starlady: (through the trapdoor)
Slonczewski, Joan. Brain Plague. New York: Tor Books, 2000.

Another Change of Hobbit, formerly of Berkeley and now of El Cerrito, is perpetually on the edge of disaster, and I picked this book up for very cheap when they were having a fire sale last fall. It was totally an impulse decision, but Brain Plague is one of the best books I've read in a good long while--fully felt, provocatively imagined, and deeply thought-provoking, this is science fiction as it should be.

Brain Plague, set in the same universe as Slonczewski's classic A Door into Ocean, follows the career of Chrysoberyl, Chris for short, an artist struggling to keep a roof over her head, to make art, to be herself. In an effort to make some extra cash she signs up for a medical trial and eventually winds up agreeing to have "micros"--a colony of atomic-level life-forms--implanted in her brain. The micros have helped some of her world's most famous artists reach new heights, and even though some of their hosts have later turned up dead, Chris agrees. Once she becomes a joint organism with her civilization of micros, however, she's drawn into the politics of those who have micros versus those who don't versus those who have been colonized by uncivilized micros. These unfortunates become addicted to the arsenic wafers that the micros need to survive: the "brain plague" of the title.

This is the second book I've read recently with an artist as the protagonist, and both Slonczewski and Alaya Dawn Johnson in The Summer Prince do a really good job of conveying the process of inspiration, creation, creativity that is how artists do what they do. I fear that as a reviewer I am inadequate to describe it very well, but Chris's art is one of the many interesting elements in the book. Another central one is the micros themselves, who are characters in their own right with their own motivations, social movements, politics, preoccupations, and pitfalls. Their interactions with Chris, and the process by which between them they help to create Chris' art, and Chris helps them to create their art, is fascinating.

I'm continually impressed with Slonczewski's combination of actually scientific science with inspired speculation, and with the fact that her plots do not rely on the standard "action" tropes of violence that are so common in the genre. As [personal profile] rachelmanija recently said of another brilliant female author, I'm convinced that in a non-sexist society Slonczewski would be exactly as famous as she deserves, which is very. Science fiction needs more books like this one; in the meantime, I'm glad she's written it.
starlady: (moon dream)
Slonczewski, Joan. Still Forms on Foxfield. New York: Del Rey, 1980.

"With a book and a steeple,
With a bell and a key,
They would bind it forever--
But they can't!" said he.

I was sold on this book as soon as I understood that it was about Quakers in space, and all in all, both as a science fiction book and a book about Quakers in space, it did not disappoint. For various reasons, though, I'm not sure how this book would play to people who don't have my particular background.

The book follows the colony of Foxfield, and in particular its main systems engineer Allison Thorne, when the unified government of Earth makes recontact with them and insists both that the Foxfielders accept their UNI citizenship and the various impositions, as well as liberties, that it entails. The Foxfielders are a bit of a wonder to the Terrans given that no one on Terra has religion anymore, while the Foxfielders are still practicing the Philadelphia Quakerism they learned from their ancestors, who took ship into the stars from the post-nuclear wasteland of Pennsylvania. It's funny how I'm relatively blase about the concept of New York being a post-nuclear wasteland, but talking about the irradiated ruins of Pennsylvania gets to me a little.

Slonczewski wrote this book after her time at Bryn Mawr College outside of Philadelphia, and it's interesting seeing in this book the viewpoint of someone who was convinced thirty years ago, when there were still Friends wandering around who routinely used informal English pronouns and could remember the time before the Hicksite/Orthodox division was healed. There's a lot of "thee" and "thou" and talking about the Queries and quoting of John Greenleaf Whittier, but there's also a much deeper feminist Quaker commitment at the level of the plot, which doesn't proceed by violence. Consensus and clarity in the Quaker sense of the terms rule the day, and Slonczewski is very good at describing the experience of Meeting, how sometimes you know you have something to say and you're compelled to say it and other times you sit there thinking about nothing in particular or fanfiction or your grocery list. The aliens who are native to the planet are also believably alien, and the Friends live together with them in a manner that is gratifyingly non-exploitative, just as the burgeoning conflict with them over the arrival of the Terrans is resolved believably.

I doubt I've succeeded in making this book sound interesting to those who didn't grow up attending Quaker schools in and around Philadelphia, but I really enjoyed it. It was also, on the level of "gee, the future has changed" an interesting mix of things that seem dated now (the idea of gay marriage as a radical thing in The Future), the historical (i.e. the sketched-out history of the nuclear apocalypse and its aftermath) and the things that I think may have been radical in 1980 but seem pretty unremarkable now, namely having a single mother as the protagonist. Or the fact that everyone on Earth is female and thus by default lesbians. There's a few weird moments with the Japanese systems engineer having to do with cultural history and the Japanese language, but all in all, this was a fascinating little book. And so, so Quaker--even more than Allison and her concern about whether she's letting her Light speak to her properly, the final image of ancient Celia Blyden, filled with the fire of her concern to be a public Friend and go back to Earth and speak truth to those who need to hear it, is as Quaker as it gets. I take off my hat to her, and to Slonczewski.


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