Wednesday 31 May 2023

The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd


An interesting contemporary fantasy published in 2022.  To quote the blurb:

"Some places you won't find on any maps, others, only on maps.

Nell Young has lived her life in and around maps. Her father, Dr. David Young, was one of the most respected cartographers in the world. But this morning he was found - or murdered? - in his office at the New York Public Library.

Nell hadn't  spoken to her father in years, ever since he fired her over an argument over a seemingly worthless highway roadside map. A map which was mass-produced - and every copy of which is now being found and destroyed.

But why?

To answer that question, Nell will embark on a dangerous journey into the heart of a conspiracy beyond belief, the secrets behind her family, and the true power that lies in maps."

I must admit that I enjoy this kind of modern mystery, in which fantasy gradually intrudes into normal life. At nearly 400 pages this is a substantial book, and the author uses the space well to develop her characters and plot, leading the reader to follow the trail to its conclusion. Exra variety is provided by occasional changes in the narrator, giving different viewpoints. There is a lot of information about maps, ancient, recent and mysterious. Hints and sub-plots are scattered along the way, for example an infamous "junk box incident" which is frequently referred to without actually being explained for some time.

Peng Shepherd is an American fantasy author whose first book, The Book of M, was awarded various prizes; The Cartographers is her second novel and has deservedly collected even more awards. This is one book I'll be keeping, since the plot is sufficiently intricate and intriguing to merit a second reading.


Monday 1 May 2023

A brief note on feminist SF - sort of...


I started to read Joanna Russ's The Female Man (I found it on a shelf where it had been sitting for decades, and I was in the mood for something short and interesting). It was published in 1975, and is regarded as a classic of feminist SF. The story involves four young women, basically four versions of the same woman each from a different parallel world. The worlds vary - one is just like ours but without World War 2 - but the one which obviously interests the author is the one in which all of the male humans were killed off by a plague several centuries before. Fortunately that world possessed a very advanced medical science so they were able to keep human reproduction going - female only, of course. 

The story is difficult to read because the author doesn't make life easy for the reader. Many chapters are very short and it is often unclear who the narrator is (possibly the narrator varied, but that isn't clear either) or which of the four worlds that section is set in. The social arrangements are explored in some detail, using the plot device of having the four women switch between worlds to feature the reaction of the characters to the different environments. 

I managed to get about a third of the way through the book before I gave up. There is only so much I will put up with in the way of confusion and this one is over-endowed with that. Basically, the author lost my attention. A pity, really, there were some good points in the story, but some of the author's contemporaries, such as Ursula Le Guin and Sheri Tepper, demonstrate how a book can pursue a feminist agenda while still being an excellent read. 


Slow Lightning by Jack McDevitt

Published in the USA as Infinity Beach.

Jack McDevitt (born 1935) has published a couple of dozen SF novels and many short stories, his novel Seeker winning the 2006 Nebula Award. Until now my reading has been confined to the Academy Series and I have posted reviews of most of them here. Slow Lightning, published in 2000, is a stand-alone novel. 

Slow Lightning is set several centuries into the future, when humanity has developed a hyperspace drive enabling the colonisation and gradual terraforming of eight other planets. Other changes include an expected lifepan of up to 200 healthy years,  Artificial Intelligence at people's beck and call, and enough wealth to be able to support (in moderate comfort) those who not wish to work at a job. A golden era for humanity, in other words, save for an unexpected problem: huge efforts had been made to search for other forms of life, without any result. Apart from the life spreading from the Earth, the universe seemed to be completely dead. 

This had a depressing effect on humanity, with many people feeling that there was no point in continuing with their efforts. Organisations began to close down, buildings and other facilities were abandoned, and the only major research effort being made was the Beacon project: using anti-matter bombs to cause a group of stars to go nova, thereby signally the existence of humanity to any other civilisations able to pick up the signals.

The story is largely set on one of the colonised planets, Greenway, and focuses on a young female scientist, Dr. Kimberly Brandywine (Kim). She learns of rumours of strange events taking place in a remote forest location and begins to investigate, spurred on by the fact that the focus of these events seemed to be the nearby fatal crash three decades before of a starship, the Hunter, returning from a research mission to search for life. Among its small crew was Kim's cloned elder sister, Emily. The plot thickens as Kim discovers that the official log of the Hunter had been tampered with, and goes on a hunt for her holy grail -  the original log. 

This pace of the story gradually increases as Kim battles to discover the truth and there is a series of shocks and revelations at the end.

I was intrigued by this book, because I had formed a rather different impression of the author when reading the Academy series (written in the same time period). As you will see if you look at my reviews in this blog, I enjoyed the spectacular breadth of his imagination but was lukewarm about the characterisation, and felt that he was over-fond of inserting events which added nothing to the story. Slow Lightning is quite different; it is more evenly paced, with good characterisation and is very well-written. Well worth reading. 

The link to feminism?  As with the Academy series, the principal character is a woman. This kind of setting might be regarded as a kind of post-feminism, in which the gender of the characters is no longer an issue.