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Sunday Book Review: "Birthstones"

Space Opera has the reputation -not entirely undeserved-- as being the power fantasies of maladjusted teenage boys. But, for over fifty years, Toronto author Phyllis Gotlieb has proven that this subgenre can be complex, intelligent and even feminist. Her new novel, "Birthstones", is no exception.

It takes place on a dark and polluted planet, which is plundered by alien business interests and home to a species that involuntarily teleports when frightened. Genetic mutation has rendered these creatures only rarely able to produce females. Women have become a political tool, viewed as little more than wombs. Their restoration is the subject of this novel.

Gotlieb rarely pauses to dump information upon the reader. Instead, she reveals much of the society and its problems through glimpses that finally add up to a cohesive whole. As the story unfolded, so did my understanding of the world. But I always knew enough. It is this deftness, as well as Gotlieb's sensitivity to character, that earned her a Governor General's Award Nomination.

But I think that a book like this requires a sort of trust and patience that often baffles mainstream readers. It needs a type of thinking that science fiction fans take for granted. Even if you've never been to Toronto, a concept like Bloor Street needs little explanation. On an alien world, however, you never know what to expect. The rules are as different as the creatures are weird. But there are rules and you have to trust the author not to break them and to eventually show their hand.

Bluffing is not allowed and Gotlieb never bluffs, nor does she ever need to. In "Birthstones" she is once again holding aces. Or whatever it's good to have in poker. I've never played.


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