Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hugo Winner and WOGF Review: 1989 Cyteen

CJ Cherryh
Completed 10/30/2013, reviewed 10/31/2013
2 stars

I first tried to read Cyteen this summer.  I borrowed it from the library and started it, four times, then returned it.  The first fifty pages were leaden with a huge number of characters and complex political intrigue, and I just couldn’t get my head around it.  On the day I was laid-off from work, I checked it out from the library again, still needing to read it for my personal Hugo challenge, and thinking I could use it for my WOGF challenge.  Being unemployed, I’d have the time to hunker down and give it better try.  I devoted ten days to this complex 680 page behemoth which seemed to mix elements from the classics of SF and paranoia literature:  “Brave New World,” “1984,” “Future Shock,” and Kafka’s “The Trial.”  When I was done, I felt sorely cheated.

Cyteen is a planet in an interplanetary system recently out of a disastrous war.  The government is controlled by the Expansionists and dominated by the powerful, arrogant, and manipulative head of Science, Ariane Emory.  Ariane is murdered.  Jordan Warrick, a colleague and rival, admits to the murder and is exiled to the opposite side of the planet.  It’s not a spoiler.  That’s just the setup, the first 150 pages.  The rest of the book follows the coming of age of Ariane’s clone, also called Ariane, and her relationship to the tortured but brilliant Justin Warrick, Jordan’s clone/son.

This book has a lot of interesting concepts.  One of the most central is the “azi,” cloned people who learn and are trained using tapes, sort of like subliminal messaging.  These tapes are programmed so that different azi are able to perform different functions in society.  Citizens, or CITs, are regular people, sometimes clones, but not azis.  They may also learn via tapes.  The difference is azis are never allowed the ability to completely think for themselves.  The whole of an azi or CIT’s tape library is called a psychset.  Reseune, the powerful scientific research center of Cyteen, exists for the study and development of cloning and psychsets.  Ariane and Jordan were brilliant psychset developers. 

While these concepts were great, it is also the cause of my disappointment in the book.  Despite the scientific and sociological wonders, it felt like Cherryh never developed a real story out of them.  The book feels more like a simple novelization of the life of a famous person.  There was no real plot, direction, or denouement.  The setup takes place, then we watch Ari, the clone, grow from infant to young adult.  There’s some tension because you don’t know if she’s going to be ruthless like her progenitor, or more compassionate.  But it just feels like a series of events written around the science.

Another big disappointment was finding that the book didn’t end.  There was no conclusion or resolution.  It just stopped.  There’s a lot of drama at the end, but nothing to bring closure to the story.  And you see it coming.  As I was finishing the book, I just keep reading, and reading, and thinking “Oh no, it’s not ending…Fifty pages left and it’s not ending…forty…thirty…where’s the ending?”  You get to the last few lines of the book, and there’s a very simple wrap-up with no emotional impact.  I researched the book on the internet and sure enough, there’s a direct sequel.  Aaaargh!  That’s when I felt cheated.  Ten days of my life, and there’s a sequel.

A third issue is the Kafka-esque harassment of Justin by Ariane’s uncles.  Justin is constantly abused by Denys and Geraud Nye.  I couldn’t figure out why they kept on abusing Justin so horribly, turning this brilliant software developer into a miserable, paranoid victim.  He already has PTDS from his interaction with the first Ariane.  Their motivation for continued abuse and torture just isn't clear. Maybe because the book was so long, I just lost sight of it.  But after a while, it just seemed like Cherryh was a sadist nursing a fetish. 

Now, the technical complaints.  I have never seen--- never seen---- such an overuse of dashes and repeated words and phrases.  Words and phrases.  My initial guess was that Cherryh was trying to use punctuation and repetition to more accurately mimic real thought, speech, and conversation.  I found it distracting and annoying. 

There was also a unique dropping of words in phrases.  The most notable were the use “of a sudden” instead of “all of a sudden” and “what hell” instead of “what the hell.”  At first I though this was a publishing or editing error.  But she uses “of a sudden” a lot, and “all” is never part of the phrase.  And words seem to be missing throughout the book.  Whether it was her style, her editor, or her publisher, I found it terribly distracting and annoying.  Between that and the complexity of the science and politics, it made the book very hard to read.

After all that, I will admit that the book wasn’t all bad.  As I mentioned at the beginning, the science is really interesting.  I was lost at times when it got into heavy sociology, but still, I enjoyed it. 

I also really liked the character development of the Ari the clone.  As her story unfolded, I found I really liked her, and wanted her to succeed in everything, and believe she was striving for honesty and integrity.  In retrospect, I find this an interesting experience, because the setup at the beginning is written so that you hate her and are rooting for the opposition.  But by the end, I was rooting for Ari.

I liked the relationship between Justin and his personal azi, Grant.  Justin and Grant were raised together, as many people and their azi are.  Their relationship is incredibly intimate, but as the story progresses, it becomes pretty clear that they are lovers.  This relationship becomes profound.  I wanted Cherryh to explore that a little more.  The only affirmation of it is one point where Ari makes note of a rumor.  And that little reference just felt like a cop-out.

For a rating, I have to give this book two stars, solely for the universe she created.  I just don’t like books that don’t have a plot or an ending.  I also don’t like books that need such a long setup.  I felt like I wasted my time.  I had no gratification in finishing it, nor did it give me any motivation to even consider reading the sequel.  In fact, it makes me dread reading her other Hugo winner, “Downbelow Station.”   

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1971 Ringworld

Larry Niven
Read 4/2013, reviewed 4/13/2013
4 stars

I had trouble starting this book.  I had heard so many rave reviews of the book dating back to friends from the 70’s.  I was a little afraid of the hardness of the science fiction.  The fact that a sequel was called Ringworld Engineers brought up my less than admirable feelings towards the engineering students I rubbed elbows with at the University of Colorado (the Math department and classes were located in the Engineering Center). 

The book started well with Louis Wu’s 200th birthday, but stumbled for me with the introduction of the two main alien characters, Nessus and Speaker-to-Animals.  My first impression was that they were too cartoonish.  Again, it raised my distaste for alien species based on earth creatures and their earthly characteristics (here, a horse and a tiger, respectively).  But by the middle of the book, I was hooked.  I had made peace with my bias, and found the aliens to be the perfect such aliens of this genre.  They grew on me as their personalities grew and fleshed out. 

I made peace, too, with my bias against engineering and hard SF.  The description of and journey through Ringworld was amazing.  It reminded me at times of "Neverworld" by Neil Gaiman and the animated film Howl’s Moving Castle.  In general, I think I find it difficult to read descriptions of and imagine huge complex entities, such as the outside of Ringworld, or large spaceships, or complex civilizations like the layout of Luna in “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.”  But once getting through that struggle, I was able to explore the rest of Ringworld and enjoy it.

I liked Louis and Teela, as well as their relationship.  At times, I was a bit put off by Teela’s simplicity, raising my easily ruffled sensitivity towards portrayals of women in science fiction.  But I found myself accepting her as being not a typical woman, because of her “gift” of luck.  And I loved how she grew through the book.

I also enjoy the whole concept of engineering/interfering/experimenting with life.  It was done well here.

My biggest criticism was that flycycles seemed a bit to amazing to be real.  They flew hundreds of thousands of miles with an undescribed energy source (unless I missed it somewhere).  They had tons of controls, including the ability to make food.  Given the amount of my suspension of disbelief in their existence, it was then hard to believe that they could crash.

When I was done with the book, I was glad I had read it, and wished I had read it back in the 70s or 80s.  Although at the time, I don’t think I would have had as critical an eye.  This is easily a 4 star book.

Hugo Winner Review: 1995 Mirror Dance

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 10/21/2013, Reviewed 10/23/2013
3 stars

After loving Barrayar and not really liking The VorGame, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the eighth book in the Vorkosigan Saga, and the third of Bujold’s three Hugo winners from the series.  Being on this Hugo quest, I had not read the novel where Mark Vorkosigan, Miles’ clone/brother, is introduced, and I was concerned that there would be little or no character development.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not JASO…just another space opera.

Be aware that the synopses of “Mirror Dance” around the internet are not entirely accurate.  I regularly saw things like “…Miles faces off with his clone…” or “…Miles confronts his clone…” while prepping for this book.  Instead, this book is really about Mark finding his place in the world. 

Mark has some serious existential issues.  He wants to understand who he is separate from Miles.  And very specifically, in an effort to reconcile his past, he wants to rescue fifty clones being developed for the life-extending whims of their evil, rich progenitors.  He shanghais a ship from Miles’ fleet by impersonating him and launches his attack.  Miles discovers the plan and attempts to help Mark.  What ensues is entertaining and thought-provoking.

I love a good existential crisis and I was drawn into Mark’s.  Throughout the book, he primarily struggles with the thought he is just an insignificant copy of his smarter, successful, swashbuckling brother.  He must also confront the fact that he is no longer a slave to his original purpose for being, to kill and replace Miles and undermine the Barrayaran empire. 

I was reminded of Frankenstein, which I had just read about a month earlier, both in its similarities and contrasts.  There are times when Mark even refers to himself as a monster.  Like Mark, the Frankenstein creature didn’t ask to be created, but now that he is, he has to make sense of the world.  In contrast to the monster’s response to creation, Mark takes a higher road, but is still plagued by inner demons. 

My favorite chapters were the ones where he meets Miles’, and thus his, parents.  This is probably because I was introduced to and loved Cordelia Vorkosigan, their mother, in “Barrayar.”  Her smart, sardonic, off-worldly perspective on society adds some welcome relief for Mark and the reader.

Bujold enters some dark territory with this novel.  She explores the results of torture and victim reprogramming.  There’s a very uncomfortable scene where Mark has his first, though inappropriate, attempt at sexual expression.  Later in the novel, Mark experiences dramatic disassociation due to repeated torture.  I was impressed that the author took on such serious topics.  

Despite my excitement with the ground Bujold covers, I have to admit that I don’t care for her writing style.  The characters are still two-dimensional and the prose is, well, not prose.  The dialogue is mechanical and the constant exposition becomes tedious.  It feels like at least once per chapter, you get a monologue that begins with, “The true story is…”, “Our real mission is…” or “My evil plan is…”  It’s the literary equivalent to musical opera’s “park and bark.”

I give this book three stars.  It’s good space opera with some strong attempts at depth, but still doesn’t reach the bar set by “Barrayar.”

Friday, October 18, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1970 Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. LeGuin
Read 2012, reviewed 4/21/2013, revised 10/9/2013
5 stars

I first read this book in my college Science Fiction class.  I remember loving the concept, but being confused by the bouncing narrative. Upon my current reading, I realized that this book is brilliant.  It’s an amazing commentary on the importance we place on gender and gender roles, and how quickly we judge based on any deviation from the norm. 

Set in LeGuin’s Hainish universe, “Left Hand of Darkness” begins with the arrival of an emissary from Terra, Genly Ai, who has come to the planet Gethen, or Winter, to invite them into the Ekumen, a union of the known inhabited planets of this universe.  The inhabitants of Gethen are incredibly strange to Ai in that they are androgynous.  They have no gender until they enter a state called kemmer, the time for reproducing.  When they enter kemmer, they may be male or female, and may therefore be a mother or a father of children.  In the same way, Ai is considered a pervert, seen as being always in the kemmer state. 

The main action of the novel takes place as Ai and a disgraced Gethen prime minister, Estraven, make an incredible trek across the hostile frozen landscape.  During their journey, Ai comes to understand the planet, its politics, and the nature of its people.

I often find a coldness to many of LeGuin’s works.  Here, this feeling is exemplified by the icy planet on which the story takes place.  It is cold and harsh.  So is the society.  So is the circumstance of finding love. 

Despite the chill of the story telling style, the characters are somehow fully realized.  I empathized with Ai and Estraven, and was completely drawn in by their relationship. 

LeGuin has an amazing gift for fully realizing an entire society, with history and mythology.  She uses narrative, diary entries, folk tales, and songs to create rich insight into Gethen.  My main problem when I first read this book in college was that I did not understand the change in voice between the chapters resulting from this variety of information.  Upon this re-read thirty years later, I fully grasped the complexity of the book.

This is truly a 5 star book.  I love many of LeGuin’s novels, but in this one, I feel the coldness of the planet and ache in the despair of the main characters.  At a time when Hugo winning male SF writers were barely giving voice to female characters, LeGuin was contemplating gender and xenophobia in remarkable ways.  Even after 40 years of mostly positive societal changes, it still holds up as a relevant and profound exploration of the nature of love, sexuality, and the Other.

Hugo Winner Review: 1969 Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner
Read 3/2013, reviewed 4/13/2013, revised 10/18/2013
3 stars

I had a tough time with this book.  I spent the first third of the book figuring out the structure and keeping the characters straight.  This was far too long for me.  During this time, I struggled to simply pick up the book.

Brunner described it as a “non-novel,’ which immediately makes me think that the author is full of himself.  “Hey, I’ve written an awesome book that breaks all the rules!  Read me, I’m important!”  This created an initial bias against the book, and probably accounted for my struggle with it.  With its dystopian premise, it felt a little like I had picked up some hip ‘60s mishmash of Brave New World and Future Shock.  It didn’t feel like fiction, and felt pretty sterile.  I guess that’s why Brunner used the term “non-novel.”

By the time I got to the middle of the book, everything began to come together.  I became less distracted by the non-Continuity chapters, i.e., the chapters that did not advance the plot, and actually got how they provided the appropriate contexts, subplots, and general feel of the society.  The major plot lines had become more interesting as well.  Initially, it seemed to take a long time for the setup.  I couldn’t figure out why I needed to care about the major characters, but by the middle of the book, I did.  I liked Norman and Donald.

There’s one thing about the character of Chad Mulligan.  He reminded me of the near-divine characters of Heinlein:  Jubal Harshaw and Professor de la Paz.  When he’s introduced, he comes off as a bit too omniscient and compassionate.  Granted, we get a taste of his amazing insight and popularity throughout the book, but when we meet him, he just too easily lives up to his hype.

I devoured the second half of the book.  I was glad I read it.  I still only give it three stars because of my difficulty in getting used to it.  I’m not averse to “playing with form,” but this was tough.  I feel like I missed out on enjoying the beginning of the book because of it.  I still highly recommend reading it, at the very least because of the form.  I think everyone should experience a shake-up of the norm.  This book made me interested in reading a similarly unconventional novel, House of Leaves.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1991 The Vor Game

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 10/11/2013, reviewed 10/14/2013
2 stars

Miles Vorkosigan, a recent military academy graduate, gets assigned to a lousy post as an ensign at an arctic weather station on his home planet of Barrayar.  Always the upstart, Miles survives an intense confrontation with the base commander and is transferred to Imperial Security to investigate suspicious military build-up near a wormhole port.   He gets caught in interplanetary intrigue as well as finding his accidently missing friend Gregor, the Barrayaran emperor. 

Sounds like fun, no?  No.  It’s JATSO:  just another tedious space opera.

“The Vor Game” is the 6th book in the (still) continuing saga of the Vorkosigan family.  It is also an expansion of a previously published novella.  The novella consisted of the first six chapters, Miles’ assignment to the Artic station of Kyril Island.  The ensuing interplanetary intrigue comprises the rest of the novel.  Thus, the book reads like two stories in one.  Unfortunately, Miles adventures on Kyril Island are great, while the interplanetary intrigue is boring.

Kyril Island is cold and remote.  Most of the activity on the island consists of tedious duties, alcoholism, and dangerous pranks.  Miles spends much of his time trying to keep himself from going crazy from the boredom while trying to avoid interaction with the bitter and possibly insane base commander. 

This part of the book was my favorite.  Miles is forced to deal with various adverse situations.  In the midst of this, he discovers a dead body frozen in a drainage pipe.  This gives you the feeling that the unfolding events are setting the scene for an intriguing mystery.  This is where you begin to learn who Miles is and what he is made of.  Granted, he appeared in several books before this one, so there is a lot about him we miss by not reading all the books in the series.  But you do get some pretty strong character development during his time on Kyril. 

However, the story line with the dead body is abandoned, the conflict the evil commander is (partially) resolved, and Miles is whisked away to a new adventure.   This plot device feels completely contrived.  It’s as if Bujold thought to herself, “My fans will be bored with this Miles on Kyril Island.  They want action, space battles, pirates, seduction, and betrayal.  I better fall back on the plots of my previous books.”  And fall back she does.  The whole second section brings back and inundates you with old characters and story lines.  And at the same time, she creates a terribly convoluted double-double-cross “game.”

I had the opportunity to read Barrayar first.  I loved the book.  It was written after “The Vor Game,” but the action takes place with Miles' pregnant mother, Cordelia.  It is the second book about Cordelia.  Yet “Barrayar” stands on its own.  Even though it often references the earlier novel, it doesn’t overwhelm you with it, developing the plot and characters on its own.  It is what space opera should be.

“Vor Game,” in contrast, never finds its own voice.  Miles never gets to be more than an action hero.  There are some moments which come together, particularly in the scenes with Gregor, the emperor he grew up with.  It’s where you generally see a more human Miles.  I don’t just mean simply seeing him with emotions, but as a three-dimensional character. 

Miles is created so interestingly:  the child of Barrayar’s regent and prime minister, his growth stunted and bones made brittle because of surviving in-utero exposure to a deadly toxin, and growing up with the child emperor as a foster-brother.  He also has an alter-ego as Admiral Naismith from a previous novel, who acquires command of a huge mercenary space fleet and leads them to an interplanetary victory.  The rub is that he can’t ever talk about this accomplishment because it’s classified.  So he’s stuck as an ensign with a huge ego and alter-ego.  Lots of great fodder, right?  But instead of going somewhere profound, the book just falls flat.  Even the dialogue becomes trite.  (BEWARE, the next sentence is a SPOILER, but, really, it’s not like you don’t see it coming)  When the nemesis is foiled at the end, you can just hear her shouting, “Curses! Curses!”  She even threatens to turn Miles into “hamburger.”  I audibly groaned when I read that tripe. 

I gave this book two stars, all on the strength of the first six chapters.  The rest is a Saturday morning cartoon.  Of the three Hugo-winning Vorkosigan books, I have one more left, “Mirror Dance.”  The premise sounds good.  I’m praying it’s more interesting than this piece of pulp.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1968 Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny
Read 2012, reviewed 4/21/2013 
4 stars

I first read this book for a college SF. class.  I was glad I read it through a class because it helped me understand the organization of the book.  My memory of this book was that it was amazing.  I greatly anticipated re-reading it.

Having re-read it, I find it a little lighter than I remembered.  It didn’t knock my socks off as it did in college. However, I still loved the book.  Zelazny is great with the anti-hero.  The main character Sam, while not reluctant, is a low-key hero.  The plot unfolds calmly.  Sam almost has an indifference to his cause, trudging through it rather than leaping from tall buildings in a single bound. 

I like how Zelazny plays with the concepts of greatness and the intermixing of human and divine.  Set against the pantheon of the Hindu gods, we learn about them without being hit over the head with theology.  I loved Sam’s answer to why he chose to be a Hindu savior as opposed, say, a Christian savior. His response was that crucifixion was too painful.

A favorite scene of mine is the despair of the god who was reincarnated from a woman to a man, surrounded by indifferent virgins who without realizing are responding to her inherent feminine energy, rather than her reincarnate masculine energy.

He also plays with the idea a humanity controlled by the gods by keeping them from developing technology.  Technology is a gift from the gods, and comes with its own karma.  When a new indoor toilet is developed, a character describes how he is saving his excrement until he gets a new toilet, so that he can begin accumulating the good karma of the technology in advance of using it.

I wanted to give this book 5 stars, but I felt a little unsatisfied when I finished it.  Maybe I had built up my expectations too much.  If I read it again, I may change my mind.  Despite the rating, it is one of my favorites.  It was one of the first SF novels I read that toyed with religion, a genre for which I have developed a great fondness.

Hugo Winner Review: 1966 This Immortal (serialized as ...And Call Me Conrad)

Roger Zelazny
Read 3/2013, reviewed 4/21/2013, revised 10/9/2018
3 stars

I love the genres of anti-hero and of mixing religion and theology with science fiction.  Zelazny explores these themes in “This Immortal.”  I enjoyed this book.  However, Zelazny more fully realizes these themes in his later work “Lord of Light.” 

Conrad is another reluctant hero, and apparently super-human in some way.  But I didn’t like him as much as I liked Sam in “Lord.”  I found it took a longer time than usual to get into both the character and the plot.  The concept about a group a rich people going on a yacht trip in a post-apocalyptic world seemed a little strange at first.  Nonetheless, I liked the premise of an alien doing a survey of the earth as an interplanetary high priced tourist attraction, and Conrad, our anti-hero involved in keeping this visitor from falling into the hands of the tribes of savages and the evil intentions of the government.

In reviewing this book, I’m a little sad that I don’t have as strong an emotional memory of the book.  I do remember feeling a bit let down, but overall liking the book.  I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as “Lord of Light,” but I thought it was well written and realized.  However, this was the first of three Hugo winners I read when my partner underwent radiation treatment.  I stayed in an extended-stay motel so I wouldn’t be contaminated by his radioactive sweat.  I worried about him, and was trying to adjust to my temporary surroundings.  I think this distracted me enough during these first few days of this ordeal that I couldn’t devote myself to full immersion into the story.  This is one I think I should re-read at some point in the future and review again at that time.

I gave this book 3 stars.  I might change my mind in the future.  What surprises me is that this book tied with Dune for the 1966 Hugo.  I haven’t read Dune since college.  I’m saving the rereading for the end of this challenge.  But even with my faulty memory of it from thirty years ago, “This Immortal” seems like a lightweight compared to Dune.  I’m guessing that Zelazny had (has) a huge fan base, and with this book finally getting Zelazny on the ballot, his fans came out in droves to vote for it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1967 The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Robert A. Heinlein
Completed and reviewed on 4/13/2012, revised 10/8/2013
4 stars

Because of my experiences with Heinlein’s previous two winners, Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, I began reading this book with some trepidation.  To compound matters, I realized that the narrator, Mannie, spoke with what seemed to me to be a Russian accent, despite his Hispanic sounding name.  For the first 150 pages, I couldn't read without hearing the accent of Andre Codrescu, from NPR.  Though not Russian, Codrescu’s accent was sufficiently Slavic to match my perception of the accented writing.  Those first 150 pages were slow reading because of this Codrescu filter in my head.  Once I got into the rhythm of the language, I was able read much more quickly. 

At one point, in the first 100 or so pages, I couldn't understand how the book could be so long.  I felt that once again, this book was a merely a collection of essays of Heinlein’s political and sociological beliefs.  It felt like this was filler and rehashing of previously espoused libertarianism, militarism, and free love. Eventually I eased into the text with a little more patience.  I realized it read much more naturally than the posturing he did in the other two books. I went from being annoyed at the politics, to being totally enrapt by the descriptions of the society.

I’m also impressed by this book because it is the first war novel I’ve enjoyed.  The Forever War was very good, but I didn’t care for either Starship Troopers or Forever Peace.  I often find it difficult to follow the action in war novels.  “Moon,” however, grabbed me at a much baser level.  The idea of revolution must have connected with my sense of one of the problems in the US today, specifically, politics dictated and manipulated by corporations.  So when the novel finally got to the active war of independence, I was consumed by the details.

I loved the main characters.  Mike, the computer that gains sentience, was particularly fun.  I found it refreshing that Mike had a sense of humor and loved jokes.  The character of Mike made me reflect on the history of AI in SF.  Reading this, I couldn't help but think of computers gone crazy, like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Colossus of “Colossus: The Forbin Project.”  Was the theme of AI gone bad a more common theme than benevolence?  Having HAL deeply ingrained in my psyche made me more appreciative of Mike and his relationship to Mannie and the revolution.

My biggest beef with the book was the character Wyoming.  Once again, a female character is introduced with some flourish.  She starts as a strong woman, a leader in the fight for revolution.  But quickly, she falls to the sidelines and becomes a supporting wife-type character.  Granted, this book was written in 1966, so I give it some leeway in that it was the product of a man with very archaic views of women’s roles, even within his polyamorous philosophy.  Nonetheless, she is so relegated to the sidelines, that towards the end, she only makes appearances to serve coffee, or help the main character to bed.  There is some redemption, however, in the matriarchal/polyandrous structure of the families on the Moon.

Overall, I give this book 4 stars despite the sexism.  I was drawn into the society and conflict.  I also found the shaky formation of the government to be very believable and human.  Out of the four Heinlein books I’ve read so far, I have to say this is my favorite.

Monday, October 7, 2013

WOGF: Summer of Love

Lisa Mason
Completed 10/5/2013, Reviewed 10/7/2013
5 stars

For some reason, when somebody tells me, “You have to read this book,” I normally raise my hackles and resist.  I prefer discovering books on my own, perusing the shelves at the library or bookstore, or finding a recommendation on a website or NPR.  Over time, I’ve learned to keep those hackles a little lower and be more open to other people’s suggestions, but it still creates cognitive dissonance in my head.  So when my partner recommended “Summer of Love” by Lisa Mason to fill my time while waiting for a hold on my next book at the library, I reacted with outward enthusiasm and my usual internal hesitancy.  He’s a good judge of books, and I know that; I’ve read his recommendations before.  The psychedelic-designed cover of his trade paperback first edition is in tatters from the numerous rereads, so I know he loves it.  I needed another book for my Women of Genre Fiction challenge anyway.  I acceded and took the book…and loved every word.

Chiron Cat’s Eye in Draco, a time traveler from the year 2467, comes back to San Francisco 1967, the Summer of Love, to find a young girl, Susan Stein, aka Starbrite.  His mission is to protect her so that the timeline leading to his present, his Now, is conserved.  Ruby A. Maverick, a metaphysical shop owner in the Haight district, meets Susan and later Chi, and reluctantly lets them crash at her place.  Together they must make it through the summer avoiding the craziness of the hippy culture and demons of an alternative future.

Of the three major characters, Ruby was my favorite.  She starts out as an antagonist to Starbrite and believes Chi is a narc.  Over the course of the book, she reveals herself to be a wise, critical, and caring voice without losing the edge which the reader gets to taste at the start of the book.  She’s sassy and earthy, not simply the two-dimensional woo-woo stereotype you would imagine as the owner of a metaphysical store. 

The book is filled with colorful minor characters. As the minor characters are fleshed out, the reality of the Summer of Love is revealed.  It begins with optimism and a sense of wonder and hope, and the minor characters are fanciful idealistic hippies, much as you’d expect from the stereotypes of the 60’s.  As the summer progresses, we learn what’s behind these characters, and the movement, the problems, fear, despair, and seediness.      

The book is masterfully told from the perspective of each of the main characters.  It is divided into sections, and each section contains three chapters, one for each of the voices.  The plot moves linearly through each voice and chapter, providing the reading with rich character development from a first-person as well as two third-person perspectives.  This structure also gives you three experiences of the Summer of Love: na├»ve, outsider, and insider.  Together, it works into a seamless, exciting, and interesting narrative. 

What surprised me most about the book was the hardness of the science fiction.  Considering the context, I was expecting a much softer SF novel.  Instead, the author went into great detail explaining Chi’s world of 2467, the mechanism of time travel, the gadgets, and the interactions with the alternative future.    At the same time, she examines in depth the issues of the mid-60’s:  racial tensions, women’s rights, drug culture, and general societal change.  We get to explore a fine blend of hard and soft through the perspectives of all three characters.

One interesting point regarding the structure of the novel is that it is told in present tense.  My partner warned me that it might take a little getting used to.  I've struggled with other present tense novels before, namely, “Yiddish Policeman’s Union.”  However, I settled into it with no problems.  The prose is that good.  I’m a slow reader, but I read this more slowly than usual because every word seemed important and every sentence necessary for feeling immersed in the story.

This is a 5 star book.  Not only was it excellent, but it moved me intensely.  I felt connections with the characters.  I wanted to be a runaway in 1967.  I wanted to own a metaphysical store in a town of hippies.  I wanted to stand hand-in-hand at the edge of existence and since songs from Sgt. Pepper.  I did not want it to end.