Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Birthday Review: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips

Today would have been Alice Bradley Sheldon's 106th birthday. I was surprised and disappointed to find that I haven't really written anything substantive about her ... I suppose because I read her complete works before I really began writing about SF. Not that that's an excuse.

Here's a brief review I published in Fantasy Magazine of Julie Phillips' exceptional biography. (The review is brief because that was the format for the magazine.)

Review: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips (St. Martin’s Press, 0-312-20385-3, $27.95, 470pp, hc) 2006. 

A review by Rich Horton

It has been said that the lives of writers are not terribly interesting – perhaps this is sometimes true (though less often so than some might think), but it is certainly not true of the life of “James Tiptree, Jr.”. This was fairly clear even when we did not know who “Tiptree” was, and when rumor and “his” letters spoke of much travel, intelligence work in World War II, a psychology Ph.D., and government work. Then we learned that “Tiptree”, famously an “ineluctably masculine” writer in Robert Silverberg’s words, was a woman, Alice Bradley Sheldon, and her story became even more interesting.

As Julie Phillips’s excellent biography makes clear, her story was still more interesting than we knew. Alice Bradley was the daughter of a very successful Chicago writer, Mary Hastings Bradley, who was also an explorer and took her daughter on three trips to the African interior. Alice grew up rather wild, tumbling into a disastrous first marriage at her debut. She was bisexual, though her affairs with women were generally short-lived – perhaps simply because she couldn’t bring herself to fully accept her Lesbianism – or perhaps because her rivalry with her mother (or something else) made her ever suspicious of women. She was fiercely intelligent, beautiful, and hard to satisfy. Besides worthy service for the U. S. military, she was a promising painter, a chicken farmer, a psychologist, a journalist, a writer for the New Yorker, and more. But above all, once she took her male pseudonym, she was one of the greatest and most original SF writers of all time. 

Phillips’s book tells her life story with sympathy but also with a clear eye to her problems. It is also insightful as to the source of her SFnal inspiration, and quite strong in covering the literary value of the major stories and the novels. And it portrays very well the deep epistolary friendships “Tiptree” made with many SF writers, male and female. This is a moving life story, and an acutely written literary biography – a must for anyone interested in SF history.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Cordwainer Smith Award Review: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D. G. Compton

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D. G. Compton

a review by Rich Horton

This weekend, at Readercon 31 (in a virtual sense), the 2021 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award was given to David Guy Compton, who wrote his SF as D. G. Compton. (He also wrote crime fiction as Guy Compton, and romances as Frances Lynch.) The jury this year comprised Grant Thiessen, Steven H Silver, and myself. This was our first year on the jury, succeeding Robert J. Sawyer and Barry Malzberg, who resigned last year after many years of service. (Their fellow juror, Mike Resnick, had died before last year's selection was made.) 

We discuss our selection in this video. Short version -- he was an exceptional writer of generally low-key SF (mostly novels), focussed on character and on social themes. The bulk of his work appeared between 1965 and 1980, though after an eight year absence he returned with 5 more novels between 1988 and 1996, plus an outlier short story in 2001. He was born in 1930, and is still alive, though he doesn't appear to be writing. He has been active in the assisted suicide movement. Though born and long resident in the UK, according to information in the 2015 NYRB Books reissue of this novel, he was at that time living in Maine.

The Continous Katherine Mortenhoe, from 1974, is probably Compton's best known novel. This is partly because of the 1979 film adaptation, Death Watch, directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and starring Romy Schneider and Harvey Keitel; but also because it's an outstanding book -- my personal favorite of Compton's oeuvre. It was first published in the US as The Unsleeping Eye (a Don Wollheim title change, and not inappropriate though less good than the original title.) Inevitably there were also editions titled Death Watch. My edition is the 1980 Pocket Books reprint, also called The Unsleeping Eye, and curiously copyrighted 1979, which is either an error, or reflective of revisions Compton may have made, either as a result of the movie, or of his 1979 sequel, Windows

The book is set in the relatively near future -- probably in our past as of 2021. Katherine Mortenhoe is a woman in her 40s. She has been diagnosed with a terminal disease, and given a month or so to live. This is extremely unusual for the world of this novel, as almost all diseases are curable, and no one dies except by old age (or violence.) The other main character, Roddie, is a TV reporter who has had a camera surgically implanted, so that anything he sees is recorded. He is assigned to get close to Katherine Mortenhoe, in order to record her final days for a sort of "reality TV show". (This particular bit of speculation by Compton seems very prescient now.) Katherine is at first very resistant, but she is worn down over time as her fate becomes widely known, and it becomes clear that her privacy is lost no matter what she does.

Katherine works in "the Romance division of Computabooks" -- apparently making revisions to computer-generated novels. (Her rackety father, we eventually learn, is also a writer -- of what seems to be trashy SF, in a sly swipe by Compton at his own preferred genre.) She has urges to write her own realistic novel. She is married to a rather colorless man named Harry, and their marriage is shortly coming up for renewal. Her previous marriage, to Gerald Mortenhoe, ended when he declined to renew. Her problem is that she seems totally out of touch with contemporary life -- and her doctor theorizes that this psychological issue has leaked into her physiological problems, causing her uncurable illness.

Katherine's reaction to her plight is primarly to attempt to escape -- not to escape death, which in essence she seems to embrace, but to escape the sort of ordinary life she had been living, and also of course to escape the intrusive TV focus. She has to elude Harry, but cannot elude Roddie -- who she doesn't know (and who doesn't obviously seem a TV journalist, as his camera is invisible.) So both of them end up with the "Fringies" (essentially, this future society's poor, homeless, and unemployed.) And then they find themselves at the estate of a very rich man, who is having a party/orgy. And they are threatened by nihilistic criminals. Throughout all this Roddie is entirely altering his view of his own job -- and his feelings for Katherine Mortenhoe. And Katherine is becoming, it seems, more and more herself.

There are some plotty twists that I won't reveal, except to say that the unavoidable destiny of the novel's characters cannot be changed. Other characters -- Roddie's boss, Katherine's doctor, her ex-husband, Roddie's ex-wife, Katherine's father -- come into view, and all these viewpoints coalesce to depict this rather interesting and sociologically convincing future more fully -- and more darkly. Katherine is a wholly believable character, and Roddie is interesting and worth following, if, I thought, not quite as convincing. The resolution -- even as its general shape is clear from the getgo -- is quite powerful, quite moving. This is a major novel, and while it wouldn't be correct to say that it was ignored -- it got a fair amount of notice -- it still deserves more attention, and deserves to stand among the key SF novels of the 1970s.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Review: We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker

We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker

a review by Rich Horton

Sarah Pinsker has written a lot of outstanding short fiction (and has two Nebulas to show for that), and her first novel, A Song for a New Day, also won a Nebula. So this, her second novel, has a lot to live up to. I "read" it, as I have with many novels since I got my Audible subscription, via listening to it. (In all honesty, the narration wasn't my favorite -- some of it was (probably unfair on my part) reaction to the voice, but also I wasn't quite convinced by how she changed voices between characters, and some of the phrasing didn't seem right to me.) Anyway, how does We Are Satellites stack up?

It's set in the very near future, and it concerns the reactions of a family of four to a new technology. The family consists of Val, a schoolteacher and running coach; her wife Julie, a chief of staff for a member of the House of Representatives; and their children, David, who is in high school as the action starts, and Sophie, a few years younger, who has epilepsy. The new technology is called a "pilot" -- a brain implant which, in essence, allows the brain to multitask much more efficiently. This tech is originally adopted by high school age kids (at least as we see) and David quickly wants one, noticing that his fellow students are doing better in class.

That sets up the central issue driving the book -- for Val is immediately, viscerally, opposed to pilots, and to David getting one; while Julie is open to letting David get one, and moreover she wants one herself. There is a political side illuminated by her position -- her boss is getting one, and most of the other people in her office are as well. Beyond that, BNL, the company making the pilots, is based in their district, so there are lots of jobs on the line -- and even some financial assistance for those who want a pilot. As for Sophie, her epilepsy makes her ineligible to get one.

This sets up some immediate, and interesting, social problems. One is solved quickly -- if pilots are expensive, won't they only increase the divide between the haves and have-nots? BNL, however, offers them for free to those who can't afford them. But there are still people on the "outside" -- those who can't (or won't) get a pilot -- people like Sophie, who can't, and Val, who won't.

The personal issue becomes fraught when David graduates, and instead of going to college accepts an offer to join the Army, which sees tremendous potential for soldiers using pilots. But this unites Julie and Val, who both hate the idea of David joining the military, purely (as portrayed) as mothers, who fear for their son's safety. Meanwhile, Sophie has made a friend at school, and her friend, led by his father, is part of a pilot resistance group, which Sophie joins. The other key development is in David's head -- the pilot gives him the ability to multitask, indeed -- but to a fault. He notices EVERYTHING, which is very distressing, and which he calls "Noise".

I won't detail the further developments, but we see the lives of David and Sophie develop as they grow into adulthood; and we see Val and Julie weather some serious crises in their marriage (caused mostly by lack of communication, which is blamed largely on Julie (and her errors are severe) but somehow some similarly terrible lapses by Val seem forgotten ...) 

So -- how did it work for me? Well, it was a mixed bag. The central idea is outstanding -- plausible, and worth examining, and much of the examination is spot on. But the plot ends up ensnarled in a really sort of cliche "evull corporation" thread. But more to the point, very often I had a hard time believing things. Some of this was character stuff that could be laid at the feet of characterization -- why don't people communicate more? Maybe that really is true to the characters, but if Julie, Val, and perhaps especially David (about his "noise") had actually talked more, things might have been much different. But there are other things -- there's a subplot involving a stolen corporate badge that I simply rejected, as someone who works for a defense contractor and has a badge -- the scheme would not have worked. And Sophie's resistance effort seems based more on the conviction that since she doesn't like pilots (because she can't get one herself?) the corporation that makes them must be up to something. (One of the speeches against pilots reminded me only too much of an anti-vaxxer's screed.) The fact that in this book, her suspicions end up true (for reasons that, again, I didn't quite buy) doesn't seem to me to justify getting there for the wrong reasons. (Especially as it's easy to imagine similar technology being critical to HELP people with epilepsy -- granting that in this future it didn't work, but what if a treatment for epilepsy also turned out to give people the same boost that pilots do? Where would Sophie stand? Even though some of the other, very worthwhile, issues with pilots would remain?)

So -- that sounds negative. But -- I still really liked the book. Why -- partly because Pinsker creates characters we like and root for, and who have real world problems that matter. Also -- the posited technology, the pilots, is both believable, and of real benefits -- but with real problems. I might well be guilty of the reviewer's worst sin -- wanting the author to write the book they want, instead of the book the author meant to read -- but I feel like the central concept is really cool, and the characters will support a nuance examination of some wrenching issues, so it's almost a copout to let things turn on corporate malfeasance instead of a close confrontation with truly troubling implications of a technology that can help, but that also has a dark side. For me, that would have been a more ambiguous novel -- but in the end more interesting.