Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2019 Evelyn C. Leeper.


QUINTESSENCE by David Walton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/09/2013]

QUINTESSENCE by David Walton (ISBN 978-0-7653-3090-1) is an alternate history set in 1553 where everything seems the same as our world except that the Earth is flat. One could argue that there should be some differences due to weather variations if nothing else, but I suppose one needs to accept such things.

However, I will quibble about the Biblical quotations (on pages 129 and 198, from Psalm 103:12-16). They are exactly the wording in the King James translation of the Bible, but this translation was not done until 1611:

As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. [Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.] As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more."

What should have been quoted was the Great Bible of 1539:

"For loke how wyde also the east is from the west, so farre hath he set oure synnes from vs. [Yee like as a father pitieth his awne children, eue so is the Lorde mercyfull vnto thee that fear him. For he knoweth whereof we be made, he remembreth that we are but dust.] The days of man are but as grasse, for he florisheth as a floure of the felde. For as soone as the wynde goeth ouer it, it is gone, and the place thereof shall knowe it nomore."

In addition to the flat earth, the assumption is also that alchemical ideas are valid and that alchemy works. They may seem to go together, but actually the idea that the earth is flat was not held by educated men, who are precisely the people who studied and believed in alchemy. However, the two ideas are connected in most modern readers' minds, so I suppose it does make literary sense.

To order Quintessence from amazon.com, click here.


AMONG OTHERS by Jo Walton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/01/2006]

At least some of the popularity of AMONG OTHERS by Jo Walton (ISBN 978-0-765-33172-4) is probably due to its lavish use of science fiction (and fantasy) books in its plot. Mor (short for Morwenna) is constantly reading science fiction books, talking about science fiction books, and comparing life to science fiction books. At first, this seems similar to how Stephen King achieves a level of realism by referring to real brands (e.g., someone does not ask for a soft drink, they ask for a Coke). And Mira Grant does this to some extent in DEADLINE, but with a more limited set of specifics. But Walton seems to have decided to include all her favorite books (or one assumes they are her favorite books), and the result is that at times the discussion of, and references to, science fiction books overshadow the fantasy elements of the plot. By the way, the Ace Double mentioned with Samuel R. Delany's "Empire Star" is M-139, and the other half is Tom Purdom's "Tree Lord of Imetan".

To order Among Others from amazon.com, click here.


AN INFORMAL HISTORY OF THE HUGOS: A PERSONAL LOOK BACK AT THE HUGO AWARDS, 1953-2000 by Jo Walton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/26/2019]

I have been reading REVISITING THE HUGOS, which formed the basis for AN INFORMAL HISTORY OF THE HUGOS: A PERSONAL LOOK BACK AT THE HUGO AWARDS, 1953-2000 by Jo Walton (ISBN 978-0-765-37908-5), and while I can see where she is coming from with the fiction, she was way off base on Dramatic Presentations.

For example, for the 1963 Hugo (for works from 1962), "No Award" won, beating BURN, WITCH, BURN (a.k.a. NIGHT OF THE EAGLE); THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE; LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD; and "The Twilight Zone". Walton writes, "I love you, voters of 1963! Remember, we could still do this when faced with dramatic presentation categories that are all rubbish." One can certainly argue that at least a couple of these were not rubbish, but Walton also fails to do what she did with the Best Novel category: look at what else was eligible. (Actually, I wonder at the eligibility of these; several were 1961 films.) Other possible nominees among 1962 films would have been CARNIVAL OF SOULS, "La Jetée", THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (shown on "The Twilight Zone" but not truly part of that series). Surely THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, at least, is not rubbish.

[Walton's comments about this category were dropped from the book.]

Walton's bias against Dramatic Presentations is even more obvious in 1964. She writes, "Look what there isn't! Not just no award, no dramatic presentation category at all! I expect the oracles told them that somebody was about to be born who would be pleased to hear it. Or maybe the genre films were all rubbish that year, like a lot of other years."

Let's look at that "rubbish" year: THE BIRDS, THE HAUNTING, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and Orson Welles's version of THE TRIAL are not considered rubbish by most critics. From more traditional fare, there was BLACK SABBATH, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, and SWORD OF LANCELOT. And both "The Outer Limits" and "The Twilight Zone" were on television that year. Whatever the reason for no category, it was not because "the genre films were all rubbish that year."

[In the book, references to the Dramatic Presentation category for this year were dropped entirely.]

For 1965 (films from 1964), though, she still writes, "I don't think it's worth having a category with so few possible entrants, but at least in 1965 they gave it to a worthy winner [DR. STRANGELOVE]." The other nominee was 7 FACES OF DR. LAO, but other "possible entrants" would have included FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, LAST MAN ON EARTH, MARY POPPINS, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, as well as "The Outer Limits" (including "Demon with a Glass Hand."

For 1966 (films from 1965), she dismisses by implication ALPHAVILLE, "Dark Intruder", "Theatre 625: 1984", SHE, and "The War Game".

For 1968, she writes of the Dramatic Presentation category, "... a category ought to have lots of worthy nominees to be worth having." Oddly, she doesn't say anything about applying this to the Professional Magazine category, which arguably has only a half-dozen candidates that are even eligible.

Even in the novel category is a comment that ranks close to Robert Silverberg's comment on the theory that James Tiptree, Jr., was female; [I find it] "absurd, because there is to me something ineluctably masculine" about Tiptree (later revealed to be a penname for Alice Sheldon). In discussing SYLVA by Vercors, Walton writes, "[It is] a novel translated from French. I am astonished. I mean, okay, this happened the year before I was born and things were different then, but can you imagine seeing a translated novel on the Hugo ballot today? Wow." She wrote this at the end of 2010. In 2015, less than five years later, Cixin Liu's THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM not only made the ballot, but won the Hugo for Best Novel. And in 2017, his DEATH'S END was also on the ballot. (Okay, maybe this is less like Silverberg and more like Isaac Asimov publishing AN EASY INTRODUCTION TO THE SLIDE RULE right before pocket electronic calculators hit the market.)

[This was corrected in a footnote in the book.]

Don't get me wrong--the book is worth reading and a useful look at the Hugos over the years. But it's worth noting that Walton's comments on Dramatic Presentations were toned down somewhat from her original columns, and I suspect it was not because she had a sudden epiphany on the quality of eligible films. Was it to give more emphasis to the fiction categories? Was it because her comments were likely to alienate some of her readers, either because she seemed to totally dismiss Dramatic Presentations as a valid category(*), or because she seemed to dismiss any science fiction or fantasy film as rubbish?

[*] One argument for getting rid of the category (now categories) is that the recipients and indeed almost all the finalists have no interest in the award, cannot be bothered to show up for the ceremony, and one suspects only send a thank-you speech because Craig Miller convinces them to do so. I'm not sure this is a reasonable argument.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/24/2019]

A few weeks ago, I ragged on Jo Walton for her continuing negative comments on the Dramatic Presentation category in the Hugos. So I will say she nailed it for 1998 with, "So, they had GATTACA on the list and they gave it to CONTACT?" She also liked the winners for 1999 (THE TRUMAN SHOW) and 2000 (GALAXY QUEST). I will note that GALAXY QUEST was one of the rare times that a Hollywood film actually had live people present to accept the award. Director Dean Parisot and co-writer Robert Gordon were there and seemed genuinely thrilled, both at the awards ceremony and at the party afterwards.

To order An Informal History of the Hugos from amazon.com, click here.


FARTHING by Jo Walton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/01/2006]

FARTHING by Jo Walton (ISBN 0-765-31421-5) is an English country house murder mystery set in an alternate history in which Hess's mission to England succeeded, and England and Germany signed a peace treaty early in the war. The primary suspect is David Kahn, a Jew who has married into an old established family, but is resented by most of them. Readers of this column will know that the anti-Semitism of 1930s England came as no surprise to me, although several reviewers seemed to think this was quite a revelation. For example, Lisa Goldstein wrote, "[Walton] deals with prejudice and class in ways Sayers and Christie never dreamed of." I think a large part of this is how we are reading it differently, not that Walton is writing it differently. I thought the book worked well as a mystery, but there seemed to be some heavy-handed parallels being drawn between the society and the government in the book and our present day.

To order Farthing from amazon.com, click here.


HA'PENNY by Jo Walton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/14/2008]

HA'PENNY by Jo Walton (ISBN-13 978-0-7653-1853-4, ISBN-10 0-7653-1853-9) is good, but it suffers from being the middle novel of a trilogy. It takes place after the events of her earlier novel FARTHING: Britain has signed a peace with Hitler, but not everyone thinks it is a good thing, and the British government has adopted increasingly fascist tactics to combat "terrorism". Many reviewers have said that the parallels between the Britain of HA'PENNY and the Britain (and United States) of today are not heavy-handed, but I am not sure I would agree. In addition, the book consists of alternating points of view, one of the actress Viola Larkin (told in the first person) and the other of Police Inspector Carmichael (told in the third person). This results in a somewhat choppy flow, with the times seeming not always to be in sync. It also seems as if a lot of the action is happening off-stage--not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it does mean that you are being told what happened instead of "seeing" it yourself.

I really liked the first novel in the series, but I found this one a let-down. It is possible them when the third (HALF A CROWN) comes out in August, they will all form a unified whole.

(Oh, the titles are basically puns. The first book, FARTHING, is named after the estate where the peace was drawn up, and the second, HA'PENNY, is a reference to the ha'penny seats in the theater. It would not surprise me if HALF A CROWN follows this trend.)

To order Ha'Penny from amazon.com, click here.


THE JUST CITY by Jo Walton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/18/2015]

THE JUST CITY by Jo Walton (ISBN 978-0-7653-3266-0) has a very basic, and fascinating, premise: A group of people attempt to establish "The Just City" that Plato described in his REPUBLIC. Now admittedly there is a lot of willing suspension of disbelief required of the reader at the outset. The reader has to accept that the Greek gods are real, and that they have the ability not only to travel through time and space, but to carry ordinary humans through time and space as well.

"The Just City" is Athena's project, and she collects "masters" and "children" to bootstrap it. The masters are those people throughout time who have prayed to her to live in Plato's "Just City". (One has to accept that there really would be enough who explicitly prayed to her for this, but the requirement also prejudices the choice towards Europeans and others who are familiar with Athena and Plato--for example, Confucius does not have a chance.) The children are ten-year-olds collected from slave markets around the world, and familiarity with Plato is not required.

Okay, so the city (set up on Thera in far distant prehistory) is populated. Now what? Well, conveniently, there are "workers" (robots) brought from our future to do all the hard and menial work, so the masters think they have avoided the problem of slavery. When they begin to realize that the workers may be more than mere machines, however, this forms one conflict in the novel.

Another conflict comes from Plato's ideas of family, marriage, sex, and child-rearing. As Apollo says in the novel after countless examples of citizens subverting the rules about inter-personal relationships, "We've established, I think, that what Plato knew about love and real people could have been written on a fingernail paring." In other words, Plato's notions of the perfect society run up again human psychology. This should not surprise us, since we have seen this happen in so many "engineered" societies (over family, or over private property, or over something else), but it should not surprise most of the masters either--they lived centuries or millennia after Plato and have seen all these societies fail also.

And a third conflict comes over what the masters call Plato's "Noble Lie". To make Plato's numbers work out for the division of the classes, for example, the masters have to "cheat." When assigning children to gold, silver, bronze, or iron, the masters need to have perfect gender balance in each. Therefore, they actually have to do some form of affirmative action if, for example, more girls than boys are in the objectively top 252. (And for that matter, the assignment is supposed to be based on absolute--not relative--criteria, which would mean that the chances of ending up with groups in very convenient and balanced percentages of the total is very unlikely.) As the children discover this "cheating," what will they make of it?

Ultimately, these are part of a larger issue, which by the end of the novel both the masters and the children (now grown) come to understand. That is, it is easy to propose a new sort of society and write about it in such a way that it works just as one intends. However, this proves nothing, because when you are writing about it, it is working properly by diktat, not because it would in real life. Heinlein does this in STARSHIP TROOPERS, for example, with characters lecturing, for example, "Of course, flogging people for traffic violations is right; you can see how it has made our society better," or "Of course, giving only veterans the vote is right; you can see how it has made our society better." That one could write the exact reverse equally convincingly would seem to demonstrate the flaw in the author's logic.

So when the masters attempt to implement Plato's "perfect society," they discover all the flaws, omissions, and hand-waving that Plato glossed over. The exact organization of the mating festival: how often it is held, who is paired with whom, how to handle subsequent festivals when part of the female population is pregnant--all these "details" Plato avoids but the masters have to deal with. It is as if someone watched "Star Trek" and then attempted to build a spaceship from it (GALAXY QUEST notwithstanding).

The Just City also ran into a common problem when someone they think of as practically a god starts disagreeing with them, and not following the rules and customs laid down. "Only golds were supposed to study philosophy and rhetoric. But the masters couldn't very well stop Sokrates from going up to people and asking them about their work. They couldn't stop him from inviting whomever he chose to come back to [his house] for conversation. Sokrates was famous. The masters revered him practically be definition--they were here specifically because they revered Sokrates, after all. They didn't want to stop him behaving the way he had always behaved. They had loved to read in the 'Apology' about how he was a gadfly sent by the gods to Athens. Now he was their gadfly, and they weren't as happy about that. He was upsetting their neat system, and he knew it."

And as I noted, this had a trickle-down effect: the masters also find themselves changing Plato's rules when the rules make no sense to them. For example, they thought the rule of everyone having to eat together was too restrictive, so they decided that what Plato really meant was that you could take food from the dining commons *if* you shared it with someone else. This, of course, is not really so different from deciding that when the Bible says X it really means Y.

In short, there is a lot to chew on in this book, even read on its own, but clearly the thing to do to get the most out of it is to read THE REPUBLIC first.

To order The Just City from amazon.com, click here.


MY REAL CHILDREN by Jo Walton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/26/2014]

MY REAL CHILDREN by Jo Walton (ISBN 978-0-7653-3265-3) is an alternate history, but a bit unusual. The main character, Patricia, is given the choice early on to marry her fiancee or not. The novel then splits into two strands of alternating chapters, one in which shoe does and one in which she doesn't, one in which there are a series of limited nuclear exchanges and one in which there aren't, one in which Patricia finds one sort of happiness and one in which she finds another. While there are enough changes on the big scale to make this alternate history, there is not enough connection between Patricia's actions and the historical variations to make this an alternate history in the usual sense. (For example, one gets the impression that in one of the strands Patricia's involvement in an earlier gay rights movement has an effect on Alan Turing that may result in his not committing suicide in 1954. This in turn may have affected the world's geo-political situation, but we never find out if this is the case.)

MY REAL CHILDREN is certainly worth reading, but it is at times a bit cliched or obvious, and is more a traditional mainstream novel. The fact that we have two alternate timelines makes it science fiction, but each individual strand has very little science fiction content (the nuclear exchanges are very much in the background).

To order My Real Children from amazon.com, click here.


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