Reviews: 2010

  1. Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin
  2. The Power of Place by Harm de Blij (The Map Room)
  3. The Snake Scientist by Sy Montgomery (
  4. Ambassadors from Earth by Jay Gallentine
  5. From Here to There by Kris Harzinski (The Map Room)
  6. National Geographic Atlas of the World, 9th ed. (The Map Room)
  7. Fall from Earth by Matthew Johnson
  8. The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi and The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell

Rite of Passage


Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage—a hidden gem of a young-adult novel that won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1968. A thoughtful book that charts the development of Mia, a girl aboard a city-sized Ship that travels between backwater colony worlds, who is about to embark on her Trial—a month spent trying to survive on one of said colony worlds, whose residents barely tolerate Ship citizens. It holds up well against successors in the same genre, i.e., novels about juveniles that aren’t really juveniles, with young female protagonists, such as John Barnes’s Orbital Resonance, Joe Haldeman’s Marsbound, or John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale. Personally, I think it compares favourably to Ender’s Game.

Panshin is a science fiction critic well-known for his work on Heinlein, including a controversial book-length study of Heinlein’s works, Heinlein in Dimension, which won a Hugo. It’s possible to think of Rite of Passage as following in the tradition of Heinlein’s juveniles—it has resonances with many of the Heinlein juveniles I’ve read, particularly Starman Jones—but, as Panshin recounts in his essay, “Rite of Passage and Robert Heinlein,” Rite of Passage was a reaction to Heinlein, not a pastiche of him.

I wanted to write a science fiction story that would use everything I’d learned about SF storytelling from Robert Heinlein to present a situation of relative power in which I could imagine Heinlein supporting an abuse of strength taken as a matter of right and privilege, but my character, because of the events of the story, would not.

As it turns out, Panshin was reacting to the shift in Heinlein’s attitude that came between Have Spacesuit—Will Travel and Starship Troopers—that latter book having generated more award-winning responses than any other novel in the field (see also Haldeman’s Forever War). The result is a deeply moral book that explicitly rejects Heinlein’s might-makes-right attitude.

You should also read Jo Walton’s entry on Rite of Passage.

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The Snake Scientist


The Snake Scientist is a children’s book about garter snakes that does more than just talk about garter snakes. Author Sy Montgomery, who has since written a number of children’s books about wildlife (as well as titles for adults), focuses on the amazing phenomenon of the Narcisse snake dens in Manitoba, where Red-sided Garter Snakes hibernate by the tens of thousands, and on the research conducted on them by Oregon State University professor Robert Mason.

Aimed at readers aged 9 to 12, The Snake Scientist doesn’t insult the intelligence of older readers. In 48 pages, Montgomery expertly covers quite a bit of ground in easy-to-follow prose. She starts with the snake dens themselves, how and why the snakes hibernate there, and what they do when they wake up (i.e., mating). From there, a brief detour into the basics of snake biology before returning to Bob Mason’s research. Not only does she deal with what Mason has been studying—how snakes use pheromones—but also how he studies it, providing a great look at how field research is done. For children interested in studying wildlife, this is fantastic.

No disrespect to Montgomery or her writing is intended when I say that the highlight of The Snake Scientist is Nic Bishop’s photography. The shots of Mason and his students conducting their field research are pretty good, by my favourites have to be the amazing macro shots of multiple garter snakes in closeup. For whatever reason, I think that 30 or 40 garter snakes, alert and attentive (usually males looking for a mate, or on top of one), is just about the cutest thing you can take a picture of. Bishop’s photography is first-rate and will bring a smile to anyone who likes garter snakes.


Ambassadors from Earth


The fifth volume of the University of Nebraska Press’s Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight series, Jay Gallentine’s Ambassadors from Earth: Pioneering Explorations with Unmanned Spacecraft is intended as a history of the exploration of space using unmanned space probes from the Explorer and Sputnik programs to the Voyager program. Like the other two books in this series that I’ve read, it’s largely based on interviews with the key people involved. This is, in other words, an oral history rather than a definitive account. Also like those other books, it gives a vivid, behind-the-scenes look at how these programs were developed, in all their improvised, chaotic and bureaucratic glory.

There is much of interest here, but Gallentine’s coverage is surprisingly patchy: for example, it covers the early Luna, Mariner and Venera probes in some detail, but omits the later craft, as though the early failures were more interesting than the later successes. Much attention is given to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory: the development of the Grand Tour—what eventually became JPL’s Voyager 1 and 2, is described in loving detail, but only passing reference is made to Pioneer 10 and 11 (Ames projects), and the Viking program (run from Langley) is barely mentioned at all. A substantial amount of attention is given to Mike Minovitch’s campaign to be recognized as the “inventor” of gravity-assisted spaceflight—a bit of dirty laundry that did not warrant so much detail. Gallentine may well have been a prisoner of his source material: not enough on some subjects, too much on others, and reluctant to throw away or to winnow out what he has.

Nor is the book improved by Gallentine’s style: I’m a big fan of informal writing, but Gallentine’s prose is not only too casual, it’s purple, and verges too far at times into the smart-assed or chuckleheaded; the result is a jarring sense of bathos.

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Fall from Earth


In Matthew Johnson’s debut novel, Fall from Earth, convicts from the all-human Borderless Empire are deposited on an alien world. Very quickly things go wrong: the colony leader shows no willingness to lead; a problem with the supplies forces them to break the rules to survive; and the planet very quickly is shown to have alien life—something that the Empire, with its total control over its citizens (the colonists include theological and political prisoners), suppresses any knowledge of. And the colonists soon discover that they were sent there as more than just prisoners.

This is a fast-paced, ambitious novel with a rich background and some serious and effective world-building, along with a cast of vibrant characters. But it’s hampered by its length: it’s just not long enough to deal with its eight or nine viewpoint characters. The relationship between the main character, Shi Jin, and the two administrators, with their past history, could have been a novel in and of itself. Fall from Earth needed to be much longer, on the scale of Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, to deal with all the characters’ implications and permutations, or much simpler, with fewer characters. Johnson told me via Twitter that he’d had to cut 15,000 words for commercial reasons; I suspect he could have added at least as many. (But first-time science fiction writers rarely get to write big books on their first outing because of printing costs: big books need to sell lots of copies because they cost more to print, and first novels don’t sell well enough for that.)

Having said that, I’ve enjoyed Johnson’s short fiction—in particular “The Coldest War,” “Heroic Measures” and the nasty little “Long Pig”—and from what I’ve seen here, I’ll have no hesitation picking up his next book. Watch this guy.

Update: Matt wants it known that while it’s possible Fall From Earth should have been longer, “I think Fall From Earth is a better book as a result of the cuts”—he doesn’t want anyone to think that his editor’s edits, and 15,000 words of cuts, harmed the book. In other words, if, as I argue above, more words needed to be added, they’re not necessarily the same words that were taken out in editing.


[See my review of Johnson’s short story collection, Irregular Verbs and Other Stories.]

The Alchemist and The Executioness


For our road trip to and from SFContario earlier this month (more on which anon), we listened to The Alchemist and The Executioness, a pair of linked novellas by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell, respectively. Both works are sufficiently full of awesome that I fully expect to see them battling one another on an award ballot at some point—and I’d be hard pressed to decide which one to vote for.

They’re both set in a world in which magic works—but, as usual, at a price. Where magic is used, a poisonous plant called bramble grows, soon choking out everything else and forcing people to flee. The use of magic is, as a result, banned, and punishable by death. Even so, people work small magic every day, and the bramble keeps coming. In The Alchemist, an alchemist finds a way to destroy bramble, but discovers to his horror that the authorities have other, more sinister uses for his invention; in The Executioness, an executioner’s daughter, chasing after raiders who stole her children, finds herself, much to her surprise, taking on the role of a hero.

The bramble itself makes for a beautiful and (to use Tolkien’s preferred term) applicable theme: how something that is innocuous when one person does it is catastrophic when everyone does it—that could be applied to everything from fossil fuels to file-sharing.

Jennifer and I have been arguing about which of the two stories we prefer. The Alchemist is the darker and more intense story, with the greater power: she found herself tearing up at several points. After that experience, The Executioness was downright cathartic: it sounded more triumphant notes, with enough ass-kicking to make us smile through much of it.

The reading were beautifully done—Katherine Kellgren’s performance of The Executioness was astonishing. It’s a reasonable $10 for a five and a half hour recording. If you’d rather read it than hear it, Subterranean Press is publishing each book in hardcover next month. My advice: buy both!

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