July’s issue of Galaxy’s Edge showcases many great sci-fi stories, including work by Brian Trent, Bao Shu, Julie Frost, Harry Turtledove, and others.
In addition, Jean Marie Ward interviews Seanan McQuire, the prolific SFF writer of acclaimed series like Wayward Children.
Richard Chwedyk also puts his expansive sci-fi book knowledge to the test, reviewing three science fiction books.
- Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
- Immunity Index by Sue Burke
- Starborn & Godsons by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes
Here’s what Chwedyk has to say about this month’s sci-fi books!
Stand on Zanzibar
by John Brunner
It’s hard to find anything recently published that matches the ambitions of John Brunner’s 1968 novel, Stand on Zanzibar: exploring a culture—a whole world, really—from a multiplicity of levels while maintaining a central story that brings the vastness of this complex (and maybe crumbling) planet into stark focus. Parts of the novel are written in the straightforward, no-nonsense prose Brunner had been working to perfect for a decade or so beforehand. Other parts are written as news reports or anecdotal bits, illustrating aspects of the twenty-first century world in an almost documentary style. Other parts are written from the glib perspectives of canny social commentators. And all of this is interlaced to keep things moving along at a surprisingly brisk pace.
As was mentioned often at the time, the novel’s structure owes much to the trilogy by John Dos Passos, U.S.A. In this case, I dare to say it now, though I couldn’t have gotten away with saying it 53 years ago, Brunner actually improves upon the trilogy in many ways. He streamlined it, actually. His central dramatic story is more compelling, his worldview wider and, worth noting in the current literary environment, more diverse. This is not to knock Dos Passos’s sublime achievement with U.S.A., but Brunner took the baton and ran with it like a winner.
This adventurous structure itself is a thing to behold, like a Bauhaus-designed “modern” building after it’s been around for a century. In some ways, Brunner was re-thinking the way a novel could be written—as if that’s part of his future vision. If vehicles and buildings will be built differently a half century from this day, why shouldn’t novels look and work differently in that anticipated world? He applied his science-fictional imagination to the act of novel writing itself.
The sad thing is, perhaps, now that we’re living in the time Brunner wrote about in 1968, there is a greater sameness to the way our current novels are written. All our current writers, it seems (exceptions granted), have gone to writing schools that have taught them “best practices” that manage great efficiencies and great comforts. But like a row of townhouses in a residential urban neighborhood, they all have the same look and feel, omitting a few changes of color schemes and some superficial ornamentation.
Of course, in the era Brunner was writing this novel, he was considered a member of the “New Wave.” Brunner, in retrospect, wasn’t really part of that merry, contentious crew (like most literary movements, a great many of its members were draftees, not volunteers). Half of the anger and vitriol and brawling over the New Wave was the notion of “style over substance.” Brunner was all for innovations in style (whatever that is), but only so far as it helped to convey the substance (whatever that is) of the story in its most effective way.
And what about that substance? Much of the current reading of “classic” and/or “modern” science fiction these days seems to rest on picking over which parts authors did or didn’t “get right.” As far as the focal “issue” of the novel—i.e., exponential overpopulation—Brunner didn’t quite hit the nail on the head. The “population bomb” didn’t go off (though it may still be ticking). We don’t have any cell phones here, and all the computers are ginormous, house-sized structures with little public access.
Other aspects, like the growing frustration of individuals who become “berserkers” and strike out against innocent bystanders, the “corporatization” of governments, the excesses of popular culture, the addict-like hunger for media replacing “real” experience (like “Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere”), the blending of cultures across the globe—Brunner hits the nail hard and true.
Which makes reading the novel even now a revelation. You’ll turn to certain sections and find yourself whispering, or grunting, “How did he know? How did he do it?”
We’re fortunate that someone at Tor decided to bring back this novel at this time, to remind us what we can do when we of think of science fiction as something more than a tag on the binding of certain books relegated to certain shelves of the local bookstore. It can be dangerous, as this novel remains.
by Sue Burke
Also from Tor, Sue Burke’s latest novel may not be the successor to Brunner’s brilliance, but she has managed the remarkable task of making her near-future world so plausible it nearly (but not quite) defeats its task of being a “what’s coming” story to a “what’s happening” story. She has placed her story in a world bowled over by a worldwide pandemic (who saw that coming?), and places it in a country and city (my all-too-familiar but beloved Chicago) where democracy is fast eroding, as are supplies of the basics. Remember the disappearance of toilet paper at the beginning of COVID-19? Burke will see you and raise you ten. Her degree of accuracy on that front is downright frightening. That’s the brief version of the world in which Burke has placed her novel.
The story deftly shifts between the tribulations of three women and one genetic scientist, the latter having “designed” the three formers, to purposes it will take the rest of this brief but challenging novel to reveal. Burke’s experience as a journalist and translator prove exceptionally helpful in keeping a complex plot coherent and intriguing.
So much recent science fiction has been set in the far future to presumably avoid becoming entangled in the messiness of our current circumstances. Burke, to her credit, takes on the messiness, and does so courageously. Remember that word that appears in many definitions of SF: “extrapolation”? Burke extrapolates with facility, intensity and vigor.
Burke’s vision of our near future is in many respects bleak, but not without its hopes and a few lighter notes. Its wit is dry but satisfying. Another thing that I found enjoyable about this novel is that it is written at the tight length of those paperback originals we geezers grew up on in the middle of the previous century. It’s a good length to get a story across without overweighing the vehicle with added-on subplots. Would that more novels follow in that path.
Starborn & Godsons
by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes
I received a letter—a real letter—a while back from GE reader and subscriber John Hertz, who remembers me from the days when I moderated writing workshops at a few Worldcons. He wrote in general complaint that some of his favorite recent books have received scant attention from the award-giving bodies in the field, such as the Hugos, Nebulas, Locus Awards, etc. Indirectly, I think, I was being taken to task for not having reviewed them in these pages. I’ll take only partial blame, as Baen’s promo folks have not been at the top of their game in getting advance copies to me. Nevertheless, Mr. Hertz gave me a list of books he considered worthy but overlooked, and this is one I managed to catch up with.
Starborn and Godsons is/was a long-awaited sequel (and conclusion?) to the Legacy of Heorot series. It finds us on the planet Avalon, which after several generations and much conflict has been colonized by humans. The original colonists have mostly passed on, and the planet’s humans are called “Starborn.” They have no direct memory of Earth and have had no contact with the planet in ages. Earlier volumes in the series concerned themselves with the struggles of surviving a harsh environment, conflicts with competing lifeforms called “grendels,” which attracted me to the earlier volume, Beowulf’s Children. You can understand why. At a visceral level, these stories tie together with the world depicted in Old English epic poetry in ways that seem more than an extended metaphor. The old world of bardic sagas and the tales of humans establishing footholds on new planets re-envisions both traditions in new and surprising ways.
At the heart of this novel, which puts us into contact, or in some cases reacquaints us with, some other alien lifeforms, are the starborns facing encounters with “godsons”—other humans who set out spacefaring after the original colonists of Avalon. They also have no direct contact with Earth, and have developed in their own way, different from the earth-born humans and the starborn alike. In a way, it’s a “first contact” tale between humans and humans, which is something you don’t see too often, and implicitly questions our expectations when we think or talk about one of the big questions in our science fiction (and our literature in general): what makes us human?
Any attempt at plot summary on my part at this juncture would be insufficient. The novel is super-jam packed with action, characters and ideas. The question for readers (and since many of you have already read this novel and have already answered the question to your own satisfaction, bear with me) is whether it all holds together into an enjoyable and rewarding experience. As many of you can already guess, my reviewing it here and now indicates my answer is yes.
What added to my enjoyment and appreciation of it has to do with my interest in writers and writing and how we manage to do the crazy things we sometimes manage to do. Like having three authors work in collaboration. How do they manage not to get in each other’s way? It’s hard enough for two authors to collaborate on an extended narrative (except when they do, and has been done famously in this field), how do three authors manage it? I’m familiar with the works of each author here individually as well as in collaboration. And each author, individually, does not write like the other two collaborators, but when they come together they seem to create a distinct, new voice which is unlike any of the previous ones. It is a tribute to their skill and their professionalism, to which I’ll add, since the passing of Mr. Pournelle, we’ll not see its like again.
Another reason to squeeze in this review now was to note that unfortunate passing (I wanted to get to this in the previous issue, but space and time prohibited my doing so). This was Mr. Pournelle’s last book, I believe. And regardless of his behavior or opinion outside the pages of his fiction, as a novelist and as a science fiction thinker, he was a formidable and significant presence in our field whose work—in collaboration or individually—was always skillful, intelligent and witty.
Be sure to check out the rest of Galaxy’s Edge July 2021 issue!