Letter From The Editor - Issue 54 - December 2016

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
September 2015

Title: Pandora's Gun
Editors: James Van Pelt
Publisher: Fairwood Press

(Full disclosure: My personal relationship with Fairwood Press, which will be publishing a non-fiction book of mine in 2016, in no way motivated or affected this review, which is unsolicited. I have no financial or creative stake in the novel under review, and while I acknowledge that this is a delicate situation, I decided to write this review despite such concerns simply because I wish to bring James Van Pelt's work to more people's attention.)

During the last quarter-century James Van Pelt has published one well-received novel, Summer of the Apocalypse (2006), and four wonderful collections of short stories. Time and again I've been impressed by his mastery of craft with the short form; he's a quiet yet distinguished prose stylist, whose often unique and always compelling what-ifs not only entertain but pack an emotional punch. Pandora's Gun, his just-released second novel, is a welcome reminder that he's able to sustain such effects over longer lengths.

The novel's premise is straightforward: high school student Peter discovers an extremely powerful pistol tucked inside a mysterious black duffle bag in a dumpster. How did it get there? Who engineered it? Peter's life is instantly transformed by the responsibility that comes with the weapon's staggering abilities. His experiences with the weapon, and his harrowing encounters with the shadowy figures bent on retrieving it, are dramatic and suspenseful. Yet Van Pelt wisely never loses sight of the human relationships that inform Peter's choices and create the novel's emotional backbone. At the novel's outset we learn that Peter and his best friend, Dante Blevins, are drifting apart ("Dante didn't have Peter's sense of wonder"; "They'd sworn to each other that they would never do those things -- Peter wished to remind Dante of that, but he couldn't bring himself to say it out loud.") Will the weapon bring them closer together or speed up the falling out? Then too there is Peter's growing interest in fellow student and next-door neighbor, Christy Sanders. Peter's self-awareness and tendency to introspect ("I'm objectifying!" he thinks at one point, after applying the gun's X-ray vision on Christy's bedroom) are perfectly complemented by Christy's spunkiness and pragmatism. The scenes, for instance, where Christy teaches Peter about music in exchange for help with an English essay on Steinbeck are utterly delightful; their whole relationship is deftly handled.

One of the novel's strengths is the effortlessness with which Van Pelt delivers insights on growing up and accepting one's otherness, situational or otherwise: "He watched two girls laughing at a joke, and he envied them. They lived in a world where jokes mattered." Van Pelt, who has studied Bradbury, is also talented at beautifully and economically setting the scene. Perhaps more subtle and intriguing is his ability to glide through time, slipping back to past events that illuminate present ones, and even anticipating future moments. Indeed, the novel's opening sentence is, "Much later, Peter remembered a lesson from last year's 9th grade mythology class."

Admittedly, I did find certain details -- like the proper grammar and spelling used in some of the text message exchanges -- unrealistic. Some pop culture references, like Laura Croft or Doc Savage, also seemed oddly dated. As someone not particularly well-versed in the Lord of the Rings mythos, I could have done with fewer allusions to it during the novel's last third, though your mileage may vary if you're a Tolkien aficionado. There was one instance where Van Pelt's time hopping frustratingly pulled me out of the story. More trivially, I wish the novel's chapters had been numbered, and I was distracted by the occasional typo (for example, "the Tunguska event, a meteor airburst in Russion in 1908").

Still, these are minor complaints in a warm, fun, thoughtful novel that pays tribute to classic science fiction themes and can be enjoyed by teens and adults alike.

Title: Dark Orbit
Author: Carolyn Ives Gilman
Publisher: Tor

Carlyn Ives Gilman's latest novel, Dark Orbit, sets out to do a lot: raise profound epistemological and spiritual questions, explore a unique cultural evolution in a bizarre environment, investigate the observer effect and the nature of consciousness, speculate on theories of gravity and higher dimensions, and so on and so forth. It attacks a lot of this material with admirable intellectual and poetic aplomb. If, in the end, I can't quite say that it all comes together for me, I can still applaud the integrity and seriousness of Gilman's efforts. I wish more science fiction novels aimed this high.

The story: Exoethnologist Saraswati Callicot is sent on a questship mission, with the secret agenda of keeping an eye on Thora Lassiter, a brilliant explorer who suffered a breakdown while on a previous mission. Soon a murder occurs aboard ship, and after reaching the destination planet of Iris, Thora is separated from the group, who eventually discover that the planet is already inhabited. First contact is made, but the more the crew learns about the planet and its resident population, the more they realize they have much yet to learn.

The novel alternates between Sara's third-person, past tense viewpoint and Thora's first-person, present tense perspective, presented in the form of journal entries, but other fascinating characters abound, particularly a young Irisian girl. Gilman's prose strikes an excellent balance between concept and setting, character and action. The more intensely psychological sections, in which Thora tries to adapt to her new environment and recalls her experiences on Orem, are rendered in highly sensory terms. Much of the novel's preoccupation with anthropological matters evokes the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, who provides a strong cover blurb. The novel is so dense with ideas that it would be folly to attempt to catalog them all; instead I'll point out a few of my favorites as a way of suggesting its dazzling scope:

"The people qualified and willing to go on long-distance missions formed a strange sodality out of time, a troupe of intellectual hunters and gatherers. Outsiders derisively called them Wasters, and they called the rest of the human race Plants."

"'Thanks for the copyright notice," she said. Of course she knew. Everyone held the rights to their own experiences; it was one of the most sacred tenets of Capellan law, not to mention ethics."

"We are organisms evolved to destroy unfamiliarity by the act of understanding it."

"You learn vital things by abstracting yourselves from the world, and viewing it from without. The hypothesis I am testing is that the human mind is sensitive to a wider spectrum than we suspect."

"First Contacts were like particle physics: the act of observing changed the thing observed. The explorers' first step -- revealing themselves -- forever altered the people they had come to study."

Perhaps these snippets also hint at one of the novel's central storytelling challenges, which I think is only partially met: namely, making its extrapolations consistent. Two thoughts that struck me early on were 1) how primitive some of the technology seemed for a civilization that on an everyday basis dematerializes humans, shoots them through space at lightspeed and then effortlessly reassembles them; 2) current idiomatic expressions like "Wow" or "I suck at it" are apparently commonplace in this civilization, supposedly set centuries hence. Karen Burnham, reviewing this novel for Locus, mentions its "pre-Internet mindset," and this perfectly dovetails with my first point. Books like Stanley Schmidt's The Coming Convergence (2008) and Michio Kaku's The Future of the Mind (2014) make a strong case for how various branches of science, such as genetics and nanotechnology, will cross-pollinate and produce wonders, some which are already in their infancy today. Dark Orbit seems to belong to a science fiction tradition that predates this synergistic view, eliding not only Charles Stross' Accelerando (2005) but also much of the original pre-Singularity cyberpunk conversation.

Space opera doesn't have to be rigorous or "hard" sf, I suppose -- in fact some would claim that by its very construct it can't be. But Gilman's novel transcends space opera in so many ways that I wish it did in the aspect of scientific extrapolation as well. I'll provide one final example. About two thirds in, one of the characters describes a brane collision in the kind of cutting-edge, speculative terms that might be found in a contemporary popular physics books -- has theoretical physics not advanced in several centuries?

I hope I don't sound like a grouch. My frustration is borne out of love for Gilman's rich narrative and admiration at the magnitude of her storytelling task. I should say that Gilman infuses even the most abstract sequences with suspense and deep human emotion. I know that the scenes in which Thora Lassiter is trying to get her bearings in a world of darkness and literally fractured spatial relations, for example, are going to stay with me for a long time. The theme of shifting perspectives and warped geometries runs deeply through Dark Orbit, from the ship's name, Escher, to the novel's climactic discovery. This is thought-provoking stuff, with plenty of potential for further elaboration.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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