Tag Archives: 1970s

WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO… – Joanna Russ (1975)

We Are About To...After finishing a book, I usually read up on other reviews and stuff before starting my own. There’s no use in repeating what others already have written. When I came across a review by L. Timmel Duchamp – an SF author herself – published in the February 2006 issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction, it quickly dawned on me it was no use of even starting the review I had in mind, as her text said about everything I wanted to say – references to Robinson Crusoe included – but better. It also opened up my understanding of the novel. Not that I had totally missed one of the political messages of the book, but I hadn’t perceived its full importance.

As I read it, the soliloquy not only allows the narrator to put herself–once a “Neochristian”–on trial for murder, but also explores enough of her history to make it possible for the reader to understand her series of responses to the situation following the crash. Through the soliloquy we discover that the narrator’s despair is not so much existential as political in the most fundamental sense of the word. At the time of the crash, the narrator was in full flight from a life of political activism and idealism that had smashed on the rocks of discursive politics. As part of a burgeoning movement of dissent, she learned the painful lesson of who may speak in a polis controlled by vast political and financial machinery (which these days we generally name “gobal capitalism”).

The main gist of what I wanted to say is that We Who Are About To… is a lot more than a feminist novel. Framing the novel only as such – an easy mistake as Russ is the author of the better know The Female Man, and maybe even more importantly as identity politics is important in today’s discourse on culture – does the novel tremendous disservice. Not that its feminist stance is not important, on the contrary, and well-done at that. But I’ll refrain from elaborating further, and urge you to read the entirety of Duchamp’s take – if you’ve read the book already that is, as the first experience of this book suffers badly if you’ve had too many spoilers.

If you want a quick intro on the plot, here’s Joachim Boaz’s glowing review.


What’s left for me to say? I thought maybe of writing a text on how the unnamed protagonist of this book is a kind of opposite to the childbearing character in Children Of Men, but it’s been ages since I’ve seen the movie, and I haven’t read the book by P.D. James. More importantly, doing so would also focus on the feminist side of the novel, and that wouldn’t be in sync with what I wrote above.

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THE TOMBS OF ATUAN – Ursula Le Guin (1971)

The Tombs of AtuanA Wizard Of Earthsea is one of my favorite books regardless of genre. Absolutely mandatory for any serious fantasy reader, a small, delightful gem in the midst of heaps and heaps of cheap trash. The Tombs Of Atuan is the second of the Earthsea series, but should you be weary of starting yet another long fantasy streak, don’t worry: this book is its own, with a storyline that wraps up neatly. Both novels can be read independently.

Just as the first installment, it is a short book: only 130 pages. These books were originally intended as children’s literature, but easily defy and bridge whatever YA vs. grown up distinction.

Much to my surprise, Sparrowhawk, the Wizard of Earthsea himself, only appears halfway in this book. The protagonist this time around is Tenar, a child believed to be the incarnation of the high priestess to ancient, dark gods – serving temples, tombs and a subterranean labyrinth on Atuan, an desert island.

Again this is a bildungsroman. In A Wizard Of Eartsea the most important lesson was that one should acknowledge your negative sides, and accept death and darkness within. Le Guin this time serves us a journey out from darkness, but it is not so much a lesson for us readers, as the description of secularization growing. Tenar’s coming of age, her enlightenment, comes with the loss of superstition and faith. Continue reading

BEYOND APOLLO – Barry Malzberg (1972)

beyond apolloBarry N. Malzberg’s most famous work, Beyond Apollo, has an air of controversy to it. When it won the first ever John W. Campbell award in 1973, some considered it an insult to Campbell, as Beyond Apollo lacks the positivity and wonder associated with Campbell’s strain of space exploring SF. It also features a huge amount of sex, a protagonist with mental health issues and a plot that is unresolved.

All that still is enough for some contemporary Goodreads reviewers to express their disgust with all the “mechanical sex, misogyny and closet-homosexuality”. They simply pan the novel as just random “nonsense”, “bizarre” and probably fueled by “LSD”.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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THE DOSADI EXPERIMENT – Frank Herbert (1977)

The Dosadi ExperimentOkay, I urgently need to reread the entire Dune saga. In my mind Dune is the best series I’ve ever read, and the two final books (Heretics and Chapterhouse) are the best of the series – contrary to a popular opinion the series became bad after Children Of Dune. The thing is I’ve read those books at the onset of my adult rediscovery of speculative fiction, and my mileage wasn’t high at the time: maybe I was too easily awed?

Popular opinion also has it Frank Herbert didn’t write much else that’s good. Both Whipping Star and The Santaroga Barrier proved to be utter pulp indeed. Yet The Dosadi Experiment is supposed to be one of the few books still worth reading.

The Dosadi Experiment is set in the same universe as Whipping Star, but it’s a very different book: it doesn’t feel as absurd & cartoonish. It’s not really a sequel either, so you can read them independently. As usual, Val’s Random Comments does a great job summarizing the basic premise of the novel, so I won’t dwell on that too long: basically Dosadi is a planet with extreme living conditions on which some conspiracy secretly put inhabitants to see what such conditions would do to their society, in order to gain insight in politics and power systems.

That gets me to the million dollar question already: yay or nay? Continue reading

DYING INSIDE – Robert Silverberg (1972)

dying-insideOkay, first things first: Dying Inside is not really a scifi book. It’s a rather small story about David Selig, living in the second half of 20th century America. Selig can read minds – only he and one other guy he meets can do this – and his power is diminishing. That’s it. No speculative science, no future worlds, no space stuff, nothing, just one guy who inexplicably can read minds. That’s not a negative, it’s just something candidate readers should know.

Dying Inside easily fits in with earlier scifi, taking mental powers seriously – just like books as diverse as Foundation And Empire (1952), Childhood’s End (1953), The Demolished Man (1953), More Than Human (1953), The Santaroga Barrier (1968) or The Lathe Of Heaven (1971).

In a way, Dying Inside is the most pure of all those: Silverberg doesn’t give justifications for Selig’s powers, there’s no paranormal scientific framework, no Freudian veneer, no nothing. Selig’s powers are a coincidence. On the surface level, it’s just a character study of a speculative character losing his mutant mental power. On top of that, Selig doesn’t do anything spectacular with his powers. He doesn’t try to make money out of it, there’s no action, no mystery plot, no sleuthing. So, space opera fans should look elsewhere for their dose of entertainment.

All these caveats aside: I liked Dying Inside. Why? What’s a way to approach and appreciate this novel? I don’t care much for the approach of Michael Dirda – Washington Post book critic – who points to the easily recognized surface metaphor: yes, Dying Inside is about a character realizing he will die someday, “a common human sorrow, that great shock of middle age”. I don’t feel Silverberg has particularly interesting or profound things to say about that shock. So, another approach maybe? Continue reading

WHIPPING STAR – Frank Herbert (1970)

whipping-starI can’t explain how I feel about this book without this first paragraph. There are minor spoilers in it, but nearly all of them are made pretty clear early on in the novel. Whipping Star‘s plot more or less boils down to this: a sadistic, psychotic woman with vast amounts of wealth – who was obliged to undergo conditioning so she wouldn’t be able to tolerate seeing pain in others anymore – has her minions nonetheless whip (with an actual bullwhip) a godlike alien (visible to humans as a small star the size of a big football & the shape of a spoon) that has the power to transport everything across space & time in the blink of an eye. Our villain can do this because the alien shows no feelings of pain. The alien lets her do this because it willingly entered a contract with her: being whipped in exchange for knowledge about humanity. However, in the very near future, the alien (that calls itself Fanny Mae!) will die because of the whippings, and when it dies, it will cause all other sentient beings – including humanity and a host of other aliens – to die instantly. There’s a kind of government agent trying to solve the problem, but the alien has hidden the sadistic women on some planet in another dimension as part of the contract.

Well – and you thought giant sandworms were odd.

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THE DISPOSSESSED – Ursula Le Guin (1974)

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed is a famous book: it won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus awards, and it tackles a tricky subject: politics. It is set in the Hainish universe, on two twin planets. On Anaress, a group of dissidents founded an anarchist syndicalist society that has been going for about 2 centuries when the book starts. The other planet, Urras, has three states, of which the most important ones are modeled on the USA and the Soviet Union.

The book follows Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anaress who, in a gesture of dissent, travels to Urras, hoping to be able to finish his revolutionary theory about time there.


Theodore Sturgeon praised The Dispossessed, saying “it performs one of [science fiction’s] prime functions, which is to create another kind of social system to see how it would work. Or if it would work.” I don’t fully agree, as I didn’t feel I was transported to another world: the cold war politics alert sign was constantly flashing.

That is my main problem with the novel: it is so obvious, and so obviously about Earth, I always felt Le Guin’s intentions, instead of feeling a story. It is no secret Le Guin has leftist sympathies, and also in this book it is clear where her heart lies: sure, Anaress has its problems, but it is liberal about sex, it is pro-gay, feminist, and people don’t eat meat. There are only two big problems on the planet: it’s arid and doesn’t easily grow food; and the anarchy syndicalist system of the Odonian society slowly evolved into a bureaucracy, with stagnating power structures popping up.

The fact that this book is praised so much seems to me the result of a couple of things, that at the same time explain why The Dispossessed didn’t fully work for me.

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