Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Neuromancer

Book Name: Neuromancer
Author: William Gibson
First Published: 1984
Nebula & Philip K. Dick Awards winner, British Science Fiction Award nominee, 1984. Hugo Award winner, 1985

William Ford Gibson was born in the late 1940s and remained in the United States until the Vietnam War. Like many of his generation, he evaded the draft during the late 1960s by emigrating to Canada. There he became entrenched with the pervading counterculture of its day. Eventually, he settled in Vancouver, British Columbia and became a full-time author.

Gibson’s early works are bleak, dystopian stories about the effect of cybernetics and computer networks on humans beings. His short stories are published in popular science fiction magazines. The themes, settings and characters developed in these stories culminated in his debut novel Neuromancer. This book was unique in its scope and subject matter. It detailed a world that was unimaged at that time, but helped to define the world we live in today. Terms such as “cyberspace”, “matrix” were created by him in the novel and the concept of the internet can find its seeds there as well. Neuromancer was a critical and commercial success and birthed the cyberpunk literary genre.

Most of Gibson’s fame resides with Neuromancer and the Sprawl Trilogy it spawned, but he is also known as one of the important developers of another genre, the science fiction genre of Steampunk. His novel The Difference Engine, written with co-author Bruce Sterling, is considered one of the primary books that formed the ideas of the genre. It should be read along with the works of Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter when reading to understand the roots of the Steampunk genre.

“All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void…”
― William Gibson, Neuromancer

It is the future and in the dystopian underworld of Chiba City, Japan, Henry Dorsett Case is a man who is unemployable due to the damage to his central nervous system by a powerful drug administered as a punishment for theft. Addicted to drugs and near suicidal, Case canvases the “black clinics” for a miracle, a cure that will allow him to once again access the global computer network in cyberspace, a virtual reality known as the “Matrix”.

He is rescued by an augmented “street samurai” who works for an ex-military officer called Armitage. Molly Millions needs Case’s skill as a hacker for a job and she arranges for Case to be healed. It is not long before Case learns that he has been double-crossed, for along with the “cure”, sacs of the poison that had crippled him before have been surgically placed inside his body by Armitage. If Case doesn’t follow through with the job, he will be right back where he started. Case and Molly are joined by a thief/illusionist named Peter Riviera.

The team’s first data theft is stealing a copy of the mind of a man named McCoy Pauley. He is a brilliant hacker who was Case’s mentor. They intend to use his electronic mind to aid them in their next job. As they work together, Case and Molly begin to form a romantic attachment.

The group next heads to an L5 space habitat known as Freeside. It serves as a luxury resort and casino for the wealthy and as the residence of the powerful Tessier-Ashpool family. The group’s mission is to break into the Villa Straylight and hack into an AI known as Wintermute.

What is Wintermute? It is half of a super-AI entity that was designed by the Tessier-Ashpool family to circumvent the Turing Law Code governing AIs to keep them restricted and safe for humans. Wintermute is housed in a computer mainframe in Berne, Switzerland and was programmed with a need to merge with its other half, Neuromancer, which was installed in a mainframe in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Should the two halves make a whole, a super-intelligent AI entity would be formed.

Case is tasked with entering cyberspace to get through the Turing-imposed software barriers. At the same time, Riviera is to gain the password to the Turning lock code from the current CEO of the Tessier-Ashpool family corporation. It is believed that Riviera will pose an irresistible temptation to her. Once learned, this password must be vocally spoken into a terminal in the Villa Straylight at the same moment when Case gets through the barriers in cyberspace.

Will Wintermute find its AI better half to find its destiny or will the law protecting humanity prevail? You’ll have to read the book to discover what happens in the end.

Neuromancer Book CoverI first read Neuromancer sometime around 2005. Cyberpunk as a genre had been established for quite some time and the concepts were a known quality, slowly growing more mirrored in the reality of the real world. When I decided that I wanted to take a look at the book that spawned the genre of cyberpunk and the ideas of hacking into computer systems or jacking the human mind into a machine, it made sense to seek out the holy grail of Neuromancer.

My first response to the clutter of prose and jargon-heavy “inside jokes” by this self-proclaimed techo-geek, was to roll my eyes and wonder what the heck were the award givers of the 1980s thinking? Why honor this writer of clunky prose who was obviously thumbing his nose at those of us who were not residents of silicon valley.

I had forgotten the reason I had gone back to read Neuromancer in the first place.

Gibson is not a hacker. He is not an engineer or an apple specialist designing the next hardware leap. Neuromancer is not about technology per se. What is Gibson? An artist that saw the direction that people could be heading and used this knowledge to create a fictional world where humans had an increased dependence on tech, more detachment between people due to constant interaction with machines and a blurring of lines between nations as we all tap into the global inner-world of cyberspace. He created a vision of what cyberspace, artificial intelligence and the merging of man to machine could be.

What is amazing is that this one book, Gibson’s debut novel, created a firestorm of inspiration to an entire generation of teenagers, novelists and technologists of the 1980s to think, “Wow, this is unique and too cool.” And then to inspire them to CREATE that world that they had only read about.

That my friends, is great literature. Neuromancer, although having dated technology and prose that is difficult to dive into until you get used to Gibson’s style, is a book that should be read. It is a blueprint of the world we live in today and a cautionary tale of what yet may come.

Sprawl Trilogy

Neuromancer (1984)
Count Zero (1986)
Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)

Book Review: Contact

Book Name: Contact
Author: Carl Sagan
First Published: 1985
Locus Award for Best First Novel in 1986.

Dr. Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934. He earned bachelor and master’s degrees at Cornell and gained a double doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1960. He became a professor of astronomy and space sciences as well as a director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He would go on to take a leading role in NASA’s Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo expeditions to other planets.

Dr. Sagan received many prestigious awards in his field of study. As a scientist trained in both astronomy and biology, he has made large contributions in the study of planetary atmospheres, surfaces and the history of the Earth. For twelve years, he was the editor-in-chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. He was a co-founder and President of the Planetary Society, a one hundred thousand strong organization that is the largest space interest group in the world.

An author or co-author of twenty books, including The Dragons of Eden (1977) which won a Pulitzer. His other books include Contact (1985), Pale Blue Dot (1995), and The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark (1996).

Sagan produced and starred in the PBS series, Cosmos, which won Emmy and Peabody awards and brought the concepts of science into the living rooms of everyday people. The series was watched by 500 million people in 60 countries. A book by the same title came out in 1980 and was on the New York Times Bestseller List for seven weeks.

Co-Producer with his wife, Ann Druyan, Sagan turned his popular novel Contact into a major motion picture of the same name which starred Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey in 1977. At the time, Sagan was struggling with bone cancer and two years before his film would be seen the theaters, he lost the battle and passed away. His wife gives the following account of her husband in his last moments in the epilogue of Sagen’s last book Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium: “Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each other’s eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever.”

“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” ― Carl Sagan, Contact

Fate comes into play in many factors of a life, a planet, and a universe. It was pure luck that the radio telescopes of the Argus project happened to point at Vega at exactly the right time in the night sky. If not, then the scientists would never have picked up the repetition of prime numbers that showed the first sign of life beyond our own planet. This is the theme of Contact, based on Sagan’s studies as an astrophysicist and philosopher, he gives his idea on how our world might reaction to the knowledge of extraterrestrial life.

This is the story of Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, an astrophysicist and radio telescope engineer. She is a scientist working on the SETI project, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We learn about her childhood and college years as a curious girl who loses her father at a young age. She becomes a rebel who asks questions about religious contradictions and turns to science as the answer.

After college and graduate school, she joins SETI and what is known as the Argus project, a large radio telescope array that is designed to search the universe. Late one night, a signal is picked up. Prime numbers being repeated. The signal is confirmed to be coming from the star system of Vega, twenty-six light years away. Not only prime numbers are transmitted. Two more messages are sent from Vega. One is a playback of the first Earth transmission into space, a speech that embarrasses many, but also a blueprint from a machine, one that is designed to transport people elsewhere.

There is much debate about the machine among the political forces of the Earth. There are also religious forces that wish to find answers. Two prominent American preachers, Rev. Billy Jo Rankin and Palmer Joss meet with Eleanor to talk about the religious implications of the message from Vega. As more about the machine’s blueprint is recorded, the more the tensions between the religious and the scientific communities increase.

The machine from Vega is built but later is destroyed by a bomb placed on one of its parts. The American who was supposed to travel in the Machine is killed in the explosion. A second machine is built near Hokkaido, Japan. Eleanor is chosen to be America’s representative along with four others from other nations to use the machine to travel.

The machine is activated and the five explorers are shot through a wormhole. They enter a sort of cosmic mass transit system, viewing many star systems along the way. Eventually, they end their journey near the center of the galaxy where a docking station is the end of the line.

The five humans are deposited on what appears to be an Earth beach. When the others go off to explore, Ellie remains behind on the sand. She is surprised when instead of an alien, she is greeted by her long dead father. Eleanor and her “father”, who is one of the aliens who took the form to help make Ellie more at ease, talk about Earth’s place in the universe and how they traveled to this place. It is suggested that there may be a Creator after all and her “father” suggests that to find the signature of this Creator, she look at the number pi.

The five humans return to Earth using the same method that took them to the way station. Instead of the eighteen hours that they knew was their travel time, they are told that they were only gone for twenty seconds. There is no evidence to back up their claim for being gone as long as they had and since the camera Eleanor carried only recorded static, there is no proof of their journey through space.

Did Ellie and the others actually travel to the center of the universe or are they having delusions? Is the great machine nothing but a big hoax? Can their story be believed simply on faith? You will have to read the book to find out.

Contact Book CoverMy first exposure to Dr. Sagan was via his PBS series Cosmos. Decades later I can still hear that lilting melody of its theme like a perpetual earworm. The show introduced me to concepts of science as a child and sparked not only an interest in the planets and the world around me, but in science based fiction as well. The man had a way of explaining complex subjects in a way that was easy to understand. As I studied science, his name would come up time and again and I realize that his television series and books were only a small part of the amazing accomplishments this man gave to the world. I found the movie Contact to be wonderful in its idea of a great machine that would take us to the stars and that he chose a female protagonist to do the job. In the seventies, this was not a common occurrence. I am not surprised that his first novel won a Locust award for excellence. Contact is a book that I can recommend to people that enjoy “hard science fiction”. While there is some relationships that go on in the book, the focus is on the technology and scientific concepts that make the wonders in the book happen.

Book Review: The Tar-Aiym Krang

Book Name: The Tar-Aiym Krang
Author: Alan Dean Foster
First Published: 1972

Alan Dean Foster was born in New York City in the year 1946, but he was raised in California. He received a B.A. in Political Science in 1968, and a M.F.A. in Cinema from UCLA 1969. He worked as a copywriter for two years after graduation for a small advertising and public relations firm in Studio City, California. It was during this time that he wrote a lovecraftian letter and sent it into a bi-annual magazine called The Arkham Collector. Much to his surprise, the editor published it as a short story. Sales of short stories to other magazines soon followed. His first attempt at a novel, The Tar-Aiym Krang, was bought by Ballantine in 1972 and it incorporated several suggestions from science fiction editor John W. Campbell.

Imagine for a moment that George Lucas approached you to write the novel version of Star Wars: A New Hope in the early 70s. At the time, the movie was unknown. Your name would not be on the cover and the payment would be a mere $5000. Do you take the job as a ghostwriter for this unknown filmmaker? Two authors had said no. Alan Dean Foster said yes. And the rest, as they say, is history. When Star Wars became a hit and more novels were needed, Foster was the first to be called in to write them. His first spin-off novel of Star Wars with his own name on the cover was Splinter of the Minds Eye (1978). He has gone on to write countless Star Wars movie novels, including the pending Star Wars: The Force Awakens that will be released in late 2015. He has a story credit for the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture, many novels based on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and he has also written ten novels for Star Trek the Animated series. Other movie tie-in books include the Alien movies, the Black Hole, and Starman. It is little wonder that Alan Dean Foster has won the 2008 Grand Master award from the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. He continues to write and has well over 100 novels to his credit, both movie tie-ins and his own original series.

Currently, Foster lives in Arizona with his wife, but he enjoys traveling because it gives him opportunities to meet new people and explore new places and cultures.

“…Who would have suspected it? The Krang is both a weapon and a musical instrument.” – Alan Dean Foster, from The Tar-Aiym Krang

The Tar-Aiym Krang begins on the world of Moth, a planet with “wings”, two golden clouds of dust suspended in space around it. On this world many travelers come. Hardened space-sailors, merchant buccaneers and the insect race known as the Thranx are the targets of the young orphan boy Philip Lynx “Flinx” and his mini-dragon pet Pip, an empathic flying snake that shoots a corrosive and violent neurotoxic venom. Flinx has odd empathic talents that help him live as a thief on the streets of Moth. One day, he steals a starmap off a dead body that really didn’t need it any longer. Flinx thus starts an adventure that takes he through the reaches of space to a strange alien artifact on an abandoned world.

The Tar-Aiym Krang Book CoverThe first book I read by Alan Dean Foster was Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. I was a huge Star Wars fan (still am) and anything I could read to further those adventures was like gold to me. Splinter came out two years before The Empire Strikes Back and doesn’t read as canon any longer, but at the time I loved it and it brought this author to my attention. When I spotted Foster’s first original novel The Tar-Aiym Krang, I found it to be a light-hearted space opera filled with dead ancient alien civilizations, uncharted worlds and majestic ruins and the search for an artifact that could threaten the galaxy. It is easy to see why the Flinx and Pip novels were very popular. I began reading more of the Humanx Commonwealth Series and they put a smile on my face.

The only problem I can see about the novel is that the female characters are not as well-developed as the male characters. They are little more than window dressing in the story. This was somewhat typical of the times when science fiction was geared toward adolescent boys instead of a wider adult audience. The book tends toward a YA level, but there are a few sexual situations that might make it considered to be more adult. Still, it is a well-paced book that is a fun read. If you are looking for a book to experience Alan Dean Foster as an original author, The Tar-Aiym Krang is a good place to start and then continue in your exploration. Don’t stop with the Humanx Commonwealth. Foster has several good original series including The Spellsinger Series and The Damned trilogy.

Humanx Commonwealth Series (Pip & Flinx)

The Tar-Aiym Krang (1972)
Bloodhype (1973)
Orphan Star (1977)
The End of the Matter (1977)
Snake Eyes (Short Story) (1978)
For Love of Mother-Not (1983)
Mid-Flinx (1995)
Flinx in Flux (1988)
Reunion (2001)
Side Show (Short Story) (2002)
Flinx’s Folly (2003)
Sliding Scales (2004)
Running from the Deity (2005)
Trouble Magnet (2006)
Growth (Short Story) (2008)
Patrimony (2007)
Flinx Transcendent (2008)

Book Review: Forty Thousand in Gehenna

Book Name: Forty Thousand in Gehenna
Author: C.J. Cherryh
First Published: 1983
Nominated for Locus Award (1984)

Author Carolyn Janice Cherry is better known by her pen name C. J. Cherryh. She is a Hugo Award winning science fiction and fantasy writer with 40 novels under her belt. Cherryh is pronounced “Cherry”. When she first began publishing her stories in the early 70s, Cherryh was asked to create a pen name by DAW editor Donald Wollheim. He felt that her real name more fit a romance writer instead of a science fiction writer. She also switched to using her initials to disguise that she was female. This was a common practice at the time since women authors were not as accepted in the genre as male authors were. Fortunately, that is no longer the norm in the genre.

C.J. Cherryh was born in 1942 and raised in Lawton, Oklahoma. In 1964, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Latin from the University of Oklahoma, and went on to gain a Master of Arts in classics from Johns Hopkins University. After graduation, Cherryh became a high school teacher of Latin, Ancient Greek and the classics

After graduation, Cherryh taught secondary school in the Oklahoma City public school district. While her job was teaching Latin, her passion was history. During her summers off, she would conduct student tours of ancient ruins in England, France, Spain, and Italy.

As busy as she was, Cherryh could not shake the writing bug. She had been writing stories since the age of ten and continued to write novels in her spare time. She did not follow the usual path of science fiction writers of the time, starting with publishing short stories in the national magazines of the day, but instead her focus was on writing novels. While Cherryh has written shorter works, she did not begin to do so until after she had published several of her novels first.

Her break came in 1975 when Donald Wollheim bought two manuscripts she submitted to DAW Books. She stated once in an interview on Amazing Stories, “It was the first time a book really found an ending and really worked, because I had made contact with Don Wollheim at DAW, found him interested, and was able to write for a specific editor whose body of work and type of story I knew. It was a good match. It was a set of characters I’d invented when I was, oh, about thirteen. So it was an old favorite of my untold stories, and ended up being the first in print.”

It was the start of a long and fruitful friendship. Cherryh has gone on to publish almost 40 novels, most of them with DAW, but not exclusively, and still continues to write more books today. She has won the Hugo Award for Best Novel twice, first for Downbelow Station and then again for Cyteen, novels that are part of the Alliance-Union Universe series that Forty Thousand in Gehenna is also part of.

Currently, Ms. Cherryh lives in Spokane, Washington, with her partner science fiction/fantasy author and artist Jane Fancher. She enjoys skating, traveling and is a regular guest at many science fiction conventions.

Culture is how biology responds and makes its living conditions better. – C. J. Cherryh

Forty Thousand in Gehenna is not a normal story about the colonization of a planet where an intrepid group of humans set up a foothold on a world and build. Instead, it is the story broken into two main sections with a few smaller vignettes bridging. The characters are born and die of old age as the centuries go by. The focus of the novel is about the interaction between humans, from Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe, and the Caliban, large lizard aliens that are not the unintelligent animals the colonists were led to believe when they first arrive.

Gehenna, which means “hell”, is an experimental colony set up by Union. It is made up of a small faction of “born men” and forty thousand “azi”. The azi live to the age of 40 and then their bodies fail. When they are cloned in the lab, each human azi is programmed psychologically so that he or she is subservient to the born men and happy in their place in society. They are the worker slaves of the Union civilization and outnumber their aristocratic masters a thousand to one. The azi are the key to how Union manages to take over worlds ahead of their competitors, the merchants of the Alliance, giving biological numbers to the leaders of Union to place where they will.

The first part of the novel is about the original colonists and follows a born-man named Gutierrez who comes aboard the colony disguised as an azi and a clone named Jin and his love interest Pia. Within a few years, it is realized that Union has abandoned Gehenna and no more supplies or the promised azi labs arrive as scheduled. The colony begins to fall apart as the machines break down. The azi begin to have children instead of reproducing via cloning techniques and teach their programming to their children as best they can. In the mix, the alien Caliban intrude as the settlers realize that the giant lizards are far more intelligent than first realized. The azi children imprint on the Caliban as well as their azi parents. This creates a entirely new culture that grows more different as the centuries go forward.

The middle of the book covers when Alliance discovers Gehenna and via a mix of reports and chapters from many different points of view, we see how the outside stellar civilization sees what is happening on the planet in the long view. Alliance meddles in the Gehenna culture with ill effects.

The final part of the novel covers a war between the descendants of Jin and Pia’s two children. The descendants have formed three cultures, one is aggressive and “male” the other is more passive and “female”. The third group are termed “weirds”. They are people that choose to live with the Caliban in their tunnels. All groups have formed a symbiosis relationship with the alien Calibans. While the Alliance watches and files reports, the cultures clash for domination of Gehenna.

40K in Gehenna Book CoverDiving into the Alliance-Union Universe can be confusing. There are a great many novels, some of which follow their own mini-series inside the series. This book can be considered the first of a trilogy, the final installment only being written a few years ago. The original cover of a girl riding a Caliban lizard into battle is what originally drew me to the book. It reminded me a great deal of McCaffery’s dragons of Pern, who also had a symbiotic relationship with their human partners. As it turns out, the Caliban are a more complex komodo dragon with a unique way of communication. You learn about it via submersion just as the colonists do in the story. Cherryh is a master at not only developing sweeping historical world views that explore intricate human cultures of her own devising, but she also is adapt at creating stunning alien cultures.

I am fascinated by the concept of the human clones known as azi. Here in Gehenna we get a good look at the Union’s tank-bred, hypnotic-tape-education workforce. The azi make up most of Union’s population and has allowed it to out-breed Sol and the Alliance in these stories, but at what cost? Cloning is a process that is starting in our day and age. The morals and ethics behind the technology have not been fully addressed. What was once science fiction may soon be science fact.

Finally, I enjoy that Cherryh does employ female protagonists in her stories. While in the first section she followed two male Azi, in the last section the protagonist was a girl named Elai who was certainly no wimp and proved to have the wit to fight for her community and people. The 1980s is known for introducing female characters who were independent and functional as full characters in their own right instead of always being the “love interest” for the men.

While Cyteen is the Hugo Award Winner, I feel that you should start with Forty Thousand in Gehenna since it precedes Cyteen chronologically in the series. The two books can be read independently of each other and be fully understandable, but it works better if you read the two together.

Unionside Series of the Alliance-Union Universe

Forty Thousand in Gehenna (1983)
Cyteen (1988) – Hugo and Locus SF Award winner, British Science Fiction Award nominee, 1989
Regenesis (2009)

Book Review: Crystal Singer

Book Name: Crystal Singer
Author: Anne McCaffrey
First Published: 1982

Anne McCaffrey was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The only daughter of three siblings and the middle child, she grew up on the east coast of the United States. Eventually, she graduated cum laude from College where she gained a degree in Slavonic Languages and Literature. In 1950 she married Horace Johnson and they had three children: Alec, Todd and Gigi. The family lived in Wilmington, Delaware for around a decade and then moved to Sea Cliff, Long Island in 1965 where they remained until 1970. During this time, Anne McCaffrey began to work full time as a writer and served a term as the secretary-treasurer of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Her duties not only included the publishing of two monthly newsletters for the guild, but she also handcrafted the Nebula Award trophies.

In 1970, McCaffrey divorced her husband and weeks later took her children to live in Ireland. During the 1970s, Ireland offered artists to live exempted from income taxes and Anne McCaffrey, being of Irish descent, emigrated to Ireland to take advantage of this opportunity. Anne’s mother soon joined the family where they lived in Dublin. McCaffrey’s books about the dragons that lived in a symbiotic relationship with the human settlers of the planet Pern became bestsellers and classics of science fiction. They paid for her cottage in Ireland that she called “Dragonhold” in honor of the dragons that supported herself and her children. She lived there until her death at the age of eighty five.

The roots of the Crystal Singer series begins while Anne McCaffery was a student studying voice. She performed as a singer, directed a play and was employed by the record label, Liberty Music Shop. Despite these successes, it was during her later years of study that she was informed that there was a flaw in her voice that would limit her in achieving in the field of music. McCaffery was devastated by this experience and used it in the Crystal Singer series to shape her main character Killashandra Ree.

The book first began as a series of shorts that were published in Continuum Magazine.

    “Prelude to a Crystal Song”, Continuum 1 (Apr 1974)
    “Killashandra – Crystal Singer”, Continuum 2 (Aug 1974)
    “Milekey Mountain”, Continuum 3 (Dec 1974)
    “Killashandra – Coda and Finale”, Continuum 4 (Aug 1975)

In the short stories, Killashandra Ree dies, but when McCaffery decided to combine all the short stories into a single novel, she revised all the shorts heavily to not only blend them into a single story, but changed the main character’s ultimate fate. The name of the crystal singer was inspired by a small town in north central Ireland called Killeshandra.

“There’s nothing wrong in doubting. It sometimes leads to greater faith.”
― Anne McCaffrey

Crystal Singer begins when a young vocal student named Killashandra Ree is finishing ten years of study in order to become a vocal soloist of a futuristic civilization known as the Federated Sentient Planets. She anticipates becoming a “rock star” of interstellar proportions. During her final exams, it is discovered that she has a fatal flaw in her voice that will forever prevent her from singing lead roles, despite her perfect pitch and performing talents. Killashandra is heartbroken and plans to leave both the school and her home world in private disgrace.

At the spaceport she meets an older man who uses his musical skills to identify an arriving space shuttle that is about to explode to the authorities, averting the disaster. The two hit it off and he treats her to a whirlwind romance on her home world while he is on vacation. She grows curious about her new lover and his profession of “crystal singer”. It is a occupation of people with perfect musical pitch that use their voices to control devices in which to mine a very rare crystalline mineral on the planet of Ballybran. These crystals are used in most of the complex systems that power interstellar communications and power much of the machinery of her civilization. It is a dangerous profession, but one that earns high credits and has a select and small membership. Although she is warned away repeatedly, Killashandra is drawn to the mysterious Heptite Guild and becomes determined to become a crystal singer herself.

Travel to Ballybran is forbidden to all but its residents. On the moon of Ballybran, Killashandra learns the reason why. Anyone that ventures onto the planet is infected by a symbiotic life form that invades the human body and causes genetic mutations. Many people simply die. Others only gain a partial adaptation that allows them to live, but with reduced hearing or eyesight. They are forever confined to the planet, unable to leave because if they do the symbiont dies and they along with it. Those few that get a full adaption to the symbiont become the crystal singers who gain increased vision and hearing, rapid healing and a long life. It makes them sterile and in the end they suffer memory loss, paranoia and dementia, but only after hundreds of years of life. They also can depart Ballybran for short periods of time without their symbiont dying.

Headstrong and stubborn, Killashandra journeys to Ballybran along with thirty other inductees. The novel follows her and her classmates during their education while they wait for the invading infection. One by one, they fall to the symbiont until all have been converted. During this time she gains the attention of the head of the guild, a man named Lanzecki. He offers her a job that she can’t refuse, one that not only allows her to use her new skills as a crystal singer, but one that might allow her to present a public performance that would put her back in the spotlight she trained all those years for.

Crystal Singer Book CoverI have always loved the Crystal Singer series by Anne McCaffery. I first read the book when it was first released in the early 80’s and felt a strong identification with the main character, Killashandra Ree. She is a complex character, a combination of confidence that borders on arrogance and yet inside she is shy and vulnerable. Many artists have this sort of personality and I liked that she was a strong woman that was willing to take control of her own life in the face of failure. She felt like a real and likable woman to me.

The Federated Sentient Planets that Killashandra lives in is powered not by manufactured technology, such as ours is, but by natural forming crystals that can be sung into service. I love the concept of human art meeting function in this way. It is quite unique and the world of Ballybran and the Heptite Guild society is an interesting concept. The visual of the crystal singer serenading a mountain side and it singing back to her is powerful and one that you will not soon forget. Of all the series set in the universe, I feel that this one is the most clerical in nature. You need a card for everything and the machines monitor all the details. It reminds me of our current way of life.

There are some outdated qualities to the book. During the late 70s and early 80s, sexual freedom was thought to be women sleeping around much as single men of the time period did. Killashandra has several lovers in this fashion. The sex is free and easy, completely consensual, but without long term attachments. There are no steamy sex scenes in the book, but in my view the easy going relationships don’t quite mesh with what we might think of feminism now.

The men in the book were also somewhat paternalistic toward the female main character. Again, this was a common attitude during this decade and it has carried over into the culture of this interstellar society. It is not as bad as in some books and for the most part I felt that Killashandra was treated as an equal by peers, even when they could not stand her for her “perfection”.

While Crystal Singer is not a Nebula or Hugo award winner, it does have staying power and I believe that it would most appeal to high school or college aged readers. It can be a little difficult to find at the local library due to its age, but you should be able to find it on the online outlet of your choice. Go and find the books. If you love classic science fiction and enjoy reading females authors in this genre, Crystal Singer is a great choice.

Crystal Singer Series

Crystal Singer 1982
Killashandra 1986
Crystal Line 1992