Arkwright (2017) / Allan Steele
Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (2016) / Ken Liu (ed.)
Martians Abroad (2017) / Carrie Vaughn
After our foray into current events, back to genre fiction: three SF books that speak to the craft, culture, history, and impact of SF.
Arkwright, for me, in part, was about finding out whether Allan Steele is still readable. Look: my politics have shifted considerably to the left in the more-than-a-decade since I read the Coyote trilogy, and I’ve learned a lot about him as a person that doesn’t quite put him into Orson Scott Card territory for me, but I know that it does for people I respect. And yet, he’s consistently entertaining and thought-provoking, and I have always advocated reading stuff that challenges, and who can resist a blurb like “both a love letter to the science fiction field and a terrific cutting-edge hard SF novel”? Not this nerd.
And it’s lovely. I really did love it while I was reading it, I was immersed in a cinematic way. I mean, it’s as optimistic as The Martian, as sweeping as Time Enough for Love, and as polemic as Pacific Edge, and has (for a little while anyway) such a ridiculously magnificent cast of side characters that at times I was actually quite literally breathless. But there were also some pretty significant problems with it.
While the writing kept me flying through the pages, and I enjoyed the concept and the plot, the story and worldbuilding – the very things I’ve loved about Steele’s work in the past – felt awfully thin to me. It was a 700-page multigenerational epic in 332 pages, and much of it was taken up in repetitions of “dissatisfied misfit is targeted for recruitment into the Arkwright Foundation – expresses doubt and disinterest – meets a generationally appropriate and attractive member of the Arkwright family – annnd sex! – thirty-page expositional info-dump on the current state of the Arkwright Project, interspersed by more sex – jumpcut to the next generation, cycle back to the newest dissatisfied misfit.” That’s so unfortunate. I would have loved to have spent more time delving into the project itself, the history, the engineering hurdles and the overcoming of them. I would have loved to have had more interconnection with the SFF community down through the years, a quiet conspiracy of a small number of up-and-coming writers carrying forward the ideas of the Foundation in pop culture as the Foundation carried forward the research in the background, laying the groundwork for the big reveal, because of course the work of the Foundation is interstellar space travel and that’s amazing and inspiring and grand in ambition and wouldn’t it have just been a gift of love to geek culture to have a whole generation of in-universe fans rise up when the Galactique launches, crying with one triumphant voice I fucking knew it in exactly the way that fans do?!? *flails around a little* (Also, dude, crowdsourcing. The money would certainly have helped.)
And there was a random switch from third to first person mid-book, which was supposed to convey “and now we are up to the present time in the telling of this story,” but I just found it jarring – but that character’s story was the strongest, most interesting, and most well-realized of all of them. I could have read an entire book just about her. I honestly wonder if this would have worked better marketed as a series of novellas, or reworked as a frame story with flashbacks in third person and the first-person timeline introduced much earlier.
Of course it’s interesting to me partly because I am also writing a multigenerational family epic where much of the plot action and dramatic tension centers on the initiation of new spouses into a long-maintained conspiracy of silence as the particular shape of that conspiracy evolves (and eventually disintegrates altogether). And… I think I’ve done it with more depth and thoughtfulness and craft, and I think I had to because I’m not an established award-winning elite SF author, and it makes me a little sad because I know, I know he can do better, and I would have loved to have read that novel.
But I would love to have a conversation about the political aspects of this novel, because I feel like it rather failed as a Heinleinesque libertarian anthem and thought experiment; the Foundation reaches its goal, but with great struggle and hardship and delay that didn’t need to happen because they were just so controlling and secretive and too proud to let anyone else in. I think it actually ends up making an argument for a different approach, an open-source, competitive, experimental, fermenting approach with limited and appropriate public buy-in and lots of transparency. And I’d also love to read that novel.
I still feel kind of conflicted about my reaction to The Three-Body Problem, and so when Invisible Planets popped up I had to grab it. I wanted to read more Chinese SF than Cixin Liu, to place my feelings about his book in particular into a broader context.
I’m so, so glad I did.
What I learned:
I LOVE LOVE LOVE Chen Qiufan and Hao Jingfang and will read anything of theirs that appears in English, full stop. *yay* LOVE. I LOVE the mythic, fantastical tone and pacing juxtaposed against the hard SF in the three Chen Qiufan stories included here, I love the storytelling. I love how the pure fucking weirdness of Hao Jingfang’s worldbuilding makes perfect sense in-universe.
It’s definitely Cixin Liu’s stories I’m not a fan of, not Ken Liu’s translation voice. I didn’t loathe his two stories, but they weren’t my favorites in the collection. Taking Care of God is bitingly, wickedly sarcastic and fascinating, but cold and unloving in the same way that The Three-Body Problem is and I just don’t find that view of humanity appealing.
So Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty and his short story collection just moved up in my queue and the other books in the Three-Body trilogy stayed put or moved down the priority list, which is kind of appallingly long.
Chinese SF is very literary. I don’t mean in its craft – although these stories are – but in effortlessly owning a place not just in a SFF tradition but in a cultural and literary tradition. Almost every single story quotes or references some other piece of Chinese classic literature or mythology or philosophy, in full unselfconscious expectation that the reader is literate and versed and will get the reference. You get that in British SF to some extent but American writers are just really timid – how often do you hear Chaucer or Voltaire or Dylan Thomas – or Mark Twain or Willa Cather or e.e. cummings – just casually referenced in American SF? Like never (unless you’re Ada Palmer, but she’s let’s just say an exception to the rule.) We self-reference within the genre but rarely outside of it. Like we don’t quite trust our readers to have read outside the genre. And it does have to do with how the genre has been ghettoized within the American publishing industry, and I think there’s some angry inverse elitism in it and I think it’s way past time to let that go. Robert Frost is a running arc reference in the Darzins Mill saga and I love it when I run across that kind of thing in other authors’ work and I’d love to see more of it.
I am going to come back to this when I review Among Others, yes I am.
I’m not sure why Martians Abroad wasn’t marketed as YA?
That’s not a criticism. I love me some YA. And Carrie Vaughn has published in the niche in the past. And she’s talked about how this book is very intentionally both a love letter to and a critique of the YA SF we girls of a certain generation grew up with – specifically Heinlein; this book has been described by other reviewers as “genderflipped Heinlein.” (I think that’s unfair to both Heinlein’s YA, which actually often does a better job of portraying teenage girls than his adult novels do of portraying women, and Vaughn, who does her own thing here, and does it delightfully well. I think a Bradbury comparison is much more apt, and more flattering.) And I certainly will be putting this book in the hands of teenage girls at every opportunity.
But the mysteries of marketing aside, the first thing I want to say about this book is that it’s weird to me that The Martian is canon history in the Expanse universe and not in this one, because there’s something really similar in tone; I can totally see the Martian society Vaughn builds here being Mark Watney’s legacy and a product of the NASA he served.
This book made me laugh a lot. Polly is the most adorably relatable young woman: competent and sensible and self-aware in that particularly heightened way that only very smart teenage girls navigating a (literally!) alien social scene are.
I love “that seems excessive” as an arc phrase. I love how of girl-on-girl aggression is handled without being validated, and I love the real and honest and complicated friendships that develop. I love how Polly’s relationship with her brother matured over the course of the story: I see the glimmer of, many years down the road, friends and colleagues and partners in the grand project that is Mars built on the foundation of adult mutual respect that started that year on Earth.
I’ve always loved Vaughn’s balancing of character-driven storytelling with genre-savvy plot construction. Her characters don’t populate a story framework; their well-rounded and internally consistent personalities and reactions lead the story where it needs to go. And yet the story adheres to a specific genre formula and specific trope expressions faithfully and with great affection. Polly gets to be the hero of every major moment, with help from but never rescued by her loyal band of Scoobies, but she has to work for it, and it’s never contrived.
It is exactly what it sets out to be – an immensely readable, sweet, triumphant girl-centered coming-of-age story working within the genre conventions of golden-age YA SF. It’s a study in (one of the infinitely varied different flavors of) what the genre has been and can be again. Beautifully done.