walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Recent Rereads

Several things have been going on lately. First, I complained extensively about the problems with the eforms of Gail Collins' otherwise excellent _Scorpion Tongues). Second, I've been more than usually sensitive to active screens (thus curtailing some of the time I spend on the laptop and iPad, in favor of the kindle). I'm not entirely certain why, altho I am worried about it. Finally, I realized how long it has been since I reread anything and didn't feel like rereading romance novels so I went back, to some sf.

I bought the James H. Schmitz reprints in pform as they came out and then more recently got them from Baen Books website (some free) in eform.

_Telzey Amberdon_
_T 'n' T: Telzey Amberdon and Trigger Argee Together_
_Trigger and Friends_

I've been a Schmitz fan for decades and was really excited when these reprints came out, because the previous reprint had been the NESFA volume and it had very limited availability. I was particularly happy when Baen put them up for free. Schmitz is someone I want everyone to know about and enjoy.

However, it had been a while since my most recent reread (probably when the paperbacks came out about a decade ago). I got to wondering how they would hold up. First, there are some of the same problems in these books that backlist titles in eform all seem to suffer from -- but they are rare and not particularly intrusive. They are about what I'm used to seeing in paperbacks anyway. Second, there are occasional clunkers that remind the reader forcibly of when the books were written (size of secretarial staff and that they are overwhelmingly women; smoking in offices; computers or communications devices which produce printouts which should have screens you can read on but do not -- these are examples only). But beyond that, the stories are every bit as engaging and entertaining as I remember them being, and I continue to find the author appealing in the moral universe he creates along with the science fictional universe.

When my book group was reading _To Kill a Mockingbird_ last year, I noticed the word morphodite. I could tell what it meant, because of the context, but looked it up to be sure. I had not given the word a lot of thought when I read M.A. Foster's Morphodite trilogy (_Morphodite_, _Transformer_, _Preserver_) some years before my most recent reread of James Schmitz' stories. I was reading Foster for a variety of reasons (and I remember liking this trilogy better than his other work, altho the person who originally pointed me at Foster only liked _Gameplayers of Zan_, which I also read but apparently was so uninterested in I never kept a copy around and never reread) which had very little to do with literary qualities or even science fictional qualities and had a lot to do with some of the political ideas embedded in the novels.

I do not recommend spending time reading Foster, particularly in eform; while not as bad as the Collins book, there are a lot of jarring wrong-words that could have been caught with a spellchecker that had been appropriately set for these novels. For example, spell checkers will typically kick about a word like Tiegenhagen (which is a place name it doesn't recognize). If you were to write something about Tiegenhagen, you'd be smart to put that in the dictionary, at least for that piece, so you didn't skip over Teigenhagen, figuring it was just the spell checker bitching at you. And that's _exactly_ what didn't happen with the Transformer trilogy, resulting in equal parts Lisaks (correct) and Liasks (incorrect), referring to natives of Lisagor. Annoying. It's possible it's wrong in the pbooks as well; I haven't checked.

More importantly, despite writing later than Schmitz, Foster's writing contains far more jarring assumptions based on Foster's time-and-place than Schmitz (Gysa I might have let slide -- it's kind of a funny joke, but sort of stupid, too, but the pocket tape-player music machine, no. Just, No.). Then again, it's dangerous writing something that engages in gender bending (in the story, the central character can Change, losing about 20 years of biological age, changing in height, weight, build, appearance blah blah blah including changing sex so, yes, right down to the DNA) and then building into that a lot of uninspected heterocentricity (three-some with Dorje and Faren while being Nazarine notwithstanding, an interaction rendered retroactively weird by Nazarine becoming Demsing, a premature infant who Dorje and Faren then raise). It does not age well.

The Morphodite trilogy is unremittingly paranoid, and set in a pseudo-soviet context. While the sex scenes do not suffer from obnoxious language problems (involving waves -- I hate sex scenes with a lot of wave imagery. Foster doesn't do that. He gets points for avoiding that trap; also, no throbbing anything, which is always a plus), they do very little to credibly advance character or relationship and felt like a plot device on more than one occasion. Further, they expose all the problems inherent in a completely humorless storytelling approach. As a package, these three characteristics (paranoia/pseudo-soviet context, sex that feels like machination and a total lack of humor) work together _really really well_. Technically. But it's just no fun at all.

If it were in the service of something I could become entranced by, it would have been okay. However, the gimmick is planet Oerlikon, and Pompitous Hall's Watch of Oerlikon, based on another planet, Heliarcos. A bunch of academics work for centuries to create the Morphodite (coopting Oerlikon in the process) and then freak out when they lose (control of) it. Devastation in detail ensues as two more-or-less matched antagonists (the bumbling, secretive and poorly coordinated creators on one side and the bumbling, secretive and poorly coordinated creation on the other side) bash at each other across two plus books. That's sort of an okay story, but Foster imposed the structure in ways that make the components unbelievable. Also, those Atropine quotes at the beginning of chapters? Super lame in a very 1980s way.

Take Oerlikon, a planet between galactic arms, supposedly colonized by people who want to Stop Change. In the service of this desire to Stop Change, they come from all over the colonized galaxy, move to a new planet, create a new language, a new social structure (which involves women typically having a different father for each of her children) ... Really? Really? These are _anti-change_ people? No they are not. That makes less than no sense.

Don't even get me started on who let Luto Pternam run The Mask Factory, much less the magic credit card.

If you _adore_ _Wave Without a Shore_ by C.J. Cherryh (this is very different from being a Cherryh fan in general), you might find M.A. Foster rewarding. _Might_. But just as soon as you recover from enjoying _Wave Without a Shore_ and start going, wait, that doesn't actually make sense .... you'll probably start having issues with Morphodite, too.
Tags: book review, sf

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