Aug 082018
 

Deepsix, by Jack McDevitt

Synopsis: A crew exploring alien ruins is marooned on a planet about to be destroyed by natural events, and must be rescued by quick seat-of-the-pants engineering both on their part and the support team in orbit.

Book Review: Did you like Apollo 13? Would you like Apollo 13 if it had survival-adventure-archaeology (kinda Indiana Jones-esque) mixed in? Then this is a great book for you!

Tons of fun, LOTS of created engineering/hacking to pull off a rescue, and things constantly going wrong. :) And, importantly to me after the last several books, every chapter feels necessary. There is always something interesting happening! No filler or dragging. This was some of the most fun I’ve had reading in a while.

It’s not a perfect novel. The characterization is either not done, or done poorly. When the over-the-top moustache-twirling villain does a heel-face turn it comes out of the blue, and none of the motivations or implications are explored. He basically feels like two different characters.

The overall view of humanity is one of “everyone is dumb and shitty.” I guess that comes from spending one’s life trying to work in the navy bureaucracy (if what my fellow book clubbers tell me of McDevitt is true).

The novel kinda lives up to the older stereotype of SF authors who are fascinated with ideas and aliens and space and tech, but don’t do people very well.

But none of this matters that much, because the book isn’t really about those things. It’s about exploring cool alien ruins, and amazing planet-smashing set pieces, and genius engineering hacks. It delivers those things with gusto, and for once, I don’t really need much character exploration an angst. The characters work pretty well as humans caught in a shit situation and trying to live through it, and if there’s no time for exploring their inner turmoil, well, it’s all good, we got a planet coming apart and our only surface-to-orbit vessel is demolished!

Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not bad! There would’ve been less to talk about, because you can’t really discuss cool engineering feats all that much in a discussion… there’s only so much to say, I think? Maybe that’s just our group, I can see other groups getting into technical debates on just how plausible something may be. But the weird characterization actually led to a bit of discussion on its own (Just what was McDevitt trying to do with that heel-face turn? And how can he be so down on humanity as a whole, but then portray lots of individual humans as rocking so hard? Is it slightly sexist, or slightly liberated?). I don’t think everyone will love this, but there was conversation to be had, and it was a refreshing change. Recommended.

Jul 202018
 

The Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

Synopsis: A rouge general seizes a space fleet to defend the local populace and build support for a coup.

Book Review: The book starts out great, dropping you right into the middle of the fleet being taken over and characters resisting their biological programming (or failing to!) while a madman plays them like puppets.

And the last third of the book is also great, with tons of action, lots of fantastic revelations and intriguing back-stabbery. It’s exciting and enticing.

Unfortunately the middle half of the book is mainly holding patterns that do nothing. On the one hand, I really sympathize with the author. He has a story to tell, and he has a contract with a minimum word count, and if his story doesn’t fill that word-count, his publisher will sue him for breach of contract. Then who knows if he’ll ever get another one? Business always ruins art. On the other hand, as a fellow book club member said “It’s not my job to pay his mortgage.”

I almost stopped reading, because the middle is such a slog. A chapter here and there stood out, but they were diamonds in a lot of rough. The book could’ve easily been 1/3rd shorter.

Also, cutting all those extra words would’ve let in some room for physical description! I didn’t really notice this in the first book, because I was so enchanted with the cool “laws of physics can be altered by coordinated mass-belief” thing, but there is basically no physical description anywhere. Throughout the book I felt like I was in an empty grey room constantly. It was really depressing.

Raven Stratagem does have a lot going for it. The universe is still really cool, and the bizarre characters fit great in a bizarre universe. I’m really torn on this. I feel like it should have been great, but something about it just didn’t hit for me. Maybe the lack of description, or the slog in the middle, or the fact that the physics-by-consensus was kinda a background fact and didn’t really effect anything in this novel. It’s only real use was in the climax, and that was somewhat underwhelming and felt more like a footnote.

Honestly, this is another middle book. One of these days, someone’s gonna come up with a formula to make middle books good. Until that day, they will continue to just sorta drag and feel disappointing. Raven Stratagem is interesting, and I don’t regret reading it. But I can’t excitedly push it into someone’s hands and say “You gotta read this!” So, a borderline Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is a book that’s enhanced by gathering to talk about it. It’s neat to hear everyone’s individual takes on what’s going on, and it’s fun to relive the really cool plot turns. That being said, the meeting went pretty fast, there wasn’t a lot to chew over. Also, this is absolutely not a book you can read on its own. If one hasn’t read the first one, they’ll be completely lost picking this up. Anyway, same basic verdict on this – not bad, but also Not Recommended.

Jun 282018
 

Hugo AwardBy ancient tradition, our book club reads the online-available Short Stories and Novelettes that have been nominated for the Hugo Award every year. Here’s my reviews.

 

Best Short Story Catagory

“Carnival Nine,” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)

Well written, with a fantastical world-of-toys setting. I loved the creation of children from spare parts, the daily winding-up of the springs, etc. Visually, it reads very much like a Tim Burton movie, ala Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline. The metaphor of a toy that gets very few turns per day being analogous to disability (what we often call spoons nowadays) was very well done. But ultimately, this felt like an overly-smaltzy Hollywood tear-jerker.  Like the SF lit version of Oscar Bait. You’re supposed to feel very sad but uplifted, sorta bittersweet. And you do. But it’s not authentic, it feels like you’ve been guided through a maximally-sympathy-inducing construct. For example, the mother indulges her child in getting him significantly heavier arms than he should have, because it would make him happy. This is an extra strain upon his spring, and further adds to the mother’s burden of care-giving, but it’s soooo worth it because it makes her disabled kid smile and she has the heart and determination to give him the best life, etc. Yeesh.

 

“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)

My favorite Short Story of this year. Absolutely gorgeous prose, to the point of being poetry. I fell in love almost immediately. Moreover, it expects some work from the reader. You have to think as you’re reading, and interpret what’s being presented to uncover the story below the surface. At first I thought maybe this was a metaphor for a sexual relationship. I was wrong. This is about the anger of society’s misfits at being maltreated. The autistic, the disabled, the ugly. The “freaks”. The title refers to the stomach-churning disgust of seeing a dispassionate researcher calmly lettering notes about their anatomy’s after doing things to them that hurt, hurt deep, he should be shaking from the atrocities he’s just committed in the process of dissecting his subjects, unable to write a word, but instead he simply labels them as if they aren’t even feeling beings. The story is beautiful and grotesque and brings you directly into experiencing this emotion in a powerful way. This is the sort of story that awards were created for.

 

“Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)

A delightful piece about an obsolete robot finding a place in the world by writing fanfiction. This is very much a love letter to fanfic readers/writers, with lots of jargon and in-jokes. And it’s an absolute pleasure to read. The portrayal of the robot as a non-neurotypical person slowly making sense of all the bizarre human creatures around it, and coming to connect with them, fills me with warmth. And it was hilarious. :) I want to write some fanfic of this story now. The one downside to this story that that it doesn’t have a strong arc, and thus it just kinda peters out at the end, instead of actually Ending. Kinda disappointing, but since this is such a light/fun story anyway, its easy to overlook that. My 2nd favorite of this year.

 

“The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)

Technically well written, but boring. The portrayal of a world that’s coming to an end because humanity has collectively gotten too frustrated to continue and decided just to give up on living made me roll my eyes. The possible moral dilemma was no dilemma at all, and the ending feels like it was written by committee. Meh.

 

“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, (Uncanny, May/June 2017)

The concept of a Chosen One getting a magic sword and deciding “No, I really don’t like adventuring, I’m going to stay and farm instead,” sounds great on paper. What happens when the Hobbit stays home? But despite being somewhat charming, there’s not really anything here. It felt like a filler episode in an animated series.

 

“Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)

There comes a point about halfway through this story where you realize just how literal the title of this story is. This is a dark supernatural story, verging on horror, that takes you through the historical experience of the entire Native American peoples through the personal events of a couple months of the protagonist’s life. When you come to that realization you say “Oh shit. This is gonna suck.” You read on, because it’s a compelling plot and moves quickly and you want to see the story play out. As a parable, it works.

As a story, there is something lacking, and I can’t quite put my finger on what. The writing is good. And yet, I find myself not being hit very hard by it. I should be much more affected, and I don’t know why the story didn’t quite land. I’m still thinking about it, on an intellectual level, and I admire the strength and skilling of the story-weaving itself. The emotion just isn’t quite realized, though.

 

Strongly Recommended – “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”

Recommended – “Fandom For Robots,” “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™”

 

Best Novelette Catagory

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, July-August 2017)

“Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, February 15, 2017)

Putting these two together, because I have the exact same comments about both.

I understand authors writing short works in the universe of their current novel series. It’s a treat for their fans, who are very important for authors. It keeps the universe fresh between novel releases. And maybe it’ll get some new people interested in the novels if they find the stories interesting.

What I take great umbrage with is the fans nominating these interstitial stories just because they love the series so much. Neither of these stories are good. They’re barely even stories. They’re just a thing that happened in the author’s given universe. Neither of these should’ve been anywhere near the Hugo Awards. They’re good for what they are, but what they aren’t is award-worthy works. Anyone who nominated either of these should be embarrassed of themselves.

 

“The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017)

The most adorable thing I’ve read all year. The tiny, ugly-duckling-style robot goes to battle against a rat-bug thing that’s eating his ship’s insulation, and winds up saving the human race. Everything about this story made my heart happy. I love the characters, I love the tiny little bots and their whisper network, I love their non-neurotypical thought processes, and I love their overly-literal humor. Life-affirming and extremely enjoyable. I expected to cry at the ending, and I cheered instead, and honestly I’m more of a tragedy guy so I think I would’ve preferred to cry? But that’s not what Palmer was doing for this story, and that’s fine too, this also works. :) My favorite of the Novelettes, though Small Changes is really close.

 

“A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, January 2017)

I read this just a few days ago, and honestly, I’ve already almost forgotten it. Not bad, but nothing here that interests or sticks with me.

 

“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017)

O_O INTENSE. Gritty, angry, powerful, sexy. It does amazing things using an act of vampirism as an analog for both actual rape and rape fantasy, and then follows its aftermath. Using the vampiric transition as a reflection both on mortality and gender transition, the death of the old identity and the loss that comes with it. And then the vampiric bloodlust as an analog for the intense hormonal urges and desires of first-time testosterone use. It explores how quickly power can change you, how easy it is to go from prey to predator, and how good that feels. By the time the protagonist’s sire tells us ‘Don’t forget what you felt yesterday, when you were human’ we’ve already forgotten it, and it honestly feels hard, as a reader, to conjure up those intense emotions from just a couple pages before. Because that’s how fucking talented Szpara is. This story is amazing. And then, on top of all that, it snatches everything away again with the horror of realizing our body is turning against us, and we are going to be trapped forever in a fucking nightmare.

And then in the last third all that evaporates. The protagonist’s problems are quickly and neatly solved (in a manner that felt, emotionally, like a deus ex machina), the growth arc is aborted, and instead we get a cliché power-fantasy wish-fulfillment ending. This was extremely disappointing. The story was sooooo good up until that point. It feels like Szpara lost faith in his ability to tell this story, or realized how much longer it would be and flinched away from all that work. So he just snapped to quick resolution and cut it short. I understand that fear. This should be at least a novella, and could easily be a full novel. Which is a fuck-ton of work. At least a year of life for someone holding down a regular job as well, all for something that may turn out to be not worth the effort. That maybe no one will ever see, and no one will care about. I wish I could tell Szpara to revisit this, and take it to completion. That it would absolutely be worth all the work to me, and probably for thousands of readers like me. Because this was so utterly amazing right up until the fail point. I hope that the Hugo nom (and maybe win?) will demonstrate this, and re-energize him. Because – wow.

I’m very torn on my vote. I don’t know if I should vote for Small Changes first, or Secret Life of Bots. They do such different things, it’s impossible to compare them. Normally I’d go for the wrenching, angry, powerful tale. But with the disappointing ending, man, I’m really torn. In either case, this is also very good.

 

“Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, September/October 2017)

A meditation on cultural history, and what it means to have yours wiped away. On how much we build on the past, and the dangers of letting reverence for it become overly stifling, and strangling future creativity and growth. But while acknowledging how much we depend on it for who we are. As well as a few things about responsibility to future generations and how are choices are taken away from us by the past. A slow-paced, but ultimately well-done and thoughtful piece. While this isn’t my favorite type of story (see previous, I enjoy the ones that scream at you), this is definitely award-caliber writing. This is the sort of thing I’m happy to read, and fully get behind its nomination.

 

Strongly Recommended – “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” and “The Secret Life of Bots”

Recommended – “Wind Will Rove”

 

Book Club Reviews: As always, I highly recommend doing this once per year. You’re exposed to a lot of disparate things at once, and you get to learn a lot about the tastes and even (sometimes) values of your fellow book clubbers. The reading goes fast, as there’s much less word count than a novel. And basically everyone will find something they like. It was interesting to see how we differed on several of these.

Jun 202018
 

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Synopsis: A tour of New York in the year 2140.

Book Review: Kim Stanley Robinson is famous for his Mars trilogy, a Hard SF trilogy that explores how to realistically terraform Mars. He continues the ultra-realistic very-sciencey tradition with New York 2140. If you are into Hard SF, KSR is absolutely your man.

Robinson isn’t shy about his infodumps. He knows that the realistic portrayal of a physical world is why his readers are here. There is an entire chapter that is literally about the geological history of the New York bay area. I like learning stuff, and Robinson is a good writer with decades of experience, so I found this interesting. But it’s really slow.

In fact, being set in an existing city, and being so dedicated to realism, there were several times I forgot this was science fiction. It felt like Earth Fic – normal, contemporary narrative fiction without a speculative element. On the one hand, that is extremely impressive for a novel set over 100 years in the future in a flooded New York. On the other hand, I don’t really like Earth Fic, I read Speculative Fiction for a reason!

The characters are as rich and deep as the setting is. Everyone feels like a real person, with a real personality, and real motivation. Their problems all feel like real-world problems too. All of this makes for a gorgeous tapestry, that feels like a mix between biography, narrative non-fiction, and well-written textbook.

But it takes its time. It really, really takes its time. Last I heard, KSR is a Buddhist. And this novel feels very much like what a (western stereotype of a) Buddhist would write. It is sedate, taking every step deliberately and with consideration, and absolutely will not accept your sense of urgency in anything. It’s over 600 pages, and by the time I hit page 200 I still didn’t know what it was about, which is why my synopsis doesn’t mention any sort of plot. The last book-club book I read was Collapsing Empire, which covered a rollicking adventure and several life-shattering (and world-changing) events in the course of 240 pages. In the time that Scalzi managed to tell an entire story, KSR still hasn’t finished his exposition, and I’m not sure we’re actually going anywhere.

I was assured by those in my book club who did finish NY2140 that it does actually have a plot. It’s peaceful to read, interesting, and well-written. If I had all the time in the world, I would read this this novel. But sadly, I do not. I have to prioritize my reading, and I can’t wait this long for something to get started. I can see why Hard SF buff love this novel. But in my case – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Woooooah momma! I was pleasantly surprised by just how much conversation this sparked! Just how realistic is the portrayal of future New York? Why would people still live there, and is New Orleans/Detroit or Venice a better reference class for comparison? Are the infodumps an embrace of SF tradition, or self-indulgent showing-off of research at the reader’s expense? Are the dialog-chapters between Jeff and Mutt cool and experimental, or obnoxious? Was this a morally-accusatory work scolding the present for making the future so awful, or was this a demonstration that things will be mostly fine, life goes on, and people adapt and live full lives even after water levels rise? Is this a relaxed, accepting view of the future, or a rant that’s 10 years too late? And where the heck did KSR’s vaulted dedication to realism go when he had a human lifted from the ground by trash bags full of helium?

We went on about all sorts of things, back and forth, for a long time. The debate was lively, and you didn’t even have to read the whole book to join in! In fact, half our group had also finished less than half the novel by the time of our meeting (seriously, so long and slow!), and yet participated fully. Given that one doesn’t need to read the whole thing, and the discussion was so good – Recommended!

May 302018
 

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

Synopsis: As the FTL highways binding a galactic empire together begin to collapse, our heroes must find a way to make the disparate shards of habitable space fully self-reliant before the human race is wiped out, while fighting off usurpers who’d use this crisis to steal the crown.

Book Review: This is a fantastic commercial SF title. The plot is high-stakes and very interesting. The action moves along quickly, never once boring or belabored. It’s tightly written. The dialog is snappy, the humor is wry, the characters are complex and engaging. It’s written in a very contemporary style, which I enjoy, and which makes it easy to read. Collapsing Empire grabs you, flows quickly, and is a hell of a lot of fun along the way. This is why Scalzi is both rich and very well known. He writes well, and is fantastically entertaining.

And when you’re done with the novel it quickly disappears from your mind, never to be thought of again. This is in the highest tier of popcorn entertainment, but it’s still popcorn entertainment. It has no ambition, and leaves nothing lasting behind. Which is too bad, because Scalzi has a lot to say. He may be as well known for his popular and very political blog as for his fiction writing. He’s smart as hell and full of snark, and the style of that comes through in his fiction, but without content behind it.

This is the beginning of a long series, and the setting and story arch promised to us is epic enough that I believe this is a story that might, in fact, take many books to tell! And I have faith in Scalzi’s ability to tell it. So maybe he’s just suckering people in with a great story and characters without laying down anything heavy in the first book, and plans to start weaving deeper themes and messages into future books in the series. Or maybe not, maybe he just wants to write good entertainment and have fun, I dunno.

The thing is, I don’t really enjoy straight-up commercial fiction anymore, regardless of how well it’s done. I’m worried it may be too snobby of me, but I really want some substance in what I read. I’m a bit distressed about that, because this means that the best selling authors will never write for me. Wide popularity and comfortable paychecks mostly come from writing the light fare. It feels like a shitty thing to ask/wish for authors to write in a manner that will get them less money and less fame just because I happen to like it more.

Anyway, if you want good entertainment without having to think much, a literary equivalent of the MCU perhaps, this is a good book for you. Since my reviews are for people similar to myself – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Again, it depends on what you want out of a book club. The book was certainly fun, and so there was some fun had in chatting about it and comparing notes. And since it’s such a quick read it’s not a burden on the group. It’s one of those books to put in your list for a palette cleanser after a very intense or difficult read. I wouldn’t call that a direct recommendation, but it might count as a sorta recommendation anyway? I dunno, take it as you will.

Update: Looking back, I realize the synopsis is a bit misleading. As far as I can tell right now, that’s a synopsis of what’ll be happening in the series. This first book only starts to tackle these problems.

May 182018
 

Provenance, by Ann Leckie

Synopsis: A noble’s daughter must navigate the treachery and bureaucracy of a byzantine political system to impress her mother and show up her brother

Book Review: This book is almost the exact opposite of the previous book I reviewed (Six Wakes). It has a robustly thought-out world, rich imagery, a coherent story, and fantastic language. The word-craft is stellar, Ann Leckie knows how to compose glowing prose. And the characters are all deeply human and relatable. In particular, I loved the protagonist and her naïve, babe-in-the-woods persona. Overly trusting in an unscrupulous world. <3 I also enjoyed seeing a world with a default neutral gender for everyone, and some people could adopt male or female genders when they grew up if they wanted (which it seems most/many didn’t).

Unfortunately, there is no point to any of this, and no plot to care about. Some old family relics may be forgeries. Her mom and her brother aren’t that bad, they just underestimate and overshadow her. The action is primarily about legalisms and bureaucratic obstacles, and it doesn’t really matter if she fails. It’s not quite as bad as going to the DMV, but that’s not saying much. For all the skill Leckie has in writing, this novel just bored the hell out of me. It seemed very much like Leckie was having fun writing about the frustrations of a favorite niece. I know Leckie can do good work, we’ve all seen it in Ancillary Justice, which was amazing. But this isn’t it. I got about 60% of the way through and quit out of sheer boredom.

That was probably my favorite part of the book though, because it meant I finally had some reading time that wasn’t in service to the book club, and I could FINALLY finish Seven Surrenders!! (yes, I know, I’m very behind. :( I’m sorry guys!)

Seven Surrenders is even better than Too Like The Lightning. Now that the world is set up and the characters are established, Ada Palmer can really dig into the ideas she’s presenting. Not that she wasn’t doing that before, but even more so. The writing is to die for, like dessert for your eyes. And the entire work is ridiculously ambitious. Straight-up audacious, honestly. Every single chapter has some major moment that struck me hard. I know that basically everyone in the Rationalist community has already read this, and some of you are cosplaying it already (envious!), so you don’t really need me saying it too. But damn, this thing is great. I really hope to read Will To Battle before WorldCon!

Also, it’s a crime that this didn’t get a Hugo nomination. This is exactly the sort of high art that these awards are supposed to recognize.

Seven Surrenders – Highly Recommended
Provenance – Not Recommended

Book Review: There was a bit of talk about the gender thing, which was interesting for a while. And a few sparks of “people are weird for getting so attached to objects.” And several people were able to get through the novel on the strength of the prose and the likability of the characters. So it’s not awful as a whole. But it doesn’t have all that much to really recommend it. Like, if you want to start a conversation about gender… read freakin’ Seven Surrenders with your book club. Provenance does many things well enough, but it doesn’t shine, and fades quickly from memory. Not Recommended.

May 092018
 

Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty

Synopsis: When the six-person crew of a generation ship wakes up from cloning tanks to find their previous selves’s murdered bodies floating before them and their memories wiped, they have to discover who among them is a killer before they’re Killed For Good.

Book Review: This has one of the most attention-grabbing first chapters of any book I’ve read in a long time. There’s nothing like being dumped right in the middle of a life-or-death crisis without any bearings to really get things started with a bang. And the premise is fantastic!

Unfortunately, the excellent premise falls apart due to very poor execution. The book reads sloppy, like someone was just dashing words together without really thinking through anything. Right in the first chapter there warning signs: the ship spun to create artificial gravity, but had somehow managed to stop spinning after just a few hours without power. Just how much internal friction does this thing have? And the captains FIRST order is “No one goes anywhere alone until we find the killer. Everyone in pairs from now on.” The order is then immediately forgotten by everyone, and within two pages all the crew have split up to do their separate things. WTF?

It’s also technically and scientifically illiterate. The plot relies on a piece of tech called a “Mind Map,” which at first seems like a personality matrix + memory storage, but later turns out to also contain DNA, and can run AI programs within it, and ultimately do anything that is necessary for the plot to proceed. It’s a piece of magic that literally does everything and solves every problem. And the term “Hacker” would be better replaced with “Magic Space Wizard,” because apparently a Hacker can do literally everything. Bioengineering, gene-editing, every level and type of programming, AI design, psychological surgery, memory editing, etc. In one scene the hacker has to find a single faulty line within the source code of the ship’s AI. It takes her many minutes! “Hacking” is a universal skill that covers everything a computer might do, and since computers do everything… Space Wizard!

The scientific illiteracy is just another version of the same sloppiness that is so apparent in the author’s disregard for the narrative. Lafferty seems to just not care if things make sense. Nothing follows any rules or has any consistency. It ends up feeling like you’re just listening to an imaginative but scatter-brained friend making things up as she goes along. That’s fine for bullshitting around a campfire, but in terms of writing a novel for publication, it’s just plain lazy. Is it so much to ask that an author put a modicum of forethought and effort into their writing?

There are some very cool flash-back scenes, reminiscent of the Lost TV series, which were very enjoyable. Lafferty is good at writing small, self-encapsulated individual actions. It’s only when they try to make a longer narrative hold together that everything falls apart. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: I couldn’t stand this book, because the sloppiness physically hurt me. It felt like an insult. But not everyone cares that much. On a page-by-page basis, there’s almost always something interesting happening (with the exception of a long boring trudge of a few chapters near the 1/3rd mark). The characters are distinctive and the POV characters are fun to be with. So while everyone in the book club agreed the book was nonsensical both narratively and scientifically, several of our readers didn’t care! Apparently there are those readers who don’t need a story to make sense, as long as each page has some entertainment value, and they enjoyed this book a fair bit. Interestingly, though, we still mostly talked about the dumb, nonsensical things, since those were the most fun things to talk about. The other readers just viewed them as fun in a campy, B-movie sort of way, rather than an infuriating disregard by the author for their time/intelligence.

I don’t know man. I doubt anyone will remember this book a few months from now. And I’ve been getting frustrated with the run of disappointing books lately. There’s tons of “just writing what comes to mind without thinking through it much” stories out there, and if you want some light entertainment reading I think any of those are just as good as this one. They’d all spark roughly the same sort of “I had fun during these moments, but lol that’s bad” conversation, IMHO. So, Not Recommended.

The Hugo Nominees were released a couple weeks back, so we’re diving into those next. Those are usually mostly good, so I’m looking forward to getting some good reading in! :)

Apr 242018
 

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

Synopsis: A young couple falls in love in a war-torn Middle Eastern country, flees the country, and then falls out of love.

Book Review: There are few things more annoying that someone who’s completely ignorant on a subject walking into a room of knowledgeable people and deciding s/he should show them the proper way to do things. In the cryo community this is usually the person who says “lol, water crystals would shred all your cells when you freeze yourself.” In genre fiction circles it happens every few years when a self-important LitFic author decides to use a touch of magic, or near-future speculation, in a novel, and all the EarthFic’ers gush about how imaginative and unique it is.

I’d heard a lot about Exit West. Apparently it was beloved by the New York Times and all the literati elite, so I had high hopes for it. Of course, that it’s beloved of those people should have been my first warning. Exit West is straight-up boring-ass LitFic, with a flimsy magical element stapled on. I’m of the opinion that if you want to write LitFic but you don’t have the skill to do it, all you have to do is add a genre element and these goons that’ve never read any fantasy because it’s too low-brow for them will excuse all your blundering because they have no idea what makes a good story.

Everything that Exit West tries to do, it does poorly. It “appropriates” (as much as I hate this word, it almost feels right here) a fairy-tale narrative style, without having any idea what makes that style work. It has none of the whimsical lyricism or fairytale logic that a proper fairytale narrative employs. Valente and Hughart know how to make this style a force to be reckoned with. Hamid just uses a detached, head-hopping, omniscient narrator as a shortcut to putting any work into his writing, and tries to hide that by using the vocabulary of fairytale fiction.

It fails horrifically as a genre work because it never once bothers to explore any of the ramifications of the magic portals, besides the one specific aspect needed to make Hamid’s plot work. The reduction of all distances to zero is good for more than just easy border-crossing for refugees. It would be an existential threat to all geography-based states. Too Like The Lightning had damn good speculation about what happens to a world where distance no longer matters. The portals in Exit West should have been replaced by a highly-skilled human smuggler, because that’s literally all they are.

It fails as LitFic as well, because it never bothers to Show anything. The neat trick that LitFic is monomaniacally focused on is to never Tell, only Show, and make the reader feel all the emotions the author is intending only through lovingly detailed action. No one ever says “She felt lonely.” Instead they describe for four pages the protagonist going into her garden, pouring salt on the snails threatening her tomatoes, and then watching them melt slowly while reflecting on her relationship with her husband. And when it’s done right, the reader feels lonely. Exit West does the opposite. It’s a non-stop stream of Tellling. He was lonely. She was a rebel. They talked about leaving. There’s seriously entire chapters without a line of dialog, because Hamid can’t even be bothered to show us two humans interacting. He just gives a quick summary of a conversation. And the result is an absolute failure to connect emotionally with the reader. I don’t care about anyone in the book. I’ve read textbooks that are more engaging.

There is one thing Exit West does very well, and that’s the beautiful analogies that perfectly capture a moment. Things like “Their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.” These sorts of things are sprinkled all throughout the text, and they are a delight. Unfortunately they are wasted in a narrative that does nothing with them.

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Turnout was high for this book. Telling has an advantage over Showing in that it is fast, and simple. Often one has to use Telling in the interests of saving time and word count. (“She felt lonely” is three words; four pages of text are 1000). Since Exit West is entirely Telling, it is both short, and extremely easy/fast to read. This made it easy for people to race through it.

In addition, the fact that it annoyed so many people got a lot of them to come and vent their frustrations. So we had a fair bit to talk about. However I cannot, in good conscious, recommend that someone waste even a few hours of their life on this. Not Recommended.

Apr 072018
 

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

Synopsis: An indentured military robot and his handler track a pharma-IP pirate across the globe when a reverse-engineered work-productivity drug starts killing people.

Book Review: Yikes, what a shiny mess this is! The novel is so variable in quality and tone, spiking up and diving down in heady rushes, that it feels downright schizophrenic. I need to dive into that, so this review will be a bit long.

On the one hand, there’s some good stuff in here. The robot characters in particular were really interesting. They are convincingly done as minds without human values, where murder and torture don’t elicit even the feeling that they should be difficult or questionable, as long as they’re ordered by an authorized admin. The violence is raw and brutal in its matter-of-factness. There’s a particularly fantastic scene where the military bot is engaged in combat with IP-pirates, guns blazing and blood splattering, while also researching English language usage because he wants to know what his admin meant when he said “I’m not a faggot.” The alternating physical brutality, and curiosity about human relationships and sexuality, makes for amazing juxtaposition.

The novel also highlighted a few things in myself that I now have to ponder. There’s a gender-flip (sorta) midbook. No big deal, gender doesn’t matter, particularly the fake gender of robots. But when I went back to my notes in the first half of the book and found the female character being referred to as “he,” it bothered me. Which I guess means that gender actually does matter, even the fake gender of robots, because why the hell would it bother me if it didn’t really matter? If I hadn’t embraced the gender-classification of this non-human thing and started to associate it with that gender, and then disliked it being misgendered?

It also drew my attention to latent carbon-chauvinism I thought I was free of. When a human who’s been shown to brutally abuse robots is murdered, it took me aback. Like “No, you don’t just go killing humans!” But if that human had been shown to brutally abuse other humans, I woulda been all “Fuck yeah, kill that piece of shit!” So… what’s going on with me, there? I obviously place more moral weight on fictional humans than fictional robots, and that’s worrisome.

But all this is tempered by some serious issues. For starters, in quite a few places the writing is just downright bad. Like, “I’m 14 And This Is Deep” high school fanfic bad. We’re told who’s the good guys and who’s the bad guys with basic applause lights like “the keys to this good life are held in the greedy hands of a few corporatons.” And “Was [she] trying to kill herself to make up for what she’d done? Maybe. Probably.” And “maybe […] he would stop asking her to trust him more than she wanted to trust anyone—including herself.” Oh dear lord.

The world and most of the characters in it never come to life either. Everything feels rather flat, and drawn in muted colors, especially at first. In the latter half of the book we start to get some insight into our human character’s personality and backgrounds, and they start to become interesting, but at first they’re just blah. And the world itself doesn’t feel anything like you’d expect. Apparently most of the world lives in slavery most of their lives, but for the most part life seems alright. No one’s that unhappy, society is basically functioning, etc. This has two related effects on our protagonists. Our hero, the pirate, doesn’t feel very heroic. A freedom fighter needs an evil empire to fight against. Lacking that context, she’s just a drug-running criminal. And our villain, the IP-law enforcer, isn’t all that bad. In fact, the novel paints him in a pretty decent light.

Now, I’m all for morally complex characters. I like dark heroes, and I like works that really make you feel the villain’s perspective, and cheer for them. But Autonomous doesn’t do that.

It introduces us to a hero by having her murder someone without much remorse in their introductory scene. It drops a number of hints about her dark, irredeemable past. And then we’re never shown anything bad she did in her past, and she’s painted as a hero for the rest of the novel. She never gets a redemption because it turns out there wasn’t anything she needs redemption from. The novel is OK with that.

It gives us a villain working for the oppressors. He pressures his underling into a deeply disturbing and highly-abusive relationship. The novel doesn’t seem to have a problem with this.

The world is broken and full of slavery, but things are pretty cheerful overall. It feels like a brightly-painted Disney-fied environment. This isn’t done in a southern gothic sort of disturbing way, it just seems we’re not supposed to notice.

I have a theory. Originally, this book was supposed to be much, much darker. It was supposed to be something awesome, like Library at Mount Char, or Best Served Cold. But Newitz was told this would never sell, and if she wanted a contract she’d have to lighten it up, and make it more YA-friendly. So what could have been dark and brooding and great is turned into… this.

I have a second theory. This novel has been rewritten many, many times. Newitz learned a lot during the writing, which is why the latter half is significantly better than the first. It explains why there can be really good writing side by side with really awful drek. But in the churn of all the rewrites and edits, the focus of the story was lost. In the end it feels processed and soulless.

I look forward to Newitz’s next novel, because I think these are problems that can be overcome, particularly with experience. But I don’t think that this novel, as it stands, should have been published. Some gatekeeper was not doing their job, or (per first theory) doing their job very poorly and making the final work worse. And since I can’t recommend something that I don’t think should’ve been published, despite it’s other merits, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Boy, it’s hard to say. This was a pretty quick read, and it did have some great parts. And it certainly gave us a LOT to talk about, which is where theories 1 & 2 from above came from. But most of the discussion didn’t center around the themes the novel attempted to raise, because we were distracted by the disjointed prose/world. Some people liked it more than others, and it’s certainly far from the worst thing out there. But when I think of all the really good novels out there, and extremely limited number of novels one can read in a year, I can’t justify telling a book club this is worth the opportunity cost. While it skates the line, I’m going to tip into the Not Recommended on this one. Mildly, though.

 

Mar 282018
 

This is in regards to “The Stone Sky”, which I just reviewed.

MAJOR spoilers below.

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Let’s say that the fate of the world depends on you being in a specific city, at a specific time, about one week from now. Transportation isn’t an issue, you can get there in about an hour. But you have to physically be there, or literally the human race goes extinct. Do you:

A. Make sure you get there at least a day early, so you have plenty of time to check out the city, get situated, and leave a margin of error for any sort of SNAFU that crop up?
or
B. Spend a few days loafing, saying goodbye to all your friends, and the morning of the fateful hour eat a leisurely breakfast where you all screw around and bond for a bit, before leaving at a time that’ll ensure you’ll get to where you need to be with no more than fifteen minutes to spare?

Unless you are a fucking idiot, you go with A. In fact, I can’t think of anyone, even the world’s most fucking idiot, that would go with B, because fate of all of humanity. GET THERE EARLY. And yet, Essun chooses B. And it’s painfully obvious why.

The main source of conflict in the climax is the same source of conflict of every bad RomCom ever — the two protagonists don’t spend five damn minutes to just talk to each other! All the heartache and misunderstanding (and in bad RomComs, the entire plot) evaporates if the two protagonists would just sit down and have a short freakin’ conversation. This is why Essun waits until the last minute to go to the Appointed Location. If she got there any earlier there wouldn’t be time pressure preventing her from talking with her daughter, Nassun would discover she has options other than “kill everyone”, Essun would discover she could gift everyone with infinite life, and there wouldn’t be the Mother vs Daughter conflict that Jemisin wants.

As much as I love everything else Jemisin has done, this is just plain bad writing. There are dozens of ways to force Essun and Nassun into conflict that don’t involve “We don’t have five minutes to share knowledge.” Or, though less satisfying, if we really want to stick with time-pressure, there’s hundreds of reasonable ways to prevent Essun from getting to the Appointed Location until the last minute that don’t require her (and everyone in her entourage) to hold The Idiot Ball for days. None of these options were taken. Instead we get a forced climax that relies on a ridiculous contrivance.

Also, as long as I’m complaining, Nassun’s sudden switch to “Instead of killing everyone, let’s make everyone immortal!” was jarring. This would have been a far better book if she’d been given the “I can make everyone immortal” information right up front, so her role would have been the (Misguided?) Savior, which is entirely believable for someone her age, who has a loving and supportive father at her side at all times. Far better than the Destroyer role she was inelegantly forced into.

To be honest, I’m only harsh on this book because the first one was sooooo good. The Stone Sky is still better than 90% of the stuff out there! It’s mostly out of frustration for seeing awesomeness fall apart in the third book that I complain. But hey, this is not my book, I’m just a reader with his own agenda and opinions. Jemisin may very rightly say “Screw off, this is my book, and I wrote it just how I wanted it. You think you could write a better book? You try it!” Fair enough. I know people who love this book just as much as the first one in the trilogy. But this is my post of mourning, so take it as you will.