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Wow, here’s an unexpected chance to stock up on classic titles

November 22nd, 2014

It seems that 600 classic titles have been made available online, in standard ebook formats, by Open Culture.


Download 600 free eBooks to your Kindle, iPad/iPhone, computer, smart phone or ereader. Collection includes great works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, including works by Asimov, Jane Austen, Philip K. Dick, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Neil Gaiman, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf & James Joyce. Also please see our collection of Free Audio Books, where you can download more great books to your computer or mp3 player.

How about that? I’m going to pick up some for sure. And maybe even read some of them. Eventually. *So many books, so little time!*

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on November 22nd, 2014

Standalone titles: Fantasy and SF

November 21st, 2014

Over at tor.com, we have a list of seventeen standalone fantasy titles. Now, mind you, a standalone is a mixed blessing. Because one of those titles is THE GOBLIN EMPEROR and how many of us are weeping because there isn’t a sequel planned? Right?

Goblin

Even so, I must admit I’m often more likely to pick up a book, especially by a new-to-me author, if it stands alone.

other books I’ve read and loved from tor.com’s list: lots, actually, but particularly:

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells

The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

Wait, wait, but they include Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly, which kind of changes the topic from “books that are completely standalone” to “books that stand alone well enough that you don’t have to actually buy the sequels”, which is an entirely different kind of list and much much broader. Phooey, I say. A list for standalone titles should include ONLY titles that stand ENTIRELY alone in their universe.

Also! Why are only fantasy novels listed here? Quick, let’s list some great standalone SF novels, because I’m sure there must be lots. I don’t know that I can get to seventeen strictly from memory, but I’ll try for ten. So in no order, as they occur to me:

1. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

2. And All the Stars by Andrea K Höst

3. The Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

4. Embassytown by China Miéville

5. Cuckoo’s Egg by CJ Cherryh

6. Have Spacesuit Will Travel by Heinlein

7. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

8. The Witches of Karres by James H. Schmitz

9. Hellspark by Janet Kagan

10. The Martian by Andy Weir.

There! That wasn’t so hard. That’s certainly a wide range, too: everything from quite hard SF to basically science fantasy. I bet you can all think of others.

Not to mention lots of other fantasy titles that aren’t on tor.com’s list. Like just for example *most* of Patricia McKillip’s books, not to mention The City in the Lake, which is not only a standalone right this minute, but always will be, because unlike some of my other titles, I have no plans to write a sequel.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on November 21st, 2014

Comments are functioning!

November 20th, 2014

I hope there will be no further problems with comments, but certainly at the moment the comment function is working fine! So please share your own favorite pumpkin recipe, or add a comment about your favorite CJC novels, or mention your personal favorite alien species in SF — whatever you like.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on November 20th, 2014

Just a week to Thanksgiving, and I don’t like pumpkin pie

November 20th, 2014

I like turkey and stuffing and green bean casserole and okay not Brussels sprouts, but everything else on the table is likely to be tasty. I need to mention to my mother that I want to make the stuffing this year because I have some snazzy recipes pulled out and really want to try the one with chestnuts and sausage.

But though I appreciate tradition as much as the next person, pumpkin pie isn’t really my thing. If you, too, would like to work pumpkin into the menu without actually making a pumpkin pie as such, here are some recipes that will let you do that. All of them are tasty, though as you will see some are not meant to be replacement desserts at all — just to use pumpkin so that you can feel that you are properly following the (culinary) spirit of the holiday.

1. Way better than pie: Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake

1 1/2 C vanilla wafer crumbs or gingersnap crumbs
1/2 C finely chopped pecans
1/3 C melted butter

2 8-oz pkg cream cheese, softened
3/4 C sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3 eggs
1 C canned pumpkin
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg

Combine crumbs, pecans, and butter. Press onto bottom and 1 1/2 inch up the sides of a nine-inch springform pan. Bake at 350 degrees for ten minutes.

Combine cream cheese, 1/2 C sugar, and vanilla until well blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. Set aside one cup batter. Add remaining sugar, pumpkin, and spices to the rest of the batter and mix well. Spoon pumpkin and plain batters alternately over the crust and cut through with a knife to swirl. Bake at 350 degrees for 55 minutes. If you have problems with cheesecakes cracking, then you might try reducing the heat to 300 degrees after forty minutes and baking longer. The cheesecake is done when the center looks almost set and jiggles only very slightly when you gently shake the pan. If there are tiny cracks around the edges, the cheesecake is almost certainly done (and probably slightly overbaked, but it will be fine).

Run a knife around the edge of the springform pan but don’t remove the edge. Cool completely. Chill overnight. Remove the rim and serve.

2. A casual lunchtime dessert for the Thanksgiving holiday: Pumpkin-Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 C butter, softened
1 C sugar
1 C brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
2 C all-purpose flour
1 C quick oats
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 C canned pumpkin
8 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips

Cream butter and sugars. Beat in egg and vanilla. Combine dry ingredients and add in three portions, alternating with half the pumpkin between portions. Stir in chocolate chips. Drop onto cookie sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 9-12 minutes. These are really good, so if you wouldn’t ordinarily combine pumpkin with chocolate, try them and see for yourself that it works.

3. For breakfast during the holidays: Pumpkin-Pecan Biscuits with Honey

I’m not a huge fan of pumpkins, pecans, or honey — but I love these biscuits. Give them a try. I’d personally suggest serving them with ham, btw.

2 C flour
1/4 C sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 C butte
1/3 C chopped pecans, toasted. It’s easiest to toast pecans before chopping: put them on a baking pan in a 350 degree oven, shake the pan after four minutes and then again after 3 more minutes and then again after 2 minutes, until the pecans smell toasted and look a shade or two darker.
2/3 C canned pumpkin
1/3 C light cream (half and half)

Combine dry ingredients. Cut in butter with a handy pastry cutter, or two knives, or pulse the dry ingredients in a food processor, and the butter, and pulse to cut in. A heavy pastry cutter with good sturdy blades (not wires) is easy to use and a nice item to have around, though. Anyway, stir in the pecans. Combine the pumpkin and light cream and stir in. The dough should be stiff. Turn it out on a floured surface, knead a couple of times, pat out 1/2 inch thick, and cut out with a 2-inch cutter or whatever you have handy. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets. Gently knead the scraps together, pat out again, and cut out more biscuits. Bake at 400 degrees for 12-15 minutes. Serve with butter and honey (even if you’re not crazy about honey, try one with just a tiny bit of honey and see what you think).

4. Avoiding desserts? Or just really dislike pumpkin? For lunch the day after Thanksgiving, try Pork-Pumpkin Chili

1 lb pork tenderloin (or pork shoulder, or beef chuck, or, I guess, chicken), cubed
2 Tbsp oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-4 poblanos, chopped
1-2 jalapenos, chopped
2 tsp cocoa powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 C chicken broth, or beef broth, or hey, turkey broth. Whatever.
15-oz can pumpkin
1/4 C heavy cream

Brown pork in oil. Add onion, garlic, poblanos, and jalapenos and cook, stirring, five minutes. Add cocoa powder, cumin, cinnamon, maybe a tsp of salt, and stir a couple of times. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 30 minutes (for pork tenderloin; an hour for pork shoulder, 2 1/2 hours for beef chuck, or 20 minutes or so for chicken. I used beef because that’s what I had. I simmered it at a low heat for an hour, reduced the heat to very very low and left it for an hour and a half while I went out. The lowest heat on my induction stovetop is barely warm enough to melt chocolate, so this was like a slow cooker temperature.)

After the meat is tender, add the pumpkin and cream (I used a generous quarter cup of coconut milk since I didn’t have cream around). Heat through. Taste and add more salt if necessary.

With a longer cooking time, the onions and chilies will just about melt into nothing. This is perfectly okay. With a shorter cooking time, the onions and so on will have more of a noticeable presence, which is also fine. I’m trying out different chili recipes for an upcoming chili cookoff and this one was both unusual and good. The pumpkin is not an identifiable presence, but it adds body and smoothness and cuts the heat. If you try this and it turns out to be too spicy for you despite the pumpkin and cream, try serving it with elbow macaroni or for that matter with rice, like a curry, which is what I’m going to try tonight.

There you go! Enjoy your Thanksgiving, all you Americans out there! I have a lot to be thankful for this year; I hope you all do too.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on November 20th, 2014

Another look at CJ Cherryh –

November 19th, 2014

Okay, so I’m still having trouble with comments, so if you have a comment, please email me at rneumeie@gmail.com and I’ll post it myself, okay? The problem is being worked on, so hopefully it’ll be fixed soon.

Meanwhile!

Mary Beth emailed me a comment about Cherryh’s “horses” in the CLOUD’S RIDER duology as aliens (though not quite sentient, maybe).

CloudsRider

Though I did like the horses in those books (“I want bacon!”), this duology wasn’t my favorite of Cherryh’s work, and I said so, and we had a conversation about dangerous carnivorous horses compared to My Pretty Pony Pal horses in fantasy, and about Cherryh in general, and I realized that really there have been quite a few Cherryh books that were not my favorites. So, here’s my top five picks for Cherryh, not necessarily the ones I’d recommend to just anybody new to her work, but my personal favorites. And my personal bottom five, just for balance.

CJ Cherryh’s Greatest Hits:

1. The Chanur series. Love it. Aliens and action and spaceships and complicated politics, and actually I think you can see Cherryh’s growth as a writer when you compare the first three with the fourth that was written later (Chanur’s Legacy).

2. Cuckoo’s Egg. The reason I didn’t put this in my “Great aliens” post is because the point of the story is not to make the aliens alien, exactly. Culturally they are distinctive, but psychologically they are imo quite human, and deliberately so. But it’s a great book, a standalone, short, with an intimate feel, truly one of my all-time favorite stories.

3. The Foreigner series. Okay, I love it, but I wouldn’t really suggest someone new to Cherryh start with a fifteen book series. Hah hah hah. No. But it is one of my favorites. Here’s Ann Leckie’s comments about the first book, which clearly explains both why I love this series and why I wouldn’t expect it to work for just everybody.

4. Paladin. This is one of Cherryh’s fantasies, one set in an alternate China.

Paladin

This is a wonderful story, very closely focused on just one POV character. My guess is it would probably seem too slow to some readers, but I love the day-to-day feel of the story. Actually, in some ways it reminds me of A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith — both emphasize day-to-day detail of military training. Anyway, Goodreads says: “Now betrayed by the Emperor he once protected, master swordsman Saukendar leaves the way of the sword behind him forever–so he thinks. When a headstrong peasant girl burning to avenge her murdered family demands that he train her, Saukendar is faced with a momentous choice. Send Taizu away, never see her again–or join her and destroy the tyrant who has nearly destroyed them both.” This is basically true, although the story opens years after Saukendar retires from the world.

5. Cyteen. I’ve re-read this one a bunch of times, though I must admit I skip ahead till young Ari appears. I loved the sequel, too, though for me Regenesis was all about watching Justin and Grant and Ari and everyone get their lives in order and only a tiny bit about actually finding out who initially killed the older Ariane Emory.

The bottom of Cherryh’s barrel:

5. Forty Thousand in Gehenna. Watching the slow-motion destruction of the society established on Gehenna is just rather painful, especially since we see a good many people live not very pleasant lives during that part, so the whole first two-thirds of the book are not a very enjoyable read, at least not for me. I liked it better once we skip forward to the new, altered society that eventually grows out of colony.

4. Wave Without a Shore. Too weird for me, or something. It’s been a long time. Maybe I should try it again. But the fact that I’ve never re-visited it says something right there.

3. Brothers of Earth. There’s putting your protagonist through hell, and then there’s putting your protagonist through hell. I can see some of the ideas from this book echoing forward into later work, the whole throw-one-human-into-an-alien-society thing that Cherryh returns to again and again, but imo the Faded Sun trilogy was so much better.

2. Faery in Shadow. Caithe mac Sliabhan is under a curse that can’t be broken, only sort of slanted to be a little less cruel. The whole thing is just too grim for me.

1. The Rusalka series. I read the first book, didn’t like it, bought the second book, never actually picked it up off the shelf, and eventually gave them away. This was Cherryh’s only Total Failure for me, since I did keep all the rest of her books, even those I haven’t re-read. Now I’m sort of inclined to go back to Wave Without A Shore. Maybe I’d like it better now.

How about you all? If you’re a CJC fan, what are your top and bottom picks? Are they totally different from mine?

Remember, if you can’t comment in the ordinary way, just email me at rneumeie@gmail.com

COMMENTS

Elaine T says: Way up at the top of the bottom list is DOWNBELOW STATION. It never worked for me. But I keep it because stuff in it is central to so much of her other sf.
Agree on Faery in Shadow. A friend of mine on a mailing list that CJC participated in swears the author thought FiS was a comedy, BTW. My friend and I agree that we don’t see how. Voyager in Night & Port Eternity, Brothers of Earth and the Hunter thing. Hestia.

Ones I revisit or that haunt me:

SF: Finity’s End, Rimrunners, 40K (I think I’m trying to understand it….) CYTEEN, CHANUR (all of it), WAVE WITHOUT A SHORE, parts of Foreigner, but not all of it, FADED SUN TRIPOINT, FORGE OF HEAVEN (maybe for the fashionistas).

Fantasy: Paladin, Goblin Mirror, FORTRESS (all but ICE which I pretend never happened), RIDER/Finisterre (I know it’s a planetary colony, but it reads like a Western crossed with sf/f elements, ok?), assorted short stories like THE LAST TOWER and a couple from Sunfall… The Teen was really taken by the Rusalka trilogy and I’ve had to reread it recently to be able to discuss it with her as she wants – it’s better than I remembered, and the last book definitely improved with her rewriting it. OTOH, said Teen has also created a Character Irrationality Scale and named it for one of the Rusalka characters who is extremely irrational.

And at this moment I’m rereading SERPENT’S REACH.

Me: I love the phrase “At the top of the bottom list.” Yep, that’s how I feel about 40 Thousand in Gehenna. And in fact I feel pretty much the same way about Downbelow Station, too. I see you didn’t limit yourself to five: that’s cheating!

I really like the Faded Sun trilogy and The Goblin Mirror; actually I also really like Voyager in Night and Hunter of Worlds (not so much Port Eternity, but I don’t hate it). Ugh, I’d forgotten about ICE, which I also pretend never appeared and is definitely on my bottom-five list, but I love the rest of the Fortress series.

A comedy, seriously? I don’t get that any more than you.

And I love love love the idea of a Character Irrationality Scale, but I don’t plan to re-read Rusalka in order to peg it to the irrational character in that one. I could use Julie from Set This House in Order, though.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on November 19th, 2014

Quick note –

November 18th, 2014

Just wanted to say: I’ve got an issue with comments just now, as you may have noticed if you tried to leave a comment, or read comments. Hopefully this will be fixed very very soon, but it isn’t possible for me to see or respond to comments at the moment. If you like, you can directly email me a comment at:

rneumeie@gmail.com

and I will add it to the bottom of the relevant post. It’s a pain, I know! I’m sure WordPress is working to fix things.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on November 18th, 2014

The Top Ten Alien Species in Science Fiction

November 18th, 2014

Okay, first? Let me just say that I hate the term “alien race.” I know it is tremendously nitpicky, but “race” means in biology “subspecies with really unimportant differences,” or more often in modern cultural usage “social distinction with no biological importance whatsoever”, and so it is not really appropriate to use when you really mean “species.” You wouldn’t say that baboons are a race of gibbons or that elephants are a race of horses or that sea urchins are a race of, I don’t know, birds. That is all perfectly ridiculous. And aliens that evolved on a different planet are a lot less related to us than baboons or mice or even sea urchins. So, species, please, not “race.”

Okay, with that rant out of the way, what are some of the best alien species in SF?

In order to be among the “best”, an alien species has to be not-human psychologically and culturally as well as physically — and it has to be believable, or at least seem believable when you’re reading the story. It helps if it is compatible with what we know about animal behavior, which never arises in a vacuum — instinct as well as physiology arise in response to ecological pressures, after all. And, incidentally, when you hear the word “instinct,” you should think about emotions, because emotions are the experiential face of instinct. Think about it this way: The fear that makes you run away from a charging grizzly bear is how you experience the underlying flight instinct. The intense protective, possessive feeling you get when you look at your baby is how you experience the parental instinct. And so forth.

Nonhuman species ought to have evolved in response to different ecological pressures than humans, and thus possess different underlying instincts and different emotional and psychological lives.

Sometimes an SF writer manages to pull this off.

For well-developed nonhuman species, there’s no question which author leaps first to mind: CJ Cherryh.

1. Obviously Cherryh’s Foreigner series offers her best-developed alien species, the atevi.

Foreigner

The atevi are not all that different from humans physically, hardly more so than the standard bumpy-forehead aliens of Star Trek. But Cherryh handles their psychology and culture beautifully: their culture is actually not too alien, though very distinct from the specific human culture of Mosphiera on the atevi world. But the way numerology informs atevi language and modes of thought is great, and atevi instincts are certainly different enough to be a source of dangerous misunderstandings.

But the atevi are hardly Cherryh’s first successful alien species. Anybody who likes well-drawn aliens and hasn’t read her Chanur series should rush right out.

Chanur

2. The Hani are based on lions, which gives them instincts and a culture that is complex, believable, and feels grounded in reality (because it is). The mehendo’sat are primates, but not human; the stsho are interesting; the kif are just scary — all the alien species in this series are well-drawn. My review of the whole series is here, so I don’t need to go into details again right this minute.

3. Okay, one more: I can’t move on from Cherryh without mentioning a story you may not have ever heard of: the novella “The Scapegoat”, which I found long ago in a used book store, but which might be findable if you poke around — Hephaestus Books did a collection that included it, according to Goodreads. Anyway, in “The Scapegoat,” Cherryh brings us into the middle of a long-drawn-out war that both sides want to stop, but that they can’t find a way to stop because of their psychological and instinctual differences. It is a beautiful story, but I warn you, it always makes me reach for the kleenix. This, I think, is one of the early works that shows Cherryh working out how to handle aliens with instincts that are different from human instincts, and working with the conflicts that arise from this difference. You can definitely view this novella as a precursor to the Foreigner series.

So that’s three titles. Time to move on from Cherryh and let someone else have the spotlight. So, in no particular order:

4. In Up The Walls of the World by James Tiptree Jr, we get the Tyrenni, a species that sort of resemble giant manta rays, but who ride the winds of a large gas planet’s atmosphere rather than being aquatic.

UpTheWalls

I read this one a long time ago, and I can’t even tell you. I loved it. It was one of the very first alien species I ever encountered. It took me years to bother reading the bits from the human point of view. Psychologically, the Tyrenni are actually very understandable and easy for the reader to connect with emotionally; culturally, they are quite distinctive from humans because their biology and environment is so different.

5. A far more current example of an alien species that evolved in a tremendously different environment are the Ilmatarans that we meet in A Darkling Sea by James Cambias. “On the planet Ilmatar, under a roof of ice a kilometer thick, a team of deep-sea diving scientists investigates the blind alien race that lives below. The Terran explorers have made an uneasy truce with the Sholen, their first extraterrestrial contact: so long as they don’t disturb the Ilmataran habitat, they’re free to conduct their missions in peace.”

So as you can see, we actually get two alien species in this story: The Ilmatarans which are VERY VERY DIFFERENT and the Sholen, which are obviously inspired by bonobos. Cambias handles both well. My favorite detail, because shows an instinct totally alien to humans, is the way Ilmatarans regard their children. They are plainly an “r” selected species, not a “K” selected species — they plainly spawn huge numbers of offspring, which they are utterly disinterested in unless they happen to want an apprentice, in which case they go out and catch a wild child, tame it, and teach it the skills they want it to know. Yet Cambias makes Broadtale a character the reader can easily emphasize with and cheer on. Here’s Jo Walton’s take on A Darkling Sea.

6. While on the subject of instincts that are quite different from humans, let’s mention the Oankali from Octavia Butler’s outstanding, disturbing Lilith’s Brood series.

Lilith's Brood

“Lilith Iyapo is in the Andes, mourning the death of her family, when war destroys Earth. Centuries later, she is resurrected — by miraculously powerful unearthly beings, the Oankali. Driven by an irresistible need to heal others, the Oankali are rescuing our dying planet by merging genetically with mankind. But Lilith and all humanity must now share the world with uncanny, unimaginably alien creatures: their own children.”

Okay, as you can see, lots of scope for conflict and tension and all that good stuff. What interests me most, though, is something that I’m not sure Butler did consciously: she gave the Oankali instincts which they are utterly unable to override. There aren’t any human instincts that can’t be overridden, perhaps because under most circumstances humans actually experience a certain tug-of-war from competing instincts. Thus soldiers can leap on top of a grenade to protect their buddies despite the survival instinct, and unfortunately some mothers can neglect or abuse their children, and if the culture offers enough pressure you can get the brother-sister marriages we saw in Egypt, and so on.

The Oankali can’t override their own instincts and in my opinion this is the single greatest source of misunderstanding between Oankali and humans. If you read this series, think about that and see if you agree. And you really should read it — it is brilliantly written because, you know, this is Octavia Butler we are talking about.

7) Also brilliantly written: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

I’m not bothering to show cover, because the cover doesn’t show the Tine species at all — it’s a space cover. Which is fine, because this story is about a lot more than the Tines.

“Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind’s potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend, to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function. Nobody knows what strange force partitioned space into these “regions of thought,” but when the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence.

Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines, an alien race with a harsh medieval culture, and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue mission, not entirely composed of humans, must rescue the children-and a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization.”

So you see. As it happens, when I read this book for the first time, I barely paid any attention to the broader SF plot because I was much, much more interested in the Tines. Though telepathic aliens is a very common trope, the Tines are one of the only alien species with believable telepathy, because Vinge sets up “telepathy” with science rather than magic. How cool is that? The Tines are not that intelligent individually, but they form “group minds” with emergent personalities from groups of four or more individuals. There are so many consequences of this that I can’t even touch on the main points, but here’s one: Tine groups have to stay far enough away from other groups that they don’t blur together. And here’s another: they can change their overall personalities by adding (or subtracting) members of the group.

If you’re interested, here’s a review of this title from Kristen at Fantasy Book Café.

8. I used to say that the Tines were the ONLY believable telepathic group-mind species in SF, but now that’s not true! Because Ann Leckie pulled off the same thing, in a different way, in her outstanding Ancillary Justice. Breq used to be a starship with hundreds or even thousands of bodies spliced in (via Sufficiently Advanced Technology). Now Breq is . . . how to put this . . . a group mind reduced to one? As far as I’m concerned, Breq and the other group minds in this universe count as an alien species.

“On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren – a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.”

Ancillary Justice was the easy winner of the Hugo this year. I don’t know that I would hand it to a reader who never reads SF, because it’s a pretty demanding story. But anybody who loves fine SF should definitely read this, in the unlikely case they haven’t already.

9. It’s getting tough to choose! Only two spots left for a top ten! Let’s sort of cheat and pick aliens that aren’t *that* alien, in a sense (though quite alien in another sense): Startide Rising by David Brin.

Startide

In this book and the others in the series, Brin features “uplifted” dolphins, chimpanzees, and gorillas — animals bred for intelligence and now more or less integrated into the broader human society. In this universe, species never or almost never achieve sentience without being uplifted by another species — but no one knows how humans became sentience. However, that’s not the interesting part. In this context, at least, the interesting part is how dolphins and chimps remain true to themselves instead of becoming exactly like humans. Brin does this well, so the series is worth a place on this list.

10. And finally, after a struggle, I’m including Golden Dream by Ardath Mayhar.

Golden Dreams

H Beam Piper created the species with his Little Fuzzy and related stories, all of which got these beautiful Michael Whelan covers. But the novel I always liked best is this adjunct story by Ardath Mayhar, from the Fuzzy (Gashta) point of view. The events of Little Fuzzy are seen here, but from the other side and with a whole lot more about Gashta culture integrated into the story. I don’t know that the species is as thoroughly developed as some, or at least I don’t think it is as distinctive as some, but it’s still a delight to read.

In fact, it gave me a longstanding desire to kind of pick this idea up from the other direction: write an SF story where humans were long ago marooned on a world where they didn’t quite fit and their stone-age descendants rescued by really big aliens — aliens who think humans are so cute and charming. I actually do have about 80 pages of this written, so someday . . .

And that’s ten! Whew. It’s hard to stop, so:

11) One more, if you don’t mind: Mother of Demons by Eric Flint. Giant sentient mollusks? That’s hard to beat.

Mother

“An outcast with a perversion (she liked males); a great battle mother with an impossible task; a paleobiologist with a terrible sense of humor — they were all revolutionaries, but had never expected this. . . ”

Eric Flint does a great job setting up the biology and culture of his alien species. Some of the story is written from the human point of view and some from various alien points of view. I must say, when a human lifeboat carrying half a dozen adults and a hundred or so kids crashes on the planet occupied by two species of sentient mollusks, the dominant one in, if I remember correctly, the bronze age . . . well, it’s a great set up for drama. This is a faster-paced story, easier to get into than, say, A Fire Upon the Deep.

Okay, I am almost stopping there, but let’s have a handful of honorable mentions before we close. These are honorable mentions because I have one or another problem with the alien species or because the alien species is not all that well developed, not because there’s anything wrong with the stories as stories. I really like all of these.

Hellspark by Janet Kagan. The aliens are not that well developed; the thrust of the story is elsewhere; but it’s good.

The Sparrow and Children of God by Maria Doria Russell. I don’t believe in her alien species, which I don’t think could actually evolve. And some of the worst things I’ve ever read about happen in this duology. But still, it deserves a look if you love alien species.

Hero and Border Dispute by Daniel Kerns (Jacqueline Lichtenberg). I don’t believe in this alien species either, because I think a complex social structure is necessary to evolve intelligence . . . but if I were wrong and a solitary species could become truly sentient, well, it might look very much like this. These books are great fun to read and it’s a huge shame they didn’t take off well enough for the series to continue. I wish Lichtenberg would self-publish any sequels she has sitting around.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I dislike magic telepathy in science fiction. I especially dislike magic telepathy and hive minds. Ugh. Cherryh did the hive thing better, at least better for me, in Serpent’s Reach, but I already have three of hers listed that I liked better.

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. I totally don’t believe in this ridiculous genetic blending animal-plant lifecycle stuff. Evolution can’t produce impossible results. Faced with the biological challenge presented in the evolutionary past, if nothing had already been resistant, everything would simply have become extinct. I dislike magic biology, so this didn’t make the list. The story itself is good, though.

COMMENTS:

Elaine T adds: “In case anyone cares, it [“The Scapegoat”] is most easily available these days in THE COLLECTED SHORT FICTION OF CJ CHERRYH, which all CJC fans probably ought to have anyway. I read it first in ALIEN STARS ed by Mitchell & published by Baen, and which is probably easy to find used.” Thanks, Elaine! I didn’t know that, and I definitely, but definitely, recommend that everyone look up “The Scapegoat”, which truly is a beautiful story. I also have it in ALIEN STARS, but when I was writing the post, I was doing it from memory and didn’t remember the title of that collection.

Mary Beth adds: “Anyway– aliens! Yes, Cherryh is my first thought when I think of aliens done well in SF, although I’m shamefully far behind in the atevi books. The Cuckoo’s Egg is another good example of her alien books (and I see its inspiration quite heavily in Karin Lowachee’s Warchild, which has the same central concept of an alien species raising a human child to be both an assassin and a bridge between the species). Actually though my TRULY favorite aliens in Cherryh aren’t even really sapient: they’re the nighthorses of the Finisterre books, and really just that whole, freezing, terrifying world. I would trade a dozen atevi books for one more Finnisterre novel. (Maybe I just really like carnivorous horses. I’m currently in the midst of a belated reread of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, after all.)”

The Finisterre series isn’t my favorite, it’s a very claustrophobic world, but I do wish Cherryh would go on and actually *finish* it. And now I really want to go re-read The Scorpio Races.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on November 18th, 2014

Panel the Second: Writing disabled characters

November 16th, 2014

This was another great panel! Alas, not so well attended, which is what you expect at a ten AM panel, I guess. It was a pleasure to join the other panelists — Walt Boyes, Aimee Kuzenski, Ross Martinek, and W.A. Thomasson. Aimee had included a character with schizophrenia in one of her books and the others have one or another disability. I, of course, don’t have a serious disability nor have I written a character with a typical disability, although of course Kes in the Griffin Mage trilogy is cripplingly shy and Buguchren is a very small man (if you care to count that as a kind of social disability, which I think is fair).

The best bit: When we ALL agreed that if the reader can tell that you included a character with a disability as a political statement, you have failed as a writer. It sounded like everyone else hates that kind of blatant preachiness as much as I do. I think we also all agreed that it’s not necessarily going to seem terribly inclusive to write a character with a disability and then have the character magically cured before they live happily ever after, as though only beautiful, healthy people deserve happy endings.

The worst bit: I never quite had a chance to share my complete list of disabled characters from SFF (mostly). Since you all contributed massively to that list, I will now share it with you, adding in a couple of other characters with disabilities mentioned by the other panelists:

Characters with autism:

These days, autism is not a real diagnosis, imo, because the one term clearly encompasses multiple conditions. However, here are a handful of characters that fit one or another type of autism:

1. Lou Arrendale from THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon. I’m not the panelist who mentioned this one first, but I definitely agree that this fabulous book should have won every award the year it came out (it did win the Nebula). If you haven’t read it, YOU SHOULD. Then by all means tell me what you think of it.

Speed of Dark

2. Nicola from LIBRIOMANCER by Jim Hines.

3. Michael from SILENCE (Queen of the Dead) by Michelle Sagara

4. A minor character from ROYAL AIRS by Sharon Shinn — I don’t want to name the character; read the book yourself. This I one of the very, very few characters with a real mental disorder that I’ve ever seen in fantasy — it occurred to me, and the other panelists agreed, that it’s easier to think of disabled characters with mental or emotional disorders from science fiction and that this is much less common in fantasy, except possibly for PTSD.

Characters with other mental illness:

5. Michael from THE HOLLOW CITY by Dan Wells (Schizophrenia)

6. From the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, Maya (bipolar), Sax (expressive aphasia), Ann (severe clinical depression)

7. Both protagonists from SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER by Matt Ruff (multiple personality syndrome)

8. Rufus from LOCKE AND KEY by Joe Hill

9. Mark Vorkosigan

Characters with cerebral palsy:

10. A child in THE LOST BOYS by Orson Scott Card

11. Jonathan and all the other kids from BROTHER JONATHAN by Kilian Crawford — though I am not altogether happy with the magic cure; still, read it and see what you think.

Characters who are blind or deaf:

12. Po from GRACELING by Kim Cashore

13. Saiara from THE CHANGING OF THE SUN by Lesley Smith

14. Tesa from SILENT DANCES by AC Crispen

15. Piper from FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB by Antony John

Characters who are missing a hand, have a damaged leg, or are in a wheelchair:

16. Eugenides, duh. Don’t know why I didn’t think of him at once myself. From the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whelan Turner, of course.

17. Dag, also duh, from The Sharing Knife series by Bujold.

18. Alan, from THE DEMON’S LEXICON by Brennen.

19. Gian, from WAITING FOR THE LAST DANCE by Lazette Gifford

20. Robin, from the Niccolo series by Dunnett.

Characters with other physical disabilities:

21. Miles Vorkosigan, of course.

22. Waldo, from the story of the same name by Heinlein

23. Caesarion, from CLEOPATRA’s HEIR by Gillian Bradshaw

24. Glokta, from THE BLADE ITSELF by Joe Abercrombe

Small male characters:

25. Miles Vorkosigan

26. Narses from THE BEARKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Gillian Bradshaw

27. Beguchren from The Griffin Mage trilogy by me

Seriously overweight female characters:

28. Summer from PIG’S DON’T FLY by Mary Brown — who gets thin without really noticing, which to me is highly questionable

29. Elisa from GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS by Rae Carson — who also slims down, though imo Carson handled that better

30 Sergeant Jackrum from MONSTROUS REGIMENT by Terry Pratchett. Hah! I bet you all forgot about that one, didn’t you? Note that being overweight is not a social disability for Sergeant Jackrum — but then no one knows that Jackrum is a woman, either, until right at the end.

There! I’m sure this is a thoroughly incomplete list, but at least it’s a start.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on November 16th, 2014

For SF month — Sci-Fi Subgenres

November 15th, 2014

Here’s part one of a nice, fairly thorough set of recommendations sorted out by subgenre, this one posted at the blog The Thousand Lives.

SF/Fantasy crossover — Steelheart is listed as an example. I really do need to listen to or read that one of these days (I have it in both paper and audio now).

Space Western — more examples are listed than just Firefly.

Post-apocalypse — I know, so many examples these days.

SF fairy tale retellings — that one is particularly interesting, but it does seem to be a slightly more common subgenre than I expected, especially if you include retellings of things that aren’t fairy tales, like For Darkness Shows the Stars
and Jenna Starbourne.

And here’s part two, from the blog Looking for the Panacea: SF subgenre recommendations. Included subgenres:

Space opera — defined by elements of romance, melodrama and adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space

Steampunk — I really have not read very widely in this subgenre.

Time Travel — they don’t mention Blackout / All Clear, but that’s the one that springs to mind for me.

Dystopia — I KNOW, too many to even count, but I do like the inclusion of Fahrenheit 451 — always nice to include some of the older works rather than just the current huge list of YA titles.

Anyway, always interesting to read through someone else’s list of subgenres and recommendations.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on November 15th, 2014

Recent Reading: SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER by Matt Ruff

November 15th, 2014

So, is SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER actually a science fiction novel? Or is it a contemporary fiction title, meant to illuminate the possible experience of a person with multiple personality syndrome?

Set this house

I read the whole book without once thinking about that – I read it as SF/Fantasy. But now I’m not sure. Because, now that I come to look back on it, there are actually zero SFF elements in this story, even though the reading experience is very much an SFF experience. SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER could be read as a character study folded into a suspense plot. The point is not really the suspense; the intent of the story seems to be to bring multiple personality syndrome to life for the reader, offering not one but two takes on the experience of coping with multiple personalities.

Is the picture presented to the reader “true” or “accurate”? I don’t really know, but I think it could be. I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist, although I’ve read a good bit of nonfiction in the field because it’s interesting. It seems to me that the author has done quite a bit of research and tried to present an interpretation of multiple personality syndrome that is true to the actual condition. I like the way the condition is presented – as a functional, protective response to early-onset, severe, long-term childhood torture. I think that is the correct way to view multiple personality syndrome, which is why I don’t like to call it multiple personality disorder. It certainly can ultimately lead to dysfunction, but that’s not the same as, say, OCD or paranoid schizophrenia, which are conditions that are, as far as I know, strictly pathological and dysfunctional.

Andrew has his personalities (souls) fairly well in order, or at least it seems so at first. Penny doesn’t yet understand why she loses time or why notes mysteriously appear, reminding her that she’s starting a new job or that she has an appointment for lunch. I like all the characters, but I particularly love Penny. One of my very favorite details is how Penny disposes of her mother’s ashes, after her mother has a stroke and dies.

Anyway, through Andrew’s and Penny’s experiences, we are offered different ways of looking at multiple personality syndrome and different metaphors to understand the way the personalities appear and develop and function. Ruff also manages to make the different personalities distinct and show what important roles various personalities play, and what accommodations they can make with one another in order to create a functional life from a shattered childhood. This is all really well handled.

As an interesting touch, the most dysfunctional person in the story, Julie, does not have any diagnosed emotional or psychiatric problem. I mean, I don’t want to downplay what Penny goes through at first, but over the course of the story and particularly in the final chapter, which is really an epilogue, Penny becomes a quite functional person. Andrew had the job partly done to start with and had already made a decent life for himself at the time the story opens.

This is not true of Julie, who is a mad dreamer at the beginning and a mad dreamer at the end, the sort of person who leaps into wild plans, does not allow for obvious contingencies, loses everything, and leaps undeterred into the next wild plan, sowing chaos all around herself as she goes. Julie is impulsive, impractical, emotionally manipulative, and thoroughly self-centered. She is the sort of person who is always at the center of her own drama and wants everyone else to revolve around her, too. She is presented rather positively through Andrew’s eyes – he is her friend and at least imagines he might like to be more – but I must say, I thoroughly disliked her.

It didn’t occur to me till after I finished the book that it could hardly be accidental that Andrew and Penny are contrasted not only with each other, but with Julie. At the end, Julie is the one whose life is least in order. In fact, lots of the non-diagnosed characters are in fact coping with some peculiar psychological issues. Some cope extremely well (Mrs Winslow) and some very badly (Chief Bailey), but we sure do get a whole range of “normal” people who are not, on second thought, necessarily as normal as all that.

So, this is a fascinating story in all kinds of ways.

It’s also catchy. I read it fast, without wanting to put it down – I stayed up quite a bit later than I meant to and actually dreamed about it after I went to bed. (Really.)

I also want to mention that Ruff does an amazing job of making the childhood abuse suffered by both Andrew and Penny quite clear, without ever making the awful details too immediate or too vivid. Ruff handles all that childhood horror with such care that you can probably stand to read this even if you can’t bear child-torture scenes.

Whatever else it is, SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER is a tribute to the ability of the human spirit to recover its integrity – for a broad definition of “integrity” – after the most appalling abuse. I will definitely be looking up other work by this author. In fact, I’m staying with my brother in Chicago and he just handed me FOOL ON THE HILL, so I won’t have to look very hard.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on November 15th, 2014