The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

Charlie Jane Anders, The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

The Left Hand of Darkness was published fifty years ago, but still packs as much power as it did in 1969. Maybe even more so, because now more than ever we need its core story of two people learning to understand each other in spite of cultural barriers and sexual stereotypes. 

Nancy Kress, Yesterday’s Kin (2014)

Image shows the cover of Nancy Kress's novel Yesterday's Kin. The spherical alien ships hover over the river hudson with a DNA double helix superimposed in the front

The aliens have arrived! But then they just stay inside their spherical ship, sending out a repeating message saying that they are on a “peace mission” to make contact with humanity. After two months of this suspense, genetics researcher, Dr Marianne Jenner, is surprised to be invited aboard the ship for a meeting with these elusive aliens. When she and a handful of other chosen scientists arrive and discover the ‘Denebs’ true identity, they are in for a big surprise (hint: it’s in the title).

They have come with horrific news, an interstellar spore cloud is on its way towards Earth and, when it passes through the atmosphere, everyone will die a horrible, painful death. The Denebs say that they want to help develop a vaccine, but they are up against what seems to be an impossibly short timescale.

The story alternates between Marianne’s point of view and that of her youngest son, Noah, who develops a deeper relationship with the Denebs. This enables Kress to explore two very different and conflicting perspectives on what’s really happening. As the months pass, and social unrest increases, the scientists begin to question the aliens’ motives and Noah must make a choice.

Yesterday’s Kin is a pacey, entertaining sci-fi thriller. The story is gripping, and the characters feel like real human beings, especially the middle-aged, flawed, but determined, Dr Jenner. I like first contact stories and I thought this was a good one, plus there’s a nice twist at the end.

However, I did find it a bit rushed and plot-driven, and thought it lacked the character development I’ve seen in some of Kress’s other novels, such as Steal Across the Sky and Crossfire. In terms of the content, I was irritated to see the “dead gay best friend” trope again. It pops up in Steal Across the Sky as well and is used both times to push forward a straight protagonist’s emotional journey. Not cool or necessary in my opinion, although there are decently written gay characters in Crossfire.

Something else I would say is that after reading several of her novels and short stories, I get the impression that Kress thinks the worst of humanity in general. Some individuals might be okay, but on the whole, she seems to believe that we’re going to fuck things up and behave badly in a crisis. This “vibe” may not be to everyone’s taste!

Yesterday’s Kin is followed by a trilogy of books and I probably will read them when I get around to it.

The Albums that Made Me #5 – John Williams, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (soundtrack) (1982)

Album cover shows ET and the human protagonist's fingers touching with a background of stars over the top of planet Earth

The second John Williams soundtrack to make it onto the list of music I was listening to during my most formative years.

My mum took me to see E.T. at the cinema when it came out. I would have been about 6 years old. I found it scary and upsetting and only really liked the bit when the kids’ bikes take flight. I was too young and sensitive for this movie and I don’t know what my mum was thinking. I’ve never actually watched it again!

However, I did absolutely love the soundtrack and nagged my parents until they bought me the cassette. I have clear memories of putting it in our old cassette player in the kitchen and dancing up and down the room.

It’s another beautiful, sweeping score, but as with the Star Wars soundtrack, I don’t think I could bear to listen to this now. The emotions would be too overwhelming.

Top track: Flying theme

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time (2015)

Image shows the cover of Children of Time. It features a spaceship approaching a green planet.

In the far distant future, Dr Avrana Kern is about to realise her dream of observing the evolution of sentience in a species.  She’s found the perfect planet, has developed a special sentience virus and acquired a shipload of monkeys to be deposited on their new world.  But disaster strikes! The ship is destroyed on the way to the planet and Dr Kern, unable to return home, leaves an Artificial Intelligence in charge of her satellite and puts herself into the stasis in the hope of one day being rescued. What she doesn’t realise is that, although the monkeys didn’t make it, her virus did and, guess what, the planet isn’t actually uninhabited ….

A long, long time passes.

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Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)

Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third novel in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series. It follows The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. I absolutely loved the first two books and was very much looking forward to reading this one.

What I most appreciate about the entire series is Chambers’s love for ordinary people and her determination to put their stories at the centre of a space opera. Sometimes I think I would sum the Wayfarers books up as, “Ordinary, average people – like you and me – but in space”.  This is refreshing because, as much as I love science fiction, it does have a tendency to focus on the high achievers! Chambers is more interested in the people in the background who keep everything going: the cooks, the techs, the shopkeepers and miners. In this sense, her world seems more influenced by Firefly (and to an extent Bablyon 5), than Star Trek, although the optimism probably owes a debt to Trek.

Record of a Spaceborn Few takes us “home” to the Exodan fleet mentioned  in the earlier novels. These vast generation ships left a dying Earth centuries ago and wandered through space until they met some helpful aliens, slowly joined the wider galactic community, and settled into orbit around a star, developing into a ship-based civilisation.

“We are the Exodus Fleet. We are those that wandered, that wander still. We are the homesteaders that shelter our families. We are the miners and foragers in the open. We are the ships that ferry between. We are the explorers who carry our names. We are the parents who lead the way. We are the children who continue on.”

Set on the Asteria, the story is told from the point of view of five characters. There’s Tessa, elder sister of Captain Ashby from The Long Way, who is fleet born and bred, but starting to wonder if it’s the right place to stay and raise a family. Then there’s Isabel, an older woman, and the ship’s record keeper, who must deal with a visit from a distinguished alien researcher. Sawyer is a young man from a rough colony world who wants to try to make a life for himself in the fleet. Kip is a bored teenage boy who just wants to get out and go anywhere else. Then there’s Eyas, one of the fleet’s caretakers whose job it is to look after the dead. We receive a sixth perspective from the reports of the Harmagian scientist, Ghuh’loloan, on her impressions of life in the fleet.

The story begins with an appalling disaster, the accidental destruction of one of the other generation ships, an event that results in over 40,000 deaths and causes an existential crisis in the fleet. The tragedy reverberates throughout the novel and touches the lives of each character in different ways, causing them to question their understanding of the fleet as home.

Chambers’s ability to deal with painful, even heartbreaking subjects without ever losing a sense of hope and optimism is what has made her novels so beloved. They’ve helped me a lot over the last couple of years when I’ve been struggling with feelings of meaninglessness and despair. In this respect, Record did not disappoint. I cried several times (in a good way) and finished the book feeling like I’d received a warm hug.

Record is a slower burn and even less plot-driven than the others. Initially I felt that five or six points of view was too many. I struggled a bit to keep up with them all, which may have been partly down to having a cold when I read the book. I still think it might be slightly too many, but I can’t imagine the story without any of them, so I think that’s just the way it has to be. There were less aliens and I did miss them a bit.

If you didn’t like her other novels, you certainly won’t be converted by this one! Personally, I hope there will be many more books in this series.