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I read some science fiction novels that weren't re-reads in 2010, too, and found all of them quite enjoyable. New (to me) authors Sarah Zettel, John Scalzi, and Helen S. Wright were all discoveries to be savoured - Wright's book A Matter of Oaths in particular, as it is the only book she has published, and is a very good read, with an original setting,strong worldbuilding, and interesting characters. I have heard rumours that she is working on a new book - I hope it's true.

The most eagerly anticipated SF novels I read in 2010 were Jo Walton'sHalf a Crown - the excellent ending to a brilliant and chilling examination of how easily a people can be led into embracing a fascist and hate-mongering state - and Lois McMaster Bujold's Cryoburn, the latest volume in the highly entertaining saga of Miles Vokosigan.

Rounding out the year's new reading in science fiction were a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Moon, a John Wyndham novel I had somehow missed before now, another of Todd McCaffrey's books expanding on the world and history of Pern created by his mother, the late and sadly missed Anne McCaffrey, and one of Sharon Shinn's Samaria novels.

Elizabeth Moon, Moon Flights

John Wyndham, Web

Todd McCaffey, Dragonheart

Jo Walton, Half a Crown

Sharon Shinn, The Alleluia Files

Sarah Zettel, Fools’ War

John Scalzi, Old Man’s War
John Scalzi, The Ghost Brigades
John Scalzi, The Last Colony

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cyroburn

Helen S. Wright, A Matter of Oaths

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In 2010, I was in an odd mood, and ended up reading an awful lot of older science fiction I had read years before, perhaps as a kind of comfort reading.

The science fiction re-reads (with a couple of new reads I'm including here because they were recent books in a series I had first read ages ago) include a number of books by F. M. Busby and Steve Perry. One thing that ties these two authors together in my mind is that both of them wrote, as part of a longer series, a book focused on a kick-ass black woman, and that the original editions of both of these books had covers in which their black, female protagonist was prominently featured - fully dressed and looking like the professional warrior she was. And I've never forgotten either cover.

So here are my SF re-reads of 2010:

Frederick Pohl & C.M. Korncbuth, The Space Merchants

Mack Reynolds, Mercenary from Tomorrow

John Wyndham, Chocky

Alexei Panshin, Rite of Passage

James Schmitz, Telzey Amberdon

Henry Kuttner, Mutant

F. M. Busby, Rebel’s Quest
F. M. Busby, Star Rebel
F. M. Busby, Zelde M’tana
F. M. Busby, Young Rissa
F. M. Busby, Rissa and Tregare
F. M. Busby, The Long View
F. M. Busby, Alien Debt
F. M. Busby, Rebel Seed

Steve Perry, The Man Who Never Missed
Steve Perry, Matadora
Steve Perry, The Machiavelli Interface
Steve Perry, The 97th Step
Steve Perry, The Albino Knife
Steve Perry, Black Steel
Steve Perry, Brother Death
Steve Perry, The Omega Cage

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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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The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham

One of the great classics dealing with mid-20th century xenophobic paranoia, The Midwich Cuckoos is, for the handful of people who don’t know the basic plot, the story of a quiet English village that, along with a number of other small human habitations scattered around the planet, falls asleep one day and nine months later finds itself rearing a group of very unusual and psychically gifted children who are ultimately revealed to be a threat to all humankind.

It’s a simple story, one that that couches the question of the human response to fear of the unknown, the different, the other, inside a Darwinian framework – preservation of the species against the possible introduction of a new improved species that might compete successfully for resources and eventually drive out and condemn to evolutionary failure its less adapted predecessor.

The mysterious and obviously inhuman children are born with powerful defence mechanisms that protect them from deliberate attempts to harm them and enable them to retaliate against and punish much of what they cannot protect themselves from. Their difference, and their gifts, evoke fear in the humans around them. The situation moves quickly to a face-off in which both groups – the children, and the natural inhabitants of the world they have appeared in – assume that competition to the point of destruction is the only alternative.

The assumption is that Midwich and the other sites where these strange children have been born have been seeded by aliens, who leave their young to either survive or die with nothing more than their exceptional abilities to help them – in itself an evolutionary mechanism that permits minimal investment in reproduction at a great potential cost.

The fact that the children are shown to be a species of hive-minds – each town actually host only two alien individuals, one male, one female, with multiple bodies – without much in the way of difference or individuality in their component parts, suggests an interpretation of the book as a ideologically slanted parable of the Cold War, with the recently “hatched” communist totalitarian states invading the long-established capitalist and individualistic nations of the West via an insidious "fifth column." The enemy might be, not just the person beside you, but the very child at your breast.

Was Wyndam saying in The Midwich Cuckoos that co-operation between different species – or different socio-political systems – is doomed to failure and must inevitably end in the destruction of one or the other? Or was he lamenting the mindset in which fear of the unknown and the impulse to answer threat with escalated threat makes such co-operation unthinkable? I’ve never been completely certain, but either way, The Midwich Cuckoos does present the question for consideration in unforgettable fashion, and, as it was when the book was first written, it is a question well worth considering today.

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And now for Part 2 of the omnibus thumbnail reviews of recently-read sff.

The Temple and the Crown - Katherine Kurtz & Deborah Turner Harris

Kurtz and Harris write wonderful alternate history occult fantasies, drawing to some degree on Templar mythology with (in the Adept series) a large splash of Blavatsky et al. The is actually the second of two alternate history books they’ve written in which survivors of the discredited Templar Order place their abilities in battle, both mundane and arcane, at the service of Robert the Bruce in his struggle to free Scotland. I’ve not read the first book, but this one was lots of good fun, assuming you enjoy reading about Templar occultists fighting for the Scottish throne against the villainous Sassenach.

Swordspoint - Ellen Kushner

I am kicking myself for only now having read my first book by Ellen Kushner. Swordfights, politics, intrigues, long-lost heirs to ancient noble houses, and wonderfully gay heroes – good reading and wildly entertaining.

Crossroads - Mercedes Lackey
The Valdemar Companion

I have discussed my weakness for Mercedes Lackey’s books in other entries. Crossroads is another Valdemar anthology, and includes stories written by a number of authors including Judith Tarr, Tanya Huff and Lackey herself. Much fun. The Valdemar Companion is of course a reference work for those whose memories can’t keep track of all of the characters of all of the Velgarth stories, but it also has some fun articles and new material written by Lackey herself. Definitely for fen.

Sanctuary is the third book in Lackey’s new series about dragon-riding pseudo-Egyptians, and it continues the series well. The evil magicians are now in control of both Upper and Lower Egypt, er, the lands of Tia and Alta, and the remaining dragon riders, er, Jousters, of both countries are hiding out in the desert protected by Bedouins, er, whatever she’s calling them instead. We’re all set up for the fourth and final book of the series, in which young Kiron, the dragon-boy with a Great Destiny, leads his valiant army of free dragon-riders to the rescue and restores truth, justice and goodness to the Two Lands. And I’ll just lap it up once it’s out in paperback. ;-)

A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L’Engle
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet

I confess, I had never read Madeleine L’Engle’s oft-recommended Time quartet until this year. Now I’ve read the first three books and have been properly charmed by her writing, which, while somewhat quaint and perhaps just a shade too overtly religious at times (much like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, which one loves, if one does, perhaps as much because of as in spite of these things), are indeed delightful. I fully intend to read at least the rest of the Murray-O’Keefe (Kairos) books, which continue the adventures of the family from Wrinkle in Time and I may try the Austin (Chronos) books as well, although since they are generally described as being more realistic than the Kairos books, I may not enjoy them as much.

The Dragon Prince Trilogy - Melanie Rawn
Dragon Prince
The Star Scroll

I read Rawn’s two interlocking trilogies, The Dragon Prince and Dragon Star, when they were first written back in the late 80s and early 90s, so these two books go in the list of re-reads. I deeply enjoyed both trilogies, at least in part because of the complicated and interwoven political manoeuvrings of both secular and esoteric power bases. Like many others, I regret that real-life difficulties have so far prevented her from completing her Exiles trilogy, and continue to hope that someday The Captal’s Tower will appear. In the meantime, I can always re-read the Dragon trilogies again.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J K Rowling

Well, I’m ready for the final book now. I surely hope that Rowling has a finale that’s big enough and strong enough to carry the weight of all these years of building expectations. But whatever happens to Harry, Snape has to be one of the great literary love to hate, hate to love characters.

The Last Enchantment - Mary Stewart
The Wicked Day

More re-reads! I was going to wait until I had the full set in hand again, but there I was one afternoon, really craving some good old Arthurian historical fantasy, and there the two books were, and I said to myself, “I know what’s in The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, I can re-read them separately once I pick them up.” So I read what I had to hand, and it was indeed fun to relive some of the earlier books of the popular Arthurian lit explosion of the 20th century.

The King’s Peace - Jo Walton

This is the first volume of Walton’s alternate history based on the Arthurian legend, and it looks to be the beginning of a worthy addition to the genre. I am, of course, delighted with the fact that the tale is set in a world where there is a good deal of gender equity and that the POV character (who appears to be fulfilling the Lancelot/Bedwyr function, at least so far) is a woman. A good historical fantasy read in general, and a treat for fans of the Arthurian material.

Empire of Bones - Liz Williams

Another new author (to me, anyway) and another novel I enjoyed very much. An original take on the classic star-seeding idea, with a well-realised alien culture, a non-Anglo protagonist and earth-based setting, and (minor but enjoyable to me) an honest look at issues of teleporter technology. I also liked the fact that the story line dealt with issues of disability and medical care. Worth reading.

Consider Her Ways and Others - John Wyndham

Another of my classic re-reads. Some thought-provoking stories, including the dystopic title story. I’ve always had problems with “Consider her Ways,” and the years haven’t changed that. The analysis of the role of romantic love in the social control of women remains solid after all these years, but Wyndham’s insectoid vision of sexless worker drones and brainless mothers in an all-female future makes for a terrifying alternative. I don’t believe that Wyndham lacked the ability to imagine a third alternative, so I must assume that this is some kind of cautionary tale to feminists, to be careful not to (in a deliberately maternalist image) throw out the baby with the bathwater.
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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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