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.

Mar 282018
 

The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: The conclusion of the 5th Season trilogy. Could be summed up as “A very long and in-depth version of Those Who Walk Away From Omelas”

Book Review: Solid, with great thematic heft, but a disappointing plot.

The thematic arc of this trilogy is fantastic. Novels (or series of novels) often have plot arcs, or character arcs, but it’s unusual to see an arc of progression in a story’s themes. Yet Jemisin pulls off exactly this. At the start of the trilogy, the theme is raw, unmitigated rage. Rage at injustice, rage at exploitation and murder. By the end of the trilogy, the focus has shifted to revenge. To the expression of that rage in physical action. Righting the wrongs, and punishing the monsters. And it asks “when is it enough?” When someone has killed your child, enslaved you, and treated you like an object, when have you gotten enough revenge?

And the answer is always “It’s never enough.” There is no amount of vengeance that can make up for those crimes. The Earth will continue to punish the human race for eons upon eons, because the rage never ends. Our protagonist will continue to murder cities full of the opposite race, and society will continue to murder those of her race, forever, because the cycle of revenge is infinite and all-consuming.

There are two ways to end this cycle. Kill everyone, so there is nothing left. Or put down your vengeance, bury your rage, and embrace forgiveness.

These themes are played out in multiple ways through multiple character’s choices, including opposite paths taken two main POV characters, as well as flashbacks to the First Civilization and the Earth’s reaction to their crimes. It’s is awesome in scope and statement.

Of particular delight to myself was when the First Civilization resurrected the race they genoicided, but with every racial feature grossly exaggerated and their powers raised to super-human levels, so that they could tell themselves “We did the right thing. Look how dangerous these people are. We are not monsters, genocide was the only option.” It’s eye-opening and beautiful.

Unfortunately, the execution on the plot-level fell flat. As predicted (in part IV), Nassun (the protagonist’s daughter) is cast in the role of destroyer of worlds, whereas Essun (the protagonist) is given the “finding community, and through it finding redemption” arc. I feel this was a grave mistake, because Nassun is utterly unconvincing as the destroyer of worlds. She’s 10. She has no believable motivation. We spent a novel with her mother, watching her tortures, and agreeing with her that the world must end. We crowed for justice at the end of 5th Season. Kill them all! If Jemisin wants to give her the Redemption Arc rather than the Destroyer Arc, that’s totally legit. But in that case the Destroyer role must be abandoned, because few other characters could do it convincingly after we saw what Essun has been through. Certainly not a 10 year old girl, who’s been sheltered her whole life and who’s trauma pales in comparison to her mother’s. Every time she said “Until the world burns” I wanted to pat her on the head.

She could have worked as the Savior, the idealistic young person not yet beaten down by the world. But as the jaded destroyer? Not even close. It doesn’t help that she’s never shown as stable in her goals (getting far worse near the end of the book). It feels like Jemisin lost focus, and couldn’t decide on which direction she wanted Nassun, as well as their Mother-Daughter relationship, to take. Maybe her vision for it changed midway through the book, and the edits to alter this didn’t fit well? I dunno. But it was very disappointing.

Also the climax was infuriating and frustrating, for reasons I can only get into in a spoilery post.

I don’t know how to go on this one. Pretty much anyone who’s read the first two books will read this, so does my recommendation matter? And if you like what I like, you should definitely read at least the first book (The 5th Season), because it’s so good. But the frustrations I had with the characters and plot hampered my enjoyment of it so much, that it hindered the exploration of the themes of revenge. After all, no matter how great ones themes are, the way they are explored is with the tools of character and plot, and if those are flawed, even the best thematic aspirations suffer. I would have read this anyway, and I’m sure most people will as well, but in retrospect… I guess Not Recommended. EDIT: 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!

Book Club Review: As with the first two books, this is a great one for book clubs. The strong treatment of the themes gives good avenues for conversation. Not everyone agrees with me about the flaws in the novel, and having issues like that to grouse about also gives the group things to focus on. I was particularly interested to find one member who disliked Jemisin’s use of the term “magic” to refer to the lifeforce that emanates from all living things and binds the universe together, and can be harnessed to transmute things, do useful work, and create raw energy. I found out that they think of “magic” as things that wizards do in fantasy novels, and that this doesn’t qualify, because this could be real(!). Turns out they’re kinda new-agey. It was interesting to find out where people aren’t comfortable using a term like “magic.”

Anyway, Recommended.

Mar 202018
 

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Synopsis: A loner tries to make a living scavenging & smuggling alien artifacts from a restricted zone.

Book Review: Well this was a neat read.

First, the protagonist isn’t a typical, relatable protagonist. He’s abrasive and selfish, and I started out not liking him. But that’s OK, not every protagonist has to be you standard Good-aligned Hero, sometimes it’s nice to break away from all the cliché heroes. And by the time I got to know the world he lives in, I developed sympathy and understanding for him, despite a distinct lack of admiration.

Which brings me to the next interesting aspect – this novel is Soviet AF. All the institutions are maximally Inadequate while still keeping themselves from collapse (though you get the feeling they’ll get there in a few decades). Everyone is only looking out for themselves, and using whatever power they have to advance their own interests regardless of how much it screws the rest of their institution/society/anyone-else. Mid-level bureaucrats collude directly with the criminals they’re supposed to be apprehending (when those criminals have enough money and pull). There’s literally nothing you can count on. It was a heck of an experience to be placed in that world and realize there are still vast swaths of humanity that live like this. Very saddening too.

And the whole concept of humanity trying to reverse-engineer the discarded remnants of incredibly advanced and randomly-deadly technology in a large unpoliceable area, while others try to steal it, made for good plot. It felt very much like a precursor to the Annihilation vision of Area X & The Institute. I dunno if Jeff VanderMeer was directly influenced by this novel, but it’s certainly a fine pedigree if so!

I think the biggest downside is the POV-switch near the middle of the book, which was unnecessary and distracting. In addition, the character we shift to feels far too similar our main protagonist, they’re basically the same person in different situations. The novel drags a bit at this point, I was glad when that chapter was done.

But probably the most interesting thing about this book is the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it leaves a major interpretation up to the reader. I know there are people who hate this sort of thing. But I really, really liked it. I was not expecting that at all, and I appreciate the trust the authors put in me to “get it.”

Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is a good book for book clubs for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s really short. It comes from the days of novels that averaged 150 pages, and by today’s standards that feels like a walk in the park. People shouldn’t have trouble reading it, which always helps turnout.

It also presents us with a world we can relate to, but from a different enough perspective to get people talking. The view from Soviet Russia is bleak, and it led to disagreements both about the character of our protagonist (we had several readers who considered him a good person!), and reflections on our own institutions. The fact that it was written 40 years ago also reminded us that the past is a different country and got us talking about that (people smoked indoors? and just ashed on the carpet?? OMG)

And the open-ended ending gave us a hell of a hook to talk about. Everyone put forward their own interpretation/prediction of what would follow, and defended it with evidence from the story (mostly having to do with the protagonists character and desires). Of course, only the ones who agreed with me were right. ;) But it was the joy of the discussion that matters. Recommended.

(also of note, this book was the inspiration for the STALKER video game)

Mar 082018
 

Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny

Synopsis: An amnesiac in the modern world slowly comes to discover he’s a demi-god of a fantasy world.

Book Review: I guess that synopsis is a bit of a spoiler, but not much of one, because it’s basically the same thing that’s on the back-cover blurb of most editions, and the cover art kinda gives this away too. At any rate, it’s something the reader discovers pretty early in the book. And that’s much of the problem with this novel.

For me, the interesting part of this story is Corwin trying to figure out what’s happening and who he is, all while hiding that he doesn’t know these things from the people around him. He has a (correct) suspicion that if they knew, he’d be in great danger. Watching this delicate subterfuge is pretty damn delightful, even if it’s a bit incredible in places, and helped along by his primary adversary being dim-witted and slow. The sense of danger, where every word could be a misstep that gives everything away and he won’t know it until it’s too late, makes for very engaging reading!

Unfortunately it ends pretty quickly. We have a few chapters of that, and then the whole novel reverts to pretty standard fantasy tropes. As a super-powerful magic user and claimant to a recently-vacated throne, Corwin marshals allies, has battles, gets in sword fights, feuds with his brothers, blah blah blah. There’s never a sense of danger again.

Worse, there’s no stakes. Corwin wants the throne, but I don’t care. He’s kinda an asshole. He leads tens of thousands of people into death for no good reason and without any care for their lives. We have no reason to think anything would be better or worse with one of his brothers on the throne, they all just want it because they feel entitled to it.

It’s odd, I first read this book about ten years ago. Either my standards have gone up (possible!), or this book is much better when you don’t know what’s coming next. The lack of knowledge Corwin has focuses the reader’s attention on the unraveling of the mystery, and distracts from all the glaring flaws of this thing. When you already know the mystery’s answer and can focus on things like character and plot, you realize how shabby they are.

I would hesitate to steer people away from this, based on my memories of really enjoying it the first time through. But as luck would have it, I was also rereading Too Like The Lightning (in preparation for my much-delayed first read of Seven Surrenders) as I read Nine Princes. In a way, this review is very much a story of two re-readings. Nine Princes crumbled upon the closer inspection of a reread. Too Like The Lightning only shined ever brighter, as the removal of the work needed to grasp the world-building really lets one focus on the characters and story and find greater depths and delights within them! Having a really good work to compare Nine Princes to lets me say with far less reservation – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It’s OK. There’s some conversational material here for discussing how the genre has changed over the decades. At the time, this book was a runaway hit, and series were a new thing. We had enough stuff to talk about that it was a successful evening. However, there’s so much good stuff out there, and so little time to read all of it, that it seems like a waste to focus on things that are merely OK. Unless your book club is looking for a discussion about the evolution of popular fantasy in the US (and someone’s ready without further outside research as well) – Not Recommended.

Personal Note: I’m way behind. We’ve read another book since that, which I’ll hopefully get out next week, along with some other misc posts. My office is short-staffed at my day job, I’ve resumed production on the Methods of Rationality podcast, I’ve bought a townhome that requires major renovations, and basically I’m out of time-slack. I’m finally chiseling some out on my lunch breaks (which I can take again!), so hopefully there’ll start to be content around this place again soon. ^^