Sep 182019
 

Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Synopsis: The last remnants of humanity flee from a destroyed earth to colonize a previously-terraformed planet. Unfortunately the human AI set to guide and protect the sapient spider species living there ain’t having none of it.

Book Review: This is a Big Idea book. It has a sweeping scope, and lots to say about the human condition. The desperation of the refugee humans, as their colony ship degrades over the centuries and things get worse and worse, is palpable. The value-drift of both the humans and the AI is fascinating to watch. Their culture mutates, their personal drives become maladaptive, and behind this all is the beating drum of survival counting down to extinction.

And that’s just for the human half of the story! The chapters alternate between the plight of humanity, and the ascension of the intelligent spiders on the terraformed world. With a social system based on half their species being born expendable, and vastly different morphology to a human, their cultural evolution is mesmerizing to watch. The fact that their religion is actually real, with a literal god orbiting their planet and guiding them, brings an interesting twist to events. Their shortish lifespans mean we go through quite a few generations of them in the novel, but Tchaikovsky uses a neat SF trick to give the reader continuity with the characters.

This was a pleasure to read. It reminds one of the sci-fi of old in that it explores grand ideas over an epic setting, while still being full of tension and conflict so it remains exciting. With the major difference that it was written just a few years ago, so it has modern sensibilities and feels comfortable to read now. Like, you won’t run into any cringy sexism or racism, and it incorporates the story-telling advances writers have made over the decades. Not to worry though, it doesn’t have any wokeness in it, it’s just… good.

There are a few short-comings, IMHO. The first is a common among epic-scope novels – characters aren’t fleshed out as much as they are in character-driven novels. They’re still pretty good, but the focus is more on the events than on character growth or getting deep into the protagonist’s psyche.

The second is that the ending feels too pat. It almost feels Deus Ex Machina-ish, in its sudden turn-around via a non-signaled power. I was left with a feeling of loss of agency among several of their characters, are their problems were solved for them rather than via conflict/resolution.

And my final gripe is that the prose isn’t nearly poetic enough for my taste. I like Grand, Big-Idea books to have florid, lyrical prose, that reaches in and grabs me by my artistic balls. Things like Palmer or Duncan or Valente write. I want the words to sing for me. However that’s a matter of personal style, and it’s hard to hold that against a book.

On the whole, these complaints are overshadowed by the fantastic exploration of humanity, and the creativity of the story. One can tell just by reading this novel that it took serious work. Recommended.

Book Club Review: A darn good book for a book club. It’s long, but we had a great turn out anyway. With as much as the book has to say about humanity, our flaws, and the things that make us great, there was something for everyone to comment on or bring to the discussion. I don’t think it makes its statements with as much force or eloquence of some other works, but it makes many of them, and it never does so poorly. Y’all won’t be wanting for discussion topics. Recommended!

Aug 272019
 

Lock-In, by John Scalzi

Synopsis: A near-future police procedural, with the SF twist that about 10% of the population have full-body paralysis and so interact with the world via robot bodies, or surrogate humans, that they operate remotely via neural interface.

Book Review: John Scalzi is a top-rate writer. His characters feel real, his action is immediate, his prose is tight. He keeps your interest and delivers good product. And if you’ve ever met him in person, or follow his blog, you are aware that he is whip smart. I’d easily put him in the top decile of any room he enters, short of maybe an actual convention of geniuses. Which is why it’s disappointing when he doesn’t use his abilities to full effect to craft art, and instead produces successful commercial product.

The thing about Lock-In is that, despite being well-written, it leaves you empty. There’s some interesting events that happen to interesting people, but there is no character growth, no thematic arc, no emotional exploration, no deeply personal substance to the tale. Everyone at the end of the story is pretty much the same as they started.

The police procedural analogy fits on multiple levels, because I don’t think one can really call this story a novel. In substance, this book is a pilot episode of a TV series, except in written form. We’re introduced to characters and a thing happens to them to move us through the 1 hour time block, but there isn’t a story arc here. The arc will be revealed over the course of the season. Which is fine for an episode TV series, and which I’m sure some readers will love seeing translated into a book-series form. Personally, I’ve never been really thrilled with book series in the first place, I prefer stand-alone novels. Taking it even further, to the point that there isn’t even a satisfying story arc in one book and truly making them “episodes” like a TV show, is just too much for me. I’m sure others will love this sort of thing, but for me – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: One nice thing about books made for commercial success – they go very fast. It’s easy to read, the pages fly by, and there aren’t too many pages to begin with. The ease of the read made for a huge turn-out, probably a record for us! And there were a fair few things to talk about, Scalzi has created an interesting universe and real characters. It was even better if you got the audio book version, as that came with a bonus novella at the end which was basically all World War Z style world-building. It was by far my favorite part of the book, after I finished that I was all “Wow, I would *love* to read a novel set in this world!”

I kinda get the feeling that his codas and novellas are where Scalzi stretches his artistic muscles and really lets loose with his talent. The part of Red Shirts that I fell so hard in love with was the codas as well. So yeah, this made for a decent meeting. On a week that your group needs a break from heavy stuff, I think this is a pretty solid decompression choice. Given that caveat, Recommended.

Aug 012019
 

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Synopsis: A meteor impact destroys most the east coast of the US in 1952, but no one notices because the real threat is global warming. Except no one notices that either, because the real threat is sexism and racism.

Book Review: The first section of Calculating Stars is fantastic. The meteor strike itself and the immediate aftermath isn’t just visceral and exciting… it’s a Matian-esque uber-science tour-de-force! The genius protag and her husband, in remote mountains at the time of the strike, are able to quickly deduce from physical clues what has happened. Based on knowledge of wave propagation through different substances they calculate roughly how large an impact it must have been, and how far away it was, and therefore how many minutes they have to flee before the blastwave hits them. It’s an absolute blast to see protagonists using science effectively to solve high-stakes problems under time pressure. Of course, surviving the initial blast is just the start. :)

Then the novel skips ahead X months, and all that stops. From this point on, it becomes a social justice drama. The first thing that suffers for this is the realism of the setting. Destroying the industrial and commercial base of the United States would have devastating consequences, a massive recession would be just the beginning. But Kowal clearly wanted to write a story set in our 1950s era, and so we get the cultural and societal reality of OUR 1950s, not a post-devastation one. I realize this is important for a story that wants to be about the racism and sexism of the 50s, but maybe don’t start by blasting away the eastern seaboard soon after WWII then?

There’s also very little actual feeling of racism or sexism in the novel. Like, some people are jerks to our female protag, and we hear about people of color being excluded from high-status jobs, but it’s rarely upsetting. To contrast, I was unable to watch past the first episode of Mad Men. The casual misogyny, the abject dismissal of anything a woman could possibly think, was so effective and enraging that I could not go back to the show. I felt my blood pressure spiking and my guts sickening and even one more episode of that was more than I could stomach. I could name dozens of similar works that enrage me by showing people mistreated, and fill me with righteous zeal to see justice served. Stars doesn’t do that.

Even as a climate-change warning it is ineffective. Bacigalupi writes good climate-change fiction. You want to make people feel, show them the people who are getting hurt. Maybe give us a scene from the PoV of the black families that are being passed over and ignored so white people can be evacuated. The closest we get is a mention of a food riot where no one even gets so much as a bad cut.

Everything that happens after that first time-skip is bloodless and boring. The protagonist is a well-off white woman married to a high-ranking government official. Her problems aren’t really problems. Her gaffes may offend her friends of color. Her interactions with stuffy old men are sometimes unpleasant. None of this matters much. What are the stakes? If she fails, what bad things happen as a result? She feels embarrassed and goes back to her comfortable life? Oh noes. It doesn’t matter though, because she never fails or even meets much opposition. Everything just kinda works out fine.

I think Kowal realized things were too easy and there wasn’t any conflict, so she gives her protag crippling stage fright. But, first, that’s not a very interesting problem. And second, it doesn’t actually change anything. There’s a few paragraphs describing nausea and sweats, and then the protag pulls over her presentation perfectly with great social grace and no one even notices.

Even the sex scenes are dull and awkward. I never thought a sex scene could be boring, but here we are.

Anyway, there’s a bunch of fretting about sexism and racism, some nausea and stage fright, and then things work out ok. This process then repeats itself three or four times, and then the book stops. There was no theme, no character development, no real challenge or stakes. It’s basically just a slice-of-life story of a super-woke white couple in the 50s.

As a novel, The Calculating Stars is a failure.

However I come not to bury The Calculating Stars, but to praise it.

For I have read this sort of work before, and I recognize that anyone who reads this like a novel is reading it wrong. This is not a novel. This is a web-serial. I’ve read a few of these before, and I know people who LOVE them. I know someone who said they don’t really get into a story until it reaches a million words. They basically want to be with a character as they go through their life. Calculating Stars is almost a coffeeshop AU in structure, although without all the relationships. Kowal has basically taken the web serial style of story and is trying to see if it can be monetized by releasing it as books rather than posted weekly online. If it works it’ll be really profitable, and it’s cool that it’s being tried.

I’m not really interested in reading this myself. I like the novel structure, it’s why I read novels, so I was disappointed that I got a woke 50s web serial instead. If you’re into that, you’ll like this. But if you’re like me, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Whether this works for your book club depends on how sensitive your group is to culture war stuff. We had some discomfort talking about this book, because everyone had lingering guilt that they were being sexist or racist for finding this to be weak sauce. We did get to talking about how it could have been done better, and how we shouldn’t judge people for liking things we don’t like, and so forth. And it’s not like anyone really disliked the book. It was just kinda there. Honestly it’s possible this could spark some interesting conversation… but I wouldn’t really count on it, because it’s just not very forceful in anything it says. Maybe that’s a good thing, it kept us all pretty sedate and polite. But you’re probably better off discussing something with more oomph. Mildly Not Recommended.

Jul 252019
 

Hugo AwardI hate to say this, because I fear I’m going to isolate people I like. But we have to have a talk about the Hugos.

 

I. Trail of Lightning should never have been a finalist.

It’s not just that it’s a basic wire-rack monster hunter pulp-fiction novel. In my personal opinion, yes, that should be enough to disqualify any work. The Hugo is one of the premier awards in SF fiction. It should go to novels that are innovative, pushing the genre forward. Or that have something important to say about being human, or something urgent to say about the state of the world. It needs to have a higher purpose than just basic entertainment. Trail of Lightning is exactly the sort of pulp adventure that my father mocked me for reading when I was younger, because he didn’t know authors like Heinlein and Le Guin and Jemisin existed. The Hugo awards exist exactly for the purpose of highlighting works that mean more than just a thrilling read.

BUT I know not everyone shares that view. Some people do think that awards should go to things that are just very good at being very entertaining. (I contend those books already get the award of “Best Seller” status, but hey, I guess that’s not enough?). I know this in part because every year something is in the finalist list that makes me roll my eyes and feel like an elitist jerk for a few days.

Unfortunately, even if one contends that pulp adventure is worthy of at least being considered for an award, Trail of Lightning is not a great specimen of that species.

 

II. This is not Roanhorse’s fault, or issue!

I would first like to stress that I am not saying that Rebecca Roanhorse is a bad writer. We know from last year’s short story “Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience(TM)” that she can write extremely well, and that she can tackle some very heavy social issues with incredible aplomb. That story was flat-out amazing, and deserved every award and bit of praise it got.

A digression – Simply looking at the timeline of when Authentic Indian Experience was published vs when Trail of Lightning was published, and knowing that the publishing industry never gets a book out the door in under six months (which is already breakneck speed), it is extremely probable that Trail of Lightning was written much earlier in Roanhorse’s career. I suspect as Authentic was gaining buzz, Trail’s publisher approached Roanhorse to ask if she had anything already written that she’d never sold, and she dusted off Trail. I could be wrong, but that seems more charitable than assuming it was a rush job.

The point is, Trail of Lightning is an example of an “early novel.” Many authors are lucky enough to have these – novels that helped them hone their skills, while providing a small paycheck and the validation/encouragement of getting into print, before the authors are very good. Some authors never get these early novels, and a few I’ve talked to say “I’m so grateful in retrospect… they weren’t good novels, and I’m so happy that only my best stuff is out there representing me.” But for every one of those, I’m willing to bet there’s twenty authors who got discouraged and gave up before getting to the X-th novel that was actually Very Good to the point that publishers couldn’t ignore it.

Again, this is NOT a bad thing. To take one example of a man who is rightly called a genius by all readers of genre, and is a British National Treasure – Terry Pratchett. His later writing is absolutely legendary, and you can’t read it and not be completely blow away. But his first several novels? They just aren’t that good. Even the best writers of a generation started out with wobbly fare.

There are authors currently writing in the monster hunter genre that have been at it for many years, with a dozen or more titles under their belts. While I don’t think the works are award-worthy (see above), they are, at least, among the best examples of the species. After so many repetitions of the formula, it’d be hard for those authors NOT to have improved. Some of these authors even openly state that their earlier books aren’t the best, and direct new readers to start a bit later in the series. It’s hard to compare their later works with Trail of Lightning and not see the difference.

 

III. This is not the publisher’s fault either

Trail of Lightning’s publisher, Saga Press, was doing exactly what a publisher should. They saw a rising talent, knew people would want to read more of her work, and snapped up anything they could get their hands on. They then published it in an effort to turn a profit. This is good for the fans, and good for the author. Bravo for Saga, I hope it works out!

 

IV. The Hugo Voters are to blame

Both the author and the publisher are simply doing the best they can in their careers/situations. It’s not their job to be the gatekeepers of quality, their job is simply to keep getting better and making the written works available (respectively). It is literally the job of the nominating Hugo readers, the gatekeepers of the Hugo award, to filter the best that our community has to offer. And yet a large number of these people came together and collectively nominated a less-than-stellar “early novel” of the mindless-pulp variety for one of the most prestigious awards the SF community can give out. How did this happen? Either a lot of people nominated Trail of Lightning without reading it, based on the strength of Authentic Indian Experience… or they did read it, and nominated it anyway.

The really dumb part is that Trail of Lightning isn’t even a social-issue book. It’s a straight-up plain monster hunter novel. The only way one could draw it into the culture-war narrative is by focussing on the author and looking back at her other works and noticing that last year’s Authentic Indian Experience was explicitly about cultural issues. “These two works are by the same author” is not enough to make a pulp novel have a social theme or message.

 

V. This hurts minorities

Look, the really despicable thing about the Puppies movement of a few years ago is that they decided to vandalize the Hugos because they said that authors were getting awards NOT because the works were of high-quality, but because they were minorities and were getting “affirmative action-ed” in. Jemisin specifically called this out in her world-rocking acceptance speech when she said her detractors claim “that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s “identity politics”.” Her speech still gives me shivers, but one of the things that gave it such joyous strength is that it was so blatantly obvious that she had written one of the best things to have been published in years. She deserved every single ounce of praise that comes with that trophy, because she produced a work that shines with the light of the sun, and puts the claims of the Puppies to hideous shame. There is no need for affirmative action, you assholes, the work speaks for itself, just read it and see!

Nominating a work that is clearly not worthy of this honor doesn’t help anything. Instead it diminishes the achievements of authors like Jemisin or Chiang, because it throws previous nominations into some doubt. Most people don’t know of the excitement of a breakout work of genius like Authentic Indian Experience, and how that exuberance will lead people to snap-vote for the next thing an author puts out without even reading it. They won’t ever get to hear about that, they’ll just see a book that clearly shouldn’t be a nominee, yet is, and will draw their own conclusions… and given the current culture wars, not all those conclusions will be good. And those conclusions will tarnish other winners, those whose only failing was being non-white in the crap-ass world we have right now.

 

VI. The irony is not lost on the historically-aware

Perhaps the most ironic thing about all this is that this is exactly the sort of novel the Puppies wanted to see in the Hugos. Pulp adventure novels about tough-ass monster hunters. Books whose commercial concerns outweigh artistic ones. Someone I spoke with also claims that their baseless idiotic vandalism created a backlash that has put cultural concerns before quality concerns in the Hugos — in effect bringing the Puppies’ distorted claims closer to reality. I’m not so sure, I think it’s much more due to the rise of Trump than anything the Puppies did. Regardless, they probably got a chuckle or two out of it. >.<

 

VII. Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

Look, what’s done is done. But going forward, more focus on content and less on works viewed primarily (whether rightly or not) as anti-“the other tribe” would be good. Keep the Hugos out of the culture wars, please.

Jul 192019
 

Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Synopsis: A monster-hunter hunts down some monsters while grappling with PTSD and trying to get over an ex, which causes her to miss that true love is right under her nose.

Book Review: This is a basic Urban Fantasy paranormal romance book. If you’re into that sort of thing, it could make for some decent trashy beach reading.

I am not into that sort of thing. I like my characters to not act like complete idiots for plot convenience. If the super-attractive magical boy’s eyes glow silver and suddenly people who were very hostile to him start doing whatever he asks, consider that he has persuasion magic. All of us realized it immediately, why is the protag an idiot?

I like my characters to have a reason for doing something, besides “the literal trickster god of this world wants us to do this thing but won’t tell us why.” That’s usually a reason to NOT do a thing.

I prefer to have the plot revealed to me through actions taken in the story, rather than by having the villain reveal it in a “Before I kill you, Mr Bond” monologue completely out of the blue just before his inevitable defeat. (And what an anti-climactic defeat it was!)

This book is the epitome of pulp fiction. It’s a bunch of tropes and events strung together in a story-like manner that can keep one pleasantly distracted with monster-punching if one just wants to turn one’s brain off for a few hours. There are a million books like it, usually found on spinning wire-racks in gas stations and truck stops.

I don’t hate this book, per se. I’ve been known to enjoy some trashy pulp myself, and I would never say people shouldn’t do things that bring them pleasure. But there’s a time and a place for this sort of thing. That time and place is NOT on the Hugo Finalists list. ಠ_ಠ

I have more to say about that topic, but that’s a post about the Hugos rather than book-review stuff, so that’ll be a post for another day. Perhaps after the weekend.

Not recommended.

Book Club Review: Book Club opinion was universal – this is pulp. Most of our readers were able to enjoy it as pulp. Every now and then everyone likes to just let go. So there was plenty of time taken to gripe about the classic stupidities of the genre, which was mostly done in a humorous manner, and some admiration of a few of the fun points. It was pointed out that this is one of the few times (for one reader, the first time he could recall) that a kick-ass woman was written realistically as a real female hard-bitten ass-kicker (rather than the stereotypical “strong female hero” that’s never very believable), and I’ll give it that. Everyone also agreed that this is a book they’ve already started forgetting, and they’ll likely never think of it again. Those who have opinions about the Hugos were also dismayed that this was nominated, and those who don’t were surprised that it was.

There’s nothing special here, so unless your book club also follows the Hugos and wants to have a discussion about that specifically – Not Recommended.

Jun 242019
 

Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee

Synopsis: I only got 60 pages in, which wasn’t enough to discover the plot. It seems to follow the primary actors in a rebellion against a space empire.

Book Review: This series has been a downward slope for me. I loved the first book, and was kinda meh on the second one, and just found the third one so tedious that I couldn’t even finish it. I think I know why.

The attraction of the first book is the awesome, bizarre world that Lee creates. The laws of physics are shaped by people’s beliefs, and must be reinforced by worship, rites, and ritual human sacrifice. It’s a really cool premise that grabs the novelty-seeking portion of the brain.

However by the time you get three books in, that novelty has worn off. By the time I started Revenant Gun, I’d come to realize that there wasn’t that much being done with this premise, it was basically just another form of Space Magic. Which is fine, there’s lots of great novels with Space Magic, but those novels have other things that carry them once that novelty has worn off. Revenant Gun doesn’t.

The plot is pretty basic where it makes sense (empire is evil, rebels want out), and is often annoyingly disjointed. Problems are frequently solved through liberal application of Space Magic. The atrocities don’t ever make one feel much. We’re told of the nuking of a population center, and that the sacrifice rituals involve “lots of blood,” but come on, that’s not gripping.

Most of the characters are flat. They speak wooden lines and act like they’re there to move a plot forward, rather than be real people inhabiting a world. There is one exception, a character with depth of personality and interesting drives, but unfortunately he has to split screen-time with several other people so I didn’t see enough of him often enough to keep me interested.

Lee switches protagonists in each book, which doesn’t really work in this case. And his habit of keeping things from the reader for a big reveal later on is obvious and hurts the story, rather than building mystery.

Honestly, there just wasn’t much there to keep my attention after the cool concept behind how the universe works is explained. Even that could have kept me going if there was more to it… if something interesting was done with this idea that changed my perspective on the world. Instead everything worked more or less the same, except with magic added. That’s not enough to hold me if there isn’t a cool plot or interesting characters that I care about. I wasn’t sure why I was even reading this after a while, and so I stopped. Heck, I’m even getting bored writing this review. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Interestingly, this had a wide(ish) variety of reactions. I say wide-ish because we only had a sample set of four. More than half our book club didn’t come to this meeting, perhaps due to summer arriving, or perhaps because the novel didn’t interest them, or perhaps due to a coincidental confluence of personal issues. This is a strike against the novel for book clubs, as suppressing turn out is the opposite of what’s good for a book club… if that is indeed what happened.

However, among those four, I was the only one who hated it. Another reader thought it was kinda ok, and she got through to the end. One reader was new to the book club and hadn’t read the first two books. As this was his first time in this universe, he was super excited by the physics-manipulation thing and the weirdness of the world in general. He reminded me of me when I read the first book, which makes me think that anyone reading one of these novels for the first time will like the first one due to the great novelty-hook. It was fun going over all the cool stuff that grabbed me the first time again. :)

And the fourth member was a fan of the series, and didn’t particularly mind what I saw as the weakness. He though the world was interesting enough that it was worth reading even if the characters and plot weren’t very noteworthy. This range of opinions did strike up a bit of conversation, and it was a pretty decent meeting over all. I’m still prejudiced by my personal dislike of the novel, and the fact that so few even showed up for the meeting, so I can’t give it an actual recommendation. However, maybe consider it, if this sounds like your thing?

Jun 142019
 

Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente

Synopsis: The human race must prove it is sapient to a galactic counsel or be destroyed. The proof is done via a Eurovision-style music competition. Unfortunately, the galactic community has terrible taste in music.

Book Review: This is a book that would have received a drastically different review from me if I’d stopped before the last two chapters.

What I would have written is that Catherynne Valente is one of the most gifted writers of our generation, without reservation. And, as is well-known, gifted people often become bored with doing the same thing, regardless of how well they do it. So they are constantly exploring new territory, new styles, different methods, etc, to keep themselves interested in the work. Therefore, as much as those of us who have fallen in love with an artist’s earlier works want to see more in that vein, the artist inevitably will be trying new and different things. It is part of the nature of being outstanding.

Space Opera is written in the style of 80s British SF humor; and specifically in the style of Douglas Adams. It is impossible to read this and not immediately understand you are reading a spiritual child of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (HHGG). It is dry witty humor absolutely drenched in absurdism. Even the cover is reminiscent of Restaurant at the End of the Universe.  As far as I can tell, it does a good job of pulling this off. It reads just like HHGG did for me… which is to say I didn’t really like it.

I know I’m a heretic for saying this, but I never liked HHGG. I’m just not a fan of British humor in most cases. And in particular, I don’t like reading it. Every single thing that is described must be described for paragraphs, sometimes for PAGES, because it’s important to keep heaping absurdity upon absurdity in a spiraling comedic typhoon. I just find that tedious. And the fact that nothing is ever really taken seriously irks me. It makes it feel like nothing in the story matters. Anything can be waved away with “C’mon, it’s part of the absurdist joke!” and if everything can be overlooked, why bother paying attention?

Of course it seems churlish to complain about a genius author writing in a style I don’t personally care for, because that comes with the territory of being a genius author. To ask for this sort of thing not to happen is to ask for the author to not be so gifted in the first place, which is just shooting yourself in the face. You have to take both.

I would have also said that what kept me reading all the way through anyway is that sometimes Valente’s signature style shines through. Not despite the brit-humor, but alongside it, beautiful gems of emotional writing that snare your heart and pull it up into your throat. Passages like this:

In order to create a pop band, the whole apparatus of civilization must be up and running and tapping its toe to the beat. Electricity, poetry, mathematics, sound amplification, textiles, arena architecture, efficient mimetic exchange, dramaturgy, industry, marketing, the bureaucratic classes, cultural critics, audiovisual transmission, special effects, music theory, symbology, metaphor, transportation, banking, enough leisure and excess calories to do anything beyond hunt, all of it, everything

[…]

Well, even that is not quite enough.

Are you kind enough, on your little planet, not to shut that rhythm down? Not to crush underfoot the singers of songs and tellers of tales and wearers of silk? Because it’s monsters who do that. Who extinguish art. Who burn books. Who ban music. Who yell at anyone with ears to turn off that racket. Who cannot see outside themselves clearly enough to sing their truth to the heavens. Do you have enough goodness in your world to let the music play?

Do you have soul?

Which, first of all, that first part is a great distillation of the idea that a pop band is an artifact that proves the existence of a species with a culture. And the second part is just an achingly beautiful distillation of what it is to be human. There are amazing things like this throughout the book, which remind me why I love Valente, and kept me going. But, ultimately, I would have conceded that there’s a lot of silliness that doesn’t do anything except be silly, and you have to read through a looooot of it to get to those scattered gems, and one is probably better off reading one of her other works and passing by this one if one doesn’t have an abundance of time. I would have said “Good if you like Douglas Adams, but for people similar to me, Not Recommended.”

Except… I DID get to the last two chapters. And oh my god. At the end there, Valente steps out of the glamorous rhinestone-studded leathers of brit-humor and screams a full-throated Glitterpunk anthem of pure Catherine Valente into the glare of a hundred spotlights. I will give no spoilers. But it is raw. It is bleeding regret and pathos and perseverance. The undiluted struggle of being a flawed human in a broken world smashes into your soul and rips you bodily through this wrenching emotion. It is glorious.

And afterwards, it’s impossible — for me at least — not to have everything that came before it suddenly tinted with rosey light and silvered edges. Because that was the journey that brought me to this place. I may not have cared for it at the time, but man, that payoff! That made all the build-up worth it. It’s all much better in my memory, in retrospect.

So yes, yes — absolutely Recommended!

Book Club Review: Reception varied widely at my book club, which surprised me! Since I’m in the minority of not liking HHGG, I expected everyone else to be much more bullish on the bulk of the novel. But one of the HHGG fans made the observation that absurdist humor of the Adams style must be somewhat simplistic. It has to be easy and fast to read, a literary equivalent of a cartoon. Valente is simply too eloquent. She uses sentences that are a step too complex, words that are a step too big, and doesn’t keep it light and fast. It isn’t all just bold lines and solid colors. I found that to be a very interesting observation. Unfortunately it had been so long since I read HHGG that I couldn’t compare, but I certainly concede that Valente demands a higher level of reader engagement than average. A couple readers found it tiring/tedious and it didn’t hold their attention enough to finish.

Nonetheless, there were a great deal of interesting things to talk about, which is always my primary measure of whether a book is good for a book club. There were several memorable scenes that were replayed at the table, akin to when people alternate recreating lines of the “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government” scene. There was discussion of the choices the characters made, and of course of the ending. And, in a delightful turn, several of us reflected on how the book would have been different if written for our generations. To explain, the book is written for the 80s glamrock generation, and a lot of the truly good artists of the era (like Bowie) are name-dropped as people who weren’t chosen to compete, since the aliens have terrible taste in music. In my personal case, it would’ve been written for the grunge generation. Everyone would be shocked that the aliens wouldn’t take Alice in Chains or Nirvana, and instead ended up taking Nickleback. XD

Anyway, also Recommended for book clubs!

May 182019
 

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

Synopsis: A G.R.R. Martin-esque exploration of power — its sources and its uses, its gifts and its pitfalls — told in the style of a fairytale. For real.

Book Review: I’ve grown a bit tired of fairytale-retelling novels, mostly because there are so many of them, and they’re never very inspired. I should have remembered that Novik wrote the Nebula-winning “Uprooted” and had some more faith. My lowered expectations were completely blown out of the water, and I devoured this novel.

The story centers on a Jewish girl in medieval Russia. The rest of the village despises them and takes advantage of her father. When she asserts the power of the law (and her rich Uncle living in the capital) to protect her family, she begins to understand the limits of laws-on-paper without immediate physical power to back them up.

She also displays rock-hard bad-assery in terms of realizing that reputational effects are extremely important, and a single slip can ruin them forever. She might as well have “A Lannister pays her debts” as her personal motto. There are several amazing moments were we see her forced into stone-hearted acts because failing to carry through with them would leave her open to predation in the future. It’s done very well in its own right, but the contrast of pure Grimdark themes in a fairytale world is awesome.

Speaking of faeries, we got those too! They present the super-human threat that really complicates things. They are alien and fascinating, and I loved everything about them. I kept thinking “If Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell had been awesome instead of shitty, this is the book it would have been!” Their presence escalates the story from one of personal struggle in a village to an existential threat against all humans in the country, and possibly the continent.

My major complaint about this book is that the sequel was inexpertly sewed onto it. “Spinning Silver,” as I recognize it, ended about 2/3rds of the way through the book. The sequel is then smashed in, and the sequel is reeeaaaaally not to my taste. It’s a standard Romance book of the Beauty and the Beast style. Female lead is captured and imprisoned by a misunderstood male lead, they fight a lot, but eventually she comes to understand him, and he comes to respect her, and they fall in love. uwu.

I assume that it’s a very good Romance. Novik is a great writer, and I’ve really loved the two other books of hers I’ve read (Uproot, and Spinning Silver). But Spinning Silver 2 just isn’t the sort of story I like, so it wasn’t for me. I regret reading it, I only did so because it was in the same book as Spinning Silver 1, and I didn’t realize it was a different novel. :(

So: Spinning Silver 1, Recommended! Spinning Silver 2, Not Recommended. If you have taste similar to mine, stop after the first climax. (You’ll recognize it when you see it).

Book Club Review: Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to our book club meeting for this book, so I got nothing here.

May 122019
 

Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

Synopsis: An immortal loner operates a secret way-station on Earth for aliens using it as a stop in their galactic teleportation hops.

Book Review: I would say this award-winning book has aged poorly, but it’s hard to imagine it was ever good. The majority of the action is an old loner wandering the old woods with his old dog and being really stoic about everything. He takes almost no action, says very little, and emotes even less. In almost every scene he could be replaced by a block of styrofoam that’s learned how to whittle wood and nothing would’ve changed.

Fear not, though, as the author is equal-opportunity with his lack of characterization. The primary female character is literally deaf and dumb, and exists solely to let the protagonist feel good about saving her, and then saving the universe through her in-born magic power. She is completely infantile and pure.

The aliens and government agents are likewise either idiotic or just there to chat about folksy stuff with the protagonist.

(spoiler in this paragraph, but I hardly think it matters) — In the end, the entire universe is stripped of all agency because we’re all just warlike or peaceful based on who has control of a magic peace-radiating artifact. Fortunately the evil alien that absconded with the evil artifact comes to earth for no reason at all, and our Magical Female who is the purest and most innocent and, coincidentally, most powerful magic user in the galaxy, can take the artifact from him and make everything cool again. —

If all this wasn’t enough, the book is also just about the worst sort of message-fic there is. I like message-fic when it’s well done, and this was not. It’s message is never given any sort of emotional narrative to make us feel it. Nor does it present a world in which the message is important to the plot and characters. It basically simply states “If you all believed in this philosophy, we’d have universe peace.” And that philosophy is… “Hey man, it’s all good. We should all just chill out and like, get along. Make love, not war.”

It reminded me of The Man From Earth, a horrible movie that seems to have been made by a hippie just to say the same thing. A super-old and super-wise professor reveals that he was a caveman and just never aged or died, and discovered over the millenia that if we would all just, like, get along, everything would be groovy, man. And also, he was Jesus, but he didn’t die of the crucifixion. So like, even Jesus agrees that we should all get along. Take that, viewers!

Not recommended.

Book Club Review: Nobody else in my book club found this nearly as offensive as I did. I think that’s primarily because I like message fiction, and so I take it as a personal slight when it’s done so badly. To them it was just a short, outdated old book. A few of them even appreciated the easy-going pace, and considered it an interesting window onto early-1960s culture.

There was a bit of conversation around the book, but it was mainly driven by its various flaws. That sounds worse than I mean it… the flaws aren’t that glaring (for most people). But they’re the only really interesting things to talk about, because where the book isn’t flawed it’s just pleasant. (Again, in the view of those who enjoyed it). And there’s not much to say about something that’s pleasant. You sit out on a porch and watch the clouds go by with an iced tea, and that’s nice, but you don’t talk about doing that, you just do it and enjoy it.

So, while the book itself is an interesting waystone in the evolution of SF literature, and it’s short and reads quickly, I don’t really think it has enough to it to recommend it for a book club. Thus, not recommended.

Apr 192019
 

I gotta say, I love the character of Cersei. I adore characters that are completely destroyed by the world, and refuse to take it anymore.

All her life Cersei has been a thing used by other people. She never mattered. She was marriage-material to be traded for alliances. She was a mare to be bred. Her opinions and feelings about her life didn’t matter.

The most poignant example of this is during the battle for King’s Landing, when Cersei, Sansa, and the other royal ladies are sheltered in an inner room while the fighting goes on outside. Cersei lets Sansa know that the executioner isn’t there to protect them. He’s there to kill them all should the city fall, because it is more merciful for them to suffer a quick death than to be slowly raped to death in the sack of the city.

The one thing the world has said over and over to her is that unless she has absolutely power, she has none at all. Even as the wife of the King, she is a thing foremost.

And then the High Sparrow really brings this home with the torture, degradation, and ultimately the public humiliation of the Shame! scene. All the while no one came to save her, because she was being weighed for her usefulness. Her safety and dignity were being traded around like so many pounds of wheat.

She’s decided this will never happen again. She’ll take any steps to prevent it. I love that.

I’ve seen this type of anti-hero before. Most recently, Syenite of The Fifth Season. I love that character as well, for the same reason. There comes a point where you’d rather see the entire world destroyed than condemn yourself to such an existence. Where you’d rather kill your own child than let them live such a life. Where you no longer care who dies, because everyone, EVERYONE was fucking complicit.

So I understand why, for Cersei, remaining in power is more important than saving Westeros. If either the undead or the humans are destroyed at Winterfell, but the opposing side is weakened enough that Cersei’s army can destroy what’s left and secure the continent under her rule, that is ideal. Humanity gets to continue to exist, all her enemies are dead, and she will never be used like a thing again. There is the possibility that the undead will win and destroy all life on Westeros, yes. But that is preferable to returning to life as chattel. If humanity has such a problem with extinction, maybe it shouldn’t have made life a living hell for so many.

Not that I agree with this, of course. I’m very pro-humanity. It’s just that this type of character speaks to me on such a deep emotional level that I can’t help but feel every single ounce of rage and despair with them. <3