Tag Archives: science fiction novel

Book review: Beggars in Spain (Nancy Kress 1993)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5

“Beggars in Spain” is a science fiction novel written in 1993; it was nominated for the top two awards in the field, the Hugo and the Nebula, though it didn’t win either. (“Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson won both; it is one of the most detailed hard sf books I’ve read.) “Beggars in Spain” is one of those sf books that can be summarized by a what-if– what-if some people didn’t have to sleep at all? How would society react? What kinds of advantages would they have? How would it affect the personality of such a person?

The novel opens with a wealthy man wishing to procure advantageous genetic alterations for his to-be-conceived child in 2008. Though it is still rare, he wants his child to be sleepless. The children who have the trait have proven to be much smarter and always cheerful. Another child is conceived accidentally who is not sleepless (as a small nitpick, the science in this bit seemed fishy, but I am not familiar with what was known in 1993). Leisha is the sleepless daughter, Alice is the sleeper daughter.

Leisha is of course beautiful and brilliant. Much of the novel rotates around how she relates to sleeper people. The characters in the book didn’t always work for me; Leisha is always cheerful as a sleeper, but this is hard to relate to, and hard to imagine how it would even work. Also there is an injection of almost libertarian politics that I wasn’t sure what I thought of. The politics aren’t preachy and are presented as Leisha’s world-view rather than the author’s. I liked the first half of the novel immensely. I didn’t dislike the second half, but I found it less exciting and engaging. One consistently strong point of this book was the writing: I sometimes have to labor through harder science fiction books, which must belabor the description of complicated mechanical things. This book just flew for me, while still attacking the central question of science fiction: what would happen to people if? So if you are a fan of hard sf and only hard sf, it probably isn’t for you.

“Beggars in Spain” was also one of the most female-dominated sf books I’ve read. Most of the principal characters are female. The book is feminist without caring about it or focusing on it; these characters could just as easily be male but they simply aren’t. It’s feminist not in the sense of women’s rights, but simply having women as protagonists and examining their relationships. I’ve read umpteen scifi books with barely a woman on the pages, so this was a welcome change of pace. Nancy Kress is also one of the few premier female names in science fiction, so it also seemed appropriate.

Overall, I found “Beggars in Spain” a very worthy read. It raised a lot of thoughtful questions that even a week after finishing the book, I find myself thinking about. It never came together in a “wow” moment, as a few sf books do for me, but it was pleasant and easy to read, which is not always the rule in sf. This was the first work I’ve read by Nancy Kress, and based on this book, I want to read more from her.

Book Review: Downbelow Station (C.J. Cherryh 1981)

Note: I avoid spoilers in this review. Any plot details I mention occur early in the book.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

I’ve had Downbelow Station on my shelf for a while. It’s 526 pages, so a little on the long side. I’d seen the book on a few “best of” lists, but no one I know has ever mentioned it. It was the 1982 Hugo award winner. So finally I bucked up and read it, and it was excellent.

Although I see “Downbelow Station” described as a hard science fiction book, the technological aspects of the book do not occupy the foreground. The interactions and desires of the characters do that; in some ways it’s a  high-class space opera. I found the style of the book most similar to Vernor Vinge in books like “A Fire Upon the Deep” with a little more militarism. I wonder how much the post Vietnam era affected the portrayal of militarism; the warring elements do not come off positively in this book. Cherryh does a good job developing culture; we can see the cultural differences between Union, Company, Pell, and the Downers. If you like sweeping science fiction, this is a highly worthy read.

Most of the action takes place on Pell Station, a space station orbiting a habitable planet with natives called “Downers” in the year 2352. Humans have expanded into space, one station after the next. At some point in history, humans developed faster than light “jump” technology, so they can spread further yet, into the “Beyond”. The humans in the Beyond have become disassociated with Earth; likewise Earth is somewhat detached from the stations. Pell finds itself between the forces of the Beyond and the renegade forces of Earth. The first 20 pages or so lay down this background; it’s a lot of exposition and it’s confusing and not totally engaging. The beginning is the weak point of this book. Once the ground work is laid, the story takes off.

We arrive at Pell when the Company ships of Earth force the station to take on a bunch of refugees from another station which has been destroyed in the conflict between the Company and the Union of the Beyond. These unregistered people are housed in quarantine, or Q, which is lawless and places a great deal of strain on the station’s resources. Over the course of the book, we watch people from Q, from Pell station, from Union, and from the Company as they vie for the strategically valuable Pell. The people of Pell station I found especially interesting, and their interactions with the Downers.

There are several other books in Cherryh’s Union-Company universe that I look forward to reading. Check out my Top 20 science fiction novels for more science fiction recommendation.

Book Review: Holy Fire (Bruce Sterling 1996)

Note: in this review, I spoil nothing past the first 20-30 pages or so. You can see more reviews and an excerpt of the book here.

Rating: 4/5 stars

I really enjoyed “Holy Fire”. Though it is high-tech, low life in the fashion of cyberpunk, I found the characters much more believable than most cyberpunk books. The characters still have ambitions and hopes and don’t just spend their time dwelling on how awful life is (any more than we do now). The book is set about 100 years in the future, in a society where the very elderly call the shots and society is about collectively minimized risk and efficiency. The main character, Mia, is an elderly woman who partakes in a medical procedure to extend her life, and her subsequent adventures. Mia struggles with the effect on the young of a society dominated by the old and her own risk-averse tendencies. Along the way she meets a lot of fun people.

Before I read “Holy Fire”, I was aware of Bruce Sterling and his reputation as a cyberpunk author. I had read the canonical cyberpunk work “Neuromancer” by Gibson, and I was not impressed. Cyberpunk seemed just like rebranding dystopia. But a friend (check out her well-received science fiction work here) loaned me “Holy Fire” by Bruce Sterling, so I read it.

The book is also populated with cool gadgets that are irrelevant but colorful. Sterling doesn’t dwell on any particular one, and the book is peppered with fun droplets of future tech. There is a dog that has been technologically enhanced to be able to talk, but in the fashion that a dog might. There are cities built of edible bio-materials. There are programmable wigs.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if the book hangs together fully in the end for me. I’m not sure if the tales of Mia add up to say something to me. So perhaps it is not a masterpiece. But I enjoyed it thoroughly the entire time I was reading it, which is a rarity. Also a vivid female protagonist is nice (this was actually why my friend recommended the book). To anyone interested, I would definitely recommend a read.