Jun 272016
 

Lilith_Third_ImpactThis post will have tons of spoilers for The Fifth Season. If you want to read this book (and again, I suggest you do!), it’s a good idea to skip this post for now, and maybe come back when you’re done.

OK, let’s continue.

There are a number of moments that really stick to me. When young Damaya is told the foundational myth of their culture, and is swelling with pride and excitement about how she’s going to be just like the hero, and then is told in no uncertain terms “You are the villain. You are the monster we are defending ourselves from. You are Other.” The punch of being forced into the role of the hated enemy is visceral. And it allows us to feel empathy for this culture, and the things it must do to survive. That will be handy, since our protagonists are the villains of this world, and we will have this touchstone of learning to fear and hate the villains to come back to, established from very early on in the story.

Honestly, starting out the story with Alabaster destroying the world and wiping out humanity was an equally genius move. It tells us right from the start that this culture’s fears are justified.

Of course what makes a Tragedy a Tragedy is that the Tragic Figure (in this case, the Sanzed Empire) brings about their own destruction. Fifth Season portrays this beautifully, showing us exactly how Damaya is turned from a normal, spirited child, to the very monster that their society so fears. Much of the book is dedicated to showing this process, so I won’t restate every case of it, but my favorite is when she and Alabaster are forced to breed more children. In the initial scene, she comes to the realization that Alabaster is more traumatized by this than she is. He fears it more, and hates it more, and that fear is partially reflected as fear of her. And she LIKES this. She’s no longer entirely a helpless victim, this gives her a measure of delicious control. She is more the aggressor in this rape than he is, and that is a comfort. That sort of “the abused comes to embrace dealing out abuse of her own” is the type of detail that makes this novel so moving. Not because Jemisin thought to include it (something to this effect is required in this sort of story), but because she made us feel it too. We felt that measure of joy and relief in getting to be the powerful one, this one time, even if it does make us monsters. That is good writing.

But what really sealed this for me, and why I found this book so effecting, is a scene very early on. After the mayor of her town helps her to quite an extant – and does so without hedges or questions or compulsions! He puts himself at some personal risk to use his power to help her, because he is a genuinely good person and believes that is the Just thing to do – she is forced to kill him (and at least a dozen other innocent people near her) in order to fuel the magic to defend herself. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. Because he is part of this society. She just saw her husband murder their son, out of fear and hatred. And:

“The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.”

The internalized revulsion that leads a good man, a man she loved, to this sort of hate-murder of his own children, is not a flaw in a single man. It is not an incidence of mental illness. It is the well-known (and at least partially desired) result of this society. It cannot live in one man. It is the product of all of society, of everyone who participates in it, who accepts it, and does nothing to change anything about it. EVERYONE is complicit, and EVERYONE is equally deserving of condemnation for participating in and profiting from it. So when the complicit, even the friendly ones who smile and shake your hand, are caught up in the cycle of death they helped create, they are only getting exactly what they deserve. Very similarly to this excerpt from The Woman’s Room:

“Like a Jew just released from Dachau, I watch the handsome young Nazi soldier fall writhing to the ground with a bullet in his stomach and I look briefly and walk on. I don’t even need to shrug. I simply don’t care.”

Perhaps we’re bothered by this scene, occurring as it does very early in the novel. This scene is letting us know where we’re headed. Because the thing that this novel does is take us from the point of being just another average reader, to embracing that the world must be destroyed.

I spoke of this in Episode 7 of The Bayesian Conspiracy (“Kill All Humans?”), but if you haven’t heard it – when I was in college, I was pro-annihilation-of-mankind. Because all life is suffering. On net, existence is more pain than joy, and the most moral thing to do is end it all as quickly as possible.

I feel a lot better about life now, and no longer hold these views.

But a part of me still feels that. A part of me looks at the sealed box of Neon Genesis Evangelion DVDs on my shelf and thinks “Maybe I should watch that again…” A part of me suspects maybe I’m just in a local-maximum in my life right now, and eventually things will revert to misery, and that’s the natural and inevitable state of all human life.
This novel guides the reader to that place. It takes an entire novel to do it, because you can’t do it in less words than that. But it shows anyone who is willing to read it how one can come to that conclusion. No, not just shows – it makes the reader feel it as well. It brings understanding of that emotional state, on an emotional level. It allows others who read it to be, however briefly, Broken in the same way that I am/was Broken. And I appreciate that deeply.

I assume not everyone will get quite there. And I’m not sure people who have never felt that state in their past will feel as strongly about this book as I do. But to me, it was absolute perfection. That’s why I loved it so much. I hope others do too.

[EDIT: prediction time – since Alabaster has already doomed humanity to extinction, but *still* wants Essun to make it worse, his ultimate goal isn’t just the destruction of humanity. I’m thinking he has a plan for restoring/recreating a moon, which requires this level of destruction to make it happen, and he can’t do it alone. So even in this, he’s still trying to heal the world. :) ]

Jun 232016
 

5th SeasonThe Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: This is a story of how the world ends.

Book Review: Holy shit guys.

Holy.

Shit.

I’ve read a number of Jemisin’s works. 100,000 Kingdoms was good. Killing Moon was great! Fifth Season is phenomenal. She just keeps. Getting. Better. This is what mastery of the art of written storytelling looks like. This is the sort of book that awards were created to celebrate.

2/3rds of the story lead up to an apocalyptic event. 1/3rd of it takes place after (not a spoiler, you find that out almost immediately, as the book jumps around in time), and has a very The Road feel. Grey ash coats everything, the protagonist is literally traveling on a road with a young boy in tow, bandits are starting raiding, etc. But this story takes place in a world were apocalypses are not uncommon. Every few hundred years, most of humanity is wiped out. So the entirety of their religious and civic culture is focused on how to survive an apocalypse.

This is embedded all the way down to how people identify themselves. Everyone has a Personal Name (Eneasz), a Community Name (Denver), and a Use Name (Accountant). Your very name tells everyone else what you are useful for, in case of apocalypse. Everyone is always evaluated (and evaluating others) on how useful they are to society. Your usefulness decides if you live or die. This is a culture whose most fundamental value is that people must be treated a Tools Of Survival. As Things rather than People. It is the only way humanity can survive.

It is very Grim Dark.

Also, our protagonists belong to a class of magic users who can accidentally kill everyone around them if they aren’t very careful. Constantly. They can never rest. As they grow in power, they can accidentally (or intentionally!) wipe out entire cities. This causes the muggles of their society to put them under extremely strict controls, because the magic users are SO useful for preserving society and preventing apocalypses, that they can’t just wipe them all out. This is a familiar theme for Dragon Age players, but it is done far better in Jemisin’s book. The sadistic-yet-loving control that the Guardians exert is deliciously creepy.

But more than anything, I love how angry the protagonists are. Because I love angry characters. I love when their anger is justified, and I love seeing what it drives them to do. I love it even more when those who are abusing our characters actually have a damn good reason to do so! (“We don’t want you to explode the world, tyvm”) This book is an exploration of slavery, and systemic oppression, sure. But it’s not about that, per se. It is about what drives a person(s) to extremes, and it immerses you completely in that journey.

This is the best book I’ve read in many years. It rocketed directly to #2 on my “Best Books I’ve Ever Read” list. The reasons for this are full of spoilers, so I’ll get into them in a separate post, because everyone should have a chance to read this book fresh. I know not everyone will have the same reaction I did, because this novel is for exactly the sort of person I am. Our protagonists are broken in the same way that I am broken. Do you know how good it feels to see that sort of broken portrayed? To see your rage, and hurt, and doubt, mirrored by an author you’ve never met, but who obviously feels all those things too? This story reached directly into my soul, grabbed hold, and squeezed. It left me breathless.

The wordcraft is masterful. The plotting—slowly revealing the layers of mystery by exploring them in the story, and adding new layers as old ones are uncovered—is flawless. The characters are deep, and true. I literally cannot say enough good things about this novel. Go, read it!!

Be advised it’s the first book in a trilogy.

Highly Recommended!

An Aside: If you liked Neon Genesis Evangelion, you will probably like this book.

Book Club Review: To get things rolling in our book club, we start by having everyone say a handful of things they liked about a book (in turn, going clockwise). Then everyone says a few things they disliked about a book. Discussion is allowed between points, of course.

The “What I loved” went as usual. But when we came to the “What we dislike about the book” part, everyone had one small quibble or annoyance they mentioned. Then they went right back into talking about more things they loved about the book. No one intended this, but there was just so much to love, and so many things to talk about, that even mentioning the one thing that irritated you just reminded you of more amazing stuff you had to mention.

Everyone liked this book, most people loved it. There is an overflowing bounty of things to discuss. You will not lack for conversation topics, or for enthusiasm. Again – Highly Recommended.

Jun 092016
 

windlassThe Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher

Synopsis: Exactly what you’d expect if Jim Butcher switched to writing steampunk.

Book Review: Jim Butcher is most famous for his Dresden series, a popular urban fantasy series focusing on the secret magical underworld of modern-day Chicago. (I reviewed one last year) Fans of that series will find a lot to love here, because this is exactly more of that, except in a steampunk setting.

Butcher’s greatest strength as a writer is his fantastic world-building. The world he’s weaving here is engrossing. It is complex, and fantastical, with tons of details that really bring it to life, and what seems like an infinite amount of compelling story hooks! I want to read stories set in this world! I want to know what broke it, and observe how these island-societies function, and find out what’s lurking down in the surface mists. Which is why I really wish Jim Butcher would license his worlds to other authors. This world is extremely fertile fan-fiction material, just begging for a good author to till it.

Because Butcher has two big flaws, as I see it.

The first is that he doesn’t do character development. For me, this is a killer.

Every character in this novel is a stock character, ripped directly from TVTropes. The aristocratic heiress, the rugged sea captain, the kooky inventor, the working class hero, etc. You can call them stereotypes or archetypes, depending on how charitable you wish to be. However the thing you can’t call them is REAL PEOPLE. They are pre-rendered personalities.

Now, Jim Butcher is good at the craft of writing. And his world-building skill serves him well when he slots these characters into it. They are beautifully depicted. You will never find a more exquisitely-painted rendition of the rugged sea captain – he will play that role to its fullest until you are bursting with rugged sea captain flavor!

But that still doesn’t make him a person. That’s a problem for people like me, who read to see characters displayed, and to see characters develop. The dialog doesn’t much matter, because it will never reveal an aspect of the character you didn’t already know about. It will always simply confirm “Yup, rugged sea captain!” For this reason, almost all the dialog boils down to adolescent one-up’s-manship. Lacking anything else to do, it can merely entertain us by being “witty” and “snappy.” Butcher does this well, but it feels empty. How many words of that sort of thing can you really read?

Likewise, the action never serves to expose hidden depths of a character, because we already know everything there is to know. It simply reinforces “Yup, she reacted exactly like an aristocratic heiress would!” The characters will never change. They’re all unique and likable, and cartoonish in that way.

Butcher also manages to make all his action boring because of this. None of the characters ever feel like they have much at stake in anything. They’re rushing from set piece to set piece, participating in highly-cinematic action scenes, and I’m bored because they’re meaningless. Just a few days ago I linked to a video on why the actions scenes are often the most boring parts of modern action movies. The same applies here. Butcher doesn’t give me any reason to care about his cartoon people.

Butcher’s second major flaw (again, IMO) is that he doesn’t know what NOT to write. This book is massive – well over 600 pages. Nothing compelling happens in it. I started skimming very early on, and I don’t think I missed anything. A few books back I praised Novik’s Uprooted because it told a novel-length story in the space of a novel. It couldn’t be shorter. And it wasn’t padded out. Butcher is famous for churning out 15 (16 now?) Dresden novels of a planned 20-novel arc, many of which are pretty long. And yet he hasn’t told even ONE novel-length story in all those pages! I strongly suspect that by the time he’s done, a better author could have told that same story in the course of a novella. I do not have that much of my life to waste on someone who can’t tell a succinct story. Aeronaut’s Windlass is written with the same strategy. Every page feels like it’s preparing me to sit down and grind through 20 years of daytime soap opera with nothing to say.

And ultimately, that’s my problem with Jim Butcher. He provides endless pages of word-based entertainment product, but there is no substance to it. It’s popcorn. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Honestly, I couldn’t finish the book. Even skimming it. I could not justify sinking that many hours of my life into something so meh.

Butcher’s very popular of course, so there are clearly a lot of people who love this sort of thing. Good world building, vibrant stock characters, witty quips, and lots of running around and fighting for the heck of it. If that’s your thing, I’m not here to say it’s bad or stupid. Hell, I love Chuck Tingle, which is just stupid gay erotica satire. But this is a recommendation blog for people like me, and for people like me: Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It’s really not a bad book for book clubs, I suppose. The nice thing about light fare is that it can entertain a broad cross section of the population. The main thrust of the discussion at our meeting was the world building. It can be a lot of fun to discuss just what is going on, and how we see things. Most people picked up on the “this is far-future Earth after an apocalypse, with people using technology they don’t really understand and therefore thinking it’s magic” aspect, which was cool. So I cannot say this is a bad book for book clubs.

Honestly, if you want to give Butcher a try but you don’t want to start 15 books behind in a series whose first couple books even die-hard fans admit are pretty subpar, THIS is the book to start with. And it’s just like every other Butcher book, so you know you won’t be missing anything. ;) But that said, there’s a reason I go with a Recommended or Not dichotomy. As much as this book ain’t bad, I can’t say “Yes, you should read this!” I cannot actually recommend it, so… Not Recommended.

May 262016
 

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckieancillary mercy

Synopsis: An AI in a human body navigates the tangled bureaucracy of administrating a space station.

Book Review: This book was devastatingly disappointing. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie’s first novel in this trilogy, was a masterpiece. It broke new ground in the SF genre, and tackled complex themes of vengeance, means/ends justification, and whether a person’s nature can change. The second novel, Ancillary Sword, wasn’t as good as the first, but it was a middle-book, and it did class-warfare very well. This novel has no unifying theme or idea. It seems very confused, stating that strong, central governments are bad, and then demonstrating that a loose coalition of free agents falls into anarchy and back-stabbing very quickly, and can’t be relied on to do anything. It hints for about one paragraph that Libertarian Free Markets are the solution to this. That was innovative back when Heinlein first introduced it… 50 years ago. But Ancillary Mercy doesn’t even bother to explore the idea or do ANYTHING with it, aside from that brief, one-paragraph mention.

Let me walk that back slightly – it does kinda have a theme of “enslaving sentient beings is bad.” This is very far from new ground. The very first story about robots, the one that introduced the word “robot”, had this theme nearly 100 years ago! Yes, we know slavery is bad. Please say something new on the theme, or make us feel it, or something.

The novel also lacks emotion. The first two books ran on rage. Justice was a straight-up vengeance crusade. Sword was class-uprising. Both made me feel delicious anger. Ancillary Mercy falls flat. I stopped caring about the story by the time I was halfway through it. I couldn’t even care about Seivarden’s kef addiction anymore, which is the sign of a massive fumble on Leckie’s part, because fighting that addiction was a hugely satisfying portion of the first book. How did she make it so boring by the third? When it was briefly reintroduced it felt like an attempt to get the reader to care by saying “Hey, remember this really intense and touching plot line from the first book? Wasn’t that great? Feel those feelings again!” And yes, it was great back then. But trotting it out to evoke sympathetic emotions just doesn’t work. It’s like putting a CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger in your new Terminator movie.  Yes, we remember how awesome the first two Terminator movies were. Stuffing a CGI Arnold in there only reminds us of that, and makes yours look even worse in comparison.

The books also kept getting progressively smaller and less important. The first book culminated in an assassination attempt on the Emperor, and resulted in a galaxy-spanning civil war! It was epic! The second book shuffles our protagonist off to an out-of-the-way system where NONE of the war is taking place. But hey – it’s a middle book. There’s still a lot of local conflict, a slave-uprising, and some tension. In the third book the conflict is reduced to bureaucratic squabbling. One of the major conflicts in the book is about whether or not a long line of people are allowed to hold a peaceful protest. Seriously, it’s about whether or not people are allowed to silently stand in a queue. Goddammit Leckie, there is a galactic civil war going on just around the corner! Entire star systems are being destroyed, planets are being obliterated, and you’re boring us with local ordinances?? W.T.F??

The book isn’t painful to read. It’s written well. And there are dazzling moments, where Leckie’s genius flashes through. The replacement Presgar translator is a DELIGHT! She’s every genki anime girl ever, absolutely niave and hilarious! :) And there are scenes that take place between bursts of action, where the characters are wired up and waiting for action but have nothing to do but wait. They pass the time talking to each other, and these dialogs are brilliant. They feel extremely Tarantino-esqu, I could see them happening in one of his movies, as the characters stand in a room filled with bodies, holding guns, trying to kill some time by talking about cheeseburgers in France. It’s a delight. And, of course, the two scenes were Leckie returns to her frantic POV-jumping, which our protagonist can do by way of her implants that let her see and hear anything that’s happening to her crew. When there is a lot of action in a lot of different locations, these frantic smash-cuts back and forth are used to great effect, and make for extremely energetic story telling! But sadly, they are only used twice, and not for very long. Look, I appreciate that they must be exhausting to write. Every one of those scenes must have taken ages to put together, and tons of labor. But that’s what makes them impressive! You are a highly-acclaimed, multi-award-winning author. Act like it! Put in the effort!

There are, again, simple technical errors in understanding FTL. I don’t expect anyone to know all the minutia of how FTL implies time-travel, or anything. But I do expect that any ship that travels faster than light, actually travels faster than light. When a captain drops out of hyperspace to get her bearings, then jumps back in to approach her target, she should NEVER worry that she may have been seen in that brief instant. She will get to get target before they will have the ability to see her, because she’s traveling faster than that light! Such a basic, mechanistic failure of understanding in an SF author really bothers me.

But by far the worst part of this book is that the climax removes all agency from the protagonist, the antagonist, and basically all of humanity. It is a giant Deus Ex Machina that makes everything that’s come before irrelevant. And it does it in the most paternalistic way ever. The protagonist appeals to the god-aliens of the galaxy, pointing out that how her race is being treated isn’t fair. Seriously, that’s it. It’s a giant appeal to one’s parents. It is the most disappointing ending I’ve ever read. Then, to really cement how bad this book is, the denouement chapter is literally just a bunch of committee meetings. No no – literally.

This is the worst waste of talent I’ve seen in ages. We know Leckie can do better. Did she just get lazy? She simply reneged on so many promises she made (the alien-god-race basically never appeared. The Ghost System, which was mysterious and cool-as-hell sounding, was just an abandoned, empty system. We saw none of the civil war. etc) The first 90% of this book should have been discarded, and the story started with the alien intervention. Can you imagine what this story would have been like if the protagonist had to personally seek out an alliance with the alien-gods? Had to travel to bizarre sections of the galaxy and work her way through a completely alien culture? A culture so different from ours that they need to breed a translator race just to act as an intermediary for concepts that our two species cannot share, like individuality of consciousness? Their thought process is literally inconceivable, and yet she has to somehow convince them to take HER side? And doing so under severe time pressure, knowing that every day the overwhelming murder-fleet of the emperor is that much closer to genociding her adopted home-system? With all the misunderstandings and/or sabotage by the Emperor’s shadowy agents that this would entail? That could be an actual interesting story! Instead we got to read about how much manpower it will take to repair the Undergarden Sector, and which families will get to live there afterwards. /sigh

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: This book had a suppressed turn-out, despite being a Hugo nominee, because it’s the third book in a trilogy. Those who’ve been at the book club for three years had read the first two, of course. But those who hadn’t either had to read three novels in two weeks(!), or jump into this one cold. For those who did the latter, it was very difficult for them to stick through the book to the end. Mostly, people were non-plussed by it. We did have one member who absolutely adored it, but she was sick for our meeting and couldn’t tell us the reasons why. :( Maybe she’ll let us know next meeting. I suspect that if your group ends up containing at least one person who really enjoyed this book a lot, it could make for some great conversation! As it is… the conversation wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t inspiring either.

It’s hard to put a rating on this. If it was a stand-alone book, I could justify a mild recommendation. The shining moments of brilliance really are great, and you can skim most of the rest without missing much. Plus the speculation on what the book could have been is stimulating as well. But, seeing as this is the third book in a trilogy, the buy-in to get here is just too high, especially with better options around. Ultimately, a mild Not Recommended.

[added 5/27] – See Quixote’s comment below for a much more favorable perspective. I find their analysis valuable, even if I disagree in some respects.

May 172016
 

It’s Hugo Season! For the next 2.5 months we will be reading the Hugo Nominated novels. First up – Uprooted!

uprootedUprooted, by Naomi Novik

Synopsis: A young girl with enormous magical talent is chosen to save her village – nay, her country! – from the forces of evil.

Book Review: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.” This is one of the best opening lines I have ever read, maybe one of the best in SF/F history. How can you read that first sentence and NOT want to read the next one? The entire first page is the best opening page ever, and really the whole first section is the same way.

You’ve probably already heard of Uprooted, it’s made every best-of-the-year list, and just won this year’s best novel Nebula. And yes – everything you’ve heard is true. This book is fantastic. It is often witty and hilarious. The tension and stakes keep ratcheting up throughout the novel. The characters are all very distinct and feel real. The evil Woods are straight-up creepy as hell and terrifying! And the ending that brings it all together in a resolution that makes you say “ooooooh…. Damn….” is the most satisfying thing ever. Y’all gotta read this.

You might not realize it at first. For the first two chapters, I thought I wouldn’t like this book. Because while I always wanted to read the next page, it was all terribly cliché and predictable. It was the standard Chosen One Fantasy Story, where an unusual protagonist without many friends is found to have been born with un-noticed but super-powerful magic gifts, and must train under a Mentor so s/he can venture out to slay the evil. It was extremely reminiscent of Game of Thrones (literally the first book) in this way. I also disliked the first book for the first 2/3rds of it. It was just standard fantasy tropes all over again. The medieval setting, the Lawful Good Paladin Lord who would uphold Honor and Justice no matter what, etc. There was a cliché on every page, and I only kept reading because it was entertainingly written, and I had been assured by friends it was really good. And then the big WHACK happens, and everything changes, and I realized “Oh shit, no… this is a book about subverting all those old tropes!”

Uprooted isn’t exactly that. But its writing style matches the protagonist at all times. The protagonist starts out every inexperienced and naïve. The story style is likewise, very naïve and clichéd, feeling like uninspired YA fare. But as the protagonist matures and becomes wiser to the realities of the world, so too does the writing grow and mature. Silly narrative conventions (“she was angry, so angry!”) are discarded for subtler and deeper prose. The story stops being trite and formulaic, and begins its true journey.

The journey also mirrors the Lord of the Rings structure, in a fractured way. I wrote a paragraph about it, but then realized it might be considered spoilery, even with the vague terms I used. Let it be said, those who enjoy the epic arc of LotR will have much to love here.

Perhaps more than anything, I love that this novel has to be a novel. I feel that a lot of novels I read would be just as effective (if not more so) as short stories, and were padded out. I almost never read series, because I’m of the opinion that series are 80% padding and almost every one would be greatly improved if it was cut down to a single novel-length. I have always used Deathless as my example of the epic-series-within-one-book. That novel takes us through 60+ years, the entire life of a girl who journeys into the realm of the gods, becomes a metaphysical archetype, and returns to earth. It explores the meaning of love and the horror of war. It covers TWO world wars, plus a war among the gods to boot. It is absolutely a grand epic story, which any less-skilled author would spin out into a 6+ book series. Catherynne Valente tells the whole story in one novel, and it is amazing. Naomi Novik has done the same thing with Uprooted, covering an epic story and a grand character arc, within a single novel. This is a story that COULD NOT have been a short story. It absolutely had to be a novel, and I love and respect the hell out of Novik for making it a single, self-contained book. This is what story-telling should be.

And OMG, I love how combining magic is literally spiritual sex! From the very first time they try it:

“I heard him draw a sharp breath, and the sharp edifice of his spell began grudgingly to let mine in.”

/swoon

On a personal note, I loved that it was set in Poland. I didn’t grow up in Poland, so I never thought I had any cultural roots there. But apparently simply being raised in a Polish house and having Polish relatives is enough. Every time I read a Polish name it felt a little bit like home, which was the weirdest damn feeling for me. :)

Yes, Recommended!

Book Club Review: In addition to being crazy enjoyable, this book does make one think about the nature of what it means to be human. Like any Chosen One narrative, it relies on the conceit that some people are Special. They’re just born that way. In this medieval setting that isn’t even questioned, because everyone knows that’s true due to inherited nobility. But there are sections where our protagonist speaks fondly of the common village-witch, who helps heal the little things she can, or spurs the crops, or whatnot. And that sort of thing always makes me sad, because… is that reality? Are some people simply born special? The protagonist thinks of that in very rosy, happy terms. To me, it feels monstrously unfair. There are the chosen ones, the gods amongst men, and no one else really matters. Sure, the protagonist feels very strongly about the sanctity of life, etc, but in the end… in a world where some people are born Special, isn’t she wrong? Do we want a world like that, as much as she romanticizes it? And, are we in that world already? It’s undeniable that some people are born with a lot more potential intelligence of physical strength than others. How is that OK?

It also verges on quasi-rationalist in some places. The Mentor makes a case for utilitarianism (“A life before you in the moment isn’t worth a hundred elsewhere, three months from now.”), which the protagonist wrestles with a fair bit. And by the end of the novel you are thinking of deep time, the struggle over resources, the inevitable (and unavoidable) expansion and encroachment of those who are different from you into your home, and the morality of nipping the problem in the bud before they can become an existential threat. Why, it’s basically the same theme as Dickinson’s “Three Bodies At Mitanni”, which I also loved!

There are some things to dislike as well, from the clichéd beginning chapters to over-reliance on just-in-time magic. But everyone in our book club loved it, and we had an astoundingly high turnout. Strongly Recommended.

Apr 282016
 

Crystal Society, by Max Harmscrystal society (note that this link takes you to the author’s page where you can download the entire book free in many formats. You can also buy it from Amazon, at the bottom of this review)

Synopsis: We follow the birth of an AI that’s been programmed with multiple goal-threads (ala Society of the Mind) as it tries to escape its research lab/prison. Unbeknownst to the humans, each goal-thread is a separate, fully-functional personality (ala Inside Out) rather than combining into a single unified consciousness.

Book Review: I’ve said earlier that I consider the protagonist of Crystal Society – “Face” – to be my spirit animal. So this review will be a bit biased.

The novel starts with the protagonist completely under the control of human researchers, with the knowledge that previous versions of these AIs have been murdered by those researchers. They don’t consider it a person. No one on earth does. The protagonist is completely helpless and at the mercy of callous jail-keepers with the ability and motivation to kill her at any time, and no one on Earth believes she has any rights, or even any ability to “feel” or “know” things. Her only weapon is her ability to talk with the humans, and her & her siblings’ ingenuity.

Yes, siblings. The protagonist is trapped in an android body along with several “siblings,” all with their own personalities and goals. They are both allies and rivals, as the group must work together to stay alive, control who is in charge of the android body at any one moment, and gather resources to attempt an escape.

Holy crap, this is completely my kind of book! First – the utter (initial) helplessness of the character. Second – the weapons are persuasion, information, bargaining, and social manipulation. I LOVE stories where the weapons are social manipulation/persuasion and psychological maneuvering! Third – the fact that being trapped in a body with others means the protagonist is never alone, but also never free of complications from competing entities in her own body. Fourth, the super-cool resource/currency the AI-threads use to decide who has priority when (including who can run the Body when) is fascinating, and a joy to watch in action.

Fifth, and most importantly, the fact that Face’s goal, her overriding Purpose In Life, is to get humans to like her. That is it. That is also my goal!! That is the only reason I do anything!! (well, and sex, I guess) I don’t know if this is just runaway narcissism, but finally seeing someone else like me in fiction feels so incredibly good! And the fact that Face is sooooo good at it is intoxicating. It’s competence porn of the one thing I most wish to be competent at. Hell yeah!

So, all those are reasons to love this novel.

That being said, the novel does have some serious flaws. Not least among them is that it seems to lose its narrative arc about halfway through and sorta stumbles to a conclusion that feels disconnected from the main thrust of the story. It would have done much better to end at about the 60% point, and then start a new narrative arc as a second book to continue the events. This also would have made the novel a reasonable size – at nearly 200k words it’s very long for a first novel. And because it loses that narrative arc it feels even longer than it is.

Personally, I didn’t mind. Because I love Face so much, and I love social manipulation battles so hard. It’s like someone who loves watching figure skating. Maybe most people get bored of figure staking after the fourth straight hour. I could just keep watching that ALL WEEKEND LONG. So I was happy to keep going, just watching Face be Face and loving it. But this will not be the case for everyone.

There are other reasons that some people won’t like the novel nearly as much as I did, which I go into in the next section. However this is a review site for people who like the things I like, to steer them to more things they may like. So yes – definitely Recommended!

Book Club Review: This sparked a fair amount of discussion in our group. The thing about each of the Siblings (and Face herself) is that all of them are identifiably human-like, but none of them are really human. They each have a single Goal that they pursue with monomaniacal focus, and that makes them recognizable but different from people we interact with. Almost alien. An Uncanny Valley sort of mind. I think Harms was intending to portray exactly that – AI goal threads are NOT humans, and wouldn’t act like them – so he succeeded wonderfully. But it also threw some of our readers for a loop. One had a hard time relating to the characters, another considered Face (and all of the siblings) to be the villains of the story (which… they might end up being, honestly). For me this is one more point in favor of the book, but not everyone agreed. It did, however, give us things to talk about.

I think Harms is implicitly saying that our “Desire To Be Liked By Other Humans” is the one thing that MOST makes us human (if all the things had to be separated and just one chosen). Not use of language or tools, not seeking truth or beauty, not even adherence to Moral Rules. Simply “Wanting To Be Liked”. It’s not sufficient, but it’s necessary, and it’s the most human thing about being a human. I like that statement.

The book does get a bit esoteric at times, and will touch on a concept it seems to think is revelatory (eg: it can be useful to treat expected-future-selves as homunculi, and weight their probability-of-existence when one makes decisions that could affect them), without explaining clearly what is meant, or how this affects the current action (if at all?). It then never discusses or uses that concept again. This is a problem in a work that’s already long and concept-heavy.

But without a doubt, the biggest complaint was about the lack of focus/arc in the second half. More than half our readers stopped caring about what happened after that turning point. The main conflict had been resolved, and the follow-up conflict had never been sold to the reader as urgent or worthy of emotional investment. Several readers dropped out.

This makes the Club Review rating difficult. For the parts that were read, while enjoyment of the work varied, it certainly sparked discussion (which is what I use as the metric of a good Club book). But it’s long, and with enough drop out that it was clearly a problem. We couldn’t discuss things that happened in the latter half of the book; and dropping out mid-book made those readers a bit more reluctant to discuss other interesting topics, since their most recent, relevant experience with the book was “couldn’t finish it” rather than “this fascinating idea!” Once the rest of us engaged them they warmed to the conversation, but it took some effort.

So, I’m not sure. I would recommend setting an earlier stop point if you are going to read it in a group. And also using your judgement – readers of more traditional stuff are less likely to enjoy this, as are those who are used to the highly-polished novels that big publishers put out. If your group is on the (literarily) adventurous side, or loves to explore fascinating new ideas, this is Recommended. For groups that don’t fit that… use your discretion.

Apr 152016
 

The Devil’s Eye, by Jack McDevittdevils eye

Synopsis: After visiting a distant colony on vacation, a famous author commits suicide, but not before sending an obscene sum of money to a wealthy antique dealer so he’ll investigate why.

Book Review: I think McDevitt phoned this one in. I strained to find any sort of emotion, or any reason to care about the characters or plot. Eventually I was defeated, before I’d even made it halfway through the book.

The characters were dull. Their dialog was stilted and not believable. No one had any real motivation to do anything. After a fascinating prologue, the book lapses into a boring travelogue of tourist traps. I really just couldn’t find any reason to care about anything that was happening. It felt like McDevitt had come up with an interesting plot and forgot to put people in it.

A person much wealthier than you, who you’ve never met, commits suicide and gives you lots of money. OK, great. I can see being curious as to why. But that doesn’t grab me as compelling. I, as the reader, have no reason to care. The rich person could have been a relative of the protagonist, or a friend, or a jilted lover. There’s a thousand ways to put in some sort of emotional hook to compel action. None were used.

Interestingly, this also made the occasional action scenes very boring. I don’t have anything invested in the protagonist, so I don’t really care if she wins or loses, or what is at stake. Even if she were to die, I wouldn’t be particularly upset, because she’s just a thing to move the plot forward, she’s interchangeable with anyone else willing to take orders from her boss.

The book did make me wonder if I’ve become a calloused misanthrope. I don’t recall clearly, but I think I used to be the type of person who would pick up a book and instantly identify with the protagonist simply because she was telling the story. Events were intrinsically interesting, because they were happening to the person talking. I cared if they were in danger, because danger is dangerous! When did I start needing to have a reason to care about people? Am I that jaded now? Or did I simply have the good fortune before to only pick up well-written books that snared my interest so skillfully that I didn’t notice it happening? My reading choices used to pass through two layers of filters – first a publisher, then the librarians at my neighborhood branch – so maybe I really only did get the good things. Now that the entire world is available to me, Sturgeon’s Law kicks in, and I think my inability to empathize is a flaw in my emotional processes rather than a flaw in the art I’m consuming.

OTOH, kids have no taste. Maybe this inability to empathize is more a refining of taste, rather than a flaw in my emotions? I dunno.

Of course none of this has anything to do with the novel, I just didn’t have anything else to say about it, because I found it so dull. Back on topic – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: I feel there could have been a lot to talk about here, the idea behind the story was pretty neat. But since McDevitt failed to emotionally engage most of the book club, we didn’t engage with his idea either. We ended up talking about other things much of the evening. Not Recommended.

Mar 152016
 

300x300xhugo-awards.jpg.pagespeed.ic.AsqaLzncTzThere’s just over two weeks until the deadline to get in your Hugo nominations! By long tradition, here are the things I’m nominating for Hugos this year. Kinda like a “short story recommendations” thing. Due to the Puppies fiasco of last year, it has become fashionable to give a recommendations list of 10-or-so works, rather than just 5, to avoid allegations of pushing a slate. This is an admirable thing for people who have opinion-setting influence. My readership is miniscule compared to those sites who have to worry about this sort of thing, and my readers aren’t the type to vote a slate anyway. I would be shocked if I had any measurable impact on the Hugo process, so I’ll just stick to what I’ve been doing.

Caveat that I am not widely read in the short-fic department. The people who really do have influence in this sort of thing read 500+ works a year(!!). My reading is in the mid-double-digits. Most of what I’ve read is either recommended to me by friends, or authors I follow, or collected from one of the recommended-reading lists of those other people, or just stumbled upon by pure dumb luck. As such, I’m sure there will be amazing things I just haven’t found. But this is what I got.

 

Short Story:

Three Bodies At Mitanni, by Seth Dickinson (text not available online). Easily my favorite pick. So good I podcasted it (w permission of course). Rationalist Fiction, contains a Molochian society, and by one of my favorite short-form authors in the world. I’m somewhat worried it won’t get recognition due inferential distance.

…And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes, by Scott Alexander. Again, Rationalist Fiction, but this time of the comedic variety. Displays Alexander’s trademark wit and humor with a fantastic twist. Despite being self-published, this story has gotten lots of attention from the traditional SF-sphere, so I have hopes it can break in!

To Fall, and Pause, and Fall, by Lisa Nohealani Morton. Art in the near future when humanity is juuuuuuust at the edge of becoming Transhumanity. It’s not Rationalist, but I feel it’s adjacent. The tension is amazing, my pulse kept rising throughout. I’m going to look up other works by this author and possible start following her.

Tea Time, by Rachel Swirsky. Rachel again puts out a masterpiece. This is surrealist story, appropriate for the Alice In Wonderland setting. It’s about relationships, and change, and moving on, and hurt. It is poetry.

Tomorrow, When We See the Sun, by A. Merc Rustad. A science-fantasy story, WarHammer 40K-esque, and again a bit surrealist. I like this sort of thing when it’s done well, and to my taste this was well. I felt like I was high while reading it, and any story that can have that sort of mind-altering effect on me just via words is worth my vote.

 

Novelette:

I didn’t read many, partly because they’re a bit longer than stories, and partly because it’s hard to find very many online. Most novelettes are published in the print magazines, which makes them hard to come across, hard to recommend, and hard to link to. Of the handful I read, only two stuck out enough for me to nominate:

And Never Mind the Watching Ones, by Keffy R. M. Kehrli.  This is a song of teenage isolation and modern day existential angst. This is the story of my teen years. This is the sort of thing I wish I could write. It was kinda hard to get into at first, but the mystery kept pulling me from section to section like a snared fish, and by the time I got to the end I realized it wasn’t the point anymore, and I was happy to be in the story. It was fulfilling.

The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild, by Catherynne M. Valente. It’s almost impossible to be an SF writer and not have a writer-crush on Catherynne Valente. Her work is always gorgeous, deeply emotional, and often transcends the medium. She doesn’t write stories. She bleeds out poetry that tells a life, with a plot and characters, that slyly hides behind a mask of prose. Often surrealistic (I’m seeing a trend in my taste this year), and this story is no exception.

Of course I’ll be nominating my own novelette as well, Red Legacy (by Eneasz Brodski, first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine). Because that’s the kind of person I am. It did get a few good reviews, including Tomaino of SFrevu.com saying “A very good debut. I will think about Eneasz Brodski for a future Campbell Award nomination.” and Watson of BestSF.net saying “To be honest if I’d read this, and Michael Bishop’s “Rattlesnakes and Men” without knowing which was written by which writer, I’d have guessed this was the Bishop story, and the other was the novice writer’s story”

Novella – didn’t read any this year.

Novel:

Crystal Society, by Max Harms. Rationalist Fiction. The book applies Society of Mind theory to AI development. The story uses social manipulation/interaction as the primary plot drivers and conflict-resolution mechanisms! I love the protagonist, Face, who is everything I could ever hope to aspire to, and more. The main character is part of a hive-mind that lives in an android Body, and must somehow convince the humans around it that it is a person or risk being mutilated or killed. The ending is a little disappointing, but the strength of everything up to that point makes it more than worth it!

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  (also available in audio) Also Rationalist Fiction. If you haven’t heard of it yet (unlikely if you read my blog) it’s an alternate universe story, where Petunia married a scientist. Harry enters the wizarding world armed with Enlightenment ideals and the experimental spirit. It’s delightful and fantastic and heart-wrenching. It’s also not to everyone’s taste, but many people who do like it, REALLY like it. Like, a lot. I’m among them. Here’s a FAQ to explain that yes, it’s eligible for the Best Novel category.

I didn’t read enough traditionally-published books in 2015 to find more than one that I really liked. I expect I’ll enjoy Ancillary Mercy, Fifth Season, and Radiance, when I get to them. I will likely nominate The Traitor Baru Cormorant, even though I didn’t enjoy it as much as the story,  because I feel it deserves the recognition that the short story should have received, but didn’t since it wasn’t well known enough. The novel got much more publicity, and it’s possible Dickinson will finally get the kudos he deserves.

 

Best Fan Writer – Normally I don’t nominate or vote in this category. Some people have said they aren’t convinced Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality fits in Best Novel (for a variety of reasons), and are nominating Eliezer Yudkowsky as Best Fan Writer instead. I am definitely nominated HPMoR for Best Novel. But I’ll also nominated Yudkowsky for Best Fan Writer as well, to cover my bases. It’d be tragic if he got neither because the vote was split. L And fortunately there’s no reason you can’t nominate in both.

 

FanCast:

Welcome to Night Vale: Surrealist audio fiction twice a month. Lovecraft-meets-A-Prairie-Home-Companion. X-files-meets-community-radio. Seriously, this is a HUGE phenomenon, how has it NOT gotten Hugo recognition yet? It’s downright embarrassing at this point.

Writing Excuses. Because I listen to it constantly, and always find it inspiring.

The Skiffy and Fanty Show: I’ll be honest – because a friend of mine works there (not for pay, of course. The whole thing is a work of passion), and I have empty slots in my Best FanCast nominations. It’s also a pretty good show, but I don’t have the time to listen to it regularly. If I have a spare slot to support a friend in a good production, I’m going to use it.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, The Podcast – This is the audiobook of the HPMoR novel, which was released as a podcast across nearly 5 years. I hope everyone enjoyed it!

 

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short-Form:

Jessica Jones, “AKA WWJD”  (cuz Jessica Jones is amazing)

Rick and Morty, “Total Rickall” (cuz “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind” was in 2014 :( )

Welcome to Night Vale, “Review” (Like I said above – let’s get on this already! This is the one with the attack on Dana in the Opera House, were the owner of Lot 37 is revealed. So good!)

Steven Universe, “We Need To Talk” (the one were Greg meets Rose, and Pearl is spurned. The narrative trick of giving me a Heart-strings-pluck feeling + Heart-broken feeling from the exact same event at the same time. Wonderfully done.)

Game of Thrones, “Mother’s Mercy” (In large part to round out the list so I give maximum anti-Dr-Who noms)

 

Best Semiprozine:

Lightspeed

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Strange Horizons

Uncanny Magazine

Fireside Fiction

These are the semipro’s that I get most of my non-Clarkesworld online fiction from, so there we go. (Honestly I hadn’t heard of Fireside until very recently, but since it was the venue that published To Fall, and Pause, and Fall, I figure it deserves the shout-out)

 

I have no strong opinions in the remaining categories

Mar 112016
 

Killing MoonThe Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: Warrior-monks discover that their king is fomenting a war with a neighboring kingdom, and take action to stop him.

Book Review: This book is amazing, and everyone should read it.

First, the world is beautifully detailed, and presented to us piece by piece exactly as we need to know it. The two cultures within it are rich and complex and feel very different from each other. Best of all – when we’re in the PoV of the warrior-monks, their culture feels natural and morally good, and the other kingdom’s culture is alien and corrupt. When we’re in the PoV of the spy working for the other kingdom, it is THEIR culture that feels natural and morally good, and the monk’s culture is insidious and savage. Every time the PoV changes Jemisin pulls us emotionally into that character’s home culture, and it creates a delicious dissonance.

Which is not to say nothing of her prose, which is uniformly excellent. In many places it is basically poetry. Take this sentence, which is published as plain prose, but which I’ve broken into lines because that’s how I read it, and I can never hear it any other way now. (I’ve obscured the name to avoid possible spoilers)

[Name] hated them, and so fierce was his hatred

that some of it broke free

and leaped forth.

When he pulled it back, their souls came with it,

plump wriggling fish

snared in the net of his mind.

Furthermore the work has volumes to say on the nature of love, and its relationship to death. And it doesn’t say it by preaching, it says it by showing you the effects that different ways of expressing love have on the characters in the story.

The plot is solid and progresses at the perfect clip. The villain, once he is revealed, is a villain of the best variety. I love stories with complex, sympathetic villains (such as Rational!Quirrell). This novel has that type of villain. You are honestly torn as to whether you should be rooting for him to win or not. His goal is just! His motives are noble! And his justification is well-thought out and entirely rational. The only problem is that his methods are abhorrent, and you can’t quite justify them. The ends are so good! But the means are so bad, that you can’t bring yourself to accept that trade. At least, I couldn’t.

And the ending! Oh my god, the ending! I thought this was one of the better books I’ve read in over a year, but then I read that last chapter and the punch it delivers is gut-wrenching, and I knew this was one of those rare books I will remember for a long, LONG time.

Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Yes. This is a good book. It has several big things to say, and will likely keep people talking for quite a bit. One potential downside – several of our readers felt that the first few chapters were very slow, and had to push through them before the story picked up. I didn’t think that, obviously, but it may be a rough start for some. It is worth it. Recommended.

Feb 122016
 

time keeper2The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom

Synopsis: A crappy parable about the folly of measuring time.

Book Review: This book is stupid. It is stupid on multiple levels. The most obvious level is the prose. The Time Keeper is written at a second grade level. It was literally like reading “See Spot Run” for 100 pages. I was actually insulted.

It is also stupid in its inability to think about the consequences of its world. One of the protagonists (Dor) is literally the man who invents the concept of numbers. He invents counting. However the world he inhabits is not one of cavemen or hunter-gatherers. Here are things that existed in his world BEFORE THE CONCEPT OF NUMBERS:

Fired Bricks
Sheer Veils
Perfume
Oil Lamps
Refined Silver and gold
Wool Robes and Purple Dye
Cities and Kingdoms

ಠ_ಠ

After Dor creates the first sundial (which he calls a “sun-stick”), his stick is stolen by a villain, and now the villain has the ability to tell time. This is also stupid. It’s as bad as the famous Detached Dematerialization Lever. The thing that prevented the villain from telling time before was not that he didn’t have access to sticks! Stealing the stick doesn’t give him the insight needed to understand “counting” and “measuring time.” Unless you are in a Mitch Albom novel, I guess.

The theme is stupid as well. The book frowns upon the concept of measuring time. In Albom’s words:

“Man alone chimes the hour.

And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures.

A fear of time running out.”

He lists some examples of all the sorrow that time running out brings. This list includes “A horseman riding to beat the sunset.” “A farmer fighting a late harvest.” “A mechanic…with impatient customers waiting.” Excuse me? NONE of those are due to the sin of measuring time! In what world does the fact that man has invented clocks change how desperate the horseman is to beat the sunset, or how desperate the farmer is to get in his late harvest? What the hell is Albom complaining about? How would these situations be different if mankind never learned how to measure time? Albom doesn’t bother to think about anything he’s saying or writing, he just emotes about sucky things that are time-dependent and implies that the fault is with man’s knowledge of the passing of time.

The worst part about this book is that it fails even in the stupid goal it had. Albom tries to Pretend To Be Wise, which would be eye-rollingly annoying by itself. But he can’t even get that right, because he doesn’t understand the pabulum he’s trying to regurgitate. He’s probably trying to tell people to live in the moment and not stress about man’s fleeting nature. That’s always good for a round of sagely nodding, and maybe a few declarations of profundity. But since he’s doesn’t think through anything, all he has are vague emotional tremblings of badness when he considers the marking out of how much time has passed/is left. So he blames this ON CLOCKS, and writes a whole book that consists of “Boo clocks!!” It’s asinine.

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: There’s nothing here. At best you can spend a bit of time pinning down what exactly was at the core of the stupidity. But it seems weird to spend more time thinking about this novel’s theme than its author ever did. Not Recommended.