book reviews by Althea

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Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius – Jorge Luis Borges *****

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At work, I have a book called “Building the Uqbar Dinghy.” It had never occurred to me, although I was aware of this Borges story’s existence, that before the publication of this boatbuilding book, there was no such thing as an Uqbar dinghy. Now there is – presumably. Of course, that’s exactly what the author was getting at when he titled the book (Borges is credited).

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a wonderful musing on the relationships between ideas, the written word, and reality. The narrator tells the reader of discovering a seemingly unique article slipped into a single copy of an encyclopedia, detailing (but vaguely) the profile of a country called Uqbar. As it turns out, Uqbar may not exist (or, may not have existed?) in our world, but may exist in a parallel world called Tlön. Tlön may be wholly the invention of a secret group of intellectuals who have conspired to create a hidden imaginary history – but their fabulist inventions seem to be sneakily creeping their way into our existence.

The story is aesthetically appealing to any lover of fantasy worlds – and any bibliophile. It’s delightfully multi-layered, with truth and fiction inextricably tangled. And it’s beautifully written.

Read due to its nomination for the 1941 Retro-Hugos. This one gets my vote.

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Magic, Inc. – Robert Heinlein **

Magic, Inc.
Magic, Inc. by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Read as part of the 1941 Retro-Hugo Voters’ Packet.

The good: This story is a definite precursor to today’s neo- urban fantasy genre. It’s fascinating to see this early iteration of a tale featuring modern society mixed in with wizards-for-hire, witches, witch-finders, and an FBI agent disguised as a demon.

The bad: The story just isn’t as clever and amusing as it thinks it is. The fantasy elements are really just ‘swaps’ for real-world equivalents; the supernatural adds nothing at all to the plot.

Our main character is a small businessman who runs a construction company. Like most businesses in this town, he hires wizards to do bits of magic here and there to help get the job done. As the story opens, he’s approached by a guy coming in with a protection racket: “sign up and agree to hire only the wizards that belong to my Association, and we guarantee that quality services will be rendered. (Don’t agree, and we’ll burn down your warehouse.)” Meanwhile, the wizards are being pressured to join this Association: “pay us your membership dues, or you won’t be getting work in this town.” The businessman gets a lawyer, goes to court, and also works on his own to foil this nefarious plan.

I could actually see this story being used in a class to explain racketeering, ‘protection’ scams, monopolies, and why anti-trust regulations are important. It lays it all out clearly and makes the concepts easy to understand, with a bit of fun fictional overlay to help the dry economic facts slide down smooth. As a teaching tool – I’d say it’s potentially pretty good. However, as a story, it’s a bit dry, didactic and tedious at times.

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Binti – Nnedi Okorafor ***

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read as part of the Hugo Voters’ Packet.

Enjoyable YA space adventure with an engaging protagonist.
In this future, the Himba tribe of Namibia are an insular minority, looked down upon by the majority Khoush although the Himba have become specialized experts in math and ‘harmonizing,’ producing “astrolabes” (which seem to be the future’s smartphones). Teenage Binti’s skills have won her a coveted scholarship to an intergalactic university, but to her family, it is unthinkable that she would be permitted to leave her tribe and go. Unwilling to let her dreams die, Binti runs away and soon finds herself on a ship en route to Oomza Uni. Unfortunately, that ship is hijacked by alien terrorists.

Although the setup is both fun and fascinating, there were a few plot holes and the way things eventually worked out was too easy and simplistic, I thought.

My issues with the story:
(view spoiler)

2. On a related note, although yes, the professors at the Uni did both the right and the sensible thing by acceding to the terrorists’ demands, it seems inconceivable that none of them would mention the slaughter of a boatload of their colleagues, some of whom would undoubtedly have been close friends, lovers, family… No grief or anger at their loss is shown – only a bit of anger at demands being made. Overall, the mass murder is treated like a quickly-forgotten no-big-deal.

3. Binti’s skin treatment is revealed to be a cure-all to the alien Meduse race. Luckily, it turns out that the formula is not unique to Namibia; it can be produced elsewhere. However, no mention at all is made of the immediately obvious situation: if something you have is valuable to a warlike species, you and ALL OF YOUR PEOPLE are in deep danger. It never seems to occur to Binti that if she can’t provide more of it, the Meduse would undoubtedly invade Namibia for it.

4. In a story this short, there’s room for a limited number of unexplained and logically unlikely thingummies. We start out with one, the mysterious ‘edan’ that Binti found in the desert and uses as a good luck charm. It sure is convenient, when she’s attacked, that her good luck charm turns out to be a mentally-powered force shield AND translation device! But, seeing as there wouldn’t be much of a story if it wasn’t, I can accept that. All the Meduse are appropriately shocked that she can suddenly communicate with them. However, that’s kind of negated when later, it turns out that communication can ALSO be facilitated by a quick ‘sting’ that’s actually some kind of DNA/blood transfusion… I think that having either the ‘sting’ or the ‘edan’ as a plot device, but not both, would’ve made the story stronger.

5. As one last minor point, I would’ve liked more on what ‘harmonizing’ is and how a math/engineering-related skill translates into negotiation skills. But that’s mostly just because Binti’s professional thought processes are interesting. I wanted to find out more about the ‘astrolabes’ she makes, too!
(hide spoiler)]

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Martian Quest – Leigh Brackett ***

Martian Quest
Martian Quest by Leigh Brackett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review is only for the short story, “Martian Quest.”

Read as part of the 1941 Retro-Hugos Voter Packet.

Perfect wish fulfillment for early sci-fi fans, as the nerdy science geek saves the day and gets the girl, ending up saving the brawny he-man.

Martin Drake has been unable to find success on Earth, where population is high and unemployment is rife. Keenly feeling the disappointment he’s been to his family, he signs up for an emigration program, even though the whole venture is rumored to be a failure and it’s an option of last resort for most everyone who’s agreed to go.

The settlement program is on Mars. Tracts of barely-arable terraformed land and a bare minimum of supplies allocated to each new settler for farming. Drake knew life would be hard – but what he didn’t know was that the main threat would come in the form of destructive, man-killing lizards that munch crops right down to their roots.

Although Drake’s no farmer, his science knowledge and ingenuity will come to the rescue.

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Requiem – Robert Heinlein ***

Requiem by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read as part of the 1941 Retro-Hugo Voters’ Packet.

Vintage Heinlein – with all that comes with that, good and bad.

Mr. Harriman has spent his life dreaming of space, much like the boy sci-fi readers and science club nerds that are the overtly acknowledged audience for this story. Harriman has made a career of risky investments in rocket technology, repeatedly ignoring the cautious and concerned advice of his wife, and his bets have paid off – he’s a wealthy CEO of a major corporation. But now that he finally has the financial wherewithal to get to the moon, he can’t. The interfering nanny state with its government regulations and well-meaning doctors, say that his elderly body is too frail: he’ll never survive the rigors of space travel. But Harriman’s not quite dead yet, and neither is his dream….

I think I would’ve found this one more emotionally affecting if I’d read it when I was younger, and still desperately dreamed of going to space. I don’t anymore…

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The Stellar Legion – Leigh Brackett ***

The Stellar Legion
The Stellar Legion by Leigh Brackett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read as part of the Retro-Hugo 1941 Voter Packet.

If you’ve read and enjoyed George R.R. Martin’s “Old Venus” anthology, you owe it to yourself to read this, because this (and, of course, other stories like it) is exactly what inspired those stories.

The Stellar Legion, fighting on Venus against the natives, is quite the opposite of stellar. Rather, they’re the dregs of the service, the psychotic, the criminal, the dishonored. But when the young commander Lehn encounters one of his new underlings, MacIan, he senses that something about him is different. MacIan seems like an honorable and brave soldier. Still, when it turns out that someone in their company is a traitor, and it looks like MacIan, Lehn is willing to admit that his instinct might’ve been wrong. But was he really wrong?

The story is characterized by plenty of action and ingenious solutions to desperate situations.

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Robbie – Isaac Asimov ****

Robbie by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read as part of the 1941 Retro-Hugo packet.

This was Asimov’s very first robot story, and it’s simultaneously sweet, entertaining and thought-provoking.

A little girl has been provided by her wealthy father with a newfangled robot companion, specially programmed for childcare – and the two are inseparable. However, her mother has an innate distrust of technology, and her doubts are fed by a growing prejudice against robots in society. She convinces her husband to take Robbie the robot away, and to replace him with a dog.

However, the girl is inconsolable at the loss…

Asimov makes a good (if emotional) case against the resistance to technological change here, and it’s fascinating to see the emergence of themes which he further developed later in his career.

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