Friday, June 02, 2017

Older speculative fiction you could be reading

I guess, looking at my list, that the headline should have read "older speculative fiction by women," because I have unconsciously selected only female sci fi writers for this list. But...I'm not going to change that; mostly, the sci fi guys get all the love, so I'm going to stick with my list of interesting and talented women writers. I'm also focusing on writers who specifically address the interaction between humans and "aliens," or between races of people, with a psychological, cultural, religious, and/or philosophical bent that I find particularly well done.

First up are two books by Mary Doria Russell: The Sparrow, and Children of God. Russell has a background as a paleoanthropologist, and she makes excellent use of it in this two-book tale of humans' first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. The action in the first book jumps back and forth between 2016, when an expedition is being put together in response to the discovery of extraterrestrial life (obviously a 2016 more advanced than our own!), and 2059, when the leader of that expedition, a charismatic Catholic priest and linguist who is its sole survivor, is being examined by the Vatican in search of an explanation for how first contact could have gone so horribly wrong. In the second book, Father Emilio Sandoz is forced to return with a second expedition, to discover all the ways in which the impact of the first mission has shifted the cultures of the dominant and submissive races on the planet. Russell writes a good story, but also explores sociological, spiritual, and scientific aspects of the situation she has postulated. These books are a fascinating read. After these two science fiction books, Russell turned to historical fiction and wrote books set during both World Wars, and then moved to a western theme with two books about the O.K. Corral.

Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite authors ever. She writes the entire spectrum from fantasy to more hardcore science fiction, but all from a philosophical, sociological, and anthropological viewpoint that makes them particularly fascinating answers to "what if?" (Her father was an anthropologist and her mother was a writer.)

On the fantasy end of the spectrum are the Earthsea books, which started out as a trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore), but then got added to with a book of short stories (Tales from Earthsea), and two more sequels (Tehanu, and The Other Wind). I point that out because while the original trilogy is completely satisfying, you wouldn't want to miss the other two books; and the short stories add depth to the world she has created. The books are typically shelved in the juvenile and young adult sections, but don't let that fool you: The fantasy world she creates is deceptively simple, but the themes running through the series are timeless and quite adult enough.

Among Le Guin's many other books, my favorites are The Dispossessed, which is about a group of utopians who left their planet's surface 100 years ago to settle on the moon so they could pursue their chosen lifestyle, and what happens when a physicist on the moon decides that he will break the forbidden silence between the two planets; and The Left Hand of Darkness, which is about a planet that is being considered by an Envoy (a man who travels to new civilizations to check them out) for membership in a vast intergalactic association. The sentient species on this planet is both male and female, and can switch, depending on various environmental and emotional factors, so that one person can be both a mother and a father in the course of their lives. The Envoy is the only person on the entire planet who is one-gendered, and it's a strange experience for him, needless to say!

Next on my list is Sheri S. Tepper, who passed away last year at age 86. after a varied career as an executive director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood in Colorado, a guest ranch owner in Santa Fe and, of course, a prolific author. She wrote under her own name as well as using the pseudonyms A .J. Orde, E. E. Horlak, and B. J. Oliphant. I have only ever read her books under her own name, but now that I have discovered her secret identities, I will be seeking out the other things she wrote to see how they compare, because I find her books so wonderful.

My favorite, which we read in 10-12 Book Club, is The Family Tree. Police officer Dora Henry is looking into the murders of three geneticists who were working on a secret project. But while she is conducting her investigation, bizarre things start to occur: Plants start taking over the city, and dictating where people can and can't drive by blocking the roads with trees. The weirdest part is that Dora can somehow communicate with the plants. Dora comes to realize (through an agency that I can't reveal because it's such a spoiler) that there is the potential for a civilization-ending catastrophe that she may be a key figure in averting. This is such a quirky and entertaining read.

Tepper has her own entry in the "alien contact" trope, and it's a good one. It's called The Fresco, and it starts out with a hilarious sequence in which Benita Alvarez-Shipton, the abused wife of an alcoholic loser, runs into two aliens in a remote wooded area of the New Mexico mountains, and they designate her, despite her protests that she's "not anybody," to take their message to her leader. So she hops on a plane to Washington, D.C. and tries to explain it all to her congressman. She thinks that's an end to her involvement, but the aliens have more in mind for her to do. The book is a vehicle for cultural, political, and religious issues, and Tepper does, to be fair, have a particular agenda. But since I mostly agreed with her agenda, I enjoyed the book! You might, too. It's wickedly humorous, as well.

Another great sci fi writer is Joan D. Vinge, although I can't link here to any of her books because we don't have them! But I have mentioned to our science fiction buyer that they have been recently reissued and that we should grab copies immediately. Her epic series is contained in three volumes: Snow Queen, World's End, and Summer Queen, which are about a backwards little planet called Tiamat that happens to be a key transition point at the core of a galaxy, and the so-called primitives whose quaint society is maintained without change by the powers that be on other planets, simply to keep the transition point open for their trade ships, none of which stop at this planet. Every 150 years, the "star-gate" closes, and then the primitives reign, but this time there are political moves being made to maintain the status quo.

The other series she wrote that is completely engaging is considered a young adult series, although most sci fi readers who like this kind of thing would enjoy it. It's about a street kid, a half-human, half-alien orphan named Cat, who happens to be a telepath, and what happens when he gets caught up with people who say they want to help him but may just want to exploit his talent. The books are Psion, Catspaw, and Dreamfall. See if you can find them somewhere else, or wait until we add them to our catalog.

Finally, I'd like to highlight a particular book by Louise Marley. It's called The Terrorists of Irustan. The book is set on a planet that was settled by humans long ago, but where the Second Book of the Prophet reigns, where men maintain their dominant male culture and women are not seen outside the home without being wrapped head to foot in veils. The only women who maintain a tiny portion of independence are those who are trained as medicants, the poor excuse for doctors on this planet. (The men find the profession of medicine distasteful.) These women treat the colonists injured in the rhodium mines, and also minister to any others who are sick and injured. One such medicant, Zahra IbSada, makes a controversial personal decision in the course of her duties that will have unexpectedly wide ramifications for the women in her culture. The religious fundamentalism in this book and the stark yet beautiful treatment of the characters and their story reminds me in some ways of the feeling I got the first time I read The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. A favorite.

This concludes our tour of some powerful speculative fiction writers. I hope you'll consider some of these for your summer reading. If you are enrolled in the Summer Reading Club for Grown-ups, don't forget to review these books for 5 points per review. If you rack up 20 points, you will be entered in a drawing for some large, valuable prizes at the end of the summer! (If you are not enrolled, it's easy to do so. Go here, scroll down to the Grown-ups' program, and register!)

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