Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Bookpost 13

 Previous installments found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 , 7, 8, 9, 10 , 11, 12


The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

DNF 125/497

I tried, I tried, I gave it my best, but this book thwarted me at every turn. Its initial premise is a good solid hook - lone survivor of a Jesuit mission to an inhabited planet around Alpha Centauri returns with horrific injuries and his order attempts to piece together the narrative - and that is immediately thrown out the window by glacial pace, asynchronous chronology, and a focus on the pining and sexual tension of the main cast. By page 125 we have barely spent more than a few sentences talking about the planet, the aliens, or the mission. The sci-fi elements are hardly even there, and the more they are introduced the more things fall apart because Russell clearly either doesn't know or care.

The Death Knell (reading goodreads reviews instead of reading the book) was certainly in effect here, and those reviews revealed elements that would have me grind my teeth to dust if I had actually encountered them without forewarning.

If your book contains a meditation on theodicy, you cannot have your characters go "how can God permit such suffering" when EVERY SINGLE FUCKING THING IS YOUR OWN FAULT, BECAUSE YOU ARE STUPID AND MAKE BAD DECISIONS. Someone eats local vegetation and everyone is SHOCKED that the dumb bastard dies! None of the mission members are scientists! They don't have a first contact protocol! They have not a god damned thing that a reasonable mission would have, and somehow this farce is supposed to have a point beyond "you are all dumb stupid assholes and died because of your own fault." The absolute caucasity that is on display here boggles the imagination.

But that's all just what I have gleaned from reviews of the parts that I have not read. The really damning element comes from the interview with Russell tucked in the back of the 20th anniversary edition. Quote:

"The idea came to me in the summer of 1992 as we were celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World. There was a great deal of historical revisionism going on as we examined the mistakes made by Europeans when they first encountered foreign cultures in the Americas and elsewhere. It seemed unfair to me for people living at the end of the twentieth century to hold those explorers and missionaries to standards of sophistication and tolerance that we hardly manage even today. I wanted to show how very difficult first contact would be, even with the benefit of hindsight. That's when I decided to write a story that put modern, sophisticated, resourceful, well-educated, and well-meaning people in the same position as those early explorers and missionaries — a position of radical ignorance."

> mistakes

> mistakes

> mistakes

> M I S T A K E S

Let's check what ol' Chris had to say on the matter.

"A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand."
Golly gee willickers, Ms. Russel, how many children have to get sold into slavery before it stops being "radical ignorance"? Maybe if you ask their ghosts they can tell you more about those "mistakes".

(It's not even good Columbus apologia! She somehow manages to fail at even supporting her own odious arguments, because the entire content of the book is "this is a bad idea, undertaken by idiots, who never should have gone there in the first place and everything would be better if no one had done anything".)

Also the book has got this weird 90s racial undercurrent of "Japan as a global superpower filled with inscrutable and alien businessmen" and a frankly fucking bizarre character dynamic where one character (a Jew from Turkey) is supposed to have this deep-seated distaste for Fr. Santoz because he's hispanic and has a mustache and therefore must by the spitting image of an inquisitor who expelled Jews from Spain post-Reconquista. Straight-up just says "Yeah you know Jewish folk, they'll hold a grudge for 500 years, that's just common knowledge" and that is a fucking bonkers nonsense thing to say as not-a-joke and doubly so for an author who converted to Judaism.

Border Keeper, Kerstin Hall

A short novel, practically a novella, and another one of those lucky finds in the Tor freebie pile. The descriptions are vibrant, the pace is breakneck, and the concept is good - a witch in the middle of nowhere serves as the keeper and watcher of boundaries between the realms of the 999 demon lords of the spirit world. I was not surprised to see that there's a second novel, as it certainly feels like a setting that has not only more to explore, but a great deal under the surface that just didn't make it into the story. The ending was a bit too abrupt for my liking - maybe an extra 30 pages would have been good - but I will take fast and engaging over slow and ponderous. Additionally there are just a few too many characters with multiple names / important names that only ever exist off-screen for my liking, but concessions need to be made for something that wants to have expansive scope and short length and overall it succeeds. Good book, I recommend it.

A Strange Manuscript Found Inside a Copper Cylinder, James De Mille

DNF 38%

An antarctic lost-world story, following on the tail of Poe's Gordon Pym. Fine enough but there was not much going for it in terms of good material to swipe or steal. It gets one bonus point for not completely abandoning the frame narrative but beyond that it's by-the-numbers.

More interesting is how it, like nearly all other works of the genre, evokes the enormous psychological complex the imperial Anglosphere had about cannibalism and human sacrifice. Find a lost world and there's gonna be cannibalism and human sacrifice, that's just Victorian Science (TM). I find this interesting because of  how close so many of these authors and narratives come to the point of self-realization ("hey we're just projecting the anxieties of our own colonial monstrosity of a civilization onto our victims") and they shy away from it every time. But since they never do, it's monotonous in the extreme because they are either incapable of or have no desire to present any culture with any amount of complexity or nuance.

Medea: Harlan's World, Harlan Ellison et al

DNF 358/528

A compilation of stories set on a very unique alien planet (tidally-locked moon of a brown dwarf inhabited by two sapient species, being centipede-foxes and balloon creatures) and developed round-robin style by some rather big names of the 70s sci-fi scene, all at the behest of Harlan Ellison for a course he was teaching at UCLA in 1975. It's split into four parts:

Part One contains the technical specs of the planet Medea, which had been passed between the first four authors and collected into a booklet for the seminar.

  • Astrophysics & Geology (Hal Clement)
  • Planetology & basic biology (Poul Anderson)
  • Complex biology & sapient beings (Larry Niven)
  • Alien culture & human encounters (Frederick Pohl)

This is easily my favorite part of the book, rushed as it might have been (Ellison apparently gave people less than a day to type up their segments). It's a showcase of some truly great concept sci-fi, of loading up a setting with enough moving parts and novel ideas that it keeps rolling forward under its own momentum.

Part 2 is transcript of a seminar fleshing out Medea and working out elements of what would become the short story collection, with the panel consisting of  Thomas Disch, Frank Herbert, Robert Silverberg and Theodore Sturgeon with Ellison moderating. It is rather entertaining (if exceedingly 70s, we get a racist joke by the second page) - the authors have good rapport with each other and the circles they end up going in are more forgivable when in the format of a transcript of a live recording. Also, a surprising number of references to John Lily, was not expecting that, though given the company of the seminar I certainly should have.

Part 3 is a collection of audience-submitted questions and suggestions, which were collected in writing. Nerds don't change, though in 1975 they were a lot more likely to say "the balloons have telepathy, which is how they can fly, no further explanation."

Part 4 is the short stories, which is where everything falls apart. They did the smart thing and kept them entirely unconnected from each other plot-wise, jumping back and forth across Medea and the lifespan of its human colony, and to that extent provide a good tour of all its fun features.

Unfortunately, the short stories turned out to be mediocre at best, tiresome on the whole, and incredibly boring on occasion. The short reviews are:

  • Farside Station (Jack Williamson) - Fine enough as a story, hated the main character, who was hateable in the rather blase and mundane way of Just A Shitty Dude And While I Think Part of It Was Intentional The Times Have Changed Enough That I Honestly Can't Tell.
  • Flare Time (Larry Niven) - Gave up and skipped this one. Niven has a nigh-supernatural ability to take a concept and bleach it of anything that might potentially be interesting. An absolute bore.
  • With Vergil Oddum at the East Pole (Harlan Ellison) - My favorite of the bunch, thanks to Ellison's prose and the concept (a man exiled to near the glacial wall for unknown crimes meets a mysterious man who wanders out of the frozen wastes). Decent story.
  • Swanilda's Song (Frederik Pohl) - Also known as "70s Sci-Fi Authors Not Being Weird And Creepy About Sex Challenge (Impossible)", a challenge which it handily fails. The shaggy dog ending was mildly amusing but in an eye-rolling way that doesn't make up for the sleaze earlier. It wasn't even good or entertaining sleaze, it's just this filmy grease that I presume everything was coated in during the 70s.
  • Seasoning (Hal Clement) - Skipped. Eyes glazed over immediately, wasn't going to stick around to see if it improved. Can't say anything about it otherwise.
  • Concepts (Thomas Disch) - I could barely keep track of what the fuck was going on in this one, but it does have one of the worst sci-fi inventions I have ever seen in it: interstellar omegle that requires mutual disconnect. With a press of a button, you can lock whoever is on the other end so that they cannot disconnect, and this can go on for weeks at a time. Its userbase does exactly what you expect them to do.

At this point I stopped, leaving the remaining stories - Songs of a Sentient Flute (Frank Herbert), Hunter's Moon, The Promise (Kate Wilhelm), Why Dolphins Don't Bite (Theodore Sturgeon), and Waiting for the Earthquake (Robert Silverberg) unread and thus unable to be commented upon.

There is also art, which I thought was generally nice. I'm more forgiving of the sleaze in the art than the writing, because the art was done more skillfully.

But yeah: overall a much better worldbuilding exercise than a narrative. Ellison certainly has a talent for compiling mediocre-to-bad stories from large numbers of people.


  1. Don't worry: after such a string of duds, I am currently reading The Wizard Knight, which is very, very good.

  2. I ended up bailing on The Sparrow at a similar point to you.

    Also the only real luck I've had with Niven in short stories. If left to his own devices anything novel length just trends into being extremely weird about women and/or banging aliens.