Feb 172017
 

The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: In the second book in the Broken Earth trilogy, Essun and her daughter Nassun explore and grow into the fullness of their powers, while surviving in a currently-unfolding apocalypse.

Book Review: Last year when I read the start of this trilogy, The Fifth Season (review, discussion), I was blown away. Easily one of the best books of 2015, and plenty of readers agreed with me, as it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Jemisin returns in strong from in this continuation, which picks up literally minutes after the first novel ended. It is a good companion, for a number of reasons.

First, it has a rational flavor. I would not call it RatFic, per se. But one of the major components of Rational Fiction is characters who explore the underlying rules of the world they are in, in order to munchkin their way into power. A lot of the focus of Obelisk Gate is the exploring and uncovering of how this magic system works, and exploiting it, and that really reminded me of RatFic. :)

The opposing sides continue to be relate-able, Jemisin puts a fair bit of work into making you understand how the various factions came to the place they are in and sympathizing with them.

It also stays in “grim” territory, which I really enjoy. There’s one scene in particular, which should make everyone cheer when it happens, and which strikes a blow against our ideals, that will stay with me a long time. This scene helped to cement in my mind the difference between “grimdark” and “traditional” fantasy. I think that in most fantasy, the heroes win because of their virtue. They are better people, and because of that they succeed. In grimdark people succeed or fail purely on their ability to impose their will on others. We want the heroes to win because they are better people. But the REASON they win is because they are better at violence then their opposition. It can be tricky to demonstrate the difference between the two if you are an author, because in both cases the heroes are better people than the antagonists, and in both cases they win by prevailing in a violent conflict. Jemisin performs this feat spectacularly, and still wins our hearts even when it’s clear our hero is simply better at killing and willing to use that to further her own goals.

Obelisk Gate does have the problem of being a middle book. (I continue to hold that authors should simply stop writing the middle book in a trilogy!) Which means it seems to tread water a lot, and much of the action within doesn’t feel that important. Middle books always feel like a long diversion that give you more info and some development without impacting anything of major significance.

This is significantly offset by the Nassun storyline. Nassun was briefly mentioned in The Fifth Season, but in The Obelisk Gate she becomes a secondary protagonist and we’re in her POV for aprox half the pages as we’re taken through her story. This means the book is one-half a “middle book” focusing on Essun, and one-half a “first book” for Nassun. This REALLY does a lot to make it a better novel! Having a first book folded into the middle book is a great idea, and if you’re going to write a middle book, this is one way to do it much better.

Another way is to be N.K. Jemisin. She is easily one of the best fantasy authors of our time, and it shows. There is one thing that bugged me personally, but it’s very spoilerific so I’ll save that for a future post. Despite this mystery complaint, the craft is beautiful, the characters are compelling, and the world that is slowly revealed to us as the book progresses is enthralling.

Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This novel produced TONS of discussion. There’s simply so much in here! I don’t want to go over everything, as that would simply take too long. The themes of human rights vs existential risk from the first book are still very present. Since they’re in the middle of an apocalypse there’s a bit of lifeboat ethics that comes up, but more interesting is the idea of who gets to decide how they’re implemented. And the themes of abuse are much stronger than they were in the first book, which sparked a lot of discussion about conditional vs unconditional love, and the biological realities of how you feel about children/parents, regardless of how they have treated you. To say it was interesting would be a hell of an understatement.

All this is because Jemisin obviously has a lot to say. Her society is brimming with rich concepts that must be on her mind often. Someone who doesn’t submerge themselves in these sorts of musings (and I’m assuming conversations/arguments) frequently simply wouldn’t have a world with such deep roots. They are as irremovable from the author’s work as they are from the author’s mind. And this works exceptionally well because Jemisin hasn’t set out to preach a message. The world and the stories within it are full and complex because these things are vital to the author. Having Something To Say but using it as fuel for driving your writing, rather than as material to make a soapbox out of, makes for stories that give people a LOT to talk about, in a thoughtful way.

We were at it for a long time, and it was great. Highly Recommended.

Jan 312017
 

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Synopsis: The ladies of a wild west brothel have to save their town from an evil mayor.

Book Review: This is a solidly mediocre book that feels like the literary equivalent of going to eat at Olive Garden. The food will be acceptable and you won’t leave hungry, but this certainly isn’t where people go to follow their passion.

The story starts out strong. Bear obviously had a really cool idea and decided to try it out. The first several chapters are engaging and interesting. The women of the brothel form a tight-knit community that feels very much like a family, and the protagonist has a unique and enjoyable voice. I like the sort of high-agency protagonist that Karen Memory starts with.

But it feels like Bear wasn’t sure where to go with this idea, and decided to just keep typing until she reached her word count goal. Some of the worst writing advice I’ve ever seen widely repeated is “if you’re stuck, just write ‘A man enters with a gun’ and go from there.” This feels like that sort of book, and it results in a story with a very slapped-together feel. There are a ridiculous number of elements that are sort of dropped in and don’t really DO anything.

*There’s a mind-control machine that’s used to insert some random chaos when things get boring, it’s then destroyed, and it looks to have no impact on anything in specific.

*There’s a ridiculous cholera plot that doesn’t make the least bit of sense. It’s told to our heroines for no reason before they are to be killed in a “Before I Kill You Mr Bond” way, but of course they escape easily right after.

*Whenever Bear doesn’t want to bother with the specifics of how a certain bit of action resolves her heroine is conveniently knocked unconscious, or chloroformed, or faints, and we skip right to the next scene without explanation.

*A romance subplot is dropped in, has no real effect on anything, or any emotional impact, and is neatly resolved with “yup, I love you too! ^^”

On top of all this, there’s no reason for this to have been steampunk, nor does it add anything to the story. It feels tacked-on. Almost everything feels tacked on, to be honest.

Perhaps this is an artifact of the fact that after the initial brothel set up, the story really shifts to be the story of the Marshal who rides into town on the heels of a serial killer. But Bear doesn’t realize this and sticks doggedly with Karen, and it brings down the whole novel? I don’t know.

In the end, I like my fiction to be “thinky.” This doesn’t just mean that characters think a lot in it (although it does mean that), or that I like for it to make me think (altho it does mean that as well)… it also means I expect the author to spend a good deal of time really thinking through the world, and the plot, and all the characters. This feels like it was dashed off without pausing for breath or any real care as to how it holds together. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Eh. The book isn’t bad, but doesn’t have much to recommend it. There’s a bit of chatting that can be done, trying to suss out what went wrong, or talking about the enjoyable parts. More than that, the group can speculate as to why the novel got as much attention as it did when it came out, but that ends up feeling kinda icky pretty quickly. People can enjoy things for any reason they want, and I don’t like to judge. But in terms of leaving the group with lots of interesting things to talk about, or a memorable experience – Not Recommended.

Personal Note: I almost threw the book across the room when the first dead hooker showed up. I am absolutely sick to fucking death of that trope. It’s lazy and it degrades an entire category of human into a cheap plot device. I once knew a sex worker, and it would be painful to watch things with her and see how often this bullshit showed up. Try sitting next to a friend while watching a comedy that jokes about how funny violence against your friend’s group is, because they’re dirty subhumans. I thought I’d be safe from it in a story with an ensemble of brothel workers, but NOPE! Our protagonists are the good kind of prostitutes–the high-class ones with a nice building and a strict-but-fair madam–and the street-walkers are still disposable bodies used to show how evil the villain is.

I’m sorry. I know I sound like a crazy person. But I was really looking forward to seeing this group finally portrayed as real humans in a fun book, and I got hit with that again. Ugh.

Jan 132017
 

Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald

Synopsis:  The Godfather, on the moon

Book Review: I don’t have much to say about this, as I was neither wowed or disappointed. It is basically The Godfather, on the moon.

The physics is hard, as one would expect.

The society is extreme libertarian, to the point of there not being any police or law besides “contract law.” It’s an interesting portrait because normally these sorts of things are written as Libertarian Utopias by hardcore libertarians. This is written very much like a world of feuding crime families, with no law for the masses to appeal to, which feels far more realistic. But since the POV is from the crime family’s perspective, you only get the barest glimpse of how much this sucks for almost everyone else, and instead follow the rich and powerful as they brawl for resources.

This sounds like a good plot, and to be honest, the plotting is good. But you’ve already seen this plot as one of the most-revered movies in cinema history. The characters, meanwhile, are kinda flat and interchangeable. There’s just too damn many of them. And there is very little introspection or thinking, just action after action. This is great for some people, but I like my fiction to be more “thinky.”

In the end, not bad, but certainly not McDonald’s best, and not something I’ll remember in a few weeks. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Kinda the same as the book review. Reaction was mixed, but no one was disappointed. There were some fun things to talk about, and we had a nice evening. But I wouldn’t say this is one to seek out and really recommend to your group over other options so… Not Recommended.

Dec 312016
 

I recently posted a negative review of a book that is, IMHO, bad. The author is well-known, especially for an earlier work that is very well regarded, and a commenter was wondering if they should bump it further back on their “to read” list based on the weakness of this latest work.

My short answer is No.

The longer answer is that for artistic (I) and business (II) reasons, (as well as some fears of my own (III)) it’s very hard to estimate how good one piece of art will be simply based on the fact that it was made by the same creator as a different piece of art.

I.

The artistic reason is because no one really knows what makes something resonate with people at the object level. There are a lot of hints and guidelines (“bleed onto the page”), but there is no way to evaluate a work and say “This will be known as a work of genius” short of releasing it into the wild and watching the results.

This is infuriating to artists (especially to those of us who equate love of our work with self-worth. It sucks to have your value as a human fluctuate based on criteria that are unknowable and spooky and seemingly random!) There is a famous story about Harlan Ellison that really demonstrates this. (I don’t have a cite, so consider it apocryphal until confirmed) He poured his soul into a story. It drew on everything that made him tick, so it’s hard to say how long he spent “writing” it, but in terms of working with ink and paper he spent weeks creating, revising, and polishing it, until it was perfect. It would be his masterwork, and he sent it to his publisher in the knowledge that soon his name would be cemented in SF history. That same night, he jotted off a quick story on a lark, to take a break from the serious writing, and sent that off the next day to a different market. The first story never gained any acclaim, no one remembers it, I don’t even know what it was called. The second story is “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” which is one of the best-known and most-reprinted SF short stories in the genre’s history.

And this sort of thing happens all the time. Every single writer in my Top 5 post has put out work that I considered sub-par, and in some cases just plain shitty. Even Vellum, which I can say probably makes up a portion of my soul, was followed-up by a sequel that was…. well, I basically just ignore that it exists. The same director that gave us Blade Runner (one of the best films to grace the screen) also gave us Prometheus (which I can’t bring myself to link).

Artists have an extremely difficult time seeing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to their own work. The fear is that this can result in great things being lost. My current go-to example is “The Fifth Season“, which is fucking amazing, and one of the best things I’ve read in at least two years. OMG it’s so good. The author, NK Jemisin, said in an interview (which I read myself, so True Fact) that she nearly threw out the entire manuscript because it was such a foaming pile of shit in her eyes that she couldn’t face putting her name on it. Her friends convinced her otherwise, and it made my year, and (perhaps more importantly) won the 2016 Best Novel Hugo. For this reason artists are told not to “self-reject.” The tragedy of a Fifth Season being lost is much worse than if a CrossTalk makes it into publication. Artists to encouraged to simply keep putting things out and let the public judge.

 

II.

The business reason is pretty straightforward. Once an artist does produce something truly amazing, they gain a fan base. Before this time, an artist is a financial risk. Editors and publishers look critically at all work from unknowns, and in theory only things of a certain minimum quality get through. There is a check on the worst stuff. Upcoming artists know this as well, and they often put a ton of effort and angst into making their work as good as it can possibly be. The Jinni And The Golem took the author seven years to write, which is a ridiculously long time. But it paid off.

Once a writer is an award-winning, best-selling author, these checks basically disappear. A publisher knows that the author’s next work will sell, period. An editor may still try their best to force improvements and changes, but the editor is employed by the publisher, and the publisher wants the next book without too much hassle, so they can make a profit. They certainly won’t accept a flat rejection from the editor. And the editor is under psychological pressure as well… they’re altering the work of an award-winning, best-selling artist. That likely causes them to overlook things simply because “maybe this is the new zeitgeist the author is tapping into,” or similar. Of course everyone involved wants the book to be GOOD! They have brands and reputations to maintain, and a good work sells better than a poor one. But the knowledge that this isn’t a major financial risk anymore, combined with the fact that no one really knows what’s good or not (as per Section I), means more mediocre stuff will get through.

 

III.

I also have a couple personal fears about causes behind this.

The first fear is that no one has more than one truly genius work inside of them. This is the terror that keeps me up at night. That everything that makes someone who they are can be best expressed in one ground-shaking work. Most people will never make their ground-shaking work. But some of them are lucky enough to make their Neuromancer or their Catcher In The Rye. And everything after that is simply chasing the dragon. It is riding on the glory of that first success. For some people this artistic climax doesn’t come until midway through their career, or maybe at the very end of it. For others it comes right at the start. I don’t know which is worse. If it comes near the start, then you can live off your art for the rest of your life, as your fans continue to buy the rest of your works. On the other hand, you will forever be striving to match that first incredible piece, and you will always fall short, for as long as you live. Oh god. :(

This is basically a “regression to the mean” effect, and one shouldn’t miss out on an artist’s fantastic outlier at their peak simply because later/earlier works have regressed to the mean.

The other fear is that art comes from pain. Once an artist puts out that big hit, they get acceptance, and love, and money, all of which make life suck less. Also they can often use that money to get therapy and become more complete and less-broken humans. Which also means they can’t put out work as good as they did when they were in pain. So, horrifyingly, the choice is between a good life or good art. :( Naturally, most people choose a good life.

 

IV.

So in summary, no, don’t bump something down a list just because other works by the same artist are kinda crappy. There isn’t much relation. You can certainly judge some things based on author… I’ve read a few things by Mira Grant, and despite her popularity, I really hate all of them. I will never read something she’s written again, unless I get a LOT of assurance from sources I really trust that this work is a break from the past, and actually is in-freaking-credible. And likewise, I’ll probably read everything Yudkowsky and Chiang ever put out.

But if you’ve heard a work is genuinely great, like The Doomsday Book is said to be, and it’s well-regarded by the community and/or people you trust, and it’s won awards… well, then it is very likely good, and don’t let future works affect your ordering.

 

Dec 162016
 

CrossTalk, by Connie Willis

Synopsis:  A rom-com wherein the Irish have telepathy, but no one knows about it, and the Irish have not taken over the world.

Book Review: I like some rom-coms. There is something to be said for a well executed love story with great comedic elements. My personal favorite is Moonstruck, which is just the best. But many rom-coms are absolute garbage, because to work at all they rely on humans acting in the most unbelievable ways. Their protagonists have to be intentionally obtuse, failing utterly at even the most basic communication skills. They make decisions that are so mindbogglingly stupid that they can only be justified if the people involved know that they are characters in a bad movie and they must make these choices in service to the plot, so this turd can finally reach it’s end and they can be put out of their misery.

CrossTalk is the SF novelization of that sort of movie. It is aggressively ANTI-rationalist. The book would come to an immediate end if the protagonists ever had a brief, honest conversation, rather than lying through their teeth and hiding EVERYTHING for NO REASON.

Seriously, for no reason at all. Let’s say you just got brain surgery to become telepathic with one specific person–your fiance. But when you wake up, something has gone wrong! You are telepathic with the wrong person! Would you not immediately say to the brain surgeon “Hey, I think something went wrong with the surgery?” Or would you instead lie about this and hide the fact from all medical professionals, and your fiance, and everyone in your life? Do you LIKE botched brain surgery? What is wrong with you??

Also, the person you now have the telepathic connection to is the creepy stalker guy who’s got a crush on you, and who has been trying to tell you for days to not go forward with this surgery that would link you to your fiance. He is the immediate #1 suspect for what went wrong, right? I mean, this is way too convenient to be a coincidence, it’s obvious this was sabotage on his part! Yet for some reason you blindly accept that these facts are unrelated?

AND! Despite the fact that you specifically had a telepathy chip installed in your brain, and a million lines of evidence point directly to “I now have telepathy”, you will doggedly insist for quite a while that your creepy stalker has installed bugs and cameras everywhere, and is speaking to you through some OTHER secret means, rather than via the telepathy chip you now carry! What are you even thinking??

All this happens within the first few chapters, and it just keeps going like this for the entire damn book. Oh my god.

That’s just the PERSONAL ridiculousness that makes individual people obviously brain-damaged caricatures. The entire world has structural problems as well, because we later discover that telepathy is a natural ability that people of Irish descent possess. Yet no one else in the world knows they have this power! In fact, most Irish people don’t even know until it manifests in them and then their relatives have to have “the talk” with them. They’ve certainly never used this ability to take over the world, or to make a killing in business, or for any sort of intelligence advantage at all. It is used STRICTLY for gossip. This is a failure of imagination so egregious that I would only expect it of a Lit Fic author.

The supposed theme is an utter failure as well. The author was trying to make a point about how terrible having telepathy would be, and trying to make some sort of connection to social media, to scold all the young people. But she is sabotaged by her own subconscious belief that telepathy is awesome. Because every character who gets telepathy in this book LOVES it. It is an amazing tool! It’s like having another sense, or a super-power. Yes, at first it’s very confusing and scary… but with a minimal level of training, all these problems are easily overcome. Seriously, it only takes a few days for the idiot-level protagonist to learn how to block out other voices and concentrate just on who she wants to talk to. (And she gets the ability to secretly read minds in the process!!) In the novel even a 9-year-old masters the ability in a week or two! Look, it takes humans significantly longer than that to learn HOW TO WALK. But we put in the effort anyway, because it’s a fucking amazing ability. Ain’t no one writing screeds about how awful walking is because there was this painful learning process. And, true to form, when characters lose their telepathy, they are horrified. It hurts, and they want the ability back, because it really is awesome. Losing it is like losing a limb. But this is a book against telepathy?

Most infuriating of all are the “villains” of the story. I’m a transhumanist, so I want all humans to be the best humans they can. More health, more life, more intellect, more abilities, etc. These are good things! The antagonists of CrossTalk are people who want to take the demonstrably-awesome ability of telepathy and give it to all humanity. Instead of just the Irish having it, now we can all be telepathic. Our protagonists spend most the book fighting against them. Our protagonists are the evil elitist cabal who wishes to retain this power only for themselves, and leave the rest of humanity crippled. They are the equivalent of sighted people with a cure for blindness, living in a planet of the blind, who refuse to let this cure get out to anyone outside of their ethnic group. Why am I supposed to be cheering for the evil people of this story?

The one good part of all this is the 9-year-old, who is a spunky and whip-smart girl that uses almost no slang from the 50s. I would have enjoyed a book following her. She was likable, and the only character in this mess that didn’t have her head firmly up her own ass. Unfortunately, that was not this book. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: No.

It’s kinda surprising this book is so bad. Connie Willis has written amazing things in the past. “To Say Nothing Of The Dog” and “Doomsday Book” are extremely well regarding in SF circles. She’s won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards! This reinforces my “once an author gets big enough, people will buy anything they publish, and so there is no longer a filter that restricts them to only publishing their genius stuff” theory. C’est la vie.

Not Recommended.

Nov 152016
 

thelibraryatmountcharjacketThe Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

Synopsis:  When God disappears, his twelve adopted children try to find him and/or take his place, while negotiating internal power struggles and the interference of the US government.

Book Review: This book does almost everything flawlessly. It is a portrait of extremely broken people, as being raised by the Old Testament God Himself is not conducive to good mental health. It is a portrayal of absolute power and absolute unaccountability. It is a study of acceptance of horrors, and forgiveness in the face of the unspeakable. And it will make you wonder if there are Ends so important that even you, yes you, would accept any Means necessary to achieve them. Seriously, this book is good. It’s especially meaningful for anyone raised in a fundamentalist religion, and who has since escaped from it but still has a lot of baggage from that past. Like myself!

Scott Hawkins writes very well. His set pieces are gorgeous, and you’ll remember them for a long time. He has the best/most horrifying zombies I’ve ever seen in fiction, you’ll forever see all other zombies in fiction as pale reflections of what Hawkins accomplished. He absolutely masters dark humor, there are a number of laugh-out loud moments, which is vital for this book, because it is dark. In between the atrocities and gloom it’s good to have that gallows humor pull to you through in a “you have to laugh so you don’t cry” sort of way.

It’s hard to say very much in a review without spoiling this book, because a lot of the story is given to you piecemeal, through twists and reveals. And I really don’t want to spoil those reveals. For the first third or so there’s all sorts of disjointed stuff in the air, and as the novel progresses everything is slowly tied together and brought to beautiful fruition. So I won’t be able to say much more, except if you like Dark, Existentialist, Religious-Flavored, Psychological Horror, with a great touch of humor, this book is absolutely for you.

Two caveats – I disliked how at one point the book made me partially like someone who should be hated. Yes, I know that even Hitler was a good friend to those close to him. It doesn’t change what he did. But that was one of the key points/features that Hawkins was trying to get across, and the fact that he pulled it off means he succeeded, and he should be praised for this. He was trying to make me feel that discomfort, and it worked.

The other caveat is that the book has a climax about 2/3rds of the way through. Everything was wrapped up, and there was still 100 pages to go, and I thought “What the hell? Why are there still 100 pages? What could possibly be left to say?” It turns out – A LOT. Like, the main “redemptive” thrust of the novel! BUT, because most of the loose ends were wrapped up in a huge climactic scene (and following denouement!), Hawkins has to spend a fair bit of time building up tension again, reintroducing conflict and stakes, etc. So the 20 pages following the conflict are a bit of a drag. They’re slow. They’re the establishing scenes that we normally get at the beginnings of novels, not near the end! I kept reading, because the novel had done everything so damn well so far that it had bought a lot of good will with me, and it deserved some slack. It paid off big time, but I can’t help but feel that a more perfect novel would have started introducing these conflicts earlier, before the big climax, so we’d already be hooked into the second-wave action and pulled along smoothly, rather than having this doldrums section. Still, it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise fantastic trip.

Highly Recommended

Book Club Review: There is a ton to talk about here. Everything I listed above cascades into discussions about Ends/Means morality, the psychology of unchecked power, the power of acceptance, the limits of redemption. Normally I would recommend this without qualifications.

However.

This is a horror novel. I didn’t realize this at first. But there comes a point where enough horrifying things have happened that one has to admit to themselves “Yeah, OK… this is horror.” One of our members was given nightmares. One stopped early, knowing they couldn’t handle what was being portrayed. The author does manage to psychologically distance the most horrific action from the reader, so you don’t feel it viscerally the way that you do in traditional horror. There is some space there, a margin of safety. But the events are still pretty horrific, and you still know about them as they’re happening, even if you aren’t directly present.

I don’t consider myself a horror fan. I like Dark Fantasy and Dark SF, but I don’t read horror. I associate horror with slasher flicks, and torture-porn. So I’m can’t say how well this novel works for dedicated horror readers. For me it was the perfect amount of terrible, without being grotesque. But not everyone draws their line in the same place.

So, I dunno. Ask your book club members first if they’re ok with something dark. If they’re prepared, then definitely Recommended!

Oct 282016
 

allbirdsskyAll The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

Synopsis: A pair of outcasts meet as children and overcome social isolation and opposing ideologies to become friends and save the world.

Book Review (Rational Fiction version): This must be done in two parts, because first I must address the Rational Fiction flavor of this book! This is the most only novel I know (so far) that captures the style of Rational Fiction without being Rational Fiction itself. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this, so let’s start with the conflict.

A foundation of RatFic is that there aren’t “good” and “evil” sides (per se)–there are factions with conflicting values who are intellectually consistent and morally good to themselves, but who clash over their differences. All The Birds does this thing, as the two protagonists are from opposing ideologies and are each other’s antagonists, and whenever you are reading a chapter from the POV of one of them you identify with that character, and you realize how right and proper their actions are, and why of course they must fight the stupid/bad actions of their opposition. The next chapter switches to the other character, and you feel the exact same thing from the other side. I love that sort of thing.

Secondly, both protags are child prodigies who are socially isolated because of their gifts. This isn’t a defining feature of RatFic per se, but it is a common theme, and it’s very HPMoR-esque, which kicked off the whole RatFic genre in the first place.

Third, it is comfortable in the language/culture of transhumanism. It isn’t a treatise on the movement or anything, but the author is either familiar with the movement, or had a lot of input from people who are. This feels like it was written by someone in the scene, and it’s refreshing to read something that comes from my culture! You don’t realize how alien the overwhelming majority of the world is until you stumble across something that feels like it came from your home group, and you can love it for the comforting family tale it is. I get fuzzies just thinking about it.

Fourth, the humor is straight-up Yudkowskian. If you liked the humor of HPMoR, you’ll likely enjoy the humor here too! It is slightly absurdist, but in a way that is delightful, like the assassin’s guild that requires its members to perform pro bono hits from time to time to remain in good standing. The word play is top-notch. And there are a fair smattering of the geeky pop-culture references, done just right, that we all love (ala Forks +2).

That being said, this is explicitly NOT Rationalist Fiction! The male hero starts the novel by crafting a 2-second time machine which apparently anyone can make if they have internet access, but most people don’t, and which isn’t abused or munchkined at all. There’s a TON of these throw-away things in the novel which could potentially break the world if an enterprising hero were to munchkin them into abuse, but which are never exploited in that way, because this isn’t RatFic. It’s a story of friendship, and love, and growing up, and it focuses on THAT. As long as you don’t expect RatFic-style exploitation, and accept this as a surreal fantasy story where everyone has a blindspot as to the game-breaking-potential of all the magic/gadgets around them, you’ll enjoy the hell out of it. :)

Book Review (Traditional Version): This is a beautiful story. I don’t know if anyone read the works of Daniel Pinkwater as a kid, but this novel feels exactly like I remember those. It is surreal in a way that allows the author to focus on the parts of reality that really MATTER to the story, and seriously drill into those. The story does not give any fucks about “realism.” In Pinkwater’s Lizard Music, for example, there are talking lizards who play jazz music on public access television after midnight. In a world that otherwise makes sense. There is no explanation given, it’s just a brute fact of the story world. All The Birds In The Sky has many similar things, straight-up absurdities which are fun and which don’t need explanation (like the 2-second time machine). They are quirky and delightful, and put you in the frame of mind that this is a fantasy for precocious, imaginative people that are willing to revert to a more child-like play state for the duration of a novel.

This is important, because much of this novel is an exploration of how we move from being wonder-filled children to jaded adults. Sooooo much of it is a commentary on Adulting. On trying to stay true to yourself in a world filled with mundane madness, with a sanity waterline so low it drives you to exasperation… and maybe conformity? This is a paean to anyone who still uses Adulting as a verb to proudly describe things they sometimes do, rather than a noun describing what they are.

And oh god, the childhood of these characters. It is my childhood. It is angst and isolation, and thinking if maybe you can do this one glorious thing it will all be different… but it never is. The parents are absurdly extreme in a way no real humans are, but in a way that speaks to the emotional reality of what it is to be a child. It sacrifices literalism to get to the emotional core of a world dominated by overwhelmingly powerful beings who cannot relate to or fully understand you.

The teen years too! The sexual struggles of the male character are the most true-to-life of any novel I’ve read, and I think it says something that a surrealist YA novel has come so much closer to portraying realistic sexuality than anything trying to be Serious and Literary.

The prose itself is just fantastic too. After a love scene between the male protagonist and his then-girlfriend, the final paragraph ends with

“When Laurence got back to bed, Serafina had fallen into a cold sleep, and her elbow jutted into him.”

It just ends like that, flat. And it’s the most beautiful way to say “They do not fit together. This relationship is awkward and uncomfortable and doomed to failure.” Because instead of just telling us that, it shows us it in the most physically-literal way possible. In just one sentence, describing a single action. And yet everything is wrapped up in exactly that one line, and it hits you and lingers, because that one line is all it took, and it did it via demonstration. There’s a number of these literary feats sprinkled throughout this book, and it’s perfect every time.

Also, it is written exactly the way I would talk with my friends! For example, there’s even a part where the two characters try to speak at once, and the next sentence is literally:

Then they were both like “You first.”

Which is awesome. :)

The book has a few weaknesses. Patricia’s stay at the Magic School (and the resulting Siberia Incident) never felt very fleshed-out or compelling to me. And the ending was a bit weak. But the beauty and wonder made up for it, for me. I don’t want to over-hype this, because nothing can live up to too much praise, and then one is disappointed. But I certainly enjoyed it. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This review has gone on for quite a while already, so I’ll try to make this short. Not everyone liked this book as much. A couple of our members just couldn’t swallow the absurdist aspects. However, as a commentary on what sort of world we have built for ourselves as we became adults, and how we changed to accommodate that, it did give a group a couple interesting lines of conversation to talk about. The way it portrays environmentalism vs humanism, and the recklessness of over-ambitious leaders, is also intriguing. The fact that it isn’t too long and is a pleasant read helped with completion and turn out as well. Overall, this is makes for good book club reading/discussion. Recommended.

Oct 182016
 

lilith1Lilith, by George MacDonald

Synopsis: A landed gentleman stumbles into a magical dreamland, which I guess is full of parables and symbolism?

Book Review: Written in 1895, this book reads like it was written a century earlier. It’s short, only 200ish pages, but I still gave up after 60. This thing is not worth reading.

First, there’s no reason to like the protagonist. He’s a bland young man of the landed gentry class, who inherited his wealth, and has no friends or anyone important in his life. I just don’t care about his aimless wanderings through a nonsense world.

Second, there’s no tension. In addition to not caring about the protag, there’s no reason to care about what’s happening. None. He just goes wandering.

Third, it’s poorly written. Something something different time period – whatever. MacDonald will often write extremely long sentences that, once you parse them, say literally nothing. Sometimes several in a row. And those are just the ones that intentionally say nothing. My biggest complaint is that:

Fourth – this book is nothing but a huge dump of Pretending To Be Wise. In fact, it’s worse than Pretending To Be Wise. At least if you’re Pretending To Be Wise, you’re actually making some claims with substance, even if they are shallow. Lilith contains innumerable passages with a bunch of fancy-sounding words which don’t actually say ANYTHING. There is no substance there at all! It is the 19th century equivalent of the Quantum Homeopathy Woman. It’s fancy gibberish that doesn’t have any referent!

Well OK, not *every* time. It’s pretty obvious that the little people vs giants section is a big ol’ sign to say “Greed is bad.” Thanks for that update George. It was extra-profound when you demonstrated Greed Is Bad by pointing out that it would be awesome if everyone lived in an Eden, in perfect health with unlimited food and no need for shelter. Totes applicable to my life.

Strongly Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Yeah, there’s not much to talk about here. There’s no topic to discuss, because nothing has been said. I was going to chalk this up to “Writing technology has advanced a lot”, but our English Major pointed out that MacDonald doesn’t even have that excuse. This post-dates Charles Dickens. It post-dates “Alice in Wonderland”, which was an actual GOOD tale set in a magical dreamland. It’s only a couple decades removed from Hemingway.

The only person in our book club who enjoyed this novel was someone who misinterpreted it as an Absurdist Humor piece, and found it hilarious. Even she got tired of it after about halfway through though, and skipped to the end.

On the plus side, it’s in the public domain, so you can get it free. Or for under a buck at Amazon.

Not Recommended.

Oct 032016
 

steel-beach Steel Beach, by John Varley

Synopsis: A tour of a transhumanist future on a lunar colony, where Humanity struggles against the ennui of irrelevance, and a sovereign Friendly AI struggles against value drift.

Book Review: It is really impressive how ahead-of-its-time this novel was. It was published in 1992, and for the most part I felt like it could have been published last month (with a few notable exceptions–the “we update our news sites every hour” must’ve seemed like a lot back then, nowadays we update in real time…)

I was wary at first, because the story starts with a journalist being told to write a series of articles about how life is different now than it was 200 years ago (due to the approaching bicentennial of humanity’s exit from Earth). That just felt like a very ham-handed way of saying “I, the author, shall now pontificate on my personal vision of what a cool future would be for hundreds of pages.” But I was pleasantly surprised. The world is indeed pretty cool, and its oddities and quirks kept me interested in the initial chapters. The plot, while it does flag in a few points, keeps things moving pretty well. Varley’s style totally steals the show though! He writes with a very strong voice that really brings his protagonists personality to the fore and lets it shine. I may not like everything about the protagonist, but I feel like I know who they are after spending this novel with them.

The big draw with this book is Varley’s dive into the meaning of life. Not in the pretentious “Let us ponder upon the meaning of life” way, but in a somewhat-more-intelligent-than-average character trying to figure out what exactly to do, and how to be meaningful, in a world that doesn’t really need humans anymore. Let me take that back – not just “try to figure out”, but actively churning his/her life experiences in multiple attempts to try stuff and find a thing! It’s cool to see someone actually make efforts and go through several feedback loops.

Hell, the protagonist even falls back on the old “revert to survivalism” and “have children” clichés, and fortunately doesn’t come to the conclusion “It turns out we all just need to go back to living like our ancestors.” :)

Most interestingly, the book doesn’t really give any answers. Varley certainly doesn’t have any method to push, aside from the usual “keep seeking, there’s gotta be meaning somewhere.” It’s more of an exploration of ennui than a refutation of it, and has a bittersweet taste throughout. If that thought turns you off, this is not the book for you. But I enjoyed it.

One big downside—most of the climax happened off-stage. That’s a storytelling sin, IMHO. But the book wasn’t really about that plot, so I’m more forgiving of it than usual.

This is not a book that I would give a hearty “You must read this as soon as you have free time!” endorsement of. However I’m glad I read it, and I would recommend to my past self to read through this at some point, when there’s a lot going on in my life and I need something to bring me some calm for a bit. So, a Mildly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Holy crap, there is so much in here to talk about! The entire novel is a comment on modern life and how we deal with it. There are so many hooks for conversation you may have to choose to focus just on the ones most interesting to your group. This will spark a lot of discussion about human nature, the coming age of automation, the banality of modern news media, the ethics of X and/or Y, and so forth. It is absolutely fantastic.

And it does so in a way where the focus is on the fiction, not where the fiction is just some thin excuse for the author to expound on how much Kids Suck These Days or whatever. It’s got a legit good story with good characters, who happen to be wrestling with those issues, but who were written for their own sake. Not to serve as mouthpieces.Quite well done.

One would be excused in thinking that this book was written specifically for book clubs that like read a neat story and then discuss cool things. Highly Recommended!

Sep 192016
 

ghostbrideThe Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

Synopsis: At the turn of the century, a young girl must marry the dead son of a rich family to save her father from ruin, but he’s a total jerk.

Book Review: An interesting animal! First, this book feels like an Urban Fantasy that’s set in an early 1900s Chinese colonial holding rather than in modern-day Chicago. It’s a neat blending of modern style and old setting.

The thing I most enjoyed about this book was its exploration of the afterlife mythology of this culture. It’s not exactly Chinese, and not exactly Malaysian, but kinda a blending of the two that happened in that time/place. I am almost entirely ignorant of that mythology, so seeing their afterlife beliefs coming to life in these pages was entirely fascinating. It’s very much the Bureaucratic Hell version of afterlife, except everyone goes there. Then they suffer through a century or so of paperwork and red tape and corrupt government officials until they die for real. Not the worst of tortures, but certainly not a pleasant afterlife. :) Almost every chapter had something new and fascinating that kept my interest. And the prose is basically well done, in some places slipping into cliché, in other places really shining.

The thing about this novel though… well, just a week or so before I read it I came across this essay about the Basic Girl Story (as compared to the Basic Boy Story), and I’m glad I did, because it put everything into perspective. (OK, tumblr post, but basically an informal essay)

The Basic Boy Story is “common boy is found to be Special, with Special Powers or Destiny or some such. He gets training under a mentor, pushes his abilities to new levels, and completes some difficult task. He returns to his home town as a much-lauded hero.”

The Basic Girl Story is “common girl is found to be Special, with Special Powers or Destiny or some such. She meets a Gruff Loner. She is put in danger several times, and in each case rescued because she is Precious and Worth Rescuing. In the end she and Gruff Loner fall in love, the danger passes, and the most significant change in her life is that now she’s happy.”

The essay itself compares The Matrix to Jupiter Ascending as the two Basic story examples, and its interest and short. But the main point is that neither story is bad, they are just… basic. We’ve seen them both a hundred times. There’s no shame in enjoying them, they are so basic because they are widely enjoyable! But unless they incorporate some sort of radical twist or concept (like The Matrix had), they won’t cover new ground.

The Ghost Bride is the essence of a good Basic Girl Story. It hits every beat, and if you’ve read a few of these before, you can see everything coming from a mile away. I knew when the Gruff Loner was removed from the story that he wasn’t really gone for good – he had to come back for the declaration of love at the end. But I was hoping maybe, MAYBE our protagonist would solve at least one problem by herself now. Nope. He’s back before you know it to save her yet again. Ah well, I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. :)

If you like that sort of story, this really is a great execution of it! And the interesting world makes up for a lot. But it doesn’t really grab me, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: The book isn’t bad for book clubs. The exposure to a foreign mythology is really neat, and it’s a fast read, and not an unenjoyable one. There are a couple things to talk about, such as how much society has progressed since the time when it was hard to marry off a nearly-spinsterly 18-year-old girl.

I personally was bothered by how the book strongly pushed the narrative of “parents have an obligation to sacrifice everything for the child’s happiness.” I realize that parents sacrifice a lot, and this is generally good. But Choo seemed to speak very approvingly of a young mother who committed suicide so that her daughter could marry the guy she wanted to. That’s really overdoing it IMHO. You don’t have an obligation to kill yourself so your bratty 14 year old can run off with her True Love. These over-the-top sacrifices, and the entitlement of the children to them, really rubbed me the wrong way. That sparked a fair bit of conversation. However I think this was a peculiarity of my own, and most people wouldn’t think that much of it, and wouldn’t make it a talking point.

All things considered, it isn’t bad. No one disliked it. Most people weren’t significantly excited by it either though, so I can’t give an Enthusiastic Consent recommendation. Ultimately, Not Recommended.