Aug 142017
 

I’ve read a number of good short stories recently, and figured I’d share.

 

First is “Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls. This is absolutely fantastic, we talked about it a bit on the Bayesian Conspiracy podcast, but seriously, read or listen to this. Rationalist and Transhumanists will love it. It is hilarious, and sneakily thoughtful, and hits you with a wallop of emotions when you aren’t looking. I will absolutely be nominating this for a Hugo next year.

Also, I gotta give the author mad props for fully embracing the “all fiction is contemporary” thing. This is perfect and aimed at TODAY like a laser-guided missile, and most of the humor will be lost to anyone trying to read it in even five years’ time. It takes a certain type of courage to say “I am writing this just for today’s audience, and posterity can eat it.” It’s a thing that maybe more of us should embrace, because all fiction is contemporary, and in twenty years very little is still relevant. Trading “Hitting Hard TODAY” for “Possible relevance in the future” is an very bad exchange, and IMHO we’d do well to aim for now far more than we do. But damn is it hard. Thus the mad props. <3

 

Second: Iterations, by Daniel H Wilson. A story of how people will cope in the future. Saying much more would give away too much, but it’s a beautiful and touching story, that left me very conflicted and with all sorts of thoughts. Again, good for transhuman-interested readers.

 

Finally: Love, Interest, by Justis Devan. A hilarious Harem-Anime-inspired crackfic. Which, again, ends up going very interesting places, while still being very entertaining. I thought I’d just skim the first few paragraphs to see how the author managed to spin what’s basically a joke-prompt, and I ended up getting sucked deep in and unable to stop until the story was over. Well done!

Aug 022017
 

The Fractal Prince, by Hannu Rajaniemi

Synopsis: In a post-singularity world, a hacker/identity thief searches for the uploaded consciousness of a 7-year-old boy (that’s been on loop for centuries) who grew up to become a god.

Book Review: If he isn’t among the pantheon of post-singularity writers yet, Rajaniemi really deserves to be there. This is a wildly creative and extremely well-realized work. Often when people (even including myself) say “creative” they mean “oh, that’s a really neat idea!” But Rajaniemi just keeps piling on not only cool ideas, but great narratives that exploit those ideas, and has clearly spent a lot of time contemplating how they would change many aspects of life and how they interact with each other. This is a richly detailed and deep world, with delicious complexity.

In addition, the people that inhabit this world view it as normal. So when you’re reading it everything is presented in regular-life sort of colors and attitudes. But the more you learn about the world the more it is clear that this is an existence most of us would be horrified by, that’s been normalized by centuries of it just being this way, and by the fact that the story can (necessarily) only be told by the winners/survivors.

Of course the fact that extremely bizarre situations are presented matter-of-factly does make this a bit of a challenge to read. It is not a quick read, it demands the reader to a share of the mental lifting. I personally really like that sort of thing, as long as it’s not a damned chore (I’m looking at you, Joyce). It also means that as you progress a lot of things that were confusing at first resolve and make a lot more sense. You may even want to reread some of the early chapters later on and see how the feeling of “Oh wow… now that I know stuff it all makes sense!” feels like, again. It’s not unlike when you were a kid and algebra suddenly made sense (or whatever your pet Revelation moment is).

The one thing I disliked about the story was that our protagonist reused the same gambit a few times to win key conflicts. It was clever the first time, but it got old. I mean, IRL I would re-use a tactic that works as well, but it’s less fun in a story.

I like that I’m not entirely sure our hero is that great a person. And I really REALLY empathize with our villain, he has a truly noble goal. To the point that I believe the Shadow Plot is about how his Pure, Noble Goal led him to take increasingly drastic measures to achieve it, and ultimately twisting him into a villain through slow value-drift.

Anyway, if you like stories about uploaded minds cooperating and clashing with copies of themselves, and identity thieves literally stealing minds to become/corrupt their identities, and computer-virus warfare among planet-covering nano-clouds, and ancient meme-plexes bootstrapping themselves into existence by creating highly-fractal fiction… then BOY do I have a story for you!! Highly Recommended!

Book Club Review: This is the second book in a trilogy. We read the first book a number of years ago, back before I’d started writing these reviews, in fact. The Quantum Thief.

The Quantum Thief is a fantastic Book Club novel. It introduces the world slowly, sticks with more meat-space settings and characters, and is structured as a classic Heist story, with lots of action and fun. I highly recommend it for book clubs.

Since it had been so long since we read the first one, about half the people in our book club were new enough that they hadn’t read Quantum Thief. I hoped to make up for this by posting a HUGELY spoilery summary of Quantum Thief, that covered all the important concepts and plot details to get new readers up to speed. Because I couldn’t find one already written online even after a fair bit of Googling. It’s here. But it turns out that it’s not enough. One really needs to read the first book first.

Moreover, the second book ups the difficulty and weirdness enough that even among the people who had read the first book, not all of them enjoyed the second book. Not everyone is as interested in questions of identity and meme propagation and post-singularity weirdness as I am. So while there were a few interesting topics to speak on, the discussion didn’t go for very long.

I think if your book club consists primarily of people who are really into this sort of thing, Fractal Prince would be great. But for a general-interest book club with a wider variety of members, this may be a step too far. Stick with Quantum Thief. Fractal Prince, as awesome as it is, is sadly probably Not Recommended for book clubs. (and certainly shouldn’t be read without reading QT first)

Aug 022017
 

The Quantum Thief. Note that this post contains ALL THE SPOILERS! It’s written for the benefit of my book club who hadn’t read The Fractal Prince yet, but it turns out that even this synopsis doesn’t help much, and one really should read the book itself. Might serve as handy reminder for people who’ve gone a few years between books though?

Novel starts with Jean le Flambeur in the Dilemma Prison, a virtual realm. It’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma set up with thousands of copies of himself, in the theory that eventually he’ll turn into a good person after enough iterations. He encounters the monster of the Dilemma Prison, the All-Defector, who convinces you into cooperating and then defects anyway. Meili, the winged lady, has hacked into the Prison with the aid of Pelegrinni, one of the Sobornost. She grabs Jean and breaks out.

Note: “grabs Jean” means copying one instance of him. “Breaks out” means downloading that consciousness into a robot body provided by Pelegrinni. Thousands of other copies of him are simply left behind to continue being tortured/rehabilitated.

Note: the Sobornost are 8(?) people. Each one uploaded their consciousness to silicon and created millions (billions?) of copies of themselves, all with slight alterations in order to be better as specific tasks, and each one works as basically a single Large, Distributed Person. But they often break off branches of themselves to go do other tasks. Pelegrinni is one of these people, and she broke off a copy to go with Meili to free Jean and get him to steal something for her.

subNote: The 8 Sobornost minds have an uneasy truce among them, but often clash. They’ve also taken over much of the inner systems. Mars and Earth are both reduced to a single city, I’m not sure Venus exists anymore. All other matter is being converted to computronium.

The jailors, known as “Archons”, notice they’ve lost a copy of Jean. One comes after him, a sliver of smartmatter that penetrates their ship and begins to convert it into another Dilemma Prison. Jean defeats it by “swallowing” it, creating a false virtual world within his robot body’s mental computer that tricks the Archon into thinking it is still in the real world, and has succeeded in re-capturing Jean, and is now happily torturing/rehabilitating him in a new Dilemma Prison.

This Jean-copy is missing a lot of memories that the original Jean had. He can’t steal anything for Pelegrinni until he becomes himself again. Our Jean travels to the Oubliette, the city on Mars, where the entire population’s memories are stored permanently in the city internet, and are uploaded as they’re created in real time. These memories are VERY tightly guarded behind unbreakable encryption, so you can only share memories with people if you have their consent. It’s an intensely private society. But with the right tools and lies you can get people’s encryption keys and hack into their stored memories. The original Jean used to live in the Oubliette. Our Jean is going there to steal back his memories.

On Mars we learn that nearly all human minds have been converted into “gogols.” These are basically mind-slaves. They are uploaded humans that have been trained in specific computational tasks that are economically useful (math, piloting, hacking, surgery, infiltration, accounting, engineering, whatever). They have been stripped of most human drives, and so want only to perform their function. The Sobornost, for undisclosed reasons, want a copy of every human mind in existence under their control. They pay pirates to copy the minds on Mars and send them to Sobornost stations. The people of Mars obviously find this repugnant, they do not want copies of themselves mutilated and enslaved. Because who wants to wake up tomorrow and find out they’re under the complete control of a callous god that will use you as a tool for eternity without rest? But since the people on Mars are basically standard humans with some upgrades, they would be wiped out by the vastly technologically-superior Sobornost in a matter of weeks. So they’ve formed an alliance with the Zoku.

On Mars we meet a colony of the Zoku. They’re the flipside of the Sobornost. They are large numbers of humans who have linked their minds together via quantum-entanglement, using small devices that look like gems. Thus they are called “Zoku gems.” This makes them sorta a single entity, the same way the Sobornost are a single entity, but they are comprised of many different humans working together, rather than a single human copied and recreated millions of times. The Zoku have been at war with the Sobornost for a long, long time (called “The Protocol War”). Jupiter was destroyed during the war, creating an event known as “The Spike” when the solar system was flooded with radiation from its fiery disintegration. The Zoku have been losing lately, which was why they teamed up with the humans on Mars. The little extra firepower has let them hold a draw for a while.

Lots of cool shit happens on Mars, Meili and Jean save each others lives several times and bond (sorta), and their ship (“Perhonen”) is sarcastic and loyal and awesome. Murders and explosions and such!

In the end we learn that the original Jean had a rich life on Mars with many friends, who he eventually abandoned when he disappeared. Our Jean, in the course of trying to steal back the memories left here, discovers that the original Jean never actually left Mars. He has hidden himself here, deleting himself from everyone else’s memories and sight when he gained root access to the memory-cloud of Mars. He alters people’s memories and minds at will in order to rule Mars from the shadows. The two Jeans confront each other in an absolutely epic showdown. In the end our Jean unleashes the Archon he trapped within himself. The Archon creates a new Dilemma Prison that traps the original Jean within in it. Now that it has a Jean it is happy. Our Jean escapes. Unfortunately the Dilemma Prison also ate all the memories that our Jean came here to find, so he never gets them at all. He has failed. The one thing he manages to steal as he leaves is a small cube.

The cube is a quantum computer. Locked within it is a god – a copy of the original mind of one of the 8 Sobornost founders.

Also of note: in the climax the main supporting character – Mieli – gives Pelegrinni a copy of her mind to do with as she wishes. Copy, alter, replicate a thousand times, resurrect her if she dies, whatever. This is in exchange for Pelegrinni swooping in to save Jean’s life at a crucial moment. This causes Mieli much distress, since before this she had been unique and un-copied.

In the epilogue we discover that Matjek Chen is the most powerful Sobornost right now, and is moving to consume or destroy the others. Pelegrinni has formed an alliance with him, but is secretly only out for herself. She plans to use Jean to steal something (we still don’t know what) from Matjek—an artifact that could change the course of their civil war. We also learn that when Jean was broken out of the Dilemma Prison at the very beginning, the All-Defector broke out as well, and is loose somewhere. Finally, Pelegrinni warns Matjek that Jean is coming for him, so Matjek creates a Hunter to track down Jean and eliminate him. Pelegrinni tells this Hunter where to find Jean, whispering his name and location to it. The hunt is on!

Jul 192017
 

The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

Synopsis: A fleet of Death Star-esque biological space stations are slowly dying. Their inhabitants will die with them, so they fight bloody wars over the few healthy stations remaining.

Book Review: This could have been a good book if it had been given the attention it needed. The premise has promise, and the world Hurley has created is intriguing. But this feels like a first draft that was rushed out.

We are often not given any description of our surroundings or the objects our hero (Zan) interacts with, which is a problem in science-fiction. I need some idea of what a space station’s interior looks like, aside from “biological.” When Zan goes to the hanger (how big?), looks at a “vehicle,” repairs it, takes off, and gets into combat, it wasn’t until she was already zipping through space that I realized it was basically a space-motorcycle that she was riding on. Until then I’d defaulted to a Star Trek-style shuttlecraft.

This sort of thing is rife throughout the book. The dialog can be clunky, as if it was a placeholder for something to be fleshed out. Whenever anything with color is described it is always just one or two simple primary colors that are mentioned. I got sick of everything being either Green, Yellow, or Purple–it felt like I was watching a low-budget cartoon. Some of the action didn’t quite make sense, as if Hurley wasn’t really keeping track of where in the room everyone was, just jotting down fighting motions.

All this led to boredom with the story. Reading a slightly-filled-in story outline doesn’t make for exciting reading. When I got to the first sex scene I thought “Oh thank goodness, at least this will be interesting.” But it turns out that an author rushing through a narrative can even make sex boring.

Hurley also starts the novel off with an amnesiac character (already a very tricky thing to do) and then has a second POV character. Who is intimately tied up in these events, but without anmesia. Which, like, at that point the jig is up. We’re in the POV of someone who knows the mysterious thing in the recent past that is supposed to be providing narrative suspense. Hurley tries to get around this by simply concealing it from us. At least once I read something like ‘She thought about the thing in her past, the really bad thing she tries not to think about.’ The POV character literally thought about the thing while we’re in her POV that we’re not supposed to know about, so it’s just marked as “the thing” she’s thinking about. Is there any way MORE clumsy to hide info from the reader?  /fallsonfloor

Hurley does do a very good job of conveying rage, which is her trademark. So anytime there was rage to be felt, I felt it. But then there’s the other 95% of the novel…

The thing is, Kameron Hurley is a good writer. Both The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have To Live and We Have Always Fought are very well done! I’ve heard from numerous sources that God’s War is really good, and I regret we didn’t read that one instead! Why was Stars Are Legion written so carelessly?

In Horror Novel we are told that Hurley has Type 1 Diabetes, and can only afford to live as long as she keeps a day job that provides Health Insurance. This is, in fact, the primary reason that most people who would otherwise take risks working for themselves or starting a new business instead continue working for The Man. Our government makes it extremely difficult for anyone with dependents or not in perfect health to do anything other than work as a cog in the corporate system. If I recall correctly, in a more recent post she’s mentioned that she aims for two novels a year. Plus her day job, family/relationships, etc. That’s a crazy pace.

You hear about this sort of thing a lot in music. A band puts out their first album, and it’s the culmination of years and years of effort. And then they’ve got six months to put out the follow-up album, and it’s just not enough time to make something as great, something that was refined over years. Authors often sign multi-book contracts, because I guess that’s what publishers want nowadays? If something comes up in personal life, or work life, and you can’t find the time on weekends and evenings to make this what it should be–tough. The publisher wants a manuscript, and the contract has a deadline and a word count, and you can’t fuck that up if you want to keep a career in fiction writing. So instead, one is forced to hand in an early draft and go to print with that.

This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if we had sane healthcare. If people weren’t forced to work 40 hours a week to get access to the insurance-industry-paywalled medicine that keeps them alive. If an author could choose to live on low wages and take the time they need for a book, rather than having that choice mean death. What I’m saying is, America’s shitty healthcare is to blame for all sorts of things, and this is just one more of them. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone was as disappointed as I was. The coolness of the setting kept a number of people hooked through the end. One of our readers said the real story is in the last 25 pages or so (which I never got to) and this would really have been better as a short story or novelette. But there’s not much wider conversation that this novel brings up, and I can’t see any reason to inflict this on a book club. Not Recommended.

Jul 042017
 

Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

Synopsis: When the God of Fire dies unexpectedly, forensic accountant/mage Tara steps in to keep the infrastructure that ran on his power from collapsing. She soon uncovers a conspiracy from the first days of the God Wars.

Book Review: This is a snappy modern piece that hits all the important notes and left me admiring the ease with which it flowed.

As you can probably tell from the synopsis, Gladstone has a fascinating setting crafted. His world is in the early stages of the industrial revolution, featuring very cosmopolitan urban centers still surrounded by rural countrysides full of superstitious villagers. But this industrial revolution uses gods and a scientific renaissance in human-directed magic as power sources, rather than coal and gas.

A while back it was noted (by Winston Churchill) that if magic actually existed, it would be a branch of applied engineering by now. There’ve been a number of explorations of this over recent decades, and they are neat to see. I think this is the first time I’ve seen someone expand this to the financial system. Which, now that I’ve read it, makes complete sense. Of course it wouldn’t stop with the engineers. The quants would get up in that shiz and find a way to leverage and create financial instruments and soon half the world’s economy would be wrapped up in arcane contract law (pun actually not intended). Published in 2012, this is a very post-2008-financial-crisis book, and it pulls it off  with aplomb! It also marks this as a very modern work, despite being set in an industrial-revolution era.

The language and sensibilities are very contemporary as well. This feels like reading a modern urban fantasy. Except in urban fantasy the magical part of the world is always somehow hidden from the rest of humanity, and the entire genre is pretty tedious because of this. Here all the magic is out front and integrated into society, while keeping the modern parlance of urban fantasy. Our protagonists speak with our speech patterns. When a sleeping vampire wakes to find that someone has slid their wrist into his mouth he spits out “Haven’t you ever heard of consent?” It’s basically Steampunk Buffy + The Big Short, and it’s a delight to read. One of our book club members called it “Dark and Fluffy,” which is a perfect description. :)

There are some problems with pacing around the middle. It really drags for a while after a plot-transition, during which time we don’t really have anything invested in the protagonist succeeding. The threat of her losing her job doesn’t seem very threatening (even though, in theory, we know why it is, this isn’t conveyed in a compelling way). In a lesser book I might have abandoned it at this point. But the strength of the extremely relate-able characters and the enthralling setting pulled me through, and it started to pick up again.

And then the climax! This is one of those books where the climax lasts for the entire final third/quarter! I started into it a bit late in the night, and then I couldn’t put the book down until I was done, so I was up for far longer than I should have been. It is so good, it just keeps growing and topping itself and slamming new twists in which were well set-up before. Every character contributes in a meaningful way until it all cumulates in a glorious cresendo.

The book has some rough edges, but it’s got some real beauty in it too. Good story, imaginative setting, great characters – definitely Recommended.

Book Club Review: An interesting mix! While my overall impression was shared by most, the specifics that different people liked varied. Some weren’t as into the modern voice, others were less happy about the dark bits, and so forth. But they liked other bits of it more to balance it out, so comparing notes on what really spoke to people was neat. (Though everyone agreed the middle dragged). Only one reader disliked it, she didn’t find anything there that spoke to her and viewed it as lost time. Which happens sometimes, not everything works for everyone. Overall though, everyone else enjoyed it and was glad to have read it.

The difficulty comes in that there isn’t all that much else to talk about. There are obvious ties being made between the fantasy world and our own, but they aren’t used to say very much. The book could have made much stronger “Capitalism Will Take Everything True And Good, Dissect It, And Then Sell It Back To You In Super-Efficient Soulless Pieces” statement. It was obvious that was the theme that the book had originally been going for. It is a very pertinent theme, I’m seeing it more and more, and seems to be one of the biggest points of existential suffering in modern life. I really like works that explore that theme.

But somewhere along the way, Three Parts Dead got distracted by the evil-lich-is-evil, lets-all-stop-him game. Which is fine, it makes a good story. But the theme was lost. Now the villain was just a standard Nefarious Bad Dude, instead of The Systemic Forces That We All Embrace.

It’s still a good story. I’m just sad it isn’t the great story it looks like it was aiming for. I would give it a very mild Not Recommended. Depending on your book club’s moods/tastes, it might slip into recommended? Also it’s decently well known by a lot of people now, so that may give it another point in its favor.

Jun 152017
 

Hugo AwardOur book club read and discussed all freely available Hugo-nominated Novelettes and Short Stories this week. As always, it was a refreshing change of pace, and I highly recommend it to everyone! Here’s my review, which is a bit different from how I normally do these.

Novelettes:

“The Art of Space Travel”, by Nina Allan
— This is Lit Fic. It is an author examining the human condition via the day-to-day struggles of a normal working-class person. There is no plot, and the entire story consists of the author emoting on the page, showing that emotions are emotional and humans are complicated, and hoping we think this makes the work deep and noteworthy. Look, dammit, writing Lit Fic and shoving it 50 years into the future does not actually make it SF. Bleh.

“The Tomato Thief”, by Ursula Vernon
— The strength of the voice in this piece is amazing. It reach out and grabs you in the very first paragraph. You are living in the world of this crotchety old grandma, and she is obstinate and salty and does not have time for your shit. It’s writing like this that makes you viscerally understand the difference between masters of the craft and people who write on a lark. It is just plain good. The voice is just the start, of course. The setting (American Southwest Desert mythology) is beautiful and richly detailed, the world building is comfortable and builds in well-executed blocks. The plot ramps at a great pace as well. This doesn’t have the deep emotional scars and quakes of last year’s killer “Jackelope Wives” (by Vernon), so I don’t find it to be as impactful. But it is a good tale, and very enjoyable.

“Touring with the Alien”, by Carolyn Ives Gilman
— An interesting concept, but lacking in execution. The piece tries to re-examine the “intellect without consciousness” theme in a light-hearted way, and it just doesn’t work very well. Who is able to look at the death of consciousness and shrug? It’s a horrifying concept, it’s basically the impetus behind our fear of zombies. Every good handling of this that I’ve seen has been dark/horror, culminating with Watts’s masterwork. Maybe there’s a way to do it that isn’t so angst-heavy, but this attempt certainly didn’t pull it off. Also, the protagonists attitude throughout is basically one of “Meh, whatever,” including her decision at the end to allow the human race to be “colonized.” There’s been times in my life when I was OK with wiping out the human race, but never when my attitude was one of general “whatevs” and it just felt off. A decision like that needs some more motivation IMHO.

“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, by Alyssa Wong
— Beautiful prose, and an fantastic world. Again, American Southwest Desert mythology, because trends in SF are a thing. :) I love the world here, the “just beneath the skin of everything” magic, and the idea of the desert itself as a non-physical being – one that can marry a physical human and give birth to a son. The emotion throughout is beautiful, and the twist at the end makes for a good spice. It turns out this is basically a villain origin story, or what the rest of the world would consider a ‘traditional villain’ at any rate. I have a huge love of stories where the protagonist is a “villain”. That being said, the prose sometimes gets in the way of the story, rather than adding to it. The beginning drags on much longer than it has to. And then the end, where you expect to see our protagonist wreak bloody vengeance on his murderers (who are legitimately evil assholes destroying his hometown and way of life), you instead get a dance scene. Literally, a bunch of people dance with their deceased loved ones. I get what she was trying to do, a Dia De Los Muertos thing, but it just did not work with the narrative flow of what Wong had been writing up to that point. It interrupted it so badly that I didn’t remember how this story ended — I had originally read it back in 2016. I had to reread for the bookclub, and realized why this story hadn’t stuck in my mind (all I could remember was “cool world, pretty writing). The ending is dis-congruent enough that it’s hard for the story to cohere and leave a footprint behind in my memory.

[[ The next two aren’t available online, and so weren’t read by the majority of our book club. Here’s my impressions anyway ]]

Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, by Stix Hiscock
— this year’s Rabid Puppy troll nomination. Hilarious in many scenes! :) But not a contender. And not nearly as well written as Chuck Tingle erotica, which is weird. Chuck Tingle manages to capture the “New Relationship Energy” butterflies very well, and writes some hot sex scenes. Alien Stripper had great comedy, but didn’t do either of the things that erotica is supposed to do. IMHO… I’m not a huge erotica reader, maybe there’s sub-genres I’m not familiar with.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde
— Epic Fantasy in short form! The magic system is *amazing*! Semi-sentient gems grant people powers, but also slowly drive them mad through constant whispers into their brain. It’s like wearing The One Ring all the time. The story starts out right at the Disaster scene, and details an fantastic friendship between the princess and her magic-using servant as they try to survive an coup/invasion. The tension ramps constantly, and the stakes keep increasing. Every time a problem is solved, a new one crops up that’s even bigger, and oh god, how will they get out of this? A damn fine story! The voice wasn’t notable, but this one is probably my favorite. It’s one major downside is that it doesn’t really have an ending. It just… stops. It feels like the first few chapters of a great epic fantasy novel, rather than a self-contained story with an arc.

 

Short Stories:

“The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin
— Another contender for the OMG AMAZING VOICE award! From page one you are in the skin of a the protagonist, a street rat in NY swept up in the affairs of inhuman godlike powers. It is gripping and epic, like everything of Jemisin’s I’ve ever read. Another one of those “Wow… this is why they are masters and they get the awards” moments. The story is a bit sparse, and near the end it gets so metaphysical and dreamlike that the story kinda loses the reader a little. A great display of craft, but it left me feeling sorta empty at the end, and I’m not really sure why. I don’t think the protagonist had an emotional/personal shift over the course of the story, leaving it without a solid arc for us to follow. That, unfortunately, means it won’t stay with me very long.

“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, by Alyssa Wong
— I wanted to love this story. Two reasons – first, the twist that finally comes clear in your mind about halfway through is a massive bombshell. It rearranges everything you’d read up to that point. And what had been confusing and incoherent suddenly all snaps into place and makes perfect sense and you get a feeling of “Ooooohhhhh!!! …woah, shit!” That is a superbly executed twist! Second – this story is what Vellum would be, if someone tried to write it as a short story. The same heartbreak, the same refusal to accept the unacceptable, the same desperate cycling of attempts to change the past, over and over across so many different universes. The same impossible frustration of never seeing it come to pass, of the horror-event occuring relentlessly, and the helplessness to do anything about it, ever. I love this thing so much. BUT… it really needs a full-novel-length treatment to do it right. You need all the pages and attempts and struggle of a full novel to bring the emotional devastation to bear. You need the time and word count to really get to know the characters, and fall in love with them, and feel the wrenching agony of the undivertable horror. When done as a book, it’s one of the best things ever written. When done as a short story, it is abrupt and truncated and falls flat. I wanted to love this story for what it could be. But it didn’t have the length to become what it needed to be. It isn’t a story that can be told well in this few words. :(

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, by Brooke Bolander
— I like the experimental structure of this story. I was disappointed by the content. It is a revenge story, except without the revenge. We don’t get emotionally involved in the wrong that was done. And when the revenge comes it is off-screen. How do you tell a revenge story without the wrong OR the revenge? IMHO – you don’t. It basically boils down to braggadocio. “We’re so bad ass. We’re the baddest ass mother fuckers. Don’t fuck with us. We’re rolling around in a bad-ass car, smoking cigarettes, and being bad ass, cuz that’s how bad ass we are.” It would have appealed to me when I was an angry young teenage boy, but that sort of posturing doesn’t really do it for me anymore.
Also – as part of their revenge, the protagonist and her sisters damn someone to unending, unimaginable, eternal suffering. At that point any author completely loses my sympathy. Your protagonist is LITERALLY AS EVIL AS THE CHRISTIAN GOD! Fuck right off, I will never empathize with that sort of monstrosity, no matter how horrendous the victim of the retribution was. Please do better than “literally the most morally depraved actor imaginable” for your protagonist…
That being said, several people in my bookclub loved this story, so tastes differ.

“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar
— An interesting mash-up and retelling of two little-known fairy-tales. The visuals are very cool, and it has a rich fairy-tale flavor. And the friendship forged between the protagonists is done very well. I also read this one in 2016, and it also didn’t really stick with me, because it seemed, for lack of a better word, childish. I could tell there was supposed to be some sort of message the author was conveying, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it’s supposed to be. Centuries-old fairy tales are really sexist? Well, ok. That’s not news, and usually a message is supposed to impel one to reconsider their biases or update their view of others or modify their unexamined behaviors, or something. What is anyone supposed to do with “very old fairytales are sexist”? We already know, and it’s not like we can go back in time and change them…
Readers in my bookclub suggested the message is “Treating women as objects to be pursued/won instead of people is bad. Women are people too.” I think this just doesn’t come across well in the fairy-tale format, because fairy-tales are already so cartoonish by nature. Having a bunch of cartoon men at the base of a hill shaking their cartoon fists at a woman really didn’t convey an emotional truth. Compare to James Tiptree Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See,” which conveys powerfully and in a gut-churning way what it is like to live in a world full of hostile, physically-overpowering creatures who’s primary motivation is sexual exploitation. I’ll never forget that story, it crystallized so many things, and I cannot recommend it enough. “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is mostly a gathering of applause lights for things we already know. Abusive husbands are bad, selling your daughter is bad, and women shouldn’t put up with it. That’s a great theme, but putting it in a fairy-tale just sorta makes it cartoony instead of emotionally relevant. This is the sort of story I’d expect to see as someone is working their way up to writing something significant, but it isn’t there yet.

“That Game We Played During the War”, by Carrie Vaughn
— A great piece about being understood in the midst of isolation. The protagonist is the only non-telepathic person in a country populated by mind-reading telepaths. All her thoughts are on constant display to everyone, but she can’t see anything they are thinking. Interestingly, it never feels overly paranoid, due to the protagonists warm disposition and acceptance of her circumstances. It takes place after a war between their two people, where she was a nurse in a POW camp that held the telepathic soldiers, where she befriended one. The connection they make despite their differences brings warmth to both their lives, and while this is never said in the story, I get the impression that both of them are very isolated in their societies, and discover they can only be truly understood by the enemy. It also touches a little bit into game theory, but not very significantly for those from a rationalist background. Still, it was fun to see! I found this piece touching and comfortable to read. Not intense like I usually like my stories, but pretty good anyway. The ending seems to come too soon, and without enough punch. Overall, I think I liked this one best in this category.

[[ The last story isn’t available online, and so weren’t read by the majority of our book club. Here’s my impressions anyway ]]

An Unimaginable Light, by John C. Wright
— John C. Wright has never been subtle. He’s basically today’s Ayn Rand, with monologueing characters who spell out the superiority of their morality for the benefit of the reader. Of course this is my guilty pleasure, so I generally really enjoy his work. It doesn’t hurt that he is an extremely talented writer. Say what you want about the shlockly substance of his stories, he is a master of wordcraft.
Anyway, he’s decided that all his previous screeds were TOO SUBTLE and went full frontal. The antagonist is a disgusting, ugly, fat man, that spouts non-stop SJW platitudes. Basically the worst possible representation of liberal america as culled from the internet. He is a literal inquisitor in a hellscape future where SJWs have taken over. Our protagonist is a female version of Jesus. Not the offspring of God, but that is the only difference between her and the historic Christ. She espouses Christian ideals, takes on all the sins of her people, forgives her persecutor, and is then chained to a cross-like structure and tortured to death in order to absolve her people of their sins. YES, REALLY. (also, for extra culture war points, the SJW caricature demands she fellate him)
So, yeah, not subtle. But the twist delivered at the end is super effective. I had to go back several pages and reread their final conversation with the new information in mind, and it changed everything. It turned from a putrid anti-SJW screed, to a really beautiful message of redemption that happens to be wrapped up inside a putrid anti-SJW screed tortilla. I can overlook the festering tortilla for the tasty redemption story underneath, because that’s what was instilled into me in childhood, and those roots run deep. I’m embarrased to admit this, but I liked the ending. Like I said, morally self-righteous screeds are my guilty pleasure. I like Ayn Rand’s works too. I just know better than to take her (or Wright) seriously. It is like porn for my moral sense. Fun to diddle to now and then, but not something that should impact real life in anyway.
I hope no one thinks much worse of me due to this admission? Both Rand and Wright as still repugnant as people. They just make art that tickles a thing in me that doesn’t get much tickling IRL.

Overall Impressions of 2017

I found this to be a lackluster year, from my perspective. Some good examples of craft, but almost every story lacked the thematic depth and emotional super-stimulus that I crave in fiction. I know that’s just a taste thing, but most years the Hugos manage to have a couple pieces in every category that really hit “theme” and “emotion-journey” very well. None of the 2017 crop were as compelling or wrenching as the few I found for myself. I hope this will not be a trend.

May 252017
 

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Synopsis: A child factory-slave escapes from a slave planet. Also, an AI transfers from ship-embodiment to humanoid-robot embodiment, and tries to get used to that.

Book Review: The first few chapters of this are fantastic! We jump right into action, in which a ship’s AI thrust into a humanoid-robot body against her wishes. She experiences intense body dysphoria, which is something I have a lot of interest in reading about. And her mere existence is illegal, so there’s great set up for action.

Likewise, the child-slave’s POV is fascinating, with her having been completely sheltered from everything in the world that isn’t the factory. When there’s an accident and she sees the outside world for the first time she doesn’t have the words to describe a room that goes on forever without walls, and a ceiling that… isn’t? It’s awesome.

And then you get a few more chapters in and you realize this is a terrible book. It is a first draft. And half of it is a 14-year old’s diary. The AI gets a job, goes to parties to meet people, has picnics, fights with her guardians, etc. There is no conflict or stakes, and the “character growth” is of the superficial variety that you get when you’re a teen growing up in suburbia. I realize there’s an entire genre of fiction that focuses purely on examining character, called Literary Fiction. But writers of Lit Fic know that Lit Fic is inherently boring, so they do a lot of cool things to spice it up! They develop unique and quirky voices. They use lyrical prose and experiment with structure. There is a huge amount of flair and style to keep one’s interest. And they often bring in very emotionally-charged stakes. That is how one makes something like this interesting and fun to read. Becky Chambers didn’t do any of that. The AI chapters are basically what Lit Fic boils down to if you remove all the stylistic trappings: a 14  year old’s diary. It was so intensely boring I just started skipping all the AI chapters after a half dozen of them.

The child-slave’s chapters were neat in that they were written at a 4th-grade level or so, really bringing across her mental simplicity. I thought that was a nice touch, until I realized that the AIs chapters are written at the same level. I expected the AI to use fancy words and complicated concepts. I quickly came to suspect that’s just the native writing level of this book, rather than a stylistic choice. Sooo… there’s that.

But the child-slave chapters soon grew boring too. Any difficulties are solved quickly and with a minimum of tension. There is nothing to look forward to from one chapter to the next. I stopped reading the book 2/3rds of the way through because I just couldn’t find any reason to open it again.

Also of note – for how many non-humans are in this book, there aren’t actually ANY non-humans in this book. There are lots of humans with tentacles, or humans with scales, or jelly-fish humans that talk by changing color, but every single mind in this book is a recognizably human mind, with human thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Even the AI is basically just a young, slightly-autistic human. It’s the most cliched and underbaked style of space opera possible, a true embodiment of the “aliens are just humans with forehead prosthetics” trope.

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Another interesting mix (two meetings in a row!). Some of our readers really liked the simplicity of the story, and truly enjoyed the sincerity and earnestness of the writing. It is, in a way, the opposite of Red Rising. Where Red Rising is an obviously soulless product extruded to collect entertainment dollars, Closed and Common Orbit has a lot of heart. If there’s one good thing that you can say about all 14 year old’s diaries, it’s that they are always intensely earnest. So if that’s your jam, this’ll do ya good.

It was fun seeing the breakdown between people who require a compelling narrative and those who just want to hang out with a character they like for a while. Both sides acknowledged that the other was correct in their claims, but they simply didn’t find that that affected their enjoyment (or lack thereof). It’s impossible to hate this book. But it’s entirely possible to find it a tedious waste of time, and be surprised that there’s enough people out there who like it that it ended up a Hugo Finalist. The discussion of this was interesting in its own right.

If this was any other book I’d say Not Recommended, because there’s tons of books out there that are a tedious waste of time and nothing really sets this one apart… except that it’s a Hugo Finalist. So if your book club is interested in seeing what this sort of thing reads like, I guess Mildly Recommended?

May 112017
 

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Synopsis: A young captain, aided by the ghost of a genius-but-insane general, must retake an impenetrable space fortress from the rebels that have seized control of it — in a universe where the laws of physics can be changed by consensus belief.

Book Review: First thing to note is that this is a Science Fantasy. That’s a fairly new term for an old concept. It’s been said that genre is mainly defined by its furniture, and I basically agree with this. So what do you call it when the furniture is both Science Fiction – spaceships, lasers, computers – and Fantasy – ghosts, ritual magic, sword fights? You call it Science Fantasy. It’s generally closer to Warhammer 40K than Star Wars, but both of those count. So, if you don’t like magic in your SF, you may not like this.

The magic in Ninefox Gambit is particularly neat, because the conceit is that consensus belief (as expressed through holy days and religious ritual) alters the laws of physics. That means that if enough people start believing things outside of official dogma your super-powerful space weapons and exotic defenses stop working, and your stardrives break down and you can’t keep the empire together. Publicly torturing heretics to reinforce orthodox belief becomes a matter of both galactic security and personal safety (who wants to find out what happens when your artificial gravity or inertial dampners stop working?).

The fact that the story is conveyed within an altered physics by a character who is native to that physics makes the world endlessly fascinating. When a fox-servitor hops up *on the air* to come level with a table was my first big “Oh, wow, this is nothing like my physics” moment. In places light has texture. It’s relentlessly cool. But it’s also dense and alien, and all these things are conveyed by just thrusting you in the world and letting you figure it out via context, so the reading requires work. It took me as long a read this book as one twice it’s size normally would, because it was slow going parsing what was going on. I view this as a mark in the book’s favor, but don’t underestimate the time this will take, and don’t rush through it or you’ll lose lots of important details.

The plot is mil-fic layered over espionage. I find this a bit of a problem, because I’m not that big a fan of mil-fic, but I wasn’t ever bored, so at least it wasn’t bad mil-fic. The espionage added an interesting aspect, but… well…

I fell in love with this book early, due to the rich complexity and the LIBRARIES of potential here. The insane general who can only speak to the protagonist (Cheris) is basically an AI-in-a-box, with Cheris’s mind as the box! And she has to rely on him to win the battle, while being very careful not to let him escape, or betray the empire covertly, or subvert her into joining him. I thought the line “When he sounds sane and the rest of the world doesn’t, you know it’s time to pull the trigger” was the best freakin’ setup in the history of mental-battles ever. I was looking forward to some serious Death Note/Sword Of Good-style mind-fuckery.

The general’s mysterious mass-slaughter betrayal centuries ago was a fantastic set-up for some sort of Traitor Baru/Mycroft Canner/Cold Equations style “forced to do horrific thing for the greater good” backstory. The servitor’s secret society who’s existence must remain hidden from the humans was fascinating. There was just sooooo much deliciousness here that I still get excited thinking about it!

Plus the writing is gorgeous.

But in the end it all boils down to a basic plot with pretty simplistic motivations. All that potential is wasted in the service of a regular ol’ good person v evil empire story. It’s well done, and I feel like the parent who complains that their super-genius child is wasting their potential simply getting A’s in regular school when they could be pushing into early-college classes and super-advanced hard stuff. Like, it’s the kid’s life, it’s the kid’s potential, they can use it any way they please. But it’s still so heartbreaking to know what’s possible, and not see it realized.

I think this is an amazing set up for what could be one of the most epic Rational Fics ever. I kinda (very much) hope that someone in the RatFic community picks this up and creates the fanfic that makes it what I wish it was. :) Which sounds awful to say, and I’m sure Lee wouldn’t thank me for poo-pooing on their ending. I’m sorry! I loved the rest of it so much.

Anyway, despite the flat ending, still Recommended. Enough coolness in there to make it worth it, and maybe someone will be inspired to take it further.

Book Club Review: An interesting mix. This seems very much a book that grabs you early or turns you off early. A few of our members just didn’t get (or didn’t like) the “physics is altered by consensus beliefs” thing, and so the magic was chaotic and confusing and the universe made no sense to them. To be fair, the magic is chaotic and confusing, and the universe is intentionally bizarre. If you don’t pick up several core concepts fairly quickly the book is borderline nonsensical. Even among those who got it, not everyone appreciated it.

Due to the strangeness of the setting, most of the discussion ended up circling around that. Exploring the implications and/or complaining about the obfuscating explanations. The major theme(s?) of the book were lost among world building details and explosions. I don’t think this is bad though, we still had a pretty fun time talking.

It’s also a Hugo Finalist, so a bunch of other people will also have read it. One can discuss what traits likely caught the attention of Hugo readers, and how one feels about literary awards generally.

If your group is up for a challenge, then Recommended.

Apr 272017
 

Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

Synopsis: Another crappy remake of Hunger Games.

Book Review: The worst part of Red Rising isn’t that it’s a crappy remake. The worst part is that it’s so blatantly obvious that this is a completely mercenary, soulless work meant to cash in on a fad. There is no joy or passion in this writing. You can literally see Brown just taking large chunks of good books and putting them together in typical Hollywood fashion while changing a few words. He preserves the corpses of the works he’s looting, while discarding all the soul and emotion they once held. It is a monstrosity.

It starts with a crappy remake of Braveheart for motivation, uses a crappy remake of Hunger Games for setting/plot, and runs heavily as a crappy remake of Ender’s Game (with medieval weaponry) for its action. It temporarily marred my memories of the previous works (slightly) with its grubby paws.

And due to its soullessness, it’s impossible to care about anyone in the story, or anything that’s happening.

Actually, I take back what I said at the top. The ACTUAL worst part of Red Rising is that it’s successful. It sells spectacularly, with the 3rd book in the series making it to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and it is now being made into a movie. Brown’s rich now. It worked. Even though these books are the Transformers Franchise of SF Lit. As Cracked puts it “The question isn’t what’s wrong with him, the question is what is wrong with US.”

Also, I want to know who in Del Rey decided this should NOT be categorized as YA. Then I want that person to lose their job, and contract a very painful rash, and have their house catch on fire. I dislike most YA, and if it had been categorized correctly at least I would have been prepared. This is a STELLAR example of the worst of YA. It is NOTHING but YA tropes, stacked on each other, and sold to the YA audience. Look, you incredibly cynical, soulless, motherfucker at Del Rey – you and I both know that just because your YA novel has murder, rape, and cannibalism, that does NOT make it an “adult” novel (whatever the fuck that means). It is simply YA with murder, rape, and cannibalism. I hate you, don’t lie to us.

Not Recommended With Extreme Prejudice.

Book Club Review: Some people enjoyed it. I don’t judge people for enjoying something, everyone should be free to like whatever they like. Hey, I love Tinglers! I don’t read Romance, but I don’t begrudge people their Romance novels. I don’t judge Romance authors either, because they are putting out something they love, something with passion in it. All this goes for Lit Fic and YA as well. Enjoy what you enjoy, write what inspires you!

I do judge the cynical author who doesn’t have any passion for his story, or any care for his art. Much of the discussion in our group was along those lines, with some people (like myself) being offended at the brazenness of this exploit, and others saying “Eh, it was an easy read and I was entertained.” I don’t know if all groups will split this way, or if people will find other, deeper themes to discuss. But I cannot, in good conscience, inflict this “story” on anyone else. Not Recommended.

Apr 182017
 

City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Synopsis: In a world where humans killed their gods, the functioning of certain holy relics suggests one might have survived, and the consequences if this isn’t fixed could be world-ending.

Book Review: This is a sequel to City of Stairs, a book I really liked! Unfortunately, the sequel has lost much of the mojo.

To start, the protagonist of City of Blades isn’t nearly as charming or likable. The setting feels much less realized, and with the exception of a single cool fight scene, there just aren’t the Moments of Awesome that the first book had.

It also is basically a low-budget remake of the first book. The plot is nearly identical, with a few details changed here and there. But again, a government agent working in secret is investigating a murder, and discovers clues that a deity may not be as dead as was thought, and has to work against skeptical local government interference and the plotting of cultists in order to unravel the mystery and stop the god.

Now, I understand many people like this sort of thing. There’s quite a number of authors who make a fine living by having written one really good book, and then just re-writing it every year or two with the details changed but nothing of substance differing. I understand the human pull to relive and relish the familiar and the comfortable. It’s every sitcom episode, it’s every romance novel, it’s every Disney movie (and I mean every property Disney owns, not just the animated stuff, side-eye-at-several-franchises,you-know-who-you-are). But I find it boring. Please give me something new.

I dunno, am I a whore for novelty? Will I some day burn through all the creative new stuff, and live a life of artistic ennui, never satisfied with a world I’ve drained of color? Hm. A topic for another day. In any case, I consider this story to be somewhat creatively lazy.

And just as bad, I found it lazy in terms of craft as well. The first half plods along slowly. Then we get a GIANT MONOLOGUE that reveals everything to our protagonist, in the worst tradition of “Let me tell you the entire plot now.” It’s not a bad plot, but that is not how to skillfully guide your reader through a plot! You might as well just have handed us your outline. I expect to have a fair bit of plot revealed to me over time, within the story, preferably via actions/investigations of the protagonist. To have so much of it laid out as a lecture is unexciting.

Then in the second half it feels like the author lost a lot of interest in the story, and sorta goes through the motions hurriedly in order to get us to the end.

I can’t say this was a bad book, really. It was OK. But there was nothing here I found interesting, and quite a bit that I thought was subpar. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not bad. We did talk a bit about the nature of sequels, and the human desire for repetition vs novelty. Also the demands we place on creative people (“Make your next album like your previous album, I want more of what I loved! But not TOO much like it, I want it to be new!”), and how one evolves in their creative lifetime. But those things don’t really necessitate reading this particular book.

There was praise of the cool scene in the middle, and some griping about the various things that annoyed us (grenades are not demolition charges!), and most people in the book club enjoyed this to some extent. A few liked the book quite a lot. So I’m reluctant to say one should avoid this. But there are so many other, better books out there, that I can’t recommend it either. If you’d like a good book in this setting that is new and interesting, I’d steer you to the predecessor, City of Stairs. :) But as for City of Blades – Not Recommended.