Book review post for May (part 1)
Julie Phillips, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
So, as most people reading this probably know, Alice B. Sheldon wrote science fiction stories like ”The Women Men Don’t See” and ”Love Is the Plan The Plan is Death” under the pseudonym of James Tiptree, Jr., and stories like ”The Screwfly Solution” under the pseudonym of Raccoona Sheldon. She carried on both masquerades for several years before being unmasked—and during the whole time, nearly no one suspected that Tiptree was a woman, in middle age by then, who’d been an artist, a divorcee, an army officer, a CIA photointelligence analyst, a chicken farmer, and a psychologist, in approximately that order. Sheldon sort of set the record when it came to weird jobs for writers to have.
The Phillips book is a biography, of course, and an excellent one. There’s some speculation as to Sheldon’s motives, but nearly everything Phillips says is backed up by something--Sheldon’s journals, Sheldon’s correspondence as Tiptree, people who knew her, the books her mother, Mary Bradley, wrote, or the stories. I knew nothing about Sheldon’s private life before I picked this up and half-assumed the only really interesting stuff would be about the stories, unless the person reading the book was a Tiptree scholar. But Phillips keeps just about everything interesting.
It helps that Sheldon’s an interesting person to read about: tormented about sex and gender, yet working the themes over and over in her stories; passionate about art, yet eventually totally abandoning her career as an artist; suffering deep depression and almost total mental isolation from other people, yet still capable of reaching out and trying to give others help and advice. By the time the end of the book comes, it’s possible to want to flinch at what happened—Sheldon shot her husband, Ting, and then herself, in 1987—and yet not condemn her for it, because Phillips made me feel as if I understood exactly why she did it.
An illusion, of course; but it’s an extremely well-constructed one. I wish more biographies I’d read were as interesting.
Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light
Ooh, this was a fun one.
So there are humans on another planet, many centuries in the future, who remember Earth—or, at least, they used to be human. They’re taken on the aspects of Hindu gods, and since they control the technologies that ensure other people can go on living in younger bodies, those other people work to worship them and not piss them off. Then one of the “gods,” Sam, discovers how strictly the others control this technology, and reinvents Buddhism so that he can change things and be a monumental pain in the ass with maximum efficiency.
It’s Zelazny, so, while it’s science fiction, the characters are larger-than-life in the way many fantasy heroes are. Sam, in particular, is fun because he’s larger-than-life, has so many people afraid of him, and yet makes so many mistakes. (There’s someone else in the story who’s very likely more of a Buddha than he is). And the other gods have the same moments where the narrative describes them as beautiful, overpowering, and awe-inspiring, and then reveals their failed love affairs, bloodthirsty selfishness, and fatal weaknesses. I understood both why the other humans worshipped them and why Sam wanted them taken down.
Most of the narrative is a flashback, about the first time Sam changed religion and what happened when he was caught at it. The present-time sections and intersections are sufficiently tied in that it doesn’t feel as though everything interesting happened in the past, however. There are giant hunting cats, fights with and against the God of Death, demons, thunder-chariots, the Garuda bird, battles and a wedding inside the domed city of the gods, and an enormous pun I’d been warned for and yet still didn’t see coming.
This is one of those books that probably wouldn’t work at a slower pace or with too much explanation; some of the events would start dragging, others seeming too unlikely. (I did find one extra plotline about Christianity a bit much). But Zelazny gets away with it by pure whipcrack pace and excellent writing skills.
Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories
A short story collection by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and set in the same world. I adored three of the stories; the others ranged from “meh” to being fun but puzzling.
“On Lickerish Hill” is a retold fairytale (I won’t mention which one, but it’s very easy to figure out once you start reading) told in dialect. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t understand the ending. “Mrs. Mabb” is a story about a young woman who’s lost the man she’s in love with; this is one of those where there’s simply too little explanation of what’s going on to dispel the obscurantism, which works so well in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I think, because it’s balanced with passages where you do understand what’s happening. “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse” is exactly what the title says—cute, but very short. “Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower” sold me on the characters and the humor but not how the protagonist got out of his predicament. “Antickes and Frets” winds Mary Queen of Scots up in enchanted embroidery and is, like the Duke of Wellington story, very short. In this case, it works less well because the story is meant to be dramatic and serious instead of humorous.
But, as I mentioned, three of the stories were very enjoyable:
-“The Ladies of Grace Adieu”—Jonathan Strange appears in this one, but it’s really the story of three women who live in the parish where Jonathan Strange’s brother-in-law has taken orders. These women have rediscovered magic on their own, and they use it for far different purposes than the men. This story reminded me the most of the novel, or at least of what the novel could have been if female magicians had appeared before the end. Very poetic, but, unlike “Mrs. Mabb,” I felt the obscurity of what happened served the story rather than the other way around.
-“Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby”—This story concerns the adventures of the fairy Tom Brightwind and the Jewish doctor David Montefiore, who are friends. Tom Brightwind resembles the “gentleman with thistledown hair” from the novel, but he’s most decidedly not him. He’s at once more charming and more dangerous, probably because his enchantments are largely calculated to charm, seduce, and give people what they think they want, rather than to enchant innocents. David, his poor patient human friend, attempts to explain human morality, especially human obligations to children, to him; Tom chooses not to listen. This story also has footnotes, but the “That’s the way fairies are” tone is what I enjoyed most.
-“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner”—This story is partially online here.
This story does have the Raven King in it, but he’s not the hero. He despoils a charcoal burner’s clearing, and the charcoal burner sets out to get revenge on him by invoking various saints. It’s incredibly funny, especially since the Raven King was such a fearsome figure in the novel. I liked it especially because it shows that Clarke can laugh at her central characters, something so many authors aren’t able to.
Meredith Ann Pierce, Birth of the Firebringer
This is a YA fantasy. However, it’s a YA fantasy with a unicorn as the hero instead of a human teenager, and that seems to be all that’s needed to make me interested in reading it. I really am a sucker for intelligent nonhumans, I tell you.
Aljan, called Jan, is the son of the prince of the unicorns, but his father isn’t particularly proud of him; he plays stupid pranks and is consistently irresponsible. Luckily, Jan’s conflict with his father isn’t the only plot strand, or I probably wouldn’t have finished the book. And since one of Jan’s pranks, played at the start of the book, almost immediately endangers him and other people, he does start growing up pretty quickly.
Jan’s people were driven out of their ancestral home centuries ago by the wyverns, who poisoned their king and killed many of them before the unicorns chose to flee. However, they still need to bathe their horns and hooves in a sacred pool in their old territory and hold vigil by it, or they won’t be accounted true adults. Therefore, a small group of those to be initiated go to the pool each early spring with a guard of warriors, before the wyverns awake from their winter sleep. Jan is determined to make the journey this time, since his father has already held him back once before.
The writing is excellent, giving the world as the unicorns find it instead of sticking solely to human perceptions, and creating an atmosphere that really heightens the sense of danger in the story, even though it’s perfectly obvious where some plot strands are going. The plot also lets Jan make discoveries about the world around him that upset his perceptions several times. So he really has Learned Better, and the audience knows what he’s learned (which is sometimes a problem in bildungsroman stories; the character is supposed to have learned lessons, but it’s not clear what those lessons are).
I’m not entirely sure I want to continue with the trilogy, as the destiny-stink is pretty strong in the last pages, and I’ve heard the next two volumes aren’t as good. But I really enjoyed this one.