Oct 152018
 

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

Synopsis: Seven pilgrims journey to a distant world, to visit a mysterious murder-alien who is rumored to grant wishes… or kill you.

Another book I’d been hearing about for forever. Turns out that yeah, this is a damn masterpiece of science fiction.

The novel has a primary storyline, concerning the pilgrimage. However the bulk of the text is the pilgrims tell their life-stories to each other in self-contained novelettes. Each of these novelettes is written in a different style, with a different theme. This allows Simmons to show off his range and versatility, and gives us a rich sampler platter of story-types to read. There’s xeno-exploration, military fic, Poe-style poetic tragedy, family drama, etc. All of them strongly SF-flavored. Each of these novelettes (with one exception) is a deeply engrossing story in its own right, with great character and world building, and engrossing plots. But the really masterful part is the way that all these individual novelettes build up the wider universe that the primary story takes place in. You quickly begin to see hidden actions and associations between the novelettes that isn’t very significant within a single novelette, but that are obviously connected and draw a much larger picture of what’s happening in the world when taken together. It’s telling a meta-story behind/within all the smaller human-scale stories the pilgrims are relating.

Taken together like this, we readers see an epic storyline unfolding from the various pieces we’re given. The feeling that comes with slowly realizing what’s happening is fantastic, and very rare. The only book I can easily recall pulling off something similar was Vellum, though the revelation in Use of Weapons was similar, if smaller scale. This is a hell of a feat for an author, and an absolute delight for a reader. I don’t want to over-hype the book, but it is really good, and you should read it if you haven’t yet.

A couple notes: The book is named for an abandoned epic-poem by Keats, and both Keats and the poem are referenced several times within the novel. I looked up the poem, and while I didn’t read it (cuz I suck at poetry), I did read about it, and seeing the deliberate parallels between the two works made the reading process even more enjoyable. Simmons is mirroring the themes in Keats’ poem in an SF setting, and it works.

Also, the reason I read this when I did was because I’ve started listening to the Doofcast, and this was their September Book Club book. They do a long dive into it in their episode, with many cool insights, and I think it makes a great companion. However it is full of spoilers, so wait until after you’ve finished the book. Shout-out and thanks to them for pushing me to do this, or it might have been several more years before I got around to it.

Absolutely Recommended.

Oct 022018
 

Any synopsis would be spoilery. These are books 2 and 3 of Terra Ignota. If you liked Too Like The Lightning (book 1 of Terra Ignota), you will continue to like these. They’re really good. If you haven’t read any yet, see my post on Too Like The Lightning, or my interview with Ada Palmer.

This review kinda contains some spoilers, in a general sense, but nothing that isn’t already strongly telegraphed in the first book.

The more I read about today’s Culture Wars, the more I see Terra Ignota in everything around me. When I started Too Like The Lightning, I thought this was a wonderfully built future world. Fabulously imagined, meticulously built up in many layers across wide domains, and incredibly imaginative. Now I read it and I think “Holy fucking shit, this is the world we are living in right now, with the skin changed so that observations on the current day can be made through metaphor.” And yes, I know that all fiction is contemporary. I know that SF/F has been used since its very first works to actually be conversations about pressing current-day issues that pretends to be fanciful so it can say things one couldn’t say otherwise. But it still startled me just how insightful these works are when I woke up to what was happening around me.

The hives are our cultural tribes taken to their fullest extreme. One of our great problems today is that our geographic nations rule greatly disparate cultural tribes under a single government, binding them all with laws that are morally unacceptable to every one of them (although which laws it is are that are morally unacceptable differs from group to group, so everyone despises some thing, but never the same thing, and often what one group considers morally abominable is a moral requirement of others!). This leads to constant struggle to seize power and rewrite the laws (and norms) binding everyone, and thus The Culture Wars. This is exactly the situation in the Terra Ignota series, except they’ve found a way to prevent anyone from having to live under laws they find morally abhorrent. Problem solved!

Except not really, because all this did was paper over the problem and tell everyone it’s fixed, so we should all ignore it. The root cause, the incompatibility of the cultures, is still present. It continues to cause social strife and conflict, so that it can only be averted by a global regime of full surveillance and preventative assassination.

Let’s also take a moment to admire how Palmer included the parallel social construct of suppressing all gender expression. She says on more than one occasion, both within the books themselves, and in interviews, that she is portraying a society that went post-gender badly. Instead of resolving the sex divide, everyone simply agreed to remove any acknowledgement of gender and pretend this fixed the problem. It leads to deep pathologies within society, as well as individual defenselessness to sexual desires and sexual predators. This is the exact same tactic that was used to “resolve” the culture wars. I didn’t realize it while reading the novels, but in retrospect it’s so obvious it’s blinding. Palmer is yelling “Hey, society! Stop burying problems and pretending they don’t exist! Actually solve this shit!!”

She seems to be less than hopeful as to what will happen to us if we don’t. The society of Terra Ignota is descending into full civil war. A vicious, terrible war, because there are no borders, and thus there is no place that is safe. Every combatant lives interspersed with the enemy at all times. There’s a lot of people in the US worried that we’re heading for a Civil War II. We would find ourselves in the same situation. Sharing our grocery stores, our subways, and our neighborhoods with filthy Alt-Righters, Social Justice Activists, Rationalists, etc.

I also want to take a moment to highlight how damned prophetic Palmer is. She started writing this series in 2008. 2008!!! When I heard that I asked “Waitaminit… you were already writing the post-gender They/Them world in 2008? I know I haven’t been on college campuses in quite a while, but that seems really freakin’ early! I’m not totally out of touch, and this has only been a thing for a few years now. Was this already a thing where you were in 2008?” She replied, with some exasperation, “No! It came out in 2016 and people were all ‘oh, she’s jumping on this gender bandwagon’ but I totally want credit for coming up with it way before that!” And first of all – mad props to her for just that. But think about what she’s done. Combining historical insights and the subtle interactions she saw building in the world around her in 2008, she created a world that reflected the most pressing cultural issues of ten years in the future before any of us were even near that stage. Back when we were still freaking out about the worldwide financial collapse and catching Bin Laden. I know it’s partly luck, but even so, it’s damned prescient. I am honestly shocked.

And as frustrating as it must be to have your book in limbo for years before it finally makes it to print, I think it may have been a boon in this case. Five years ago, we didn’t know this was the world we were living in. It may not have made this same impact, and drawn this much attention.

Or who knows, maybe it would have. Maybe we could have more clearly seen what was coming, and been better able deal with its unpleasant surprises. I don’t think most people are quite that insightful. I certainly wouldn’t have been. Hell, I didn’t even fully realize what was happening when I read these two books a few months ago.

If you are at all interested in the world around you, or how truly exceptional SF can be more historically relevant than anything in the New York Times: Highly Recommended.

(added: a few hours after I wrote this, I discovered Ada has launched a Kickstarter to fund a lecture & discussion series on Censorship & Information Control In Information Revolutions, should you be interested in that as well)


Sep 252018
 

The last few months I’ve had some time to read a few books outside of book club (*gasp!*), and I’ve decided I might as well post a few thoughts about them. They aren’t full book club reviews, but they’re something.

Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow

Synopsis: A society on the edge of breaking into both post-scarcity and transhumanism suffers intense adjustment shocks.

This is an intensely interesting look at the border state of a capitalist society turning into a post-scarcity one, and the potential conflict that could engender as people struggle to make the switch. One might not think it’d be that hard to switch to not laboring for anything once machines can do it, but the values of the work ethic and earning one’s keep can be really hard to transmute into something that doesn’t judge people for not working. The portrayal of a society struggling between such fundamentally opposed ideologies is very compelling, and that alone would be enough to entice me. But on top of all that, the human race starts dipping its toes into transhumanism here, struggling to create/stabilize the first uploaded humans, and that parallel storyline is fascinating as well, if perhaps not as integral to the plot.

Ultimately, this is an idea-novel. It has a lot of big ideas it wants to talk about, and it wraps those within an interesting storyline about rebellion and growth. The story works well enough, but it’s not the main attraction, and I could tell that in the reading. There are many occasions where characters monologue or dialog about ethics or economics (and usually both). It’s basically transhumanist punk message fic. Which is fine with me, I enjoy message fic! :) I really enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, and The Golden Compass, and several of John C Wright works, and so on. I consider message fic to be both fun, inspiring, and motivational, even when I disagree with the message! Assuming that it’s well done message fic. Walkaway isn’t as well done as the ones I’ve named, but it’s still pretty darn good. Recommended.

As a note, this book is heavily inspired by the post-scarcity community at Burning Man. Doctorow attends at least sometimes (I got the book from him there in 2017, when he gave me an audio version on USB), and if you’ve been before you’ll recognize a lot of the ethos, as well as great heaps of the jargon! It provided me with a sense of familiarity. Although it also meant I was constantly visualizing everyone in the Nevada desert rather than the Canada wilds. At least, up until the blizzards became a plot point.

Sep 212018
 

This post has spoilers that go right up to the last few chapters of Downbelow Station.

 

So don’t read it if you don’t want spoilers! Big ones!

 

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Now that that’s out of the way, also a content warning – this post talks about rape. Although that itself isn’t a spoiler, since the alluded-to rape happens in the first few chapters. But it’s another possible reason not to read this.

 

Early in the book, a character (Josh) is taken as prisoner of war by a warship captain (Mallory) and used as a sex slave during his captivity. He is clearly raped by her, seemingly multiple times, before being left at Downbelow Station. He’s damaged by this, and later in the novel when Mallory returns, makes an attempt to murder her in revenge.

Later on, Mallory begins a redemption arc. She’s shown to be one of the least bad captains, given the situation. In the end, she breaks from the fleet admiral and turns on her former comrades in order to save the station and save the lives of tens of thousands of civilians that were to be slaughtered. It’s a great emotional moment, which builds for chapters as we see more and more injustice through Mallory’s eyes, and feel her silently raging against it, until she realizes the holocaust that’s about to take place and simply cannot stomach to accept orders anymore. We readers are very glad she switches sides and comes to the rescue. However it occurred to me as I was reading it that if this had been a male captain who had raped a female sex slave in the early chapters of the book, I wouldn’t be even a fraction as accepting of this redemption arc. I might accept it grudgingly, because preventing holocausts is a good thing. But I’d be angry with the author and wondering what the hell they are trying to pull. As it was, I was only really uncomfortable and struggling with this dissonance.

Then, in the last chapters, Josh returns to Mallory and volunteers to join her crew. And is accepted. He is now part of a family, content to be a crew member of the captain who raped him repeatedly. If this was a male captain and a female character going back to him in kinship, I would have thrown the book across the fucking room and cursed the fucking author. Disgusting, and unbelievable, and infuriating. As it was, I was again only uncomfortable… and now REALLY struggling with the fact that I feel that I should be outraged, but I’m just kinda fucked up instead.

Why the hell are the two situations so different? I did, of course, turn to rationalization right away. Men are less likely to contract STIs from women. Men can’t get pregnant, the most horrific STI of all. Men raped by women are far less likely to by physically damaged by the act. Men do not suffer the stigma and (depending on the society) loss of status of being “impure” or “dirtied” by the act.

However the violation of bodily autonomy is just as present. The helplessness of being an object used by someone else is just as damaging. It was still rape, after all. Shouldn’t I be just as outraged? I should be enraged that this character could be portrayed as forgiving and living with (and under the command of) his rapist.

I’m still not sure what to make of all this. I don’t have any statements or conclusions to make. I’m just expressing my own discomfort with my non-equal emotional reactions in this post. I think that Cherryh was wise to choose the sexes of Josh/Mallory as she did, because this would have been unacceptable to most audiences if written with their sexes swapped. But, OTOH, it probably would have also been written very differently if their sexes were swapped, and likely would have resolved in a completely different way. So the fact that we are more willing to accept it written this way says something about us. With this subplot, Cherryh has held up a mirror to me, and shown me an aspect of myself I was unaware of. And done that to our society as a whole, I venture. That’s good writing.

Still weirded out by myself, though.

Sep 192018
 

Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh

Synopsis: A neutral outpost is drawn into a war between two vastly more powerful adversaries, threatening everything they believe and ultimately their existence.

Book Review: For a book published in 1981, this is still a surprisingly relevant story! It starts with a refugee crisis, one infinitely more interesting and well-represented than whatever Exit West was trying to do. It shows the moral difficulty of the situation, displaying both the injustice and despair of the abused refugees, and the societal problems and resource constraints experienced by the pre-existing population. One of our heroes even begins to fantasize of atrocity to solve this problem.

This deep understanding and unguarded presentation of all sides continues through-out the book. Cherryh presents real people with compelling views among all sides, which I greatly admire in fiction. While there are some villains, the biggest true villain is the specter of war itself, and the horrors it brings. When an antagonist looks poised to take control of the station, all I could think was “Yes! Please let him do a good job of this! I don’t care who controls the station just so long as we can avoid the ravages of warfare.” This is good writing.

The station itself reminded me of Renaissance-era city-states. Geographically small, dependent upon the laborers of the lands around them to survive, with politics ruled by strong families that often have bitter rivalries among them. Betrayal and intrigue is the order of the day, but in the end it is the city that is the most important thing, rather than any individual person or family. I loved it.

Maybe it’s not a perfect book… the protagonists are slightly too Paladin-like for my tastes. The innocent pre-civilization aliens that work with the humans are just over-the-top innocent and sweet and helpful, going beyond even the caricature of the Noble Savage. But nonetheless, this is a fantastic novel. It was never slow, never anything but supremely written, and I cared for the station and what was happening on the next page. The structure of the novel, written in many places as a series of vignettes that show how major political decisions affect the day-to-day lives of the small people on the ground, as well as the outcomes of flashy space-battles, was exquisite. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

I’m reading Hyperion in my free time right now as well, and these two books together are making me reconsider my reading strategy. Rather than chasing the shiny new thing, which often disappoints, I am beginning to think I really should focus on reading through all the books that I hear many times, from multiple sources, are amazing. Seminal works, things considered classics of the genre, and so forth.

Recommended!

Book Club Review: Also a great book club book. There is much to talk about, and everyone will find something to love. In addition to asking if ideals can survive the necessities of a callous world, the book raises several moral questions that will likely get people talking. I’ll be writing about one tomorrow, but it’s hell of a spoiler, so I’m not including it in this review. If your book club is willing to have conversations on difficult issues without good resolutions, this is a great starting point. And even if they aren’t, it’s still a good book which will be enjoyed and bring discussion with it. Recommended.

Aug 292018
 

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

Synopsis: The daughters of Victorian-era SF heroes and villains band together to solve a mystery.

Book Review: This novel hits you with its cool twist right in the epigraph – the story is being told by the protagonist, who is typing it out while her friends are watching, and their comments as she’s telling of their exploits are included in the text. It’s a delightful conceit! Feels a bit “Series of Unfortunate Events”-ish, in that the author/narrator is an active part of the story. This gives it a very conversational feel, like your friends are all sitting in the room with you and telling the story at once, butting in to interrupt each other.

It’s used to great effect several times, where one of the supporting characters complains about something, or protests how they are portrayed, only to have the author immediately change things within the novel to aggravate them even more to teach them a lesson. It’s fantastically fun!

In addition, it’s really cool being introduce to most of the characters through their commentary, and then meeting them in the narration as the story is related and saying “Oh! *THAT’S* who Justine is!! Neat!”

I also enjoyed the re-imagining of so many old characters, from Jekyll/Hyde through Sherlock, mostly seen through the eyes of their daughters. They spend the novel basically cleaning up the mess their fathers have left behind, and it’s a fun romp. Also, Diane is amaaaaazing. If you like stabby tom-boy characters (like Arya!) you’ll really enjoy her. She’s fantastic, and hilarious. Shortest daughter is best daughter!

On the downsides, the book isn’t very deep. It feels very much like the pilot episode of a series, where all the characters are introduced, but there are no character arcs and the plot isn’t terribly relevant; presumably because it’s basically setting things up for later. It’s also an ensemble piece, and each character is focused so strongly on being unique that they start to feel a bit single-note. Their strongest character trait is stressed over and over.

In the same way, there’s a number of things that are repeated ad nauseum, just to make sure we reaaaaaaaally get it. Yes, the crazy man is innocent despite his guilt admission, WE GET IT. It makes everyone in the story look like idiots because they keep saying “Wow, it’s so unbelievable that this gentle, weak, harmless, disconnected from reality old man could murder someone! But I guess he admitted it, so there’s just no way he isn’t guilty! So weird!” auuuuugh.

Similarly, there’s a few times very important things are ignored by characters just so they can be revisited later. Like, hey, if the girl I just rescued from an orphanage keeps calling me “sister,” maybe I should ask her why, instead of putting it off until after tea, and lunch, and dinner, and a good night’s sleep, and breakfast the next morning?

And the interjections don’t do nearly as much in the later half of the book. Most of the cool narrative jostling is in the first half, which made me sad, I would have enjoyed seeing more structure play.

This is a light, fast read, and fairly enjoyable. But it’s a set up for a longer series, and doesn’t have any weight to it. I get the feeling it’ll be popular, because it is fun and inconsequential, and lots of times that’s what people want in their pleasure reading. But for me, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: I was surprised by how much there was to discuss. This hits the sweet spot of having a bunch of cool things that people liked, and a bunch of little irritating things that people had opinions on and could dig into for a fair bit. We ended up chatting for quite a while about this! The fact that it’s fanfic of SF classics that everyone is familiar with also really helped. There were some strong opinions on some of the portrayals. :) And that sparked further conversation about the nature of transformative works, as well as opinions on bringing modern sensibilities and language into old stories.

It also made me despair for American copyright law again. This is the sort of thing we are stealing from the current generation with our ridiculous restrictions.

Anyway, this made for some great talk, and it’s not a hard read! I’d use it as a break between heavier stuff, but yes – Recommended.

Aug 082018
 

Deepsix, by Jack McDevitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended.

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

Jul 202018
 

The Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 282018
 

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

 

Best Short Story Catagory

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Best Novelette Catagory

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Recommended – “Wind Will Rove”

 

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

Jun 202018
 

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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