Jonathan Lethem, one of my favorite writers, and, indeed, one of the best American writers, wrote science fiction before he made a giant leap to literary fiction and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999 for Motherless Brooklyn, a novel about a detective with Tourette syndrome.
I love Lethem’s 21st-century novels, but admit I haven’t read his science fiction, partly because the guys in my SF book group (which, alas, dissolved) didn’t like literary SF. They objected to anything by Ursula K. Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut, or Philip K. Dick (and Lethem edited the Library of America editions of Dick’s books).
“If you go back to ‘the classics’ you’ll find they’re dated,” said the bright but opinionated garret-dwelling SF writer who chose most of the books.
He flatly preferred books by John Ringo, with cover art featuring half-naked women bearing swords (execrable), and Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s space operas (those I quite liked).
When Lethem’s strange, haunting 1998 science fiction novel, Girl in Landscape, showed up at the used bookstore for $2 a couple of weeks ago, I had to read it.
In Lethem’s post-apocalyptic Brooklyn, the sun is so bright that windows are “sealed layers of glass, darkened to blunt the sun.” Caitlin Marsh takes her three children to deserted Coney Island so they’ll know what the ocean is like before they leave Earth to live on the Planet of the Archbuilders.
Her young sons are frightened by the sky, and the ocean has been fenced off because so many people committed suicide there.
But disdainful 14-year-old Pella knows her mother used to swim here, and that it means something to her. But she doesn’t quite understand, and she can’t help looking at the three scars on Caitlin’s arms where skin cancers were removed.
Don’t you think arms are brave?” She pistoned her right arm back and forth…. “They just go on, they never once get tired or give up or complain…. It’s the same arm I’ve had all my life, the same skin and muscles. It just goes pumping on into the future. Brave.”
When Caitlin dies of an aneurism, their father, Clement, a politician who has lost an election, takes them to the planet anyway. Most of the Archbuilders, the colonists of the planet who had changed the weather with viruses and then became subject to the viruses, left the planet long ago: their descendants are a strange unambitious, languid people who dream a lot, speak many languages enigmatically, and send their souls into “household deer,” shadowy creatures who skim through houses and spy.
Although most people from Earth take drugs to keep from catching the Archbuilders’ dreamy virus, Pella’s family has chosen to assimilate by not taking the drugs. Pella dislikes the hippie-ish culture, but soon gets the virus and spends much time dreaming and running around the settlement as a household deer.
Furious Pella is strangely attracted by the inflexibility of Ephram, a stern, self-sufficient farmer and colonialist who soon discredits Clement’s politics, holds a witch hunt against an artist, and demonizes the Archbuilders, claiming they are sexual deviants and child molesters.
The neglected children of an alcoholic are also mesmerized by Ephram.
Think a very, very dark A Wrinkle in Time crossed with The Crucible and you will get a glimmering of what this is like.
Be brave like an arm, Pella thought, but she didn’t say it.”
According to Wikipeida, Lethem was also influenced by the movie, The Searchers, which I haven’t seen.
This is one of those novels that may be too literary for science fiction readers and too SF for literary readers. I recommend starting with Lethem’s literary masterpieces, Chronic City and The Fortress of Solitude.
PAMELA SARGENT’S VENUS OF DREAMS. This well-written, if sometimes plodding, novel about the colonization and terraforming of Venus would have been popular with my SF group: it’s long, it’s straightforward, it’s chronological, and it’s logical, too. I very much enjoyed it.
Sargent tells the story of Iris Angharads, the daughter of the matriarch of a farming clan in a futuristic Lincoln, Nebraska. In this odd Midwestern culture, the women stay in their communes and are powerful, and the men are nomadic. Iris educates herself via computer, encouraged by her grandmother, Julia, and discouraged by her mother, Angharad. Education is frowned on and mocked in Lincoln: it might take Iris away, and indeed it does.
Iris marries, Chen, a technician who gets her pregnant, but she is emotionally cold, sexually promiscuous, and embarrassed by him. When they both end up on Venus, Iris’s highly political ambition divides them. Raising their child is problematic: Iris doesn’t spend time with him. Chen is by far the more likable of the two, and the one with the strong emotions.
Much of this novel is sociological, documents are mixed with narrative, and we learn Earth is ambivalent to the Venus project after selling the dream.
Alas, I don’t have much to say about this book, because I read it a while ago, but it is a very good read and I look forward to the other two novels in Sargent’s Venus trilogy.