by Maureen McHugh, 310 pages
Very engaging, great piece of sociology in here. Has the courage of convictions to imagine a Chinese-dominated America as plausible extrapolation rather than just a red scare, and delivers a lot of great concepts in the interplay of history, ideology, science and acceptance. Basically it’s a story about outsiders, those that because of identity are excluded from main conventions in some way (homosexual, racial minority, physically disfigured). It becomes a story about how prejudice and social pressures operate in a world different than the present, but certainly with a lot of parallels.
A kind of soft-politics model, reminded me a lot of parts of the Mars Trilogy, with a much briefer and tighter focus, and with the formal argumentation aspects toned down. Very much about the working out of history, showing a wide-ranging environment with social forces that ended things up in a particular place, and the struggle of different characters to figure out the context. Notably here there may not be any right answers, and the ability of people to move beyond the surface into wider complexities is not absolute. It also reminded me of River of Gods, with multiple viewpoints, a rich and non-exoticized non-Western setting, and new tech alongside character archetypes. There are also patterns of success unique to McHugh, especially in showing hybrid identity effectively--the dominant protagonist as "passing for Chinese" and homosexual, an outsider not directly identifiable as such. That whole narrative strand and the reflections in the forced commune are at the strengths of the book, making it one of the more thoughtful pieces of science fiction I've encountered of late.
Looking at the records, it seems this was nominated for a Hugo in 1993, but lost out to a Fire Upon the Deep/Doomsday Book tie. I'd say Vinge's piece should have been the winner for that year (without Willis' accompanying, needless to say) but McHugh's is almost as significant a contribution. It’s the type of book that really shows how categories of excellence in science fiction don’t need to be mutually exclusive, that one can have complex, well imagined technical detail and great characterization and a rich future environment that’s not merely a reinvention of the current geopolitical status quo. Beyond doing all these constituent elements quite well (which they are) it’s MucHugh’s blending of alls these into a compelling story that really make her work stand out. It’s subtle, it’s intense, it’s thoughtful. It’s also depressing at times, when it shows the very difficult fates that trap people we’ve grown to care about, linked to pressures too wide to really overturn. Still, on the whole the book is too complex and human to be really bleak, providing a level of understanding into the processes that makes even the harsher elements have a kind of historical context. It’s not hugely optimistic but neither is it revelling in despair, it feels like all good literature like it has things of value to teach. As well there are a lot of very specific character moments that feel true to the invented personalities, and that add a level of intimacy in approaching the larger world.
Better than: Air by Geoff Ryman
Worse than: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin. And, as the title of the blog and my specific review of Le Guin’s book indicate, when I’m making of point of indicating something is less quality to Lavinia, that generally menas it’s very high quality indeed.