Review: L. Neil Smith’s Blade of p’Na

By Tom Jackson

book coverI’ll start my review with a confession. Even though I honor L. Neil Smith for creating the Prometheus Award, and I devote a great deal of time and energy trying to help the award continue, I don’t always love his work.

I enjoyed The Forge of the Elders (the 2011 Prometheus Award-winner for Best Novel) but I didn’t care for Pallas or Ceres very much. Smith the angry libertarian polemicist does little for me, either in the Ngu Family Saga or on Facebook.

Blade of p’Na, though, is the more genial Smith — it even shares the two main characters of The Sword of the Elders, Eichra Oren and Sam. If I read it correctly, p’Na is a prequel to The Sword of the Elders, although both books read fine as stand-alone books. There’s plenty of libertarianism of course — it wouldn’t be a Smith novel if there wasn’t — but I find Smith speaking in a calm, rational tone much more persuasive than Smith the shouter. And Blade of p’Na is one of five novels published last year that’s a finalist for this year’s Prometheus Award.

Eichra Oren is a “p’Nan ethical debt assessor” whose job it is to adjudicate cases in which force that violates libertarian principles allegedly has been used. He carries around a big, sharp sword, the “Blade of p’Na” referred to in the title, so he can kill people when he’s forced to carry out an act of capital punishment. (p’Na is essentially the alternate world’s name for libertarianism. Under doctrine of p’Na, “It is considered an axiom that nobody has a right to initiate physical force against anybody else for any reason,” as Chapter Four of the book explains.)

Sam Otusam is his dog sidekick, although he’s been altered to be intelligent and capable of speech. He still has a dog body, though, according to the text, so it seems a little creepy that he is sexually attracted to women and even has sex with them.

At the beginning of the novel, set on an alternate Earth, a big female spider comes in, seeking help in finding her runaway bridegroom, who apparently is afraid that she will eat him. This plotline eventually is mostly superseded by a threat from one of the other alternate Earths, an invasion of creatures descended from flatworms.

The alternate Earth Blade of p’Na is set in is dominated by the Elders, the creatures who featured also in The Forge of the Elders. Although they are Lovecraftian creatures in some respects, they also are essentially benign libertarians. The main Elder character in it is named Misterthoggosh.

The world is filled with a variety of intelligent creatures that the Elders have brought in from many other alternate Earths. Many of these creatures are very unusual, and Smith has a lot of fun with Jack Vance style exoticism, as we’re introduced to one improbable sentient creature after another.

The Illuminatus! trilogy of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson was a big influence on Smith, and as in many of his other novels, he slips in references to the work.  In Chapter 21, Oren and Sam visit the estate of an Elder named Semlohcolresh, and Sam notices columns “with a carved stone ball at the top, sitting on a pyramid. For some reason, they looked a bit like eyeballs.” This eye and pyramid motif references the title of the first book of the Illuminatus! trilogy, The Eye in the Pyramid.

But in a way, the whole novel shows the influence of Illuminatus! on Smith. Both works are essentially alternate Earth novels, featuring a purported detective story with fantastic elements. Both make use of the Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos, although Smith’s Elders are rather nice and like to drink beer. Both are loaded with libertarian philosophy. Both works have an underwater confrontation with the enemy toward the end.

I’m pleased that Arc Manor’s Phoenix Pick, one of my favorite SF publishers, has taken up Smith as one of its authors.

Smith has won the Prometheus Award for four works. Three are novels: The Probability Broach, Pallas,  and The Forge of the Elders. He received a special award for The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel, and received a special Prometheus for lifetime achievement last year. 

I enjoyed Blade of p’Na  from beginning to end. Smith writes like a man who enjoys life and having the opportunity to share his outlook with readers.

(Tom Jackson is a journalist and a board member of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He blogs about the work of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea at RAWIllumination.net.)

Review: The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, by Ken MacLeod

By Chris Hibbert

Ken MacLeod’s The Corporation Wars: Dissidence is the first book of a trilogy. It (along with the second book in the series, Insurgence) is a finalist for the Prometheus award this year.

Book CoverThe story starts with a scene in which a pair of mining robots exploring an asteroid (in a distant solar system) and representing different corporate interests have an encounter, which leads them to realize they have opposing interests, which leads them each to recognize that they have interests, which leads them to self-awareness. The corporations are in a tenuous situation, trying to assert their ownership of the robots, trying to be civil about their contractual cooperation, but objecting strenuously to breaches by the opposing robots. The corporations end up fighting one another, while the robots band together and spread the concept of self-awareness to other nearby robots with sufficient computing capacity. Since the corporations don’t seem likely to grant them independence, the robots form an independent faction in the upcoming battle. The corporations are loath to destroy their valuable property just yet.

When they do decide that military actions are called for, they end up dredging up opposing troops of uploaded warriors from past wars. All the AIs and non-self-aware robots and other actors are under a deep compulsion that only humans and their uploads can actually be armed for combat, even against rogue self-aware robots. So the “humans” spend parts of their time embodied as people in a planetary environment, training and relaxing between missions. In the missions, they’re downloaded into articulated space-battle suits. Every time they die in battle, they return to the training site to start again. Over time, they find reason to doubt the reality of their home, and eventually detect serious cracks.

The uploads gradually learn enough about their realities to doubt that they’re still fighting for the side they were loyal to in their first lives. Apparently part of the distinction between uploads and awakened AIs is that the operators can’t tinker with opinions and loyalties directly, but they can easily lie and mislead about who they’re representing, and what their opponents are fighting for. Of course, it wouldn’t be an interesting story if the operator’s control couldn’t be subverted.

Ken MacLeod tells a good story, and gets us to think about what kinds of entities should have rights. The authorial point of view allows him to show the action in the eyes alternately of the awakened robots and the revived soldiers, so we feel their fundamental humanness. The characters, ex-human and non-human alike, think about who they should allow into their coalition and whether other actors are actually aware or just act like it, and have varying motives.

My biggest complaint about the story and the characters’ attitudes is a simple universal acceptance among them that some other characters aren’t self-aware and thus can be treated as objects, based simply on statements from other people in authority roles. In war, it doesn’t make much sense to worry about whether the people shooting at you are actually thinking beings, but deciding that some category of bystanders don’t have inner lives should be a cause for more investigation. It’s an easy allegation to make, and not far from common attitudes about one’s enemies that we’ve mostly moved past.

It will be interesting to see how MacLeod resolves these issues in Insurgence and in Emergence, the concluding novel of the trilogy which is due to be published in the fall of 2017.

(Chris Hibbert is treasurer and past board president of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He works as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.)

Review: The Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo

By Chris Hibbert

book coverJohanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun is a finalist for the Prometheus Award this year.   It has enough SF elements to qualify as standard near-future fiction, and provides biting social commentary. In feel, it reminds me a lot of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but I liked this better in several ways.

The story takes place in a future Finland that has managed to selectively breed its women so that they’re either docile sex dolls and mothers (“eloi”), or sterile, powerless but competent workers (“morlocks”). They’ve also outlawed psycho-active drugs from alcohol to heroin, and somehow included capsaicin (hot peppers) on that list. The protagonist, Vanna, is a morlock who was raised as an eloi, which allows her to pass in polite company. She’s also hooked on hot peppers, and has started dealing in whole, dried, and preserved peppers in order to afford her next fix.

Compared with Handmaid’s Tale, the viewpoint character is a more active agent, with more freedom to act for her own interests and to undermine the system; her allies against the state are more fully bought into the fight; and the state she fights has taken more reprehensible steps, though it seems to have less thorough control of its subjugated females.

The story is told with a mix of present-tense action and recollections by Vanna of how she got to her present situation, mostly written as letters to her long-lost eloi sister, Manna. The two were raised away from the city by their eccentric aunt, which gave Vanna the opportunity to act naturally most of the time, and mimic her sister when visitors were around. This gave her the tools to pass as eloi when she grew up.

After the aunt dies, Manna finds a husband Vanna suspects to be after the family farm, since neither Manna nor Vanna (passing as an eloi) can legally hold title to it. Vanna finds a man to partner with who values her for her unusual intellect and her ability to act independently (a useful tool for his black-market activities).

Vanna pursues the secrets behind her sister’s disappearance until events force her to escape with her partner. I found the prose (and occasional poetry) to be delightful and very evocative. The characters were convincing, and Vanna’s struggle to be her own person in the face of societal expectations was heartbreaking.

(Chris Hibbert is treasurer and past board president of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He works as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.)

Review: The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver

By Tom Jackson

Book CoverWith The Handmaid’s Tale, science fiction readers who inclined toward feminism got to see what the tools of science fiction would look like in the hands of a skilled mainstream writer, Margaret Atwood.

Libertarian science fiction fans who have wondered what an equally skilled mainstream writer could do by taking a stab at science fiction now have their novel, too: The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver.

Shriver is best known for her novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was made into a movie starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly and also was awarded the Orange Prize in 2005. Her novel So Much for That was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Describing her novel, Shriver says, “I am first of all trying to tell a good story, and in this case a plausible one. I wanted to put together a sequence of future history events which made economic sense. The focus of the novel is the implosion of the economy as a consequence of overloading of U.S. sovereign debt.”

Greece seems like a current example of what Shriver is talking about. Michael Grossberg remarked to me in an email that reading The Mandibles reminded him of what “just recently has been happening in Venezuela, once the richest (and much free-er) country in South America, and now an impoverished socialist disaster where people are starving, can’t get bathroom tissues to wipe their ass (a specific issue in Shriver’s novel that’s also very plausible) and fighting each other over scraps — just as The Mandibles foresees.”

There are many libertarian elements, which it would be unfair to the reader to reveal in a review. Shriver, who I am sorry to say I had never read before, has a literary style that is clear and sharp, filled with wit. (In her future history, the Mexican government winds up behaving more sensibly than the profligate American one, and winds up building a wall to keep out desperate Americans seeking opportunity in a relatively free country.)

The idea of implanting a chip so that the government can monitor its citizens is not new, but Shriver’s skill gives the idea a new freshness.

I won’t reveal many more details but will suggest that libertarian readers interested in either mainstream fiction or science fiction will likely be interested in this book.

I will, however, answer the literary hit job put out on Shriver by Ken Kalfus last year in the Washington Post’s “Books” section. Apparently offended by Shriver’s irreverent treatment of current Democratic politics (one of her future Democratic politicians presiding over a ruined nation is Chelsea Clinton), Kalfus complained about the book’s “racist characterizations” and offered this example:

“The Mandibles are white. Luella, the single African American in the family, arrives in Brooklyn incontinent and demented. She needs to be physically restrained. As their fortunes become ever more dire and the family assembles for a perilous trek through the streets of lawless New York, she’s held at the end of a leash. If ‘The Mandibles’ is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.”

This paragraph is clever in its maliciousness. It is a textbook example of how you can write something that is technically truthful (thus warding off a possible libel suit) but mislead the reader.

The Mandibles in fact makes a point of telling the reader that Luella was intelligent and charming when she was a healthy woman. At the time when the novel takes place, she is suffering from dementia. With the collapse of the government, the safety net that would have allowed families to deal with people such as Luella is completely gone, and the members of the family go to an enormous amount of trouble to take care of her, change her adult diapers, etc. This is depicted as a heroic effort by family members unwilling to abandon her. In the novel, the option of locking away dementia sufferers in secure nursing homes is gone. The leash that Kalfus references is what the family has to use to keep them from losing her. How did Kalfus miss all this, if he actually read the novel that the Washington Post assigned him to review? Did he skim it, looking for something to complain about?

And what should we make of the fact that Luella is “the single African American in the family,” as Kalfus puts it? How many white families have even one African American? The family patriarch, Lionel Mandible, married a black woman in the novel’s past. Why is this evidence of the novel’s racism?

And how did Kalfus manage to miss the fact that the most unsympathetic characters in the novel are all white? Gore Vidal used to complain about reviewers who, he alleged, didn’t actually read the entire book. I wonder if Shriver would have a similar complaint here.

(Tom Jackson is a journalist and a board member of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He blogs about the work of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea at RAWIllumination.net.)