Book Review: Out of the Dead City

Book Review: Out of the Dead City by Samuel R. Delany (originally published as “Captives of the Flame”)

It has been about five hundred years since the Great Fire wiped out the old civilizations.  On the island of Toron, however, enough humans and records survived to begin again.  A settlement became a village became a town became a city.  And when the people of Toron regained the ability to sail the sea, they found a fairly large section of the mainland was still livable, though the people living there were relatively primitive, and proximity to radiation had created two mutant races, the short neo-Neanderthals and tall forest guards.

Out of the Dead City

The people of Toron were able to dominate the mainlanders, and became the Toromon Empire; but by the standards of history, it was a small empire.  A belt of deadly radioactive land cut off further expansion on the land, and dangerous currents likewise circumscribed oceanic exploration.  To increase their scientific knowledge and study the radioactive death belt, the Empire built a new city nearer to it, Telphar.  But not too long after it was constructed, the radioactive area expanded to include Telphar, making it a dead city.

Now the Toromon Empire has air vehicles powered by tetron metal, and has tried flying them over the radioactive barrier–but something is making the engines fail.  It’s becoming more obvious that there is someone on the other side of the barrier, someone that certain government officials want to go to war with.  But none of them are in the small group of people who know the truth about The Lord of the Flames.

This was Mr. Delany’s second published novel (see my review of The Jewels of Aptor,) and the first of The Fall of the Towers trilogy.  (I’ll be following up with the rest at a later date.)  This is revised from its earlier publication, as Mr. Delany explains in an author’s note for the trilogy.  He thinks it an improvement, but decided not to meddle further after that.

There are a lot of characters for what is a pretty short novel, and it takes a while to work out which ones are important (some come more into focus in later volumes.)  Mr. Delany seems to have noticed this, at one point telling the reader to remember a name, and at another point letting us know that another character will play no further role in the story.

Eventually, it shakes out that our male lead is Jon Koshar, a merchant’s son who has escaped from the tetron mines, where he was sentenced for a crime he most assuredly did commit.  (The person who instigated the crime refused to come forward and Jon was honor-bound not to expose him.)  Jon has come too close to Telphar, and been changed.  He is now in communication with a disembodied intelligence known as the Triple Being, which has made him resistant to radiation at the cost of becoming transparent in low light.

It seems that Earth has now become part of the battleground between the Triple Being and their enemy, The Lord of the Flames.  The Lord meddles with less evolved beings by puppeteering one of them, evidently for its own amusement, while the Triple Being tries to drive it off while causing the minimum of disruption to the hosts’ civilizations.  The being currently being possessed by The Lord of the Flames is behind the strange things happening around the radiation belt, and Jon and the other two humanoids contacted by the Triple Being must stop it.

Since the struggle is happening simultaneously at multiple points in space-time, this involves some trippy scenes where the protagonists inhabit alien bodies for short periods.

There’s also some relatively mundane action going on, such as the abduction of the empire’s heir presumptive, and a series of business competition actions that result in “accidental” mass poisoning.

For 1963, the novel comes off as surprisingly non-sexist beyond the typical occupations of men and women.  Content note:  there’s a short torture scene.

With so many plot threads, several of which are still dangling at the end of the story (thus the trilogy), this novel feels overstuffed and sometimes lacks focus.  As a standalone, it’s a bit lacking, so check back next year for my opinion of the complete product.

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

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