on their own, the tension rises dramatically due to internal conflicts, but by the time the habitat is physically secure for future growth and the conflicts resolved, the situation is long past critical in another area.

And this is my biggest problem with the novel. I don't believe - despite all the technical detail that's given us - that the various long-term survival narratives are actually possible, given the situations that the immediate survivors find themselves in. The final third of the novel - which begins under the heading "Five thousand years later" - attempts to persuade us that these narratives are valid, that it could have happened this way, and certainly the cultures and circumstances Stephenson describes are fascinating and fun to think about, but I do not quite believe in them enough to fully suspend disbelief, and that dulls my enjoyment a teensy bit.

Still, it's a decent read, and the sheer excitement of the beginning is strong enough to carry one's interest through to the end.

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Paolo Bacigalupi's near-future dystopian thriller The Water Knife is a fast, hard ride through a drought-ridden Southwestern America where what little water remains is under the control of endlessly warring robber barons who live in sealed arcologies while the thirsty multitudes live in a hell where the strong rule and everyone else scrabbles to survive - but only barely.

Bacigalupi's novel belongs to the relatively new genre of what is called "climate fiction" - speculative novels, almost always dystopias, in which the effects of climate change on human life are a crucial part of the work, and as so, it is inherently a criticism of our lack of will and foresight in allowing such a future to be possible. But it is also, and perhaps more deeply, an examination of how far the concept of civil society can be degraded, how much of their dignity, morality and sense of connection people in desperate times will sacrifice to live one more day, how ruthless those with access to a limited power - in whatever sense - will go to hold onto their status. This is a world in which no one can be trusted, because anyone can be broken, and anyone will betray you for the dream of water.

The narrative focuses on water rights - in particular, documentation concerning senior rights to the Colorado River that will put anyone who owns them in the position of controlling the entire Southwest. Every major player is after them, and the list of mutilated bodies of people who someone thinks might know where they are hidden is growing. Angel is a water knife - a man whose job it is to cut through all the niceties to get whatever his employer needs to keep her control over the water she owns. And when he stumbles across the story of these old water rights, he knows it's up to him to get the rights for his boss. But no one knows who has them, and everyone, even Angel, is suspect. Also caught up on the bloody trail is Lucy, a journalist whose friend is seduced and murdered because of what he knows, and Maria, a destitute water peddler whose best friend is the mistress of another man who knows too much.

Toward the end of the novel, Angel and Lucy share a conversation that goes to the heart of the question Bacigalupi is asking. And the answer this novel gives us is grim indeed.

He shrugged. “Maybe people got choices. But mostly they just do what they’re pushed to do. You push, they stampede.” He nodded down at the screen and restarted the video. “And when shit really starts falling apart? Sure, people work together for a while, but not when it gets really bad. I read this article about one of those countries in Africa—Congo or Uganda or something. I was reading, thinking how shitty people are to each other, and then I got to a part where these soldiers, they…”

He glanced at Lucy, then looked away.

“They did a bunch of shit to a village.” He shrugged. “And it was exactly what some militia I worked with did to a bunch of Merry Perrys who tried to swim across the river to Nevada. And that was exactly like the cartels did when they took Chihuahua for good.

“It’s the same every time. All the rapes. All the chopped-off cocks that get shoved in dudes’ mouths, all the bodies burned with acid or lit on fire with gasoline and tires. Same shit, over and over.”

Lucy felt sick, listening to him. It was a view of the world that anticipated evil from people because people always delivered. And the worst part was that she couldn’t really argue.

“Like there’s something in our DNA,” she murmured, “that makes us into monsters.”

“Yeah. And we’re all the same monsters,” Angel said. “And it’s just accidents that turn us one way or another, but once we turn bad, it takes a long time for us to try to be something different.”

A taut, well-written suspense thriller with thought-provoking undertones.

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What can you say about a novel that opens with unthinkable revenge - a deliberately-evoked cataclysm that will destroy a civilisation and scar a planet - and the searing grief of a mother at the sight of her brutally murdered son? N. K. Jemisin's latest book, Fifth Season, is a brilliantly conceived and executed novel about the unending cycle of destruction and rebirth that is life, set in a world shaped by apocalypse after apocalypse in which history is unreliable and much of the past is lost.

In this world of brokenness and endings, the earth itself is the great antagonist, the Evil Earth, the cruel Father, venting rage on the peoples living on his surface with earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, sometimes on a scale that nearly brings all life to ruin. The only force known to be able to hold back the damage is the gift of the orogenes, a human-seeming people with the ability to sense and manipulate the energies in stone, earth, and even living beings. They can quell or cause the earthshifts, great and small, but unless their powers are trained and under control, the energy they draw from their surroundings to achieve this can kill.

In the time and place of the novel, the current civilisation has found a way to force control on the orogenes, who are treated as potentially dangerous tools, not people, subject to an organisation known as The Fulcrum which gathers orogenes - or roggas, as they are called by most humans - as children and trains them to serve the needs of human society.

The narrative is told in three strands, at three different points in time. On the earliest strand, Damaya, a young orogene discovered when she instinctively uses her powers to defend herself against a human boy, is taken by a Guardian and brought to the Fulcrum for training. In the second strand, an orogene woman named Syrenite is sent by the Fulcrum on a mission with an older and very powerful orogene, Alabaster, to clear a blocked harbour in the city of Allia. And in the third strand, which opens at the moment of the cataclysm, an orogene woman hiding from the Fulcrum, passing as human, finds her dead son, and sets out through the wounded landscape and the post-apocalyptic chaos to track the killer who has taken her daughter.

Like the land itself, the characters are wounded again and again, partially healing only to face yet another catastrophe, and yet in their survival is the hope that something can be salvaged, and that perhaps, if the world is changed enough, there can finally be true healing - even if it is the healing of the end of all things.

The first of a trilogy of books, Fifth Season is a powerful and mature work from a master storyteller.

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The Summer Prince is a complex and thoughtful YA novel set in a post-apocalyptic future (references are made to bombing, extreme climate change and plagues) in which some parts of the world have recovered, advanced and prospered while others remain damaged, unstable and unsafe. One bubble of prosperity (at least for most of its citizens) is the city of Palmeres Tres (the historical Palmeres was a fugitive community of escaped African slaves, people of mixed race, Indians and poor whites, mostly Portuguese, established in colonial Brazil in 1605). Palmeres Tres is a city built in the shape of a pyramid, with the wealthy and political elites living on the upper tiers, and the lowest class, those who work and live amidst the stench of the algae tanks that feed the city on the bottom.

Founded after the Y Plague which killed 70 percent of the male population around the world, Palmeres was and is a matriarchy, ruled by a Queen and her congress of advisors, mostly Aunties with a sprinkling of Uncles. The legitimacy of the Queen, however, comes from the dying choice of the Summer Kings, who are sacrificed yearly (in a cycle of four moon years followed by one sun year - the moon year Kings traditionally only confirm the current Queen, the sun year Kings have the option to choose a new Queen as they are ritually killed.

Palmeres Tres has evolved a society that is essentially conservative and rigidly stratified on class, age and gender, but sexually permissive. Same-sex marriages, bisexuality and multiple partnering are commonplace, but the classes rarely interact, society is divided into grandes (those over 30) and the younger wakas (seen as children and lacking power), and men are rarely seen in positions of power and authority. Furthermore, there is a divide between the grandes, particularly of the upper classes who are resistant to new technologies, and wakas, particularly those of the the lower classes, who are eager to access and use these technologies.

The novel starts in the spring of a moon year. All of Palmeres Tres is eagerly following the public appearances of the three final candidates for Summer King, including two young friends - June, an aspiring artist from a high-ranking and politically connected family, and Gil, a dancer whose mother is a sought-after clothing designer. Their choice for Summer King is Enki, dark-skinned and the child of a refugee from outside, who grew up among the algae vat workers. (Don't read too much into the similarity of the names Enki and Enkidu, Gil and Gilgamesh - I did, and was a little disappointed to find that all that was being referenced was "wild man" element of Enki's character, the gap in social status between the two young men, and the intensity of the relationship that eventually develops between them.)

Enki, of course, becomes the Summer King, and rather than play the game of figurehead, he sets out to use his ceremonial powers to effect real positive gains for the people of the underclass. Gil becomes his lover, and Juno his secret collaborator in performance/spectacle art intended to spark social change.

As the narrative unfolds, this complex coming-of-age story addresses issues as diverse as the role of art and spectacle in shaping revolution and social change, the responsible use of new technologies, the ethics of privilege and power, the meaning of sacrifice, the importance of integrity and the need to consider consequences. All this on top of the more commonly highlighted YA themes of exploring love, sexuality, and friendship and negotiating the path from teenager striving to break with one's family to adult who accepts and understands one's family.

I enjoyed the book, but I feel it is important to comment on the issue of cultural appropriation raised by one reviewer:
Unfortunately, the book is set in Brazil and so obviously written by someone who is not Brazilian. And before anyone can say but “it is not really Brazil, because it’s in the future” or something equally disingenuous like that: the language used in the book is Portuguese; the location of Palmares Tres is still in Bahia; the book references Brazilian history and background. So yes: it is Brazil.

But a Brazil that only an outsider could write. Because the story focuses on the parts of history and culture that an outsider would highlight, and none of the insider knowledge that goes much beyond the surface. And I want to be careful here because it’s not like I don’t appreciate and admire authors who want to move the focus from Europe/US to elsewhere in the world. I also have read interviews with the author (and even briefly met her at BEA a couple of years ago) and I believe in her good intentions and that she tried to be as respectful as possible, which just goes to show that even the best intentions can go awry. (
I did notice that many readers/reviewers seemed to be veering toward exoticising the setting, as in this comment: "Alaya evokes the feeling of this place so well that I don't just want to visit Brazil, I want to learn capoeira, and samba."

Johnson has spoken about having done research and reached out to people with more knowledge and experience of Brazil, so it's clear that she acknowledged the issues of writing about another culture. And it's important for writers to push boundaries. It's hard to write authentically about a culture you have not lived in, but it is every author's right to try it, and Johnson clearly tried to do it with sensitivity and respect.

Personally, I feel that a book that succeeds in many areas while being flawed in some others is still a good book. I've read some great books set partially or wholly in Canada but written by people not steeped in Canadian culture that were "off" from a cultural perspective but still good because of what they accomplished in other areas. Is it always cultural appropriation to write about a culture not one's own? Does the intent and effort to deal with the culture respectfully make up for any lapses or inauthenticities perceived by the reader who is familiar with the culture? These are questions I don't have answers to. Which is, I suppose, why I've written at length about all the interesting aspects of the novel, but also added this lengthy discussion of culture appropriation.

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One of the few 1950s era novels dealing with the immediate consequences of nuclear war that was written by a woman and from the perspective of a female protagonist.

Reading a '50s novel that's written from the perspective of an ordinary '50s suburban housewife is a very strange thing in 2014. So much has changed, especially for women. And yet so much is familiar. Many developments in the novel that come in the wake of a surprise attack on American soil, such as the persecution of immigrants who've been in the country for years, eerily parallels recent events in the US.

It was difficult to read about the struggles of women who had so little practical knowledge and experience of anything outside home and family to make sense of what's happening to them - even though I'm old enough to remember when that was true for many middle class married women. And yet the subtle pervasiveness of sexual threat, both from strangers in lawless and desperate times, and from the men placed in charge of a frightened and helpless population, was unhappily too familiar still. Merril captures the protagonist's transition from confused and helpless suburban wife and mother to a survivor with the strength to deal with privation and illness with skill.

C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett also wrote dystopic/post-apocalyptic novels in the 50s (Doomsday Morning and The Long Tomorrow) and I don't remember ever reading either one. I think I might hunt them down and check them out. Andre Norton also wrote several post-apocalyptic novels - Star Man's Son is the one that leaps immediately to mind but I think there were othets as well. Might be interesting to re-read those as well.

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Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy - consisting of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam - is a dystopic vision of monumental proportions.

I didn't get around to reading the first volume until after the third had been released; this perhaps meant that I was somewhat more fortunate than early readers of Oryx and Crake, who were faced with something very bleak, and did not then know that there would be more to come, that would at least explain and leave the reader with some sense of hope.

My first coherent thought about Oryx and Crake was to relate it to other science fiction works - I thought of it as Doctor Frankenstein meets Doctor Ain in the Garden of Eden (and if you don't know the Tiptree short story I'm referring to, shame on you). My second coherent thought was to reserve further thinking until I had finished the remaining volumes.

I enjoyed reading The Year of the Flood more than I did Oryx and Crake - possibly because I like the protagonists better, and because I liked the story of subversives and neo-hippies more than that of genetic scientists playing god - even though in this volume, the second of the trilogy, those two groups are shown to overlap.

It was most interesting seeing the events and the people of the first volume through different eyes, from different perspectives. So many gaps were filled in, and Snowman's solitary narrative from Oryx and Crake took on depth and complexity. I was quite caught up by the ending, and moved on to the third volume, Maddaddam, immediately.

And was rewarded. All the threads from the previous two novels are caught up and woven together in one final tapestry that shows clearly connections barely seen or hinted at before. So, too, the survivors of the Flood - and not just the humans and the experimental creations of Crake - come together to presage a new and very different future.

Through this layering and re-layering of perspectives, Atwood brings the reader slowly but powerfully to the conclusion you'd least expect (at least, if you were reading anything other than Atwood) and does it so beautifully that by the end I was crying.

For those well aware of Atwood's tendency to make sly references, I will simply add that the name of the final volume is a palindrome, which for some reason called to my mind the phrase from T. S. Elliot's Four Quartets: in my beginning is my end.

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Nomansland is inspired by a casual reference to a female-only society in the classic post-apocalypse novel The Chrysalids by John Wyndham: "To the north-east they say there is a great land where the plants aren’t very deviational, and the animals and people don’t look deviational, but the women are very tall and strong. They rule the country entirely, and do all the work. They keep their men in cages until they are about twenty-four years old, and then eat them. They also eat shipwrecked sailors. But as no one ever seems to have met anyone who has actually been there and escaped, it’s difficult to see how that can be known. Still, there it is—no one has ever come back denying it either." Hauge has taken this reference as the basis for the community of Foundland.

In talking about Nomansland, I think it is important to keep its beginnings in mind because both novels feature extreme examples of societies obsessed with conformity to a rule of behaviour and indeed of ways of being, and young people who secretly challenge the strictly enforced norms and ultimately elect to leave these societies. It's also important to keep in mind that in both societies, memory of what life was really like before the apocalypse has been lost in part, supressed in part, and heavily coloured by the choices made by the founders of these post-Tribulation societies. As well, knowledge about other existing communities of survivors is repressed and mythologised - the women of Foundland are not cannibals, and as the young protagonist of Hauge's novel learns, men as not exactly as she has been told either.

Nomansland presents a society that shares some elements with other women-only dystopias, including Wyndham's Consider Her Ways, and also some elements with the medieval Christian monastic orders, both for men and for women. The women of Foundland live under a rigid caste structure, live highly regimented communal lives, obey rules of conduct that focus on a denial of individuality, sensuality, "vanity" - which includes everything from personal decoration to looking in a mirror, are enjoined to avoid "special friendships" and receive severe punishments including whippings, shunnings, solitary confinement and banishment for breaking the Rule.

However, as the teen-aged protagonist Keller learns, these rules are indeed broken at every level of Foundland's society. Its rulers dress up in fancy clothing and indulge in sensual repasts. Some adults maintain extended "special friendships" and a few maintain clandestine connections with men who visit the island from time to time, trading in tobacco and other luxuries. And some of Keller's peers have stumbled upon a cache of artifacts from the past, including clothing, jewely, cosmetics and fashion magazines. Some reviewers of the novel have fastened on the way in which Keller and her companions throw themselves into frenzies of secret beauty pageants and make-over parties as a rebuke of feminist criticism of "the beauty trap," and even a statement about the "essential" quality of decoration as part of the female psyche, but it serms to me more that these are adolescents embracing new (to them) behaviours and rejecting the severe codes of behaviour they grew up with, and human beings seeking to explore their individuality and sensuality. In any case, the novel provides much food for thought on issues of gender and individual identity.

It's also a good read.

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And finally, the last few books from 2013.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Magnificat

What would happen if, following the death of the Pope, the Conclave met and somehow unanimously elected someone whose name they had never heard or seen before? Who was everything a Pope should never be - a middle-aged magistrate from communist China, an atheist, a woman? Yarbro imagines it, and it is quite wonderful to read.

Simon Clark, The Night of the Triffids

A quite enjoyable sequel/homage to Wyndham's classic The Day of the Triffids, which begins 30-odd years later among the human survivors on the Isle of Wight. The narrator and protagonist, David Mason (son of the narrator of the original novel) is a pilot who hopes to find evidence of other surviving colonies to unite in the face of increasing indications that the triffids are intelligent and have plans to destroy the remaining humans. In the course of his quest, Mason, like his father before him, is harshly reminded that triffids are not the only threats to the survival of humanity.

Ellen Galford, Queendom Come

Galford's satirical, feminist, woman-centred view of the world is in high form in this novel. Set in Scotland during Thatcher's Blue Reign, the narrative focuses on the sudden appearance of an ancient Caledonian war-queen, called upon, like Arthur, to return in the hour of her nation's greatest need, and the near immortal seer/sorceress who was the queen's counsellor centuries ago and has awaited her return. Funny as hell.

R. A. MacAvoy, The Third Eagle

MacAvoy is a brilliant fantasist, but this foray into space opera is, while pleasant reading, not among her masterpieces. The protagonist, Wanbli Elf Darter, a skilled member of a clan of bodyguard/assassins who traditionally serve the landed classes on the planet of Neunacht, leaves his people and culture behind to travel in space. After many picaresque adventures, he ends up on the "revivalist" ship Commitment, which is crewed by survivors of generation starships sent out centuries before. The crew of the Commitment have adopted a mission to hunt down other such sleeper ships drifting through space - whereupon they decant a few of the frozen people aboard. The rest they kill, because there is no place for them to go - the colonised planets won't accept them, and the Commitment can only take on enough to replace crew lost to injury, illness or old age. Wanbli, of course, finds an answer that allows the sleepers to live. Despite the grim situation of the sleepers, this novel is mostly light-hearted and fun.

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Three novels about the end of the world, from three authors, writing at three points in time - the 1970s, the 1990s, and the 2010s.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Time of the Fourth Horseman

An early Yarbro science fiction novel (from 1976) set in a (now alternative) timeline in which overpopulation due to improvements in medicine has brought about massive social problems and a burgeoning, underserviced underclass. Suddenly, in the city of Stockton, diseases thought to have been eradicated begin showing up, but no one recognises them - or at least admits to doing so. The novel focuses on the efforts of a small group of dedicated maverick health care workers who discover that the diseases have been intentionally reintroduced into the underclass population as an experiment in population control, with a side order of eugenics.

From the initial horror of one doctor's realisation that the man closest to her is responsible for running this "experiment" to the ambiguous ending which may or may not presage the spread of plague worldwide, this is an interesting read, albeit one that is in some ways dated, and that lacks the careful characterisation and attention to detail that marks Yarbo's later fiction.

Jack Womack, Random Acts of Senseless Violence

I had not heard of this book until Jo Walton reviewed it on Then an acquaintance of mine with excellent taste in books (we like many of the same things) read it and couldn't stop raving. So I read it. It is amazing. And the last few pages chilled my soul. More people should read it.

This is what Walton said:
Random Acts is written in the form of the diary of Lola Hart, a twelve year old girl in a near-future New York City. As the book progresses she changes from being a sweet middle-class child to a robbing murdering street girl as society changes around her. Presidents are assassinated and money is devalued and martial law is declared as she worries about her sexuality and groans about being forced to read Silas Marner for school. At the start of the book she's writing in standard English with the occasional odd word choice, by the end she has progressed into a completely different dialect, and you have progressed step by step along with her and are reading it with ease. I can't think of a comparable linguistic achievement, especially as he does it without any made up words. (Random example: "Everything downcame today, the world's spinning out and I spec we finally all going to be riding raw.") I also can't think of many books that have a protagonist change so much and so smoothly and believably. What makes it such a marvelous book is the way Lola and her world and the prose all descend together, and even though it's bleak and downbeat it's never depressing.

So, why haven't you read it?
Back in the 90s when this book was written, i'm not sure I would have accepted the premise that the veneer of civilization we cling to is so fragile that it can disintegrate into chaos in just a few months. But we've come so much closer to the edge now, and that makes the events of this book that much more believable to me.

It's brilliant. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Don't be fooled by the fact that the protagonist is 12 years old. This is not a YA novel.

Alex Adams, White Horse

A novel (first in a planned trilogy) of considerable power. As it begins, The protagonist, Zoe, is living a perfectly normal life working on the cleaning staff at a pharmaceutical company, trying to save money to go to college. Then one day, she wakes up to find a mysterious jar in her apartment. The mysterious appearance of the pot, which she does not touch, seems to signal the beginning of the apocalypse, in the form of a mutagenic plague that kills most of its victims from rapid, lethal change; those who survive no longer seem human. Zoe is one of the few immunes, and the novel details most chillingly her struggle to survive and find the man she loves in a world that is filled with monstrous brutality.
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So, one of my favourite authors from my youth is John Wyndham, and I have been trying to re-acquire and, of course, re-read, his novels. Well, Penguin Books seems to have decided to help me out with that, as they have recently re-released a number of Wyndham's classics, and so I've been adding to my collection of Wyndham.

The Chrysalids

A post-apocalyptic dystopia, set hundreds, perhaps thousands of years after a Tribulation, most likely a nuclear world war from the description of the ruined places of the earth and the key plot point of on-going outbreaks of hereditary defects among plans, animals and humans. The novel's strong point is the description of a society that polices its racial purity with extreme and religious vigour, destroying and evidence of genetic deviation among plant and animal life, and exiling (after forced sterilisation) any humans who show signs of being Other than what is prescribed as human.

The story focuses on a group of young people. outwardly completely human, who have developed - and learned to hide - telepathic abilities, and what happens to them once they are no longer able to keep their suspicious gifts a secret. The conclusion is (almost literally) a bit of a deus ex machina, and wraps everything up all too quickly without examining any of the potential problems it poses - but the close look at a society obsessed with keeping itself pure of all taint of the Other - and how those in power use the obsession to their own ends - is worth the read. Also fun is the counterpoint provided by the world-travelling sailor-uncle of the narrator, who has seen through much of the hypocrisy, deception and fear rampant in his own society and the others he has known in his travels.

Trouble with Lichen

Despite the light and breezy tone of this novel, which is often considered one of Wyndham's lesser works, it's actually an interesting novel with a profoundly feminist perspective for something written by a man in 1960.

Diana Brackley is a chemist, at her first job following graduation, when she discovers that her boss, a man she has somewhat of a hero-worshipping infatuation with, is concealing a scientific discovery. Shocked by this, she secretly repeats his discovery, realises that he has found an compund that can significantly increase life span, and decides to do something about it on her own since it seems that he won't.

Her decisions are rooted in the awareness that for women (in this pre-Pill era), life seems require a forced choice between career and motherhood - but that if only women had more time, they could do both, if they wanted too.

There's some wonderful social satire from a feminist point of view in this novel, and it's a quick and pleasant read. At times, Wyndham drops the ball in his understanding of the feminist perspective, but considering the time in which he wrote, I'm certainly not going to rag him for it (sexist metaphors intentional). There are lots of men today who couldn't see some of this as clearly as he did then.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been reading quite a few anthologies this year. I seem to have developed a new enthusiasm for the short form, and this has led to some very pleasant and often thoughtful reading adventures.

Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, ed. Justine Larbalestier

What makes this anthology special is that, in addition to collecting 11 of the definitive feminist science fiction short stories of the last century (and one from the early part of this century), it also includes critical essays on each of the stories that examine the themes and context of each story. Also, by presenting stories from eight different decades, the anthology enables the reader to follow the development of feminist themes in science fiction writing. The short stories in this anthology are written by, from earliest to most recently published, Clare Winger Harris, Leslie F. Stone, Alice Eleanor Jones, Kate Wilhelm, Pamela Zoline, James Tiptree Jr, Lisa Tuttle, Pat Murphy, Octavia Butler, Gwyneth Jones, and Karen Joy Fowler. Some stories are very well-known, such as Tiptree’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side,” Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” and Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See.” This is a unique addition to the growing body of feminist scholarship of science fiction – or should that be scholarship of feminist science fiction – and a fine collection of stories with a feminist perspective.

I will also direct you to [profile] calico_reaction’s review of Daughters of Earth. I find some of the differences in our responses to the stories in this volume quite interesting, and in some ways indicative of just why such critical studies are so important. While we have similar opinions about the stories that were published before both of our beginnings as readers, especially readers of science fiction, and as feminists, we respond in some ways very differently to some of the later stories, primarily stories that write about, or reference, themes and ideas that I, as a woman who became both a reader of science fiction and a feminist in the early 60s, lived through first-hand and that I read as they were published in the context of their times. I actually think that it’s more the differences in our historical experiences as feminists than the differences in our pasts as readers of sff that accounts for much of the difference, based on what I’ve found in discussion with other younger women about feminist issues, but both are relevant.

For instance, I think that growing up in the era that produced Betty Friedan’s insights as expounded in The Feminine Mystique makes Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” a much more personal narrative for me, despite its experimental and somewhat distancing style and structure. Fowler’s “What I didn’t See” reads as science fiction to me because of the powerful experience of reading Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See” at a time when there really were millions of women that men did not see – the references are too immediate for me to see Fowler’s piece as anything other than a direct response to Tiptree and to a culture in which women in fictional products are repeatedly threatened by aliens, big apes and other monsters (in science fiction, and in its predecessors, the exploration adventure – from King Kong to Allan Quartermain - and the romance as a plot device to give men a reason to be oh so very manly.

In any case, no matter what your background as a reader of sff and as a feminist, I think you will find much to think about in this volume.

Shadows over Baker Street (eds) Michael Reaves, John Palan

The blurb on the back cover says it all:
What would happen if Sir Arther Conan Doyle’s peerless detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his allies were to find themselves faced with Lovecraftian mysteries whose solutions lay not only beyond the grasp of logic but beyond sanity itself?
Holmes vs. Cthulhu! The battle of the aeons! What more can you ask for?

Assuming that you are a fan of both the Great Detective and of the Lovecraftian mythos, that is. I found something to enjoy in every one of these stories, but I do have a few particular favourites, most notably Neil Gainman’s “A Study in Emerald,” Elizabeth Bear’s “Tiger! Tiger!”

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 1, ed. Jonathan Strahan

This is a new “year’s best” anthology series being published by Night Shade Books, and I bought it primarily because it contains stories by a number of authors that I’ve heard spoken of very highly, but have not read much – or in some cases, anything, of their work before now. And, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, an anthology is a good place to get to know new authors.

I enjoyed many of the stories collected in this volume, with special notice to Ellen Klages’ “In the House of the Seven Librarians,” Geoff Ryman’s “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy),” Kelly Link’s “The Wizards of Perfil,” Robert Charles Wilson’s “The Cartesian Theatre,” Peter S. Beagle’s “El Regalo,” and… well, the more I look at the table of contents’ the more I start thinking “you know, that one was really worth a notable mention… and so was that one… and that was a really interesting take on the subject matter… and that one was really powerful…” and so on.

Which tells you that Strahan is a very good editor, and this is a collection worth reading.

DAW 30th Anniversary: Fantasy, eds. Elizabeth R Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert

I had a specific reason for buying this anthology: it includes Michelle Sagara West’s “The Memory Of Stone.” You see, I’ve recently discovered West’s brilliant Sun Sword series and I’m trying to collect all of her short stories placed in the Empire of Essalieyan and the Dominion of Annagar.

But of course, what I got was so much more. New short stories by Andre Norton, Tanith Lee, Jennifer Roberson, Mercedes Lackey, Tanya Huff, Melanie Rawn, Deborah J. Ross, and others.

Sirius the Dog Star, eds. Martin H. Greenberg and Alexander Potter

This is another of the anthologies I acquired because it includes a story by Michelle Sagara West – this time, “Huntbrother” which in many ways completed her Sacred Hunt duology.

I must admit that I’m not a dog person, and had West’s story not been collected here, I probably wouldn’t have bought the book. And that would have been a bad thing, because then I would have missed such deeply moving stories as Tanya Huff’s “Finding Marcus,” Julie E. Czerneda’s “Brothers Bound,” Fiona Patton’s “Heartsease,” Rosemary Edghill’s “Final Exam,” Jane Lindskold’s “Keep the Dog Hence,” Kristine Kathryn Rasch’ “After the Fall” and Mickey Zucker Reichert’s “All the Vitues.”

It might not have turned me into a dog person, but it certainly made me appreciative of dogs as central characters in the hands of a skilful writer.

Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, ed. John Joseph Adams

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have a fascination for apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction – a fascination with tales that spring from the notion “This is the way the world ends…” And so I must thank John Joseph Adams for making an anthology just for me (and, I suppose, the many others who share my fascination with the subgenre).

Books with apocalyptic themes are rarely funny, and this volume is no exception to the rule, even though, in some stories, there is hope: hope that some will survive whatever mess we’ve made of the world we live in, hope that we might learn something and go on to do it better. In others, there is only the telling of the downfall, and the rest is silence – possibly a silence that we who have not yet seen an apocalypse on a scale that could end all of our worlds can ponder on and use to look for paths that do not end that way. For every The Postman, there is an On the Beach.

I’m not going to single out any stories, because all of them had something important to say about how and why the world – or a world – might end, and what we might do to nudge it in that direction or away from it, and what we could learn from thinking about the issues now, before it really might be too late. Unless of course, it already is and we don’t know it yet.

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Continuing the project of re-reading sf novels I remember fondly, or at least with clarity, from my youth.

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank is a "classic" novel written in the late 50s at the height of the Cold War frenzy, and it's one of those "the Russians/Americans have dropped nuclear bombs all over the world and what the hell will the poor suckers who survived the bombs do now" novels. The most well-known book of its kind from this era was probably Nevil Shute's On the Beach - which I also intend to reread one of these days.

There is much American patriotism and militarism and patriarchal sexism in the book, and the basic story is about how civilization as it is known in a small town in Florida deteriorates into chaos once the bombs fall, until a noble US military reserve officer decides to take matters into his own hands - duly authorised via a ham radio announcement from the Acting President of the US (we know how bad the situation is by the fact that the Acting Persident is the former Secretary of Health, and - gasp - a woman), who says that all reserve officers can create their own fiefdoms in whatever part of the US they happen to be surviving in, and use their rank to keep the American dream alive, because all US reserve officers are noble and would never misuse total authority and power were it to be given to them.

There are some very interesting gender and racial politics - before taking over what's left of his town, the hero creates for himself a little enclave in what was his upper-class family's home and citrus farm with a tribe (and I'm using that word deliberately) of women without husbands (including his widowed sister-in-law), blacks (all former servants of his or neighbouring families), two physically unthreatening older men (who, though retired, still have useful elder-type knowledge as a former admiral and a former industrialist who worked his way up from the machine shop) and a healer-shaman non-hero in the shape of the bespectacled and relatively pacifist town doctor.

There's even a mixed-race bad girl with a heart of gold who helps the hero take control of the town even though he doesn't want her as part of his tribe becasue he slept with her before the nice and very white girl he's chosen as "his" came along.

But we know our hero is a good man, because he treats "his" blacks and "his" women just as if they were real humans, just like him. Almost.

Interestingly enough, among the hero's first acts upon naming himself lord of the whole manor are:
1. to summarily execute three alleged "highwaymen" who beat up the doctor and stole his medical kit
2. to establish rules for formalizing and recording marriages and births

Civilization is restored once a man can protect his tribe by killing his enemies, and prove his ownership of the women and children.

So, basically, the politics just suck, totally.

But it's well-written, the characters and the plot are, within the limitations of the time and the cultual belifs of the author, interesting. It was as much fun to read as it was to tear apart. I guess that's an endorsement.

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The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

I've been rereading old sf classics as I find used copies here and there (or my partner does, which is essentially the same thing). I've managed to find a few volumes to restart my collection of John Wyndham novels. Wyndham is probably best known for The Midwich Cuckoos and The Day of the Triffids, both of which were made into movies, but I've always preferred The Kraken Wakes.

There are some strong similarities between the three books - an alien lifeform arrives on Earth, and changes life as everyone knows it - but what makes The Kraken Wakes that little bit more interesting to me is the slow progress of the invasion, as it were, and the detailed examination of how political and scientific communities around the world ignore the problem until it's just too late to do anything. There is some of this subtheme in the other works I've mentioned, but it is exploited to its fullest here.

Like many other sf writers, a lot of Wyndham's work deals with comunication - or the lack of it, or indeed the impossibility of it - whether between humans or with alien species. Those issues are foregrounded in the book, in part because the protagonists, a husband and wife research and writing team for a British television network, communicate for a living. They want to understand, to put the pieces together, to communicate.

Something else that I enjoy about Wyndham's work is that he sees women as people who contribute actively to the development of the plot. Wyndham's women are not the women of much standard sf written in the 1950s and early 1960s. They are often present in the novel becasue of their relationship with a man - Wyndham was a man of his times - but once in the novel, they think, they act, they offer valuable contributions to the development of the story.

I enjoyed reading this again. I must find more of his works to re-read (bearing always in mind that the man had more pen names than most sf writers of the era: John Beynon, John Beynon Harris, Johnson Harris, Lucas Parkes, and Wyndham Parkes.


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