Thursday, November 18, 2010

Books that time forgot.

It's sometimes funny, which books become successful and which don't. A recent article on the More Intelligence Life blog, "We Need to Talk About Lionel", pointed out that arguably one of the best novelists of today, Lionel Shriver, hasn't really found much commercial success. That's not to say that one needs commercial success to be a good author (Twilight?), but it is rather odd how one can stumble across an author or a book and say, wow, this is really, really good, and yet it's out of print and I had to get it from a used bookseller online. How did so many people miss this?

Cecelia Holland's Floating Worlds is one such book. Written in 1975, Worlds is very reminiscient of other authors of science fiction with a decidedly feminist bent, such as Ursula Le Guin, but while Le Guin's work is still in print (and routinely assigned in colleges) I've never heard of Holland before, and after reading Floating Worlds, I really don't think you can talk about science fiction without mentioning this book.

Science fiction is a fascinating genre. Although I would not describe myself as liking science fiction specifically, many of my favorite books and/or authors are from that genre, from William Gibson to China Mieville. Part of that is the subset of feminist science fiction that really flowered in the 1970s. I don't know enough about the era to offer any definitive reason why such a specific genre emerged, but if I were to offer an opinion, I would say that it may have something to do with authors only being able to create an egalitarian universe in science fiction - that is, that the idea of an egalitarian world was so foreign, so alien to the 1970s that only by putting it in the future or in space did the idea of women's equality seem plausible.

Which is kind of sad, but fortunate for me, since I get to read Holland's excellent book.

Floating Worlds is set in some undetermined future. The Earth is ruled (or, assiduously not ruled) by anarchists, which actually works out fairly well for everyone. It's peaceful, it's quiet, it's rather uneventful, crime seems low, the only drawback seems to be rather high unemployment and a sort of shabby feel to everything, sort of like proto-socialist Europe.

Humans have settled on Mars, which has turned into a revamped apartheid South Africa, populated by whites living in a manufactured environment. The moon has become home to a conservative, paranoid, militaristic group ruled by a general who likes spouting Biblical injunctions, but the Earth, the moon, and Mars seem to coexistent pretty peacefully, since now everyone sort of has their own place to go be their own brand of crazy.

Enter the Styths - a race of mutants living in artificial environments on Uranus and Saturn. Originally used as slaves, the mutant Styths have formed their own formidable culture and are bent on expanding their Empire, particularly over Mars, whose inhabitants really, really hate them.

The book's main character, Paula Mendoza, is chosen by the Earth's Committee (a loosely ruling body who mainly engages in diplomatic negotiations between other entities) to try to broker a treaty between the Styths, the Earth, and Mars. Mendoza travels to Mars to meet the Styth Akellar (a leader in the Styth's sort-of parliamentary ruling body). Mendoza, whose negotiating tactics could be described as unorthodox, promptly gets pregnant with the Akellar's child and travels with him to his home planet.

What follows is a far-flung, intricate novel covering a multi-planet war of conquest. I think Worlds is unique among science fiction novels in that its focus is not on the technology but on the characters. Holland doesn't bother explaining how certain things work, it's enough that they do - she's not interested in the finer points of how exactly the Styths were mutated or what powers the starships. The specter of race and gender relations in the 1970s hang over the novel, from the white supremacist inhabitants of Mars to the Styths' misogynistic culture, in which women are veiled, kept in purdah, and slave-owning is accepted.

Mendoza's unique position allows her to move in and out of the different cultures as a participant but also an observer. The Akellar is not a particularly likeable character and is often downright nasty, which gives their relationship more believability. Aside from their shared child, they're more or less in a business relationship with their own individual agendas.

Aside from some holes in the science (and although Holland has written some twenty-plus books in a multiplicity of genres, this is her only science fiction work), Worlds is a very, very real novel in a way that many science fiction works aren't. It often seems like authors in this genre use gobs of scientific information to cloak their weaknesses as writers and ignore characterization in favor of lovingly explaining how some futuristic machine works. Holland is exactly the opposite. The science fiction trappings of Worlds are nearly incidental to the plot, which hinges on her excellently drawn characters. Worlds is imbued with many layers of meaning, and really an important part of the science fiction canon.

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