Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
April 2006

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
Seven Stories Press, 2005, $24.95

Octavia E. Butler was a Nebula and Hugo Award-winning writer, a recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" grant, and the author of several groundbreaking novels, including Kindred and Parable of the Sower. She died in February of this year, too young, but before her untimely passing she published this last novel, Fledgling, her first in seven years.

The novel begins with a young girl waking up in a strange place with no memory of who she is or how she got there. Confused, frightened, and in severe pain, she finds herself consumed with an intense hunger, and all she knows is that she must feed it. She's in the woods, so all there is to eat is flora and fauna, and she finds herself not the least interested in the flora—it's blood she craves. Even in her weakened condition, she's able to overpower and kill a deer that wanders too close, and she rips its throat out with her teeth and eats it raw. She feeds on it, eating, sleeping, eating again, until the meat starts to decay, which, despite her still-consuming hunger, puts her off eating it. She needs more meat, and it must be fresh.

Eventually, she wanders from the forest, realizing that she'd been through some traumatic ordeal—not only did she wake up naked and amnesiac in the woods, but she finds her body hideously scarred. Yet, even as she discovers this, she also discovers that her eating/sleeping cycle seems to have done wonders for her injuries—she's healing at a rapid rate. And when the sun starts to rise, she finds that it burns her skin and eyes. She doesn't realize there's anything odd about any of that, though of course it becomes obvious to the reader that she's no ordinary girl.

Clothed now in an old shirt and jeans she found in the burnt-out remains of an old housing community, the girl becomes dissatisfied with her deer-only diet, and goes out in search of something else, not realizing at first what she craves, of course, is human blood.

But we quickly learn that though the girl, Shori, is some kind of vampire, she's no ordinary textbook vampire. Butler's vampires don't simply kill humans to feed on them. Instead, they form symbiotic relationships with them; the vampire gets to feed, and the symbiont derives pleasure from the feeding. What's more, Shori herself is unusual—it seems she was genetically-engineered to be able to better-stand the light of day. Shori develops such a relationship with the first person she comes across after wandering out of the woods, and this man, Wright, seeing a ten or eleven year old girl wandering around in the middle of nowhere, barefoot, covered in dirt and blood, offers to help, not knowing what she is, or what he'd be getting himself into.

One of the interesting things Butler does with the Shori/Wright relationship is that she immediately makes us uncomfortable with it. When Wright first sees her, he thinks she's an eleven-year-old girl, and the reader has no reason to doubt this. Although we later learn Shori is in fact a 53-year-old vampire, Wright doesn't know this when he makes his first sexual advances toward her. Of course, the symbiotic relationship they form after Shori bites him explains some of that away. But a comment Wright makes early on after he rescues her ("If I do, what will you let me do?") casts some doubt on his altruistic intentions—did he truly rescue her just to be a good guy, or did he have predatory intentions?

As the novel progresses, Shori's quest to rediscover who and what she is leads her to others of her kind, and she eventually learns that she and her family were the victims of a vicious attack from another vampire clan—it was dumb luck that she survived, but since she did, it was up to her to speak for her family's dead and bring to justice those that murdered her kin.

The opening—amnesiac girl waking up in a strange place—is perhaps a familiar one, and Fledgling plays with commonly-used tropes and mythologies. In fact, there aren't a whole lot of totally original concepts here at all—it's a vampire novel that involves a secret society of vampire clans that have lived among humans for generations, and the protagonist is a black-skinned vampire who can walk around in the daylight (like the comic book and movie hero, Blade). But in the hands of a master like Butler, it just works.

Butler takes great pains to explore Shori's character fully—through the first person viewpoint, we get to see all the frightened and confused thoughts running through Shori's mind. The result is a character that is at once alien yet very vulnerable and real.

Overall, Fledgling is a terrific work of fiction. It's not the novel people will remember her for, and it's not the best vampire novel ever written, but even Butler's lesser works are works to be treasured.

Engaging the Enemy by Elizabeth Moon
Del Rey, 2006, $25.95

Engaging the Enemy is the third book of the Vatta's War cycle, but it's written in such a way that the reader requires no familiarity with the previous books, and you can jump right in with this one. However, it's also one of those book's that's likely to make you want to go back and read all of the author's back catalog as soon as you get the chance. So consider yourself warned.

Kylara Vatta, of Vatta Transport, Ltd., an interstellar merchant house of high standing, is still reeling from the vicious pirate attacks on her family that left many of her relatives—including her parents—dead, and Vatta Transport in ruins. Interstellar commerce has ground to a halt due to these attacks, and retaliation is all but impossible with the FTL communication systems down and no space navy around to police the spaceways. Some planets have resorted to a familiar (if ancient) response to piracy: offering letters of marque to private citizens—which essentially commission these so-called privateers to hunt down and capture pirates. Ky receives such a letter from the Vatta home of Slotter Key. And one of her first orders of business was to capture and take vengeance on Osman Vatta—a notorious pirate who betrayed and defamed her family.

After capturing Osman's ship, the Fair Kaleen, Ky assigns command of her own ship, the Gary Tobai, to her beautiful cousin Stella, who though savvy when it comes to business, doesn't have the training or experience with captaining a vessel that Ky does. But with her two ship "fleet" in hand, Ky sets out rebuild her family's business and to make the spaceways safe again. To do this, she hopes to form a union of privateers, who would work in concert to battle this growing pirate menace. But this will be no easy task, and with

Familial strife, interstellar politics, vivid and explosive battle sequences, conspiracies, and betrayals—this book's got it all.

Most space opera isn't high art, and doesn't aspire to be, and this one is no exception, but it's damn good at what it tries to do. It's fun, it's exciting—it's got a slew of strong female characters, who all seem very true, characterized as they are with the typical faults and foibles of real human begins, even as they do astonishing and heroic things. And like John Scalzi's work (which I reviewed last month), the Vatta's War books would make excellent entry-level SF—it's familiar enough to the space opera of Star Wars or Star Trek to draw in those fans, but original and fresh enough to be good SF in its own right.

I doubt Engaging the Enemy is the sort of thing that's going to win Moon another Nebula, but maybe it should. This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for when I first started out reading in the genre, and I think it would do wonders for drawing in a new readership if the awards occasionally pointed to quality "candy" like this.

I'm happy to say that though my tastes have matured over the years, a rollicking action-packed space opera still satisfies me like nothing else. A lot of people in the field like to say that the golden age of SF is thirteen or fourteen—meaning that that's when most of us discover and fall in love with the genre. And that's who the writer often has in mind as their target audience—that fourteen-year-old version of him or herself. If that's what Ms. Moon was shooting for with Engaging the Enemy, then she definitely hit the bull's-eye—with this twenty-nine-year-old fourteen-year-old, at least.

Over the course of reading this single book, Moon successfully turned Ky Vatta into one of my favorite characters. I can't wait to see what she does next.

Journey Between Worlds by Sylvia Louise Engdahl
G.P. Putnam & Sons, 2006 (reissue, 1970), $17.99

Sylvia Louise Engdahl is the author of six science fiction novels, including the Newberry Honor-winning Enchantress From the Stars. These novels were all published between 1970 and 1981, so the reissuing of Journey Between Worlds could introduce her work to a whole new generation of readers, and if this book is any indication, that would be a very good thing.

Melinda Ashley is a young girl just graduating high school and preparing for college. She has plans to eventually get a job teaching and to marry her high school sweetheart, Ross. They plan to live together in Mel's Maple Beach farm house. Despite the fact that other worlds are being colonized and space travel is a common (albeit expensive) thing, Ross and Mel are content to stay on Earth.

But all her plans get derailed when her father arranges to take Mel on a trip to Mars with him, as a sort of graduation present. Mel's torn—she doesn't really want to go, but she hasn't had a very good relationship with her father, who has always been somewhat distant toward her, being consumed as he is by his job (and his grief over the death of Mel's mother, his wife). In the end, she decides she has to go, to have this chance to spend time and bond with her father. Ross's reaction further throws her carefully planned future into turmoil, leaving her unsure if they're truly meant for each other after all.

So Mel heads off to Mars, feeling somewhat depressed, and conditions on the ship don't make things any better. There's a lot to get used to, and not a lot of fun to be had. Fortunately, she makes fast friends with a young man named Alex, who happens to be a second-generation Mars resident; he'd been getting a degree Earthside and was now returning back home. Circumstances also result in her befriending Janet, who is her assigned shipboard roommate—a scientist who is not at all thrilled about having to go to Mars to complete her studies and who has some rather close-minded (and controversial) opinions about the necessity of humanity living on Mars.

The ship eventually arrives at Mars, and once there, Mel's forced to confront her indecision head on, and finds herself making some serious life choices. With the prodding of Alex, she enrolls in classes at a Martian university, and eventually even ventures out of the habitat domes onto the Martian surface, with only a spacesuit to protect her. Even as she rebelled against the idea of Mars to begin with, she comes to see the value and beauty of it, and starts to feel a connection to her pioneer ancestors.

Journey Between Worlds is a beautifully-written, heartwarming, and scientifically-plausible novel. What's more, it's quite a lot of fun, and it's the sort of thing that will really capture the imagination of young adult readers and make them fall in love with space travel, science, and/or science fiction.

That said, the afterword of the novel spoils some of the accolades I was ready to lavish upon it. For a book written in 1970, I thought it read as if Engdahl was a total visionary, but the afterword confesses that the 2006 edition was revised for publication. Still, it may well have been a visionary work—Engdahl says the only facts she had to update were some references to computer technology, and the discoveries made by the 1976 Viking landings on Mars. She also says she tweaked some of her women's attitudes toward marriage and career, though if the book feels lacking in any area it's that it seems like Mel doesn't quite seem like she's a fully-21st century woman—I'm not sure any intelligent woman like her today would be so forgiving toward Ross's attitude.

For a novel that focuses so little on the action-packed aspects of space travel and space colonization, it's a remarkably engaging read. Which is not to say there is no action; there's a very exciting scene on Mars' moon Phobos, and there's plenty of emotional and psychological "action" to make up for the more flashier kind.

This is a book that I wanted to thrust into my fourteen-year-old niece's hands as soon as I was done with it. The fact that it has a strong, teenage, female protagonist factors into that as well, as those are harder to find in YA SF.

Incidentally, I applaud Putnam's choice of cover art; though I'm not enamored of the cover design, the artwork itself is quite striking, and I think it'll really resonate with the novel's primary audience (teenage girls). It's a very manga-esque cover, and the story itself could probably be adapted into a terrific anime or manga.

Journey Between Worlds is the sort of thing that's easy to devour in one sitting, and though short, it'll leave you satiated afterward. On the other hand, now that I'm done with it, I want more.

More please.

Burn by James Patrick Kelly, read by the author
Podcast, 2005-2006, Free, Approx. 5 hours, 17 parts, Digital Audio

Walden is a Luddite world—that is, the people that live there deliberately eschew technological advancements in favor of a more simple life. Basing their lives on the principals espoused by Thoreau in the book of essays the planet is named after, the denizens of Walden voluntarily place themselves in a "consensual cultural quarantine," which prohibits extraplanetary residents from polluting the culture of Walden with any advanced technology or ideas.

But Walden was not always such a place. The planet was formerly known as Morobe's Pea, until it was sold to Chairman Winter, who sought to "rename everything on the planet and make a fresh start for his great experiment in preserving unenhanced humanity." That is, in the world of Burn, humanity had progressed into posthumanism, and Winter envisioned Walden as a place where humans could stay human. Furthermore, Winter planned to transform the lands to re-create the ecology of old Earth, as it was before it was spoiled by technology.

The original settlers of the planet, however, didn't like the idea of relocation, even if the planet was sold out from under them in a legit business transaction. Some of those original settlers, known as pukpuks, willingly left, but others were determined to stay, and refused to live by Walden's "Covenant of Simplicity." So the pukpuks went to war with the Waldenites, using "torches"—essentially suicide bombers—to set fire to the new forests.

Prosper Gregory Leung, commonly known as Spur, is a firefighter in this war against the pukpuks. He's lived his life according to the Walden principles; it's all he's ever known, though it's important to note, as Spur points out: They're not simple; they just practice simplicity.

As the story begins, he finds himself waking up in an advanced medical facility being attended to by a docbot. He was injured while battling a fire started by the pukpuks. While in recovery, he uses the futuristic equivalent of the internet in the hospital to research his family name. After googling around some more, he stumbles across someone with a similar name to his own, and on a whim, sends a message to him. And with that whim, starts in motion a series of events that will change his life and that of his planet, forever.

James Patrick Kelly started his "Free Reads" series back around February of 2004, so he was, in essence, podcasting long before it was considered fashionable to do so. Up until now, all of his previous podcasts have been shorter stories, the longest of them being about an hour long on audio. With Burn, a novella of around 40,000 words, Kelly had to do something different—so he recorded the novella chapter by chapter, releasing one per week until the story was complete.

Kelly does a terrific job with his narration. As he says in the intro to some of the earlier podcasts, he's no actor, but he's definitely a pro when it comes to reading his own work. As he'll tell you himself, his performances are a bit hammy, but he always keeps a certain level of seriousness to his narration that keeps that hamminess from going over the top. And while some podcasts sound like they were recorded in someone's garage (with a motorcycle inside, it's engine revving), the sound quality of Kelly's recordings is perfectly professional.

If there's one thing I'd complain about, it's that each chapter begins with Kelly's creative commons license/donate/buy a copy of the book spiel, and since it lasts around a minute and a half, it gets kind of annoying after a while, especially if you're listening to the novella all at once, rather than in weekly installments. But it's easy enough to skip past that once you've heard it several times, and if that's the price you have to pay in order to get a free podcast of this quality, well then I say it's well-worth it.

Burn is also available in print from Tachyon Publications, 2005, $19.95. If you enjoy listening to Burn, consider buying a copy, or donating a little something to help support the podcast (or both!).

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