Jumpdrives & Cantrips


Camp Concentration

Camp ConcentrationGiven that WordPress has now eaten my review for the second time for no apparent reason when it has never done this before, I’m starting to get extremely frustrated. So, I’m going to go after a somewhat different, more compressed, format, since I’m getting sick of typing out the same damn thing over and over.

Thomas M. Disch published Camp Concentration in 1968. Timing-wise, this places the book in the midst of a) political upheaval and both internal and international conflict in the US, b) the New Wave movement in science fiction literature spear-headed by Michael Moorcock, c) a time when several other prominent SF authors wrote books with Faustian references. This last point amuses me in a general sense; authors include Phillip K. Dick (in 1969) and Roger Zelazny (in 1966).

Plot summary available from Wikipedia if you aren’t familiar with it.

Narrative structure is journal format, divided structurally into two books. Our records-keeper is Louis Sacchetti: poet, conscientious objectioner (“conchie”), obese man, Pallidine-carrier, and unreliable narrator. Why? Well, I would be unreliable too if I knew the director of my newfound prison and his pet military researcher running the experiment received copies of my journal as a daily newsfeed.

Did I like Camp Concentration? No, I did not. Not only does Disch align the reader with those holding power over Sacchetti by giving us the same “gaze” that they have–we join the heads of Camp Archimedes as the journal’s audience–but also creates a separation between us and Sacchetti with this same practice. I could not fall into the narrative per se, and further to that, with all the name-dropping literary-referencing madness-tinged-discourse-inserting it was just too much work for a payoff I didn’t even want by the end of it. Disch writes in a dense, compressed style that packs a lot of punch with a low word-count: his poetic leanings win out in his prose, which makes it a work-heavy read that necessitates interpretation.

What do I think of Louis Sacchetti as the main character? Hard to tell, since he censors himself as a record-keeper. This is something that bears analysis, and to be honest, I didn’t like the book enough to read it over 2-3 more times to put every single piece together of a complex, unlikable, and unsympathetic character. For example, it takes Sacchetti until the end of the first book to acknowledge he has been infected by Pallidine: is this denial, inability to connect the dots, or purposeful concealment of his knowledge from his captors? I could not tell you.

That said, what do I think of Camp Concentration? It’s a book that espouses ideas more than characters. What is the nature of genius? Is genius book knowledge, self knowledge, power over the natural world, or ability to exact what you want from other people? Is it genius, or an illness, or something else? As Sacchetti muses near the end of the novel: “I exist without instincts, almost without images; and I no longer have an aim. I resemble nothing. The poison has had not two effects–genius and death–but one. Call it by which name you will.” (p. 184).

It also brings into question the ethics of biological warfare and human test subjects, rampant government control, and war in general. Throughout the course of the book identity, the nature of science, and the regulation and politics of knowledge production are hot-button issues, as is a hard look at the compromises made for meeting one’s goals. Disch provides us with a large amount of commentary on social control relating to the government, the separate groups of prisoners (more so in the latter half of the book), and religious beliefs within this context. Definitely more idea-driven than character-driven, though character certainly plays a large role in the book itself.

The ideas? Fascinating. Worth the read if you like to consider big questions, but if you are a completist and feel a need to look up and search out context for various quotations and references, you can spend an awful lot of time on Camp Concentration, which is relatively short. Really, the title itself gives one enough pause: allusion to concentration camps in Nazi Germany, within the bounds of the story there is Camp Archimedes itself which promotes concentration and study within the camp, and the concentration required from the reader. Imagine what you could pull out of 184 pages packed with multiplicities of meaning, if you are so inclined.

If anyone out there is looking for fodder for a scholarly study, this book would be a grand topic. It might not be your cup of tea for an engaging, escapist read–though I suppose that depends on what you like your escape to be. Although certainly a worthwhile and thought-provoking read, Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration will never be a favourite of mine.

Check out the Blogger’s Book Club discussion hosted over at OF Blog of the Fallen for some other thoughts and reviews!

Disch, Thomas M. Camp Concentration. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. $17.95 (Canadian), but likely at your local library, trade paperback.

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Ha’Penny

Ha’PennyJo Walton‘s Small Change series started off on solid ground with Farthing, a murder mystery “with fascists” set in a very different WWII era United Kingdom, and continues in her 2008 Prometheus Award winner Ha’Penny. Walton’s writing has always had a historical bent, first evident in The King’s Name series as historically-tinged fantasy, and more so in Tooth and Claw, a Victorian novel with dragons. Writing alternate history therefore isn’t much of a stretch, and her talents in creating period mood in prose certainly shine in this series.

Picture a U.K. that made peace with Hitler’s Germany after the Blitz in 1941: this is Walton’s world, several years later with a British populace manipulated into complacency. Ha’Penny focuses on two characters: the actress Viola Lark, blackmailed into participating in a scheme to assassinate the leaders of both the Third Reich and Britain, and Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard, whose homosexuality opens the door for Britain’s leaders to blackmail him into participating in their political maneuvering. Carmicheal also played a major role in Farthing, and mostly due to his recurring presence and fascinating character development, I  recommend not starting the series with Ha’Penny–as well you may miss some political subtleties.

Ha’Penny, like Farthing, hinges on the familiar both in plot and content. Plot-wise, Farthing used the murder mystery, while Ha’Penny follows more of a suspense/thriller format. While Ha’Penny doesn’t deliver a page-turning potboiler in the traditional sense, it delivers a politically-charged character driven view of what might have been that reflects on current political tensions. Walton’s use of familiar, comforting structure and setting serves as a lull to amplify the danger and contrast with more subtle political violence. The real story and Walton’s own agenda paddles along frantically beneath a calm surface.

Carmichael, reluctant though he is to aid the government, has made the choice before to acquiesce to the demands of those in power for his own safety and comfort. Viola’s first person narrative of wakening to action serves to contrast his more removed and stoic internal third person narrative. She begins the novel as an actress who must work for a living, though born into privilege and willingly removed from the political arena, who becomes strong-armed into a plot she sees no purpose in. Walton uses her role in Hamlet to mirror her character, especially in the latter half of the novel. Viola’s revelation and change in character at a society event with the leaders she plots against packs a softened, yet wounding, blow:

“What about Germany?” I asked. “That they wanted the war? But they didn’t, did they, no more than we did, that’s what the Farthing Peace was all about?”
“No, about the camps.” Lord Ullapool drained his wineglass and stared off at the dancers, but I don’t think he was seeing them. “Anything you’ve heard about the work camps on the Continent, about enslaving the workers and confiscating their property, about working them to death, about gassing those who can’t work, it’s all true.”
I’d never believed it before, not when Siddy mentioned it in the Lyons, not even when Malcolm was giving me facts and figures, but hearing it now in this gentle old man’s quiet voice I couldn’t doubt it. (p. 238)

I usually do not read alternate history because the ideas behind it frequently overwhelm the characters, but Walton places character development in the forefront, hinging the novel on this. While written with an agenda, the reader must decide whether there really is a “good” or “evil” in this story, and where they sit amid shades of grey. This is part of the source of the power in the novel’s message; readers who choose to engage in the novel in this way are forced to look within to know where they might stand, which is not so simple in a world where complacency and ignorance can be so easy and potentially rewarding, even inadvertently, as the culmination of the novel demonstrates.

Ha’Penny is an excellent piece of literature that makes me wish I had more grounding in both Hamlet and WWII history; since I have only smatterings of the two, I can only say that the book is deftly engaging and eerily plausible in the current political atmosphere we live in today. I’ll definitely keep a watch for Walton’s third Small Change book, Half a Crown, which will be released near the end of the month in hardcover.

Walton, Jo. Ha’Penny. New York: Tor Books, 2007. $9.99 (Canadian), paperback.



Blast From the Past: The Eskimo Invasion (1967)
September 19, 2008, 2039
Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , , , ,

The Eskimo Invasion Ah, 1967… the Vietnam War is in progress as hippies gather for the Summer of Love, a certain professor (John Archibald Wheeler) coins the term “black hole” for the first time, the world’s first heart transplant is performed… and the Eskimos invade? Not quite, but it appears as a title by science fiction author Hayden Howard, who wrote The Eskimo Invasion, published in November 1967 by Ballantine Books (New York). The book was nominated for the 1967 Nebula in the best novel category.

I first found The Eskimo Invasion at a book sale and was simultaneously taken aback and amused by the title’s pure inanity. I picked it up with the intention of never reading it–I just can’t manage it–but the intention of using its existence as an exemplar of cultural stereotyping (the book itself may very well break this down, though I don’t feel the need to find out). However, there comes a time when books that won’t be read must move on regardless. I figured I might as well preserve this one partly for posterity’s sake.

Cover blurb:

“Homo sapiens can atomize himself into extinction–but there are other kindly extremes just as deadly…”

From the back of the book:

Dr. West was puzzled, frustrated, and mad.
He knew something was wrong up there in Boothia Sanctuary, but what?
Why, really, did the government want to keep him out? He didn’t for a moment believe the spurious political excuse of preserving a “cultural sanctuary” intact. What were they hiding? What could possibly be wrong with a harmless, lovable group of Eskimos?
Dr. West could never leave a puzzle alone. Besides, if he went up there, maybe he could get proof.
Of something.
Unfortunately, even when he did, no one believed him…

And it only gets more over the top, as you can see from the inner lead-in:

It was a happy scene…
The winter wastes; the igloos; cheerful, laughing, roly-poly faces–his friends, the Eskimos–the gentlest, most warm-hearted people in the world.
And they were cheerful, laughing, gentle, and warm-hearted.
And busy, active, playful.
In fact, when Dr. West tried to take a census, he couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t counted the same ones several times over.
Or had he?
And if not, how could they all be so very young? Where had they all come from?
But it was still a happy scene.
Then

More than forty years later, and even the title is offensive. What a difference time makes, eh?



Starship Troopers

Starship TroopersFor a first exposure to Robert A. Heinlein, I sure picked a doozy. Historically speaking, Starship Troopers signalled the end of Heinlein’s “juvenile” science fiction era and garners a fair amount of controversy to this day. Do a cursory search online and you’ll see what I mean–there’s a lot out there. This book also helped to kick off military science fiction as a subgenre, along with placing powered armour in the spotlight. Let’s not forget it also won the 1960 Hugo Award, which Heinlein followed up with Stranger in a Strange Land, leading to another Hugo.

Starship Troopers is a densely-packed, brisk-paced novel narrated by Johnnie Rico, who enlists in Earth’s military as a member of the Mobile Infantry upon his graduation. The book follows him through basic training with the MI, into combat with the alien “Skinnies” and “Bugs”, and officer training. Johnnie’s training and his own thoughts on the military are in the forefront, with only brief instances of combat scattered throughout the story.

The story itself is simple, but Heinlein’s writing drew me in. However, I finished the book and was left thinking that not all that much really happened. Outside the military aspects of the story, there really isn’t all that much other than dialogues regarding moral and philosophical issues, which is interesting and provoking, but doesn’t do terribly much for character development. The relationships seem oddly skewed: there is no romance despite a date, and Johnnie’s father ends up as his platoon sergeant–which in and of itself seems inappropriate within a chain of command.

The political and moral philosophies espoused in the book are polemic, and the centre of many a debate. Heinlein held many controversial opinions about communism, nuclear weapons, and so on, but he isn’t really the focus of this specific review since he isn’t the book (if you are interested though, see these links where Michael Moorcock and Spider Robinson take different views on the man and his philosophy). The book itself is based in a world where to earn the vote and full citizenship one must serve in the military, where corporal punishment is accepted as a means to teach moral behaviour, and where aliens are all uniformly enemies. I seem to recall sometimes they are also the enemy of Earth’s enemy–that is, other aliens. Starship Troopers takes a strong us vs. them position and certainly the imagery is there to see “the Bugs” as a representation of a hive-mind communist society, circa America’s cold-war.

Unfortunately there’s so much background in the world left open to interpretation that it confuses the context of the philosophical arguments; we don’t have any evidence as to what sort of government Earth has, what its policy or motives are for space expansion (reacting to attack, or attacking first?), or anything else beyond Johnnie’s limited viewpoint. In fact, at times his vantage of his world is so narrow that I wondered if he really knew much of anything upon graduation.
In this respect, the construction of the future Earth in Starship Troopers is both thought-provoking and frustrating because of the obvious holes left in the story. Because of this, it’s difficult to build a well-structured argument about the book without relying on information about Heinlein himself, which is a questionable practice regardless.

I noted some interesting conflicts in the writing in terms of portraying gender and ethnicity. Women in the military mostly end up as Navy captains, reportedly in part because of their superior math skills which puts them in a position of power. However, they are almost completely absent from the infantry and seem to exist within cocoons of military protection for the most part. Ethnicity seems to be implied by name and what language the person speaks, which seems a little presumptuous to me. But if you accept that along with minor stereotyping of minor characters the book has a multi-ethnic cast, with the implication that since Johnnie speaks Tagalog he is Filipino.

It seems as though Heinlein perhaps was wanting to break out of the thought patterns of 1950s America, but couldn’t quite set his existing ideas aside. Or who knows, perhaps there was an editorial hand in this somewhere that made the book more “acceptable” for mass consumption, whichever direction the stereotypes were pushed towards. I doubt the political aspects of the book were massaged, as they are pretty explicit. Taken in context of the human-alien conflict, Heinlein makes an interesting commentary on conceptualizations of “the other” between cultural groups of one species and differing species, and certainly one influenced by when it was published.

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a good read, and should not be missed due to its controversial nature and its influence on the military sci-fi subgenre (including John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series and Harry Harrison’s Bill The Galactic Hero). Regardless of the flaws in this novel, I found I enjoyed it quite a bit and had lots to chew over in my head, which if nothing else, I’m sure Heinlein had fully intended.

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Berkeley Medallion Books, 1959 [1968]. 208 pages. $0.50 (Canadian), used.



Leviathan Rising

Leviathan RisingJonathan Green‘s Leviathan Rising is an intriguing introduction to the UK’s Abaddon Books. It’s the third book in the Pax Britannia series featuring Ulysses Quicksilver, the “dandy adventurer and hero of Magna Britannia.” As a Victorian-style steampunk world, complete with remnant populations of dinosaurs, a Queen Victoria who celebrated her 160th jubilee, and a Bond-esque protagonist… well, really, what’s there to lose?

Ulysses sets off on the maiden voyage of the Neptune, a massive submersible cruise-liner, though his so-called vacation quickly becomes a whodunit murder mystery involving the ship’s high society contingent. In the midst of trying to figure out the initial murder, the massive be-tentacled leviathan attacks and the remaining passengers must figure out how to escape a damaged sub sitting on the brink of the Marianas Trench, avoid being murdered by the original killer who is still somewhere in the group, and not get consumed by the rampaging leviathan in the process.

Obviously a book made with heavy intent towards pulp-like entertainment value, Leviathan Rising takes a while to get the adventure gears turning in the right direction. Jonathan Green has a habit of telling rather than showing in the beginning of the book, which slows the pace. For instance, a dinner party where Ulysses mentally provides a short history on each guest, serving as an info-dump: instead the scene could have yielded great characterization through dinner conversations.

Another problem for me was difficulty “connecting” with Ulysses Quicksilver as a protagonist. As a reader we aren’t given much in the way of back-story, and Ulysses isn’t a terribly sympathetic character. If not for his actions about midway through the book that begin to redeem his earlier snobbery and arrogance, he wouldn’t ever become sympathetic. I suspect having knowledge of his past adventures would make him more multi-dimensional, but I’m not certain since this is the first in the series I’ve read.

Leviathan Rising had a lot of potential to also serve as a back-handed comedy of manners by skewering ideas of class, race, and gender relationships. Instead the novel reinforced the structural differentials present in Victorian British society. I was taken aback at the use of Chinese characters as stereotypical, inscrutable double-crossing agents and frequently described as yellow-skinned or slanty-eyed. While possibly historically relevant in Victorian times, such blatant racial profiling is unacceptable today without further deconstruction (in contrast, Emma Bull’s Territory deals exceptionally well with historical roles of minorities).

Despite its faults, there are some areas where Leviathan Rising excels. Green has a great campy sense about his writing and word choice that is unfortunately inconsistent, but when present, it shines. The adventure parts of the book are well put-together, and keep the pages turning, especially once the writing hits a good rhythm in the second half of the novel. And I think best of all was the setting, in a high-society steampunked Victorian world that nonetheless has genetic engineering, high-tech travel, transmitting Babbage machines, and dinosaur safaris.

Jonathan Green created a fascinating world and a true adventure in Leviathan Rising, despite its inconsistencies. I’d be interested enough to take other books in the series with me for beach reading, but be sure to not expect any surprises or grand literary revelation. This book is clearly made for comforting predictability and mindless enjoyment, despite having minor cautionary themes about humanity playing God. If you’re a fan of pulps, and of tentacles, and of all-out adventure with everything that comes with it, then by all means: take the plunge.

Green, Jonathan. Pax Britannia: Leviathan Rising. Oxford: Abaddon Books, 2008. 328 pages. $7.99 (US), paperback.

See also: review at Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review.



Grimspace
April 27, 2008, 1200
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,
GrimspaceWritten as a guest reviewer at Enduring Romance for Kimber An. Go check out her lovely, lovely review blog!

I’m curious to know how the name Grimspace came about. While the title obviously comes from the name of the space humans with special J-genes “jump” into to traverse the universe, it fails to capture the joy and addictive ecstasy jumpers get from grimspace itself. Be aware that Ann Aguirre‘s debut science fiction novel pulls romance into the fore, though its romantic nature doesn’t displace any action. The romantic overtones aren’t a shock considering Aguirre has written romantic fiction in the past under a different name.

Grimspace is a change from the run of the mill space opera, though, in its tone and perspective. It uses first person present tense narration that brings a kick in the pants along with it, pushing the action into the forefront. It also puts the focus directly onto Sirantha Jax, who is a heroine with loads of attitude.

We first meet Jax right before she’s about to escape from a psych unit with the help of mysterious man March. With her lover and former co-pilot dead, Jax must now make a run for it and make the first jump she has made since that time with a pilot she has never met or bonded to. Soon we’re introduced to the ship’s crew, who want Jax to start a rogue training program for other jumpers so their rebel group can reduce the monopoly her former employers, the Farwan Corp., have on space transport. To do that, they have to find other people with the J-gene. Along the way, Jax must deal with herself, her relationship with her telepathic co-pilot March, save a sentient baby lizard, escape a pirate space-station breeding programme, and dodge an extremely polite shape-shifting bounty hunter.

For a novel like this to succeed, it really requires a likable main character, and Sirantha Jax is that. She’s strong, and someone who acts with loyalty and caring despite herself. And she’s the longest living jumper out there, which speaks to her stubborn nature. I didn’t believe the psychosis that the character kept proclaiming (read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or even Sarah Monette’s Mélusine if you want crazy done convincingly) and wondered if this was a symptom of Jax’s lack of self-knowledge. Her relationship with March overlaps with her grief from losing her last love, and their relationship grows with each argumentative exchange, fraught with physical attraction and their need for each other. Aguirre’s use of Jax’s voice is almost mesmerizing at times, and is what makes the novel speed forward so quickly.

And I’m aware of his hands on the controls as I never have been. I could almost fly the ship if I had to, because we’re not him and me, we’re…we, and then I sense his astonishment, sharing my mind’s eye as we gaze outward to grimspace.
Maybe I gave him some sense of it before, but this time, he sees completely and I know he does: the glory, the colors, and the almost-manifest monsters that writhe along the hull. The Folly ploughs through liquid fire; the world without is a conflagration of possibility, ideas and dreams barely conceived and waiting to be given form.
But March and yes, it’s the March-me spinning my mind’s eye away from the beacon. He’s doing it and I didn’t even know this was possible. He’s trying to show me—
Shit. There’s a ship coming up fast behind us (p. 148).

Grimspace was clearly designed as a “non-stop thrill ride” of action and romance, and Aguirre accomplishes that goal very well. Its rapid plot turnover helped make my nit-picky science-oriented self back off from the book’s logical inconsistencies. Most notably, a swamp planet that had planet-wide seasonal change and an ice planet with an unsustainable ecosystem without humans–who were not native to it (and seem to willingly live there despite creatures that go crazy at the scent of ANY human blood). Though there is speculation here, it’s more of the social type than the hard-science type, so don’t wrack your brain too hard.

The speed of plot elements hit a wall in the last third of the novel: the story moved too fast, and pulled too much in at once while eliminating some characters in not-so-meaningful ways. The media broadcast moment at the end struck me as too simple a solution, and something that Farwan conceded to far too easily. I have to say that the last couple of paragraphs just smacked me in the face with a corniness that seemed out of character for the novel as a whole and really disappointed me.

That said, the book takes an interesting spin on feminine-masculine power relationships, both in relationships between characters and in the societies that Jax and her fellow crew visit. “Mother Mary” is the expletive of choice, which ties into the reproductive politics explored, and the idea of exploiting women for their reproductive power. Though religion remains a mostly unexplored depth for Sirantha, she dips in her toe. It seemed to me as though later volumes have the potential to go somewhere very interesting with themes of genetic and reproductive politics entering the fray, especially if religion is bound into it all.

Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace is the kind of book that you can kick back with and enjoy the ride, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. It’s got enough humour and action to preoccupy you for a few enjoyable evenings, and its sequel, Wanderlust, is due to hit shelves in August 2008, with two more books in the series currently contracted. I’m looking forward to them.

Aguirre, Ann. Grimspace. New York: Ace Books, 2008. 326 pages. $7.99 (Canadian), paperback.

See also: selected reviews by Grasping for the Wind, Fantasy Café, Dear Author, and FantasyBookSpot.



The Outback Stars
April 26, 2008, 2344
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

The Outback StarsThe Outback Stars has some of the most beautiful cover art I have seen for a long time on a science fiction book. However, while good artwork sells books, good story sells them better, and that’s something Sandra McDonald understands. In fact, she wrote a solid enough debut novel that it warranted a nomination for the Compton Crook award. She also understands what she’s doing with her book: the tag-line she uses is “Love. Duty. Really big spaceships.” Which is probably a decent summation of some of the big ticket items in the book, if a very brief one.

Made up of military science fiction and space opera genre-wise, The Outback Stars is the story of Lieutenant Jodenny Scott and Sergeant Terry Myell. There’s a lot going on in this book, but if you expect space battles you won’t find them here. Jodenny has won a medal of honour for her conduct on her last ship, which ended in a fiery blaze. She escapes from her recovery period by forcing her posting on the Aral Sea as a supply officer. She gets the dubious honour of “reforming” Underway Stores, where what she doesn’t know can hurt her. With possible smugglers on board, she must deal with surviving her last ship and navigate alien transportation systems not designed for human use.

While the novel begins slowly, the pace builds with numerous subplots juggled together, scaffolding effectively into higher tension. McDonald excels in looking at the valour found in the everyday military actions during peacetime, and the ship politics that result from it. The ordinary becomes oddly fascinating, mostly because the writing makes it that way. Word choice is deft, and character portrayal is both consistent and complex. Jodenny is no cardboard cutout, and she certainly isn’t perfect.

For Jodenny and Terry, space is not the final frontier. Maybe it’s love in this particular book, or possibly the mysterious and alien Wondjina technology. Either way you slice it, the mixture of larger themes balanced with details of prose and story work well together. Terry’s intermittent gecko, Koo, was probably one of my favourite characters in the book. The details of supporting characters made for a nuanced balance, especially when Jodenny deals with some of the malcontents in her division in, er, creative ways. The interactions between characters are where McDonald shines; sometimes the unspoken is more important than what was actually said:

“What are you thinking?” he asked.
She was thinking there was no such thing as easy sex, no matter what people said. Not on a spaceship and not when the person was someone you worked with.
“I’m thinking this is just what the doctor ordered,” she lied.
Rokutan eased her back and began unbuttoning her blouse. “Is that all I am to you? A prescription?”
Jodenny touched his jaw. “A panacea.”
“A substitute for the real thing?”
“That’s a placebo,” she said (p. 250).

The mixture of alien and Aboriginal culture in The Outback Stars is fascinating, and a welcome change from the norm. Tying these two themes together bridges into the colonial nature of space, and I’m interested to see where this part of the story goes in future volumes. While this volume focuses mainly on interpersonal politics, my hope is McDonald’s next installment, The Stars Down Under, will take a broader political view and add depth to Jodenny’s world. More back story would satisfy my curiosity of how Australia became a major player in space, but it was also nice not to have the requisite info-dump when it really wasn’t required to understand the story.

One of the few weaknesses I noted was a lack of description of surroundings: it was difficult to know whether I was imagining what the author had in mind visually. Much of the Underway Stores department used specific equipment (the DNGO retrieval units were a particular highlight though I was waiting for a baby-eating joke that never came), but I wasn’t really sure what they looked like mentally. Sometimes I found myself getting distracted from the story because it was frustrating trying to situate things, and I was a little uncertain of the ship’s actual structure.

However, these are minor complaints, and overall The Outback Stars worked for me as a reader on a very basic level. These are characters who are everyday people dealing with their lives and their careers in ways that make sense to them, and the grounded nature of the story pulls the speculative into a reality that is all too rare in science fiction. I’m definitely looking forward to more from Sandra McDonald, and getting my hands on The Stars Down Under.

McDonald, Sandra. The Outback Stars. New York: Tor Books, 2007. 376 pages. $9.99 (Canadian), paperback.

See also: Fantasy Debut’s coverage, plus Tia’s interview with Sandra McDonald, and Sci-Fi Weekly’s review.