June 14th, 2016

buzz

The Ragged Astronauts, by Bob Shaw

Second paragraph of third chapter:
From the window of his study he had a panoramic view of the city's various districts - residential, commercial, industrial, administrative - as they sifted down to the Borann river and on the far bank gave way to the parklands surrounding the five palaces. The families headed by the Lord Philosopher had been granted a cluster of dwellings and other buildings on this choice site many centuries earlier, during the reign of Bytran IV, when their work was held in much higher regard.
This is one of Shaw's best known books, second in LibraryThing and Goodreads ownership only to Orbitsville. I don't think it has aged particularly well. Shaw's protagonist, Toller Maraquine, is chief engineer of a culture under pressure from its human(ish) neighbours on the planet of Land and also facing extinction at the hands of the non-human Ptertha. Toller's rulers therefore order a mass emigration through space to the neighbouring twin planet of Overland, conveniently linked with Land by a common atmosphere. I thought that the book's attitude to women (never a strong point of Shaw's) was pretty appalling. The female characters are either invisible or two-dimensional, and there is some nasty sexual violence as a defining moment for the most important woman character. It doesn't even do a terribly good job as engineering fiction; because the Land/Overland universe is very different from ours (we learn at one stage that π=3 exactly) we can't really thrill to the solution of engineering problems which are designed to pad out the thin plot. That leaves us with Toller Maraquine's inner journey, and he's just not a very interesting chap. I must say I'm fully on board with Robin McKinley's devastating contemporary review in the L.A. Times. Where I love Shaw's work, it's when he takes people in a contemporary or near-contemporary setting to somewhere unexpected - A Wreath of Stars, Other Days, Other Eyes. His more space-y books haven't usually worked for me.

The Ragged Astronauts came to the top of my reading list as the winner of the BSFA Award for Best Novel of 1986. The other shortlisted works were Blood Music, by Greg Bear; Count Zero, by William Gibson; Queen of the States, by Josephine Saxton; and Schismatrix, Bruce Sterling. I've read the first two of these, and to be honest The Ragged Astronauts looks like a pretty undaring choice - perhaps the ecological crisis message seemed more exciting then than now, and the misogyny was less of an issue among voters? It was also runner-up for the first Arthur C. Clarke Award (which went to The Handmaid's Tale) and was shortlisted for the Hugo (but not the Nebula), both of which went to Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead.

Next on this particular list is the 1987 BSFA winner, Gráinne, by Keith Roberts. (In principle I'm alternating BSFA winners with Clarke and Tiptree winners, but I wrote up The Handmaid's Tale not all that long ago and the Tiptree hadn't got going yet in 1987.)
Ragged Astronauts