We Who Are About To

We Who Are About To
Joanna Russ

I natter on quite a bit these days about gender stuff and other equality-based issues, hoping (fruitlessly?) that I don’t maroon myself in The Land of White Mansplaining. It was hardly my intent when I started the blog, but somewhere along the way this became part of the Two Dudes Party Line. Now, under the tyranny of my own editing, I am forced to meekly toe said line. Anyway, with Vintage SF Month in full swing, it is time to remedy a major hole in my SFF experience: foundational works of gender and cultural activism. I decided to grab either James Tiptree, Jr. or Joanna Russ for this, choosing We Who Are About To because I became convinced somehow that it was a military SF story with a pro-woman perspective. I may be confusing the book with something else.

Disclaimers first. There are many more lucid deconstructions of this book out there, written by people a) smarter than me b) more involved in activism or c) both. I am going to skate lightly across the surface in a bid to introduce and/or showcase the work, leaving the literary heavy lifting to those more qualified and less tired than I am. If this sort of thing tickles the Gentle Reader’s fancy, please use this post as a jumping off point. Engagement in the comments is also welcome; I shall endeavor to keep up.

As I said, my expectations when picking up We Who Are About To involved some combination of MilSF and feminism. I have no idea why I thought this, because, while there is feminism a-plenty, I found nary a mention of power armor or space battles. Oh well. Instead, transgressive trope busting ahoy. Russ takes on a popular story from days gone by: plucky humans crash land on an uninhabited but strangely livable planet and make a go of it. However, instead of having her people rise to the challenge, tap hitherto unknown reservoirs of creativity and talent, and beat back the frontier ala Little House on the Prairie, Russ decides to unleash The Lord of the Flies and basic laws of planetary biology. We have two choices at this point: read on and be shocked by the bracing, unforgiving story, or laugh at all the poor dorks as everything unravels. Regular readers can probably guess where I went when these two paths diverged in the yellow wood.

Russ has a lot to say about how close we are to savagery, how many men reflexively treat women, what defines a life worth having, and the limits of personal freedom. Our narrator prefers to have her right to die peacefully pried from her cold, dead hand, and doesn’t play well with others. Russ’ chosen protagonist is, shall we say, of the unreliable persuasion, but we automatically cheer for her because she’s the viewpoint character and the others are fools. Her fellow castaways are ready to start up a human breeding program before luxuries like a food supply are settled, basically becoming caricatures of Campbellian Boys Be Ambitious types. The narrator is suspicious not just because she opposes a baby boom, but is also some sort of religious weirdo, probably a drug addict, and is an all around disagreeable type. Still, it is decided that she must bear children, by force if necessary.

If all of this stuff is taken completely seriously, We Who is a bracing and cynical look at humanity. It’s also really hilarious, if one’s humor turns toward the darkness a bit. I fear the author would not be amused watching me chuckle my way through the mayhem. That’s fine though, she was apparently a University of Washington Husky at some point, so we are family, and family forgives these sorts of trespasses and indignities.

I should probably wrap up this inappropriately irreverent look at a classic of New Wave SF. My advice concerning it: Definitely read We Who Are About To. It is an exquisitely crafted jewel of a story, where every word is packed with dense meaning that leaves a much heavier impact than one would expect from such a slim volume. Readers in the right frame of mind will have their view of SF altered, likely as not to emerge from the experience with everything around them tilted a bit into a new perspective. It’s also very short, so even people who will just end up puzzled and/or angry won’t have put too much time into the effort. I’m glad I picked it up and fully plan to read more of Russ and her contemporaries. One word to the wise: skip the Samuel Delaney forward until after reading the book. He spoils everything.

Heavy Planet

Heavy Planet
Hal Clement

Heavy Planet is an omnibus of Clement’s best known series. It includes Mission of Gravity, Star Light, and some supplementary short stories and articles. The first is widely credited as being an early benchmark of Hard SF; the stories related to Mesklin, the strange planet where Gravity takes place, are reputed to be his most popular works. Coming to this after a run of books that push the cultural envelope of SFF, there was something comforting about 400 pages of competent, two-dimensional white men acting rationally. Clement does indeed fix the pattern for most Hard SF with these books, so how one feels about Hard SF in general is probably a good indication of how one will feel about Heavy Planet.

Star Light takes place on a different planet, but the other stories are all on Mesklin. Clement reasoned carefully through his odd creation, which orbits a double star, has an 18 minute day, and has gravity ranging from three times Earth normal at the equator to 700 times Earth at the flattened out poles. The Mesklinites are 15 inch long centipede-like creatures, the protagonist of which bravely sails the methane seas of his planet with his hearty crew of merchants. Barlennan, for that is his name, meets with space-faring humans while he is settled in for the equatorial winter, who employ him to travel across Mesklin to help them retrieve an unresponsive space probe. This is about as deep as the plot goes, since the focus really isn’t on the story, but on Mesklin and its inhabitants.

Clement’s world is a quintessential science fiction creation: brilliant, odd, unforgettable, and yet utterly plausible. Mesklin is what places like Ringworld would later be, fantastic lands that dazzle the reader, even as details of plot and character slip away. The Mesklinites too are complete creations. Little details that might go unnoticed otherwise, like their transparent roofs or lack of a jumping reflex, are carefully planned and explained. (When under 700 gravities you live, jumping will you too avoid.) All of these make Barlennan’s journeys a source of adventure and discovery for the reader too. The Mesklinites also show some traits of Clement’s ideal people. As a race, they are hardwired without feelings of panic or impatience; the Mesklinites are calm under virtually all circumstances and able to carefully reason their way through problems. Perfect engineers, though I am sympathetic to Clement’s unvoiced wish that people were a bit less flighty. However, like much of Hard SF, the invention starts and stops with the universe and its scientific justifications.

Instead of a narrative arc, all of the stories are more like a procession of engineering problems. Barlennan and his crew run into trouble of some sort, reason their way through it, move forward, find a new problem, rinse and repeat. In Mission, these are sometimes trouble with other Mesklinites. The other stories are almost exclusively physical obstacles. Clement clearly enjoys these puzzles, as he gives detailed explanations of how something happened, the principles underlying it, the equipment used to solve the problem, and the final, step-by-step solution. The reader will learn much about ammonia-oxygen reactions and varying gravity effects. There is less insight into human psychology or the meaning of life. If one is looking for a book to give to the non-SF reader in one’s midst, Heavy Planet should not be at the top of the list. It is everything critics of Hard SF complain about: shallow characterization, thin plot development, and an obsession with scientific detail.

I will admit, however, that after recent forays into near-future San Diego, magical Tenochtitlan, Ho Chi Minh’s revolution in space, and Japanese mythology, I felt right at home on Mesklin. Something about the calm, Anglo competence, the complete absence of any demands made on me emotionally or philosophically, the carefully explained alien landscape, and the problems that answered to rational explanation were like a hamburger and fries for dinner. Mileage will vary, however, since everyone has a different background. I spent my formative years buried in Hard SF and Big Mysterious Objects, so I know how these stories are supposed to work. Golden Age SF is what it is; if the reader understands this and doesn’t demand more than the story is prepared to give, nobody will be dissatisfied. Heavy Planet is essential reading for Hard SF fans, but cautions go out to those who demand a little more depth with their aliens.

Rating: The Long Ball – a staple of the traditional English game, direct and unsubtle, much derided by advocates of “finesse.”

Moldy Fantasy

Empire of the East
The Complete Book of Swords
Fred Saberhagen
The Book of the Wars
Mark Geston
Tales of the Dying Earth
Jack Vance

In a past post about the infamous NPR Top 100 SFF list, I noted that, if the list is to be trusted, most of the best science fiction was written before 1980, while most of the best fantasy was published in the last fifteen years or so. This is obviously not the case, but begs the question of why fantasy readers seem ignorant of, or indifferent to, the tradition. Well, here at Two Dudes, we pride ourselves on taking stands against ignorance! Today’s article is a survey of old, moldy stuff that was written before one of the Two Dudes was born. (The older Dude predates the most recent additions by just a few years.) More importantly, these books were written before the epic fantasy boom and are a look back at a different way of writing, before Dragonlance, Shannara, and Robert Jordan scrambled everything.

Length is the obvious difference between yesteryear and the new century. Most of today’s fantasy can’t seem to say anything in under 600 pages, and that’s just for one book in a (long) series. Without criticizing authors who love to write lots of words, I will merely point out that each of the four listed above is a complete trilogy within the page count of a contemporary introductory volume. The other major difference is thematic: each takes place in a fantasy version of the post-apocalypse sub-genre and is, while perhaps not free of Tolkein’s influence, not beholden to the archetypal fantasy land of merry elves, gruff dwarves, and fat halflings. These stories are also shot through with ambiguity and ambivalence; the line between good and evil is faintly drawn, if at all. This is not to claim that today’s fantasy is different, except that anyone praising one or another high profile series for being gritty and/or dark and implying that it is somehow groundbreaking is obviously out of touch with the classics.

Saberhagen’s might be my favorite of the books under the microscope today. The Empire and Swords books all take place in the same world, but thousands of years apart. Both are, on the surface, fairly typical fantasy storytelling. In Empire of the East, brave but oppressed peoples rise up in revolt against their evil tyrants. In The Complete Book of Swords (which includes the main Swords trilogy but none of the supplemental novels), the gods toy with humanity and distribute magical swords for their own amusement. The humans, of course, use the swords for mayhem and goodness, and try to thwart the gods. So far, so standard, but there is magic in the telling. In particular, the world building stands out, especially considering the amount of space available, as do some of the characters. Many of the men and women are somewhat stock, but the gods and other entities are all kinds of fun to read about. By combining nuclear holocaust with fantasy, we get bizarre combinations of Cold War technology, magic, bioengineering, and divinity.

Geston mines similar territory in The Book of the Wars. I found out about this series from a David Drake interview, wherein he credited Geston’s books from helping Drake stay sane in Vietnam. I had never heard Geston’s name before, but a David Drake endorsement is enough for me. I was at the library the next day picking this up. All three books in the trilogy are operatic tragedies, filled with an over the top pathos that could only come from the mind of a young man who is obsessed with the fall of civilization and is spending his college days at an isolated, exclusive, all-male institution. This is not the quiet, poetic mourning of a single broken heart, but rather the deaths of doomed millions, the end of planets, and worlds with no hope. If it seems a bit heavy and overwrought, Geston makes up for it by coming at these stories from an off-kilter angle. His settings, story lines, and characters are all his own; things may be bleak in the stories, but they are definitely not derivative. The first two stories are vaguely connected and talk about a post-holocaust world that is trying to finish itself off. The third tells of a war between science and magic. It’s hard to say who the good guys are, since the magic half is power-crazed, self-absorbed, and probably tyrannical, but the science end is cynical, dry, and emotionless.

Tales of the Dying Earth is perhaps the oddest of the bunch, though it may have had the greatest genre impact of the three. Vance’s world may or may not have enjoyed a nuclear exchange, but the sun, or the Earth, or both, are in their final days. Technology has gone and magic haunts the land, as things sputter down towards the end of the world. The books take a bit of getting used to. Everyone speaks in a stilted, formal style and uses a lot of big words. Once I decided that Vance wanted the people in his world to speak this way and wasn’t just being pompous, I started to enjoy it. Another required adjustment is the complete lack of ethics in the Dying Earth. Apparently altruism burned out with the sun, because not a single character in the stories spares a thought for surrounding people. Again, at first I was taken aback by this. Then I figured out that since everybody in the story is a jerk, nobody expects kindness in any situation. Once this made sense, things became funny, rather than appalling. In a way, the “hero” of two books even learns an Important Life Lesson. He fails, hilariously at times, until he finally starts to – gasp – work with someone. Kids! Cooperation works!

Oddly enough, however, Vance’s greatest legacy is not his worlds, his words, or his characters. It is instead his magic system that has bedeviled D&D players for decades. Yes, the system of spell memorization that is such a bane to gamers comes from the Dying Earth. In the books, it makes sense. Why exactly Gary Gygax thought it would be a fun addition to a game is beyond me however, as D&D magic has always been a dumpster fire.

So to sum up without making any deep, literary conclusions, each of these is worthy of a look. Empire of the East is probably my favorite, but any of them offer a window into pre-TSR / Robert Jordan fantasy. I can only imagine what the NPR Top 100 would look like if more fantasy fans dug into the archives before disgorging their opinions.

Rating: Brazilians from the 1970s, doing crazy soccer things that wow fans today.

Subspace Explorers and Triplanetary

Subspace Explorers
E.E. “Doc” Smith

Doc Smith’s Lensman series always comes up in discussions of SF classics and/or early space opera. It’s been on my list to check out for quite some time, but I never seem to get around to it. Half-hearted efforts have, however, scored me copies of Subspace Explorers, the first of a series I probably won’t finish, and Triplanetary, which claims to be the first Lensman book but is nothing of the sort. If nothing else, these provide a clear window into science fiction before the invention of minorities, feminism, or the color gray. Doc Smith: Where the heroes are white and strong, the women are weepy and helpless, and the bad guys twirl their moustachios and probably have small weenies.

First on the psychiatrist’s couch is Subspace Explorers. Immediate point against: psychic powers. As I have written before, I just don’t like psychic powers, psionics, mind-reading, clairvoyance, or anything of the sort. Any book that uses psionics has to use them carefully, or I am instantly turned off. (Unless said powers are used to break men’s wangs, in which case all is forgiven.) Further point against: psychic powers turning up at random and convenient times to move the plot along when no standard trick will do. “Wait, you’re important to the story, and hey, what do you know? Turns out you’re a psychic too and we didn’t know it til now! Great!” By the end of the book, all of the good guys (and their mostly superfluous girls) are psychics, reading each other’s minds, finding hidden treasures, confounding the bad guys, etc.

Next point against: good guys and bad guys. This is probably endemic to the age, and apparently to Smith’s writing in general, but I quickly tired of the Brave and Pure Capitalists. I can understand pinko commie Russians being the bad guys – the Cold War was pretty all-encompassing for me too back in the mid-80s and lots of SF has bad Russians. I get more tired of reading about how liberals, unions and labor are misguided fools while Big Business is full of benevolent, superior beings who just want what’s best for us. Think John Ringo mixed with 1950s TV. “Look Beav, that tree hugging alien has a ray gun! Jeepers!” So not only are the good guys all suddenly psychics and mind readers, they are also large business owners who have only the good of America on their minds, but are constantly thwarted by labor. If I were a Koch brother, I would probably love this book.

My rantings aside, however, Subspace Explorers is what they call a ripping yarn. When I wasn’t gnashing my teeth at the painful dialogue or offensive worldview, the action was amusing. It was good enough that I finished it quickly and still want to read the Lensman books. It wasn’t good enough, though, that I’m diving into the sequels.

Triplanetary is a little more troubling. I only checked it out because the cover said it was a Lensman book; of course it was completely unrelated. Instead, it contains three or four short stories and novellas, the details of which have since departed my memory. I suppose this means they were suitably pulpy, without being excellent. The one thing I do remember is a quote where Smith writes, “And then he comforted her as only a man can comfort a woman.” Double entendre aside, what on earth is that supposed to mean? He watched football and had a beer? He tried to fix her problems instead of just listening? He left the toilet seat up? Back and ear hair? SF is far from perfect on the gender equality thing, but at least we’ve made some progress.

Anyway, E.E. Smith is one of those things we read to appreciate our heritage but then forget about, like Leviticus or something. Some of his stuff is probably memorable, but it’s certainly not Triplanetary. Subspace Explorers is better, but I wouldn’t put it high on anyone’s recommended reading list.

Rating: Uruguay in the 1950s. The original World Cup winner, Uruguay was good at the time but would be torn apart today by better athletes and technicians.

Pandora’s Legions

Pandora’s Legions
Christopher Anvil

There was a time when my only reliable source of sci-fi was the Baen Free Library. While there is a lot of stuff on there I have no interest in reading, the Library introduced me to David Drake, Eric Flint et al, and got me started on some interesting series. The Library also showcases one of Flint’s lesser known (but very important) side gigs: editing and republishing out of print Golden Age sci-fi. Flint has put two of Christopher Anvil’s books up for download; Pandora’s Legions is today’s subject.

The book itself is a collection of short stories that have been edited together into a novel. The stories track two separate, but related groups throughout, alternately following a group of alien leaders and human mercenaries. The fun in Pandora’s Legions comes from watching Anvil set up a familiar sci-fi premise, then turn it on its head. He runs rampant with expectations, leaving the reader to wonder who exactly we should be cheering for and what it says about us.

As Pandora’s Legions opens, we find ourselves witnessing yet another invasion of earth by superior alien forces. Nothing new here. Within minutes though, it becomes apparent that things are not as they seem. The aliens are in the “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” category mentally, totally at the mercy of the intellectually quicker humans. Not totally, perhaps, since the aliens are from the Centran Empire, which spans the galaxy, and humans are still stuck on one planet, but enough to cause serious setbacks in the alien campaign. The humans, who naturally have our full sympathy, bargain with the Centrans and agree to join their empire after gaining sizable concessions. One particular group of humans agrees to become troubleshooting mercenaries for the Centrans, and the rest of humanity is given more or less carte blanche to roam the empire.

So far, so good. The story splits after this, initially following the mercenaries. These stories are set up to be standard military sci-fi, but it soon becomes clear that it’s much more Golden Age type stuff. The heroes solve the problems by thinking and scheming, not by blowing off limbs and heads. Some of the problems posed were ingenious and the solutions equally so. Those looking for tanks or fighting suits will be disappointed, but the stories are fun puzzles. One could argue that Anvil is subverting expectations here, but I think it’s more an issue of modern readers dealing with Golden Age stories than the author toying with his hapless readers.

Chaos reigns, however, in the other track of stories. The Centran Empire is vast, but it is stable, quiet, conservative, and mellow. Humans … aren’t. Within paragraphs, representatives of our noble race are running amuck, while beleaguered Centran officials compile a hilarious list of scams, swindles, ideologies, political systems and philosophies that sow havoc throughout the Empire. If only Anvil was writing now, he could have included email from Nigerian bank officials, the Bahraini royal family, pharmacies in Mexico, and sundry virility boosters. Instead, we are left with swamp land in Florida and tin pot dictators taking over planets.

At this point, we’re still in familiar territory. Aliens invade, then face defeat at the hands of plucky humanity in plenty of stories (good thing the bad guys in Independence Day used unsecured Macs!), and plenty more have underdog Terrans making their way in a leery, if not outright hostile, galaxy. (David Brin’s Uplift is my choice of these.) Where Pandora’s Legions dumps this trope on its head is the consequences of plucky humanity meeting the rest of the galaxy. The Centrans are convinced that we humans will spice up the Empire a bit, that our unpredictable, madcap ways will stimulate innovation. Instead, the Centrans finds themselves on the defensive almost immediately, with the Empire threatening to blow apart. Giving too many details would spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that most readers’ rooting interests will have flipped 180 degrees by the end of the book.

How to sum up? I found Pandora’s Legions endlessly amusing. It’s Golden Age stuff, so the writing is a bit dated. Not as cringe-worthy as pulps, but not what you’d find on the bestseller list today. Nevertheless, I snorted more than once at the craziness on display. Anvil doesn’t take quite the dim view that, say, Frederick Pohl has about his fellow man, but it’s certainly not all speed ahead for Terra. The book is definitely worth reading for a skewed view of invasions.

Rating: The 2010 Dutch National Team. Long put on a pedestal in world soccer, they suddenly and alarmingly became The Bad Guys against Spain.