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Monday, April 27, 2015

Starseed by Spider and Jeanne Robinson

First appeared in Pulphouse as a serialized novel. 
Rain "Morgan" McLeod has been struggling with her dancing career on Earth as her lower back and knees pain her. Unable to dance, she contemplates euthanasia. She hears of Top Step, an asteroid orbiting earth. She can travel to it if she gives all she has to join the Starseed Foundation.

She and others travel to join the alien symbiosis which supplies all of one's needs. But she would never be able to return to Earth again. Her choice of career leaves her no choice. She leaves.

She learns how to exist in zero gee and to become one of the star dancers. After an attack on Top Step by those who fear the symbiosis of the Stardancers, her boyfriend, Robert, drives a wedge between her two passions: the man she loves and the career she loves. Before joining the symbiosis, she must investigate who killed her friends.
Robinson's novels often convey aspects of his ethical
perspective on the universe, but this seems a full-on utopia--all needs provided for, all emotions soothed by Zen and zero gravity. Robinson spends the first part of the novel of gradually introducing us to this new way. The utopia is challenged only by those who hate, those with limited understanding. Part of that utopia is ridding one's self of religion, yet gaining spirituality. Religion, apparently has too much dogma telling people what to do.

Also, there's the Zen aspect, and the idea that minds could work together as one hive mind--both viewed as the ideal existence. A community/communes--groups working and loving together for the common good--flavors this as well. It's hard not to view Robinson's oeuvre as the fruition of his hippie era. Perhaps no other SF writer embodies these attributes more than Robinson.

The novel's second part is a kind of thriller and mystery that--if not especially mysterious--does enthrall. The first half lacks a plot dynamo, but the introduction to this foreign culture and environment does sustain reading. Its unity of vision also makes for a better novel as a whole, even if it lags behind the award-winning novella that spawned the series.

One might expect to return to Stardance's protagonists, but this novel gives us an interesting if oblique look at how the alien-human culture grows so near Earth.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Classics Revisited: Stardance by Spider Robinson and Jeanne Robinson, pt 2. "Stardance II"

First appeared in Analog as a serialized novel. The serialized novel, Stardance II, was up for Locus and Ditmar awards and won the Analog Readers Poll (albeit, there were only two serialized novels that year in Analog). The combined novel took fourth in the Locus Award poll. 

"Stardance II"

Shara's sister Norrey Drummond hooks up with Charlie, makes an honest man of him while Charlie gets Norrey to buy into his idea of a dance company in zero gee. They struggle to get a troupe together, but struggle to find those who can maintain an arbitrary frame of reference where there is no gravity or vertical. A number even die.

Eventually a troupe forms, and after a dramatic near-death accident, they go off to greet the aliens at Saturn since they are the only ones capable of communicating to these aliens.

The award-winning novella's emotional momentum carries the reader through this opening, but the search for a troupe isn't especially dramatic. The personal drama has wandered off. It might have helped to have a tangible enemy or have different characters tell their story, Tom in particular. Considering their final outcome, it would certainly be possible to switch POVs. This may be why the novel didn't do better, considering the opening novella had already done so well.

When Norrey rescues Charlie, dooming them both, the reader regains interest through to the end. While the novel grows chatty, the plot tension is taut enough to allow this philosophizing.

The only flaw in the ending is how they treat the two villains differently without explaining why.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Classics Revisited: Stardance by Spider Robinson and Jeanne Robinson, pt 1. "Stardance"

First appeared in Analog as a novella. It went on to sweep the Hugo, Locus and Nebula awards that year and was reprinted by Terry Carr, Gardner Dozois, Samuel R. Delany, and Isaac Asimov in various Year's Best. The combined novel was fourth in the Locus Award poll. Here's a website for a proposed movie based on the novella To read the "Stardance" novella online, click here (the first section).


Shara Drummond is a terrific dancer but too large-boned and busty to succeed in the dance industry. As the narrator, Charlie, is a good but failed dancer himself, he is meant to break the news to Shara that she won't make it. Instead, Charlie quits his job to video Shara on her own to make her a star that way.

Except they fail. They go their separate ways. Charlie plunges into his bottle and tanks his career. Shara, meanwhile, find a backer, tycoon Bryce Carrington, who will take her to a setting dance hasn't been taken before: zero gee with a backdrop of the stars. She picks Charlie to film her.

Things get worse. To build her career, she has to get three dances made, but if she makes them, she will die as her body parts deteriorate, unable to live again on Earth.

Visitors arrive.

I read and loved the novella and kept the novel to finish one day as a child who puts aside a favorite chocolate bar for a rainy day. The novella may be Robinson's crowning achievement.

At its core is an emotional dynamo. While Charlie is the narrator, Shara is the protagonist. There's a reason why this must be. Shara's and Charlie's troubles keep us invested up to the climax. The plot and characters keep us invested. The writing is more smooth than ornate or literary--a style more in vogue back in the Seventies than at present. Other tastes have changed, addressed later on.

Robinson has a voice that sucks you in to be buddies. His characters are fiercely protective to the point of being combative. They speak their opinions boldly, in much the same way a Heinlein character might, with the insult becoming a backhanded compliment.

Robinson also propounds his own ethos, such as taking compliments without dodging them, saying what you mean, and standing/dancing boldly in your birthday suit, etc. It's part of Robinson's charm--part of its day. I've mentioned before with other writers of the day such as Lawrence Watt-Evans, coming of age in the Sixties and Seventies, the culture worked hard to make nudity important, appreciating the human body:
"Where Norrey was small, Shara was big, and where Norrey was big, Shara was bigger. If I'd seen her on the street I might have whistled appreciatively--but in  the studio I frowned."
The culture pendulum may have swung enough to make this passage inappropriate, but as a pendulum, it keeps swinging. [Not that my opinion sways to either party, but it's irrelevant to this discussion.]

Speaking of swinging, Charlie takes a punch at Bryce Carrington for trying to save Shara's life. Why? Because Shara wants to risk her life in order to dance. She might not ever get to her third dance in time to get the public to appreciate her work if she doesn't get to all three. If Charlie is in love with her, wouldn't he want her to live? Men exist who would do such a thing, put the woman's desires above all concerns if she does. Now Charlie is jealous of Carrington getting to sleep with her, so this might be just an excuse. But it's still surprising that he doesn't credit Carrington at least that. But then again, I tend to favor emotional complexity.

The genre has a default mode of abstraction whenever it enters gestalt mode or describing-the-undescribable mode. I rolled with it as a kid, worried over it as I learned more about writing, and accepted it later as necessary. Also, it allows writers to philosophize.

The true power in this novella is the idea that people who seem to have no place, whatever their handicap--people who don't fit the standard mold of success--can carve out their niche of success if they keep searching. The theme, no doubt, resonated with readers then as it should today. The novella is emotionally involving, and worth a gander to bone up on your SF history. A movie might work out well.

A Pair of Cats

Cat Dixon [interviewed here and here, reviewed here] has a new book of poems for pre-order, Our End Has Brought the Spring--possibly her best yet.

Cat Rambo [no relation] has her first novel out, The Beasts of Tabat. It is set in the same universe as a number of stories from her first solo collection, Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight--one story from which was up for a Locus award.