Book Review: Brothers of Earth by C.J. Cherryh

Brothers of Earth (Hanan Rebellion #1)Brothers of Earth by C.J. Cherryh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book because I’ve been meaning to read C.J. Cherryh for some time, and also because I was doing a challenge to read 15 space opera books by the end of the year. However, this book is not space opera. It’s a planetary romance. That being said, it’s a really good planetary romance, centered on a fascinating alien culture with about 17th century technology that reminded me very much of an Indus Valley sort of culture, with lots of formalities and strange social customs and caste systems and interconnecting (and internally clashing) racial divides. The plot? Picture Avatar if things had gone poorly.

Admittedly it uses some time-honoured sci-fi tropes that the artsy sorts would tell you immediately mean that it must not be taken seriously, but keep in mind it was written in 1976, first of all; and secondly, I say so what? I think people are far too hung up on being original, and they try so hard that they often lose the elements that make a good *story*. Cherryh is much more interested in character and story than in making sure that her universe obeys hard science, which is downright refreshing in the midst of the modern obsession.

Above all the strongest part of this book were the incredibly well-realized characters. I loved each and every one of them, despite and maybe because of their flaws, and even the villains are empathetic. Cherryh remembers that old saying that a story is something happening to someone you care about, and she has made me care about these characters. Enough that the ending annoys me somewhat, since it is clear that there will be more books to follow this one. I understand there are sequels; and therefore, quite a lot remained unresolved.

It’s a chewy read; the kind of thing you have read in pieces to fully grasp the nuances. You can’t just sit down and devour it. To be honest, with time running out in my late-begun reading challenge I selected it in part because it seemed a thinner book than many others I have and I thought it would be a quick read. Don’t you believe it. But it was worth it.

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Book Review: Cities in Flight by James Blish

Cities in Flight (Cities in Flight, #1-4)Cities in Flight by James Blish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cities in Flight is an omnibus edition of four related books written by James Blish in the 1950s and 60s. Each one is a stand-alone story but they interconnect. The essential premise of the plot is that three factors — the Cold War, the discovery of anti-aging drugs, and the invention of anti-gravity technology — results in a mass exodus of entire cities from Earth, who then spread out among the stars as independent city-states. Some colonize planets; others, called “Okies,” wander from planet to planet doing odd jobs for pay, which sustains their civilizations; but just like hobos throughout history, they are routinely harassed by the police and seen as ne’er-do-wells. It is about one such Okie city, New York, New York, that Blish writes.

The first story, “They Shall Have Stars”, is not really about the characters, but it introduces the necessary technology and geopolitical pressures that create his world. “A Life for the Stars” is a twisted bildungsroman in this unique sociopolitical landscape that Blish has created (which is a wonderful thing in and of itself; considering the sociopolitical consequences of new technologies!). “Earthman, Come Home” is arguably the most character driven book of the series. And “The Triumph of Time” is ultimately about how we human beings confront mortality; but, more than that, how we confront inevitable oblivion.

My favourite character is John Amalfi. And I love how utterly ordinary Blish’s characters are. No chiseled jaws and rippling pectorals here; just ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations in a cavalier, almost Wild West pioneer spirit. That Wild West aspect was intentional on Blish’s part. Reading the appendix you discover that Blish was directly inspired by Spengler’s “Decline of the West.”

However, there were some flaws in the characterization as well, and some characters were better realized than others. Chris, the viewpoint character of “A Life for the Stars,” was terribly undeveloped. He existed for the sole purpose of exposing Blish’s politics and science. I could have taken him or left him. And I do have to say that I find it tiresome that these men writing classic science fiction, who were so progressive in terms of many of their ideas and technology, never seemed to anticipate that women would eventually be just as likely to be in positions of political and military leadership as men. Blish even pointed out how women never end up getting selected to serve as “Mayor” (which in this story is actually a eugenically-democratically elected Emperor of a city-state) by the computers that do that selecting. I guess it was really hard for men in the 1960s to accept that their skills in this department were not genetically superior to those of women. 😉 I have to give that a pass, though, because it is ridiculous to expect works of previous time periods to conform to the standards of the present day.

I like how the events of one book have effects that ripple into the others while, at the same time, being entirely stand-alone works (though “They Shall Have Stars” might have looked better as a story in Analog or Asimov instead of as a book.)

Some of the other readers in my book club were baffled and irritated by some of the science, which reduced their enjoyment of the book. I can see their point. The anti-aging drugs weren’t that terribly well developed and probably drew back to what was cutting edge science when the book was written, which of course is now completely obsolete. And it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense to me either; it was just discovered that some chemical compounds prevented come kinds of cellular degeneration, and the ones discovered later were also effective at eliminating mistakes in cellular regeneration because they were able to cure cancer while the earlier ones were not (but the cancer still didn’t kill you, which is interesting.) But I was okay with the McGuffin personally; largely I think because I also read a lot of fantasy. I don’t really care how it works, to be honest. I accept that in this universe that’s the way it works, and on I go.

In the middle of the Space Race there were thought to be two major obstacles to interstellar flight; a way to overcome and/or create gravity, and the amount of time it takes to get between places in such a vast universe. Blish’s solution was people who don’t age and spindizzies. Which also inadvertently solved the radiation problem, which is one of the big concerns that is currently delaying a manned mission to Mars; apparently outside of the Earth and Moon’s magnetic field there’s a whole slew of radiation from the sun that’s really harmful to us. I’m not even sure they were aware of all that in the 1960s, when those two books were written, but that problem is solved at any rate.

I’ve also read some arguments against some other aspects of the technology being obsolete, such as the use of vacuum tubes, but here I don’t agree because there’s some very good arguments for using vacuum tubes in deep space. Consider how computers and satellites malfunction when there’s a major solar flare; do you want that happening to the computers upon which your life depends in deep space? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Still, to some extent I feel we must accept that classic sci-fi is often, by nature, going to have bad science, because our knowledge of how things actually work has increased considerably over the past two hundred years, and in exponential ways. Let’s not forget that Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells were writing perfectly acceptable science fiction for their time.

However, as I said, I can see why that lack of explanation about the anti-aging drugs could diminish enjoyment of the books and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Especially when the physics and quantum physics were so excellently done! Blish’s explanation for anti-gravity, and dealing with anti-matter, stands the test of time even today, even after all we’ve discovered about those subjects since.

The conclusion was fascinating, and also how the characters reacted to it was great. Overall, despite some significant literary flaws, mostly I think in the inconsistency in styles between the stories, I really enjoyed these books, and I see why they are considered to be classics of science fiction. Highly recommended!

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Voidjammer: Blueskins!

The Blueskins of Wildspace are a widespread and varied race. They all possess blue or bluish colored skin, vivid eye-color, and features that are usually considered attractive to humans, elves and halflings. All blueskins share a natural skill with magic and arcane sciences, and so are amongst the most renowned magic-users and scientists in the Known Spheres. Blueskin ears naturally come to a point and continue to grow over their entire lives, potentially becoming quite large (and even bat-like in some cases). Most Blueskins trim their ears regularly, some allowing only a moderate point while others keep them rounded like human ears.

Blueskins  are graceful and slim, and stand about 5 to 6 feet tall. They count as medium-sized creatures and have a base movement rate of 40 feet per round. They have darkvision to a range of 120 feet and have a knack for picking pockets and trickery.
Blueskin’s lithe form gives it a bonus of one point to its starting dexterity score. Their silver tongues also give them a one point bonus to their starting charisma score. Unfortunately, they lack in muscle mass and must deduct one point from their starting strength score. These ability modifications cannot increase a score above 18 or reduce it below 3.

Blueskins enjoy a +3 save vs. cold and cold spells. They have a +2 bonus to save vs. magic, and can see magical auras (per the detect magic spell). They enjoy a +1 bonus to hit with daggers and darts.

Blueskins speak Common and Drule (see below). They might also speak Celestial, Infernal, Elvish, Orc, Sylvan and Dragon.
Blueskins can multi-class as assassin/magic-users, cleric/scientists, cleric/sorcerers, leech/sorcerers, sorcerer/thieves or sorcerer/fighters.
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Infrastructure on the Rock of Bral: The Garbage Rocks

Docks of Bral by Silverblade the Enchanter. Copyright (c) 2010. Used by permission.

One of the features of Bral is the “Garbage Rocks”, often just referred to as “The Garbage”.

Like any city, Bral creates a lot of rubbish and human waste.  Most urine is sold to fullers or alchemists for the manufacture of black powder, solvents and other products; and excrement is mostly sent to be composted in huge vats on the Underside where it is used as fertilizer for the vital fields and trees the city relies on for food and air.  Likewise, most rubbish is sorted for useful material, as recycling is essential, since importing to Bral is expensive and communities of Wildspace know damn well better than to get fussy when their lives are at stake (one reason snobs aren’t liked by the populace in general).  That which cannot be reused, such as dangerous waste from infirmaries or undertakers is collected and stored separately to be dumped at the Garbage Rocks., if it is not specially incinerated (see below).

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Orcs of Wildspace

~ From “Goblin Gear” by Adam “Night Druid” Miller

Wildspace orcs are a clannish lot.  Most orcs are part of small buccaneer clans that have much in common with traditional pirates.  Rarely these clans will unite behind a powerful leader known as a “Wolf Chief”, a title that honors their cunning, battle prowess, and ferocity.

Orc legends speak of a mystical homeworld, where all orc tribes began.  Fortunately, perhaps, the name and location of this homeworld are long lost.  According to the legends, this world has twisted badlands and deserts that the orcs scoured in search of elusive scorpion husks.  Hundreds of scorpionships set sail from this homeworld.

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A Lady of the Clan (Book Excerpt)

The Bloodfist summer home was really quite lovely, Ynga decided as she peered excitedly over the edge of the sail barge’s railing. It was nothing like the fortress in the mountains that served as the Bloodfist clan’s residence in Dukagsh’s rainy season, carved into the rock diligently over the course of generations; solid, stone cave walls and warrens that were imminently defensible, but gloomy. Those halls, where Ynga had dwelt among the clan’s unmarried girls her whole life, were ill-suited to her unseemly adventurous nature, and she and her twin sister Y’Anid had spent many hours, even days, clambering over the rocky steppes on whatever pretense they could invent; from overseeing the pepper and quinoa farms to inspecting the lofty rope bridges that connected one outcropping to another. Their excursions were never approved of, naturally, but their mother was the reigning Den Mother, and she defended her daughters’ right to see to the women’s duties in their own unique way, so none would dare gainsay her. And to be fair, since Dorin Bloodfist, their uncle, had become Almighty Leader, there had been a lot less pressure for the girls to keep close to home.
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