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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

Book Review: Red Mars

Book Name: Red Mars
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
First Published: 1993
Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel 1993

Author Kim Stanley Robinson was born in Waukegan, Illinois, but mainly grew up in Southern California. He earned a B.A. in literature from the University of California, San Diego in 1974 and gained a Masters in English from Boston University in 1982. He returned to his California ala mater in 1984 to finish a PhD in English.

Robinson is an avid backpacker and many of his novels feature characters that hike or climb mountains including his Mars Trilogy. He doesn’t consider himself to be a mountain climber, more of a man that loves the great outdoors. In 2009, Robinson was a Clarion Workshop instructor and the following year he was the guest of honor at the 68th World Con. His novels have won 11 major science fiction awards and 29 nominations.

He is married with two sons and his family currently resides in Davis, California.

“History was like some vast thing that was always over the tight horizon, invisible except in its effects. It was what happened when you weren’t looking — an unknowable infinity of events, which although out of control, controlled everything.”
― Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars

The epic novel Red Mars begins when one hundred participants are chosen to go to the red planet after a detailed and rigorous selection process. The winners are geniuses from Russia and the United States along with a few other countries. They undertake a nine month space mission to reach their goal of forming a colony base on Mars. “Underhill” has nuclear generators for power, medical stations are established, GMO foods are produced on martian farms and new life forms that can survive on the Martian surface unprotected are also genetically created. During this time, a debate that started on the spacecraft and continues both on Mars and Earth about the moral right of humans to terraform and mine Mars for their own profit.

Two factions arise on Mars. One is the Reds, led by Ann Cayborne. She believes that Mars should not be used for corporate profit or for Earth’s expansion. The other are the Greens, led by Sax Russell. He believes that terraforming is important in order for life on Mars to continue. As time goes on, these and other political arguments tear the martian settlement apart, even as more new Earth immigrants arrive to worsen the situation. Added to the mix is a new discovery by a medical team, a drug that grants near immortality. One of the medical team disappears with a group of followers and they harvest many eggs in order to produce children at will.

What was once a scientific operation, turns into a struggle for power by governments and international companies who wish to carve out a piece of Mars for themselves. Mining on Mars increases and more workers are imported from Earth to handle the work load. The new city domes become crowded and understaffed. Riots begin as water and other supplies are lost or damaged, causing massive flooding and death. Even the entire moon of Phobos is destroyed in the chaos.

Most of the first hundred colonists are killed in the resulting revolution. Their work is destroyed. The survivors take refuge in a hidden colony called Zygote under the southern pole and begin to build a new life for themselves on a chaotic and destroyed Mars.

Red Mars Book CoverOne of the draws of Robinson’s work is his detailed world building based on known science. There are many “sense of wonder” descriptions of the Martian landscape that draw you in as a reader and give you an appreciation for the natural environment. His details about the science behind the transformation of Mars make you wish that you could visit these people and places. As someone who enjoys natural beauty, this was one of the aspects of the novel that I enjoyed. I also liked how the author shifted the third-person point of view among the main characters of the book, allowing me to see Mars, its society and its culture through their different perspectives.

Robinson often features scientists as heroes, not because of their physical brawn, but more for the importance of their discoveries, networking or collaboration with other scientists. The characters struggle to preserve and enhance the world around them in a manner evoking individualism and entrepreneurship such as was found on the American Frontier a century ago. In Robinson’s novels, scientists must take responsibility for educating the public in the responsible use of their discoveries and often emerge as the best people to direct public policy on environmental and technological issues. Robinson could be considered an anti-capitalist, his ideas promote an egalitarianism that more in keeping with socialist ideals. The Martian Constitution in his Mars Trilogy, draws upon these social democratic ideals and focus on the community-participation elements in the Martian’s political and economic life. I personally do not agree with all his political views, however, Robinson is not overt in his preaching and it is tolerable if you keep an open mind and enjoy the environmental and technological ideas.

Whatever your views on his political ideas, Red Mars is a detailed portrayal of how this planet might be colonized in the near future with present day technology. Considering that there are programs in real life that are in the planning stages of going to Mars with an eye toward colonization, Robinson’s books are incredibly timely and an interesting read. It is my hope that the destruction and chaos that happens on Red Mars might be bypassed by our own colonists, but human nature being what it is, we can only hold our breath and hope for the best. I feel that the Mars Trilogy is well worth reading and I hope you’ll consider adding it to your to-read list.

The Mars Trilogy

Red Mars (1993) – Colonization
Green Mars (1994) – Terraforming
Blue Mars (1996) – Long-term results
The Martians (1999) – Short stories

Book Review: Time Enough For Love

Book Name: Time Enough For Love
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
First Published: 1973
Prometheus Hall of Fame Award recipient 1998
Nominated for Nebula 1973
Nominated for Hugo and Locus Awards 1974

Robert Anson Heinlein was born in 1907 to accountant Rex Ivar Heinlein and Bam Lyle Heinlein. He spent much of his childhood in Kansas City, Missouri and the values of the bible belt would play an influence on his science fiction, especially in his later works such as Time Enough For Love and To Sail Beyond The Sunset.

Heinlein’s first career was in the US Navy. He graduated from the US Naval Academy in Maryland in 1929 with a BS in naval engineering. He was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington in 1931 where he worked in radio communications. During this time, Heinlein married his first wife, Elinor Curry, but their marriage was short lived. In 1932 his second marriage was to Leslyn MacDonald and this time it lasted for 15 years. MacDonald was a political radical and it created a stormy atmosphere in their marriage.

In 1934 Heinlein was discharged from the Navy due to pulmonary tuberculosis. He spent time going to graduate classes at UCLA in mathematics and physics, but he quit due to his poor health combined with an interest in politics. Although he had a small pension from the navy, it was not enough to live on comfortably. Heinlein engaged in different occupations over the next several years, including real estate sales and silver mining. He became connected with Upton Sinclair’s socialist End Poverty movement and when Sinclair gained the nomination for Governor of California, Heinlein was active as an operative in his campaign. In 1938, Heinlein would run for the California State Assembly, but he was unable to secure the seat.

With little money left in the bank after his bid for the assembly seat, Heinlein turned to writing in order to pay his mortgage. His first story, “Life-Line” was published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1939. He had written it for a contest entry, but the payment for the article in the magazine was more money than winning the contest would have provided. He also branched out to writing for The Saturday Evening Post, being the first science fiction author to break into the mainstream with his story “The Green Hills of Earth”. In 1950, his story Destination Moon was made into a movie and won an academy award for special effects. From 1947 through 1959, each year Heinlein would write a single book geared toward teenagers. These novels would later be called his “juveniles”.

In the early 1950s, Heinlein met and befriended a chemical engineer named Virginia “Ginny” Gerstenfeld in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. When her own engagement fell through, she moved to California and studied at UCLA for doctoral studies in chemistry. As Heinlein’s second wife lost herself to alcoholism, Heinlein moved out and filed for divorce. He and Ginny rekindled their friendship into something more and when Heinlein was free they married and set up a home in Colorado. They would remain together until Heinlein’s death in 1988.

In 1959, Heinlein’s “juvenile” Starship Troopers was considered too controversial for a children’s book and was rejected by his regular publisher. Heinlein shopped the book to a competitor (Putnam) and it was purchased. Heinlein felt free of the constraints imposed on him by the children’s book publisher and declared that he would write “my own stuff, my own way”. Thus followed Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, both of which would be award winners.

In the early 1970s, a decade of life-threatening attacks of peritonitis intruded into his life. The recovery period of the first attack was over two years. When he felt well enough after the attack, he began writing Time Enough For Love which would introduce many of the themes that would be found in his later novels. These themes touched on individualism, libertarianism and the expression of emotional and physical love. It was for these books that Heinlein won the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Prometheus Hall of Fame Award that is designed to honor classic libertarian fiction.

During the writing of his novel I Will Fear No Evil, Heinlein suffered another attack. He had a blocked carotid artery and was given one of the earliest known carotid bypass operations. While Heinlein continued to write during this time, his work suffered and his stories were not what his fans expected. It is thought that I Will Fear No Evil was a literary failure. It was not until the 1980s that his health improved enough that the old Robert A. Heinlein emerged and his final two novels were back to the quality the fans expected.

After Heinlein’s death in 1988, his wife Ginny created a compilation of her husband’s correspondence and notes into an autobiographical look at his writing career and it was published in 1989 as Grumbles from the Grave. Much of Robert A. Heinlein’s manuscript drafts, correspondence, photographs and artifacts are housed in the Special Collections department of McHenry Library at the University of Santa Cruz.

Oh, I have strong opinions, but a thousand reasoned opinions are never equal to one case of diving in and finding out. Galileo proved that and it may be the only certainty we have. – Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

Time Enough For Love begins with a 2400 year old man who desires to die, waking up in a clinic where many people who love him want to help him regain the desire to live. Lazarus Long has held every job imaginable, gone everywhere and seen everything that there is to be seen. He is weary of life and eager to embrace death. Lazarus agrees to not end his life as long as his companion, a descendant of his old friend Ira Weatherall of the Howard Families, will listen to his stories as he undergoes treatment. It is a reversal of the Arabian Nights fable where Scheherazade, the bride of a Persian King, tells a cliff-hanger story each night in order to stay the axe from her neck and in the end, saves her life and gains the heart of the King. In Lazarus’ case, the stories he tells stays his own hand from suicide.

Within this framework, Lazarus tells stories from his past spanning from the 20th Century on Earth, to following humanity’s journey out to the stars. The first story is “The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail”, about a young US Navy cadet who rises in the ranks by applying what he terms “constructive laziness”. The next is the controversial “The Tale of the Twins Who Weren’t”. Lazarus is a cargo trader and buys a pair of slaves, a brother and sister. He frees them, but they don’t understand the concept of freedom. All the twins want is be together as husband and wife, but the girl’s chastity belt prevents their union. They have no understanding of the taboo against incest. Lazarus determines that because the twins were a result of an experiment in genetic recombination, they are no more closely related genetically than two strangers who meet on the street. There is no biological reason that they could not remain together, marry and have healthy children. As a ship’s captain, he marries the twins as they desire and then helps to establish them as successful restaurant owners on a planet that his ship frequents.

The most popular tale of the book is “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter”. Lazarus, this time a banker and shopkeeper on a frontier world of approximately 19th century technology, saves a young girl named Dora from a burning building. He becomes her guardian. When she grows up, he marries her and the two set off to create a homestead in the wilderness. They found a new community and find happiness together. There is a catch, Lazarus doesn’t age due to being of “Howard stock” (He is immortal due to his genetic heritage.), but Dora is very mortal and lives a regular human lifespan. She dies of old age, leaving Lazarus behind in his grief.

By this time in the story, Lazarus is beginning to regain his love of life. The youth treatments he is receiving at the clinic have healed him physically, and his descendants have intrigued him enough to try again. He joins his family on the planet “Boondock” and they create a polyamorous family of three men, three women and a number of children, two of whom are female clones of Lazarus himself!

The final tale “Da Capo” is a time travel story where Lazarus returns to the time of the first world war to revisit the time of his childhood and see his original family again. In the trenches of the Western Front, he is wounded and would have gained his original wish to die, but is instead rescued by his cloned twins and returned to the future.

Time Enough For Love Book CoverTime Enough For Love is not a book for children and I do not recommend that it be read such. Yet, I seem to recall reading the book for the first time when I was only around twelve or thirteen years of age. I loved Heinlein’s juveniles and the character of Lazarus Long, so when Time Enough For Love emerged on the book shelves, I naturally reached for it. While there are many subjects in the book that are controversial, such as incest, at its core Heinlein cuts through many taboos that our society dictates with a gusto that you simply must marvel at. He had the audacity to say that all taboos are social constructs, with a possible biological basis, but when that basis disappears then taboos mean nothing. It is time to move on and enjoy your life.

This novel was written during a time in the author’s life when he was staring death in the face and this theme is central to Time Enough For Love. What if we do live forever? What if all of humanity has the ability of living for hundreds of years? Technology is bringing this possibility into reality in the not to distant future. The social mores we take for granted now will change significantly in the face of this. Heinlein is one of the few science fiction authors that has probed this concept and it does give one pause for thought.

I like this book and I will say that it has had some influence on me as a writer. My favorite “tale” is the one about Dora on the frontier world. Give it a try, but be warned that many of the ideas contained within the novel are controversial and may be offensive depending on your personal outlook.

Wendy Van Camp published in Far Horizons Magazine (Feb 2015)

Far Horizons Magazine Cover February 2015

I’m pleased to announce that a book review and three of my Scifaiku poems have published in the February 2015 issue of Far Horizons. The magazine is free to readers. I hope you’ll stop by and read not only my work, but the other fine stories to be found there.

Far Horizons: Tales of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror

Book Review: Glory Season

Book Name: Glory Season
Author: David Brin
First Published: 1993
Nominated: Hugo 1994 and Locus 1994

David Brin is an American scientist and writer of hard science fiction novels. His works have been New York Times Bestsellers and he has won multiple Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Campbell awards. Brin was born in Glendale, California. He graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in astrophysics. He followed this with a master of science in applied physics and a doctorate of Philosophy in Space Science from the University of California, San Diego. He currently lives in Southern California with his wife and children.

“A living planet is a much more complex metaphor for deity than just a bigger father with a bigger fist.”
― David Brin, Glory Season

To understand the basis of the culture of Glory Season, you must go back three thousand years when a scientist named Lysos, the founder of the human colony on the planet of Stratos, used genetic engineering to change their local strain of humanity so that their reproduction was based on seasons. Men are sexually receptive in the summer and women are in the winter. When a woman conceives in the summer, she produces a mix of her own genes and that of the male, having an equal chance for a boy or girl child. When a woman conceives in the winter, she always produces a female clone of herself. Finally, the men of Stratos have been changed so that they are less aggressive during the times that they are less sexually receptive. The result is that most of the people of Stratos are successful group of women clones.

Into this feminist social backdrop, a pair of twins are born to a “hive” of clones called “Lamatia”. They specialize in commercial import/export banking. Maia and Leie are welcome to remain with the hive of their birth, like all variants born of the clone sisters, until they reach their majority. Then they will be thrust out into the world to survive as they will. The twins create a plan to pass themselves off as two members of a larger hive and hope to work as sailors on the seas of Stratos to make their fortunes. As “vars” (variants) they would be considered social inferiors, but as sisters of a “hive” they would lose the stigma.

Events prevent the two sisters from carrying off their plans. They are separated by the ship masters to work on different ships instead of remaining together. Leie is lost at sea and Maia, is injured while battling pirates. Maia leaves the sea and instead takes a job on a railroad while she tries to reconcile the loss of her sister and heal from her wounds. During this time, she becomes involved with a plot by “Perkinites” to eliminate men from an isolated valley and later the entire world of Stratos. Maia attempts to inform the planetary authorities and is put in prison by the Perkinites for her efforts.

Maia remains in prison a long time and discovers that her fellow prisoner is a male interstellar visitor from an untampered branch of humanity. This visitor is seeking a devise known as a “Jellicoe Former”, it is an advanced manufacturing facility that can act as a 3D printer for complicated, technological devises. On Stratos, a pastoral and low-technology society, the Former’s existence would be an eruption of new ideas that would change its stable society forever. Renna wants the machine in order to create items that would repair his spaceship and allow him to return home.

In the end, a climactic battle between political radicals, freed vars and a group of virtuous male sailors will determine the fate of the world and Maia’s personal destiny.

World building is an aspect of speculative fiction that sets it apart from more traditional genre. The author takes an idea of making an aspect of their world different from our own and uses it to explore new ideas of society and technology. To me, this is what sets great science fiction apart from the pretenders. David Brin is a master at this skill. Before he started his story in Glory Season, he had looked at the reproduction cycle of aphids; they reproduce clones of themselves during times of abundance and sexually reproduce during times of stressful environmental change. This gives them a reproductive advantage. Brin applied this concept to humans, using the pretext of genetic engineering to create humans who use this cyclic idea of reproduction, then applied the concept to their world and culture. What I found intriguing about his idea is that instead of making the clones part of a mechanical process, which is how traditionally cloning is displayed in science fiction, he made it a new biological process where sex and relationships took on new forms with his redesigned humanity. Since only women have wombs, they rise to predominance in his stable fictional society.

Glory Season Book CoverThe plot of Glory Season is decent, but not stellar. I still would recommend the book despite this. The culture that results from this new innate biologic process is alien in feel and yet retains enough humanity to allow the reader to feel sympathy for the characters and the problems that they face in the plot. It is worth exploring. My only real regret is that Glory Season is a stand alone novel. I would love a sequel so that I could return and see more of this unique and intriguing world.