Guest Review: Stardance by Spider and Jeanne Robinson

Guest Review: Stardance by Spider and Jeanne RobinsonStardance by Spider Robinson, Jeanne Robinson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Stardance #1
Pages: 288
Published by Baen Books on February 1st 1977
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A woman of perfect beauty is too big for perfect grace as a ballerina; she will never be more than an understudy. Stardance is the story of one such, one with the body of Venus di Milo and a talent greater than Pavlova's. But if there is an answer, genius will find it; Shara Drummond goes to Space, where her life is devoted to creating a weightless art form that is to Dance as three dimensions are to two.

Then the aliens arrive, beings of pure light who dance forever between the stars. And so it falls to Shara Drummond to prove that the human race is ... human. By her Stardance.

Guest Review by Amy:

Our story is told in the voice of Charlie Armstead, a cynical former dancer and videographer. He’s the best at what he does, (probably because he’s a former dancer), and when he gets the opportunity to shoot video of the finest dancer he’s ever known in zero gravity, he jumps at the chance. But when aliens show up, Shara Drummond must dance for them, and Charlie gets the tape of a lifetime.  But, you see, that’s just the beginning of the story.

Escape Rating: A+. If you read the cover synopsis from the publisher, you might be misled into thinking that this book is about Shara Drummond, and her Stardance. I was, and when the dance with aliens came to a climactic conclusion a third of the way through the book, I was left wondering, “now what?” Frankly, I was a little bit mad that we’d hit the “end” so soon!

But, stubborn woman that I am, I kept reading, and when I finished the book, I had to spend rather a long time sussing out how I was going to describe this book. Because the end of Shara’s Stardance isn’t the end of the story; there’s a lot more to it, and Charlie must find his own way through to the end. It’s…complicated.

Spider and Jeanne Robinson have written a sonata, if you will. In the first movement, allegro, Shara does her dance for the aliens, Charlie taping every moment of it. This tape transforms the lives of a number of people in the second movement, a rondo, wherein Charlie and Shara’s sister Norrey marry and start a zero-gee dance school. In the third movement, the scherzo, the aliens return! An almost-pastoral coda ties up a few loose ends to the story’s structure, and we’re left with a tale to make you spend the night thinking about the real question that the Robinsons pose in this work: “What does it mean to be human?” Each part of the Stardance “sonata” is a story of its own, with its own tale to tell, and it isn’t until you get near the end that you figure out that all of these stories are actually a necessary part of a larger whole.

The first “movement” of this story doesn’t move terribly fast. Charlie is a depressive alcoholic, and it shows. That sort of life isn’t all that appealing to me, and so it made him a bit hard to like. After Shara’s dance, though, the transformative power of the Stardance wakes something up in him – he even later comments that it cured him of his alcoholism – and the vast profits from the tape let him move his life onto a more positive trajectory. Norrey is, as she has always been for him, a good influence, and when other members of their dance-school team join on, they forge an extended family of six: Three couples, one of them a gay couple, who love and trust each other completely. When the challenge arises, as the aliens return and park near Saturn, all six jump at the chance to go try to communicate with them, through their own Stardance.

There were some ironic moments for me in this book; one of the diplomats who accompanies the Stardancers out to Saturn is an American, Sheldon Silverman. He is nationalistic, vain, greedy, and always seeking a strategic advantage over the other five diplomats and the dancers. When he started causing problems, I had a thought: “well, of course. Stereotypical American politician.” Indeed, all of the diplomats in the group were somewhat trope-ish to me, from the cagey Chinese man to the Russian woman who tried (briefly) to bully the dancers, to the affable and brilliant Spaniard. This was a minor distraction, and it served the point that the us-vs-them that we embrace so much of here on Earth is part of the problem–but there is a solution, and in the end, when we find out that the aliens have the solution, two of the diplomats find that it just can’t work in their worldview.

If this was the only work in this universe that Spider and Jeanne Robinson created, it would be enough; it tells us an epic story, with adventure, romance, thrills, and a bit of mystery. Even more, it challenges the reader to think about the nature of family and humanity. It’s definitely worth a look. Originally published in 1977, it has startling insight into the “progress” we’ve made in the years since its publication. But there are two other works in this trilogy (Starseed and Starmind), which I hope to track down soon. If they’re as wonderful as Stardance, I’ll be in for a couple of thoughtful, thoroughly wonderful reads.

Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider Robinson

Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider RobinsonMindkiller by Spider Robinson
Formats available: hardcover, paperback
Pages: 246
Published by Berkley on November 1st 1983
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From the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Time Pressure comes a pulse-pounding tale of action and suspense as two men and a woman search for--and find--the ultimate frontier of experience. "The new Robert Heinlein . . ".--New York Times.

Guest Review by Amy:

Norman Kent has had enough of life; his experiences in the war, his failed marriage, his dead-end career…and in the opening words of this tale, he’s ready to end it all. But an unfriendly stranger gets in the way of his plan, and he returns to his apartment, only to find his sister there, whom he’d not seen in years and years. Shortly, she disappears abruptly, without a trace.

Hop forward a few years, and a clever, tech-savvy burglar who doesn’t know his own name finds a woman with a wire in her skull, trying to kill herself with pleasure. He pulls her back from the brink, only to go on a crusade with her against the forces that created the pleasure addiction of “wireheads.”

Spider Robinson’s brain just doesn’t work like the rest of ours, I don’t think; if you’ve ever read any of his Callahan’s stories, you’ll understand; in those books he deals in puns and wild stories, while giving the reader a peek into a community of people where “shared joy is increased, shared pain is lessened,” a notion that has created substantial communities of fans here and there around the digital world (full disclosure: I am a member of one such community). The New York Times’ review of this book pinned the label “the new Robert Heinlein” on Robinson, but as a Heinlein fan, I’m not quite going to agree to that; Heinlein fans will enjoy this tale, and feel right at home with Spider Robinson’s style, but it’s…different, in ways I can’t quite put my finger on.

Something I missed early on in this book was that time was jumping back and forth; we begin Norman’s story in 1994-1995, and are jumping to 1999 for the story of the burglar and the wirehead. Once I caught onto that, things started to make a little more sense for me, and I raptly followed both plots, wondering when and how they would converge, and when an antagonist would appear. Once a name was mentioned in both plots, things kind of clicked into place–no other explanation fits the facts at hand, so if you’re watching for it, you’ll figure it out before our protagonists do. Naturally, if you miss it, Robinson helpfully provides an intrusion between the story lines, in the form of Norman’s ex-wife Lois, to help you pull it all together. The apparent climax is not-unexpected, but even here, when you think you’ve got it figured out, the author gives us a lovely new twist, right at the end. Jarring, yes, but utterly necessary, and provided a way to tidy up several loose ends still dangling.

Escape Rating: A. Unlike Heinlein, who aggressively pursued a world that got better over time, and where characters pushed for that, Spider Robinson gives us a world that has clearly spiralled downward; our heroes show no particular desire to turn it around; they’re just trying to deal with it. There is no ultra-rich Howard Family pulling the strings to make things better, just avarice and dog-eat-dog individualism, easily recognizable in our own world at times. Our heroes are hard-boiled pragmatists, jaded by the world around them; so much so that when the burglar Joe heard young Karen talking about her crusade to go after the inventors of the wirehead technology, he thought she was crazy. But Karen had lived rough herself, and was willing to play hardball to do what must be done, and for reasons he doesn’t quite grasp, Joe joins her, because–for the first time he can remember–he actually cares about someone!

Our cast of characters is well-developed, every one of them with clear motivations, and rich description. Once I got past the time-hopping confusion of the first couple of chapters, I was able to track what was happening, and the story moved along crisply, without a lot of needless embellishment. A little bit of a thriller and a little bit of dystopian sci-fi, mixed in just the right proportions with engaging characters, made this a real page-turner for me. If you’re looking for a classic dystopian novel with a great thriller thrown in the mix, I heartily recommend Mindkiller.