Monday, March 03, 2008

RIP Janet Kagan

Janet Kagan died Saturday of COPD. She was the author of three SF books, and I wish she had authored more, because all three are on my shortlist of favorite books of all time. Unusually, she was also one of Rob's favorite authors - while our reading lists may overlap extensively, our favorites usually don't.

In this case, we kept our differences by prefering different books. Hellspark, my favorite, was the most serious of her books in tone (though they were all light-hearted). It had, among a lot of other things, one of the best practical breakdowns of personal space, body language, and cultural conflict with both of those, that I have ever seen anywhere, ever. One of the protagonists of Ghost Dancer (my unpublished first novel), the AI Memory, owes her existence to the delightful Lord Margeret, the child AI from Hellspark.

Mirabile, on the other hand, is Rob's favorite of Kagan's books. Mirabile is less of a standard novel, and more of a collection of short stories, except that they all happen sequentially, to the same character, and follow a loose overarching plot. It's not a format I've seen anyone else quite pull off, though there's no reason why they couldn't. In Mirabile it works wonderfully as you follow our protagonist (a field geneticist) through a series of puzzles in the thoroughly mixed-up world she lives in. You see, Earth sent out the colonists of the world Mirabile with multiply redundant back-ups. In the case of their animals, that meant that every species contained the complete genetic code for at least one, and sometimes more, different species with their nuclei. But the colonists lost the instructions on how to turn that process on and off, and so the alternate genes go about expressing themselves willy-nilly, which combined with interactions with the native wildlife, make the field geneticist a vitally important person in the survival of Mirabile.

Kagan's third book has the honor to be the only Star Trek book remaining on my shelves. There was a time when I had scads, not because I thought they were wonderful, but because I could trust them to be decent reads. I've gotten more picky over time, and one by one the ST novels have gone by the wayside - except for Uhura's Song. As it turns out, she never intended to write an ST novel at all, but rather was railroaded into it by an enthusiastic publisher. He (a junior publisher at a larger imprint) had read Hellspark and wanted to buy it. However, he only had authority to buy books from 1) established authors (no first timers), or 2) Star Trek novels (in which case, first time authors were allowed). His solution was to contract Janet for an ST novel, and then buy Hellspark once she was no longer unpublished! I, for one, am glad she did. Star Trek completely aside, Uhura's Song is a wonderful novel, which avoids rerunning old ground with old characters by concentrating on the secondary characters (Uhura, Chekov), and new characters, with enough appearences by Kirk, Spock and McCoy to satisfy the fans.

Why exactly Kagan stuck to short stories after these three novels, I don't know. My selfish, readerly self wishes she had written a dozen more. But three she had, and those three I shall treasure. Time to pull Hellspark off the shelf and give it a memorial read. Godspeed, Janet.

4 comments:

Janet said...

Please note that the Janet Kagan who is pictured with this posting is not the science fiction writer Janet Kagan who died. I can say this with authority because the picture you have posted is of the Janet Kagan who is me, and I am still alive. Please correct your blog.

Perpetual Beginner said...

Removed, my apologies.

shah8 said...

do you have an amazon listmania?

Hellspark reminded me alot of Asimov's Nemesis...

and I *so* hate it when authors die before they're retired...GAD!!

Octavia Butler is the biggie for me, but it's also very sad when people like Ronda Thompson dies...

Perpetual Beginner said...

I have a fair number of Amazon reviews, shah8, and a wishlist, but no listmania. I've occassionally considered doing it, but never gotten around to actually doing it.

Have you run into shelfari? ( www.shelfari.com )