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.

Feb 032016
 

AffinitiesThe Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson

Synopsis: A group of like-minded people who met on the internet form an intentional community.

Book Review: This book starts out FANTASTIC. First, and most obvious, is the sheer writing skill that Wilson displays. His prose is concise and evocative, managing to do with a few lines what would take other authors several paragraphs or pages. I love this ability to cut away the extraneous and reveal the emotional core of any particular scene or narrative. It’s delicious and efficient.

Coming immediately on the heels of that is the promise of exciting events. The story takes place in the near future and addresses issues that intensely concern me. ie: An evolved desire for small-tribe communities that conflicts with modern social organization. The elites becoming divorced from nationalities, becoming essentially stateless. The non-interaction of physically proximate cultures, via filter bubbles and self-selection effects. The replacement of the church (and other traditional institutions) by new social networks, and the resultant backlash.

Wilson portrays a world on the edge of revolution. The old system no longer works. The current system is broken, causing isolation and exploitation. The new system of “Affinities” brings hope of community. It matches people with others who they can trust and cooperate with effectively. They are happy, and their low coordination costs make them extremely competitive, and for this reason the ruling powers are threatened(!). There is retribution coming.

I was extremely excited! I expected this to be a story of social revolution. I expected there to be conflict, and the old corrupt system being burned to the ground and a new ideal raised up from the ashes. For the first half of the novel, the story was trending to ever-greater epicness. A disruptive social tech like this is a game changer.

It seems that Wilson also thought this was an extremely cool idea, and then after he introduced it he didn’t know what to do from there. So the stakes were rapidly lowered, over and over. The tension is ramped down, and we readers get the sense that there will be no fulfillment of any of the big promises. In the end a rival group kidnaps the protagonist’s kid brother. The protagonist stages an incompetent rescue that flops almost immediately. Things are wrapped up when the police show up and basically just do their jobs, because the kidnappers are just as half-assed and incompetent as the protagonist. Also, the Affinities movement fizzles out as quickly as the novel does.

I was so incredibly disappointed I couldn’t even be mad. I was just sad at the wasted potential. Why’d you go and build up all that awesome and promise me all those things, and then not even try to deliver? This is what a one-night-stand with a flashy pick-up artist must be like. /sigh Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: As it turns out, a good ending isn’t necessary for a great book club book! Due to the tightness and effectiveness of the prose, just about everyone finished this and we had a huge turnout! And the most important condition for a book club book – giving us something interesting to talk about – was fulfilled in spades! Since Wilson brought up all these ideas, which concern everyone and everyone has some measure of opinion on, we were able to talk about them at length. There was quite a bit of exchange regarding people’s views on how individuals and societies relate, especially the nerdy kind of individuals who come to SF book clubs. The discussion was wide-ranging and fascinating, and we went well over time.

And of course everyone was also able to put in their dismay at the terrible ending, or comment on their like/dislike of the various characters, and so forth. It is truly an excellent book club book. Strongly Recommended!

Cultural Appropriation Watch: The protagonist is a straight, white, middle-class, youngish liberal male, who works in the arts. I think the Cultural Appropriation Police would probably be very pleased with this book. Of course if they’re hardcore enough they can point out that there are several minor characters of color, and can accuse Wilson of tokenism for that. But surely even they wouldn’t stoop so low.

Jan 222016
 

TheMirrorEmpire-144dpiThe Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley

Synopsis: A fantasy world is invaded by its own recently(?)-divergent parallel universe.

Book Review: The Mirror Empire had a lot of promise. It starts with interesting societies (one where the social norm is that there is no physical touch without explicit consent beforehand! I know a number people who would love that), an awesome post-post-apocalyptic world (a thousand years ago it was made nearly uninhabitable via magical warfare, now society has recovered but is under constant strain), and the promise that these people (the entire populace, in fact) are going to have to fight their own doppelgangers! That’s a hell of a way to start!

But it bogs down very quickly, and soon becomes a chore. There are several ethnicities across multiple countries (and two worlds) which are never well differentiated. Everyone is basically baseline human without distinguishing features. I found myself longing for elves that are tall and thin, and dwarfs that are short and hairy. Yes, they’re stereotypes, but they help distinguish peoples quickly and definitively. This is further complicated by every ethnicity having several internal factions working at cross-purposes. And each faction has complicated familial ties and alliances with outsiders. I felt like I should be taking notes.

Making the problem worse is that Hurley creates new words where currently-existing words in common usage would suffice. Why create the term “Ora” when the word “Priest” already exists? Why use the term “-jista” with the term “-mage” already exists? It’s another thing for us to have to mentally catalogue in a book already full of complex plots, double-dealing, and extended family trees.

There are some really great moments in the book. I love realpolitik and cynicism, and The Mirror Empire has them in spades. But it began to feel very tropey very quickly. If you’ve read much grimdark the action quickly becomes very easy to predict. None of the characters are all that relatable (except the character who gets the least amount of screen time), and this is a much bigger problem with grimdark than with other genres IMHO. If you don’t viscerally want the protagonists to do the terrible things they are doing despite yourself, you aren’t getting that kick of horror-as-you-look-in-the-mirror that we relish. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Almost no one in the book club finished the book. In addition to the problems I mentioned above, it’s quite long, which led to a high drop-out rate. Even those who finished didn’t have all that much to say about it, as there was nothing very divisive or controversial about it. Not Recommended.

Dec 302015
 

auroraAurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Synopsis: A generation ship arrives at the world it is supposed to colonize, and finds it uncolonizable.

Book Review: I like grimdark, and I like enthusiastic exuberant fiction. I don’t consider this contradictory, because both types of fiction make you feel something strongly, even if the emotions are dissimilar. What I want out of fiction is to be made to feel some suite of emotions intensely. Aurora is the opposite of that.

Aurora’s nominal protagonist is dull, in multiple senses of the word. She is literally dumb, described and shown to be of below average intellect. She has no ambition, and has very little to contribute to anything. She drifts about the ship, relying on the fact that her mother is incredibly important and famous. In the rare cases that that fails, she defaults to her stunning good looks and above-average physical size to get what she wants. It’s like reading a novel about Paris Hilton in space. Not the real Paris Hilton, the savvy business-woman; but rather the bimbo Paris-Hilton-caricature she played on her TV show, that was barely smart enough to draw breath and relied on her wealthy father and good looks to flounce through life. This is not a protagonist I care about.

The narrator of the story is the ship’s AI (referred to as “Ship”). Robinson takes full advantage of his narrator’s lack of emotion and literal outlook to present us with the most clinically detached prose one could write. Now, I must acknowledge his skill in doing so – I don’t think anyone could write something this detached and dry on accident, it must have taken some skill! But the fact remains that the entire (first half of) the novel reads like those terrible History textbooks back when no one knew how to write an engaging textbook. Lists of facts and events and dates, with nothing compelling about them. Every time an emotional scene could be shown, it is summarized in a couple sentences instead. Every time there could be action, it is belavored into a dry recounting of cause-and-effect.

There is a period where the AI introspects deeply upon language and its purpose. The nature of metaphor, etc. This section was extremely interesting, in fact the only interesting thing in the (first half of) the novel! Unfortunately it is soon abandoned, and not touched on again. The AI doesn’t seem to learn anything about story telling from it, as the story telling remains awful.

Robinson appeared to be pursuing a theme of “Narrative is a terrible way to convey historical events. It can never truly capture what was actually happening, what was actually important; and it is hopelessly biased by the author/teller.” That is an interesting theme, and I would like to see it pursued in a novel that actually has some story telling or narrative in it. To advance that thesis in THIS book is like proving you’re a better fighter than Mohammad Ali by drugging him, stabbing him repeatedly, and then dragging him into a boxing ring to fight you. It’s not actually indicative of the strength of your thesis.

That being said, this novel is an excellent treatment for insomnia. I fell asleep quickly many times while trying to read it. I finally gave up after I crossed the halfway point and nothing was getting better.

Oh, and by the way, exploring space is hopeless, we’ll be stuck on Earth forever due to reasons that’ll make you fall asleep.

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: I was seriously surprised by how much discussion this book sparked. Most people finished the book! And they had quite a few things to say about it. There was talk about the feasibility of extra-terrestrial colonization. There was discussion of how Robinson’s Buddhism is strongly apparent in his fiction, and how the protagonist’s journey is a recapitulation of the Buddhist philosophy (of which I know nothing, nor did I finish the book, so I can’t personally comment on that, but it was interesting to hear others discussing it!). There was discussion of what can be conveyed via language, and/or via narrative. There was much praise of the AI’s Crowning Moment of Glory near the end, where he’s heroic and humorous and rather human, and he made some of our readers cry. I enjoyed our entire evening, as did everyone else, regardless of how they felt about the book as a piece of fiction. So for book clubs I have to give this a surprised but honest: Recommended!

Dec 182015
 

the-traitor-baru-cormorantThis post contains MASSIVE spoilers for The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson. Please note that this is one of the few books were that is actually a really big deal. The ending changes a lot about what you thought you knew, and knowing that beforehand changes how you will read the book. If you have any desire at all to read the book, turn back now.

If you don’t have any desire to read the book, but have time to read a short story, consider reading the short story before you continue. Because, again, the spoilers I’m going to be getting into are really big, and I would hate to deny anyone the opportunity to read such an amazing piece of fiction unspoiled.

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You know those people who go to see a movie adapted from a book, and then turn up their nose afterwards and say “The book was better”? Everyone hates those people. Of course the first medium you experienced the story in will always be better! Get over yourself! I really, really hate to be that person. But the Traitor Baru short story was better than the Traitor Baru novel. The novel was still good! Just not as good. I’ve been trying to figure out why. And I succeeded.

Well ok, I have a half-assed theory. But it’s something.

The Traitor Baru short story takes place after The Twist. We only see Baru after she’s betrayed everyone she loves for the greater good. Everyone who ever cared for her despises her now (if they’re still alive), and the populace of the country she was fighting for consider her a villain. This is all conveyed indirectly, via precision-guided sentences that get the point across as emotionally as possible with as little word-count as possible.  This leaves us to fill in all the blanks. And what do we do when we fill in the blanks? We fall back on Tropes. Or Cultural Myths, or Archetypes, or whatever you want to call them.

What this means is that Baru was the Rebel Princess in my mind. The Leia or the Xena – a shining leader, beloved by her lieutenants and loyal soldiers. When she betrayed them, it was like Leia killing Luke, Han, and Chewie in cold blood, and giving their corpses to the Emperor. It was all the people of those planets, fighting for the Rebels, suddenly under the Empire’s heel again, and he is NOT happy with what’s been going on. Seriously bad times for all.

Likewise, I filled in Baru’s relationship with her lover as deep and passionate, having withstood all the typical fantasy trials. When Baru gave Tain Hu up, Baru was The Dread Pirate Roberts/Wesley, handing over Buttercup to Humperdink.

That was why the brain injury was such a central part of the short story. It was Baru’s escape mechanism. She could turn her blind side on her betrayals, and she would forget about them. She could turn away from her lover, and she wasn’t there anymore. It was the Novocain for her soul, the past-annihilating numbness that allowed her to live with what she’d done. Without that escape mechanism, she likely would have killed herself already. At the very least, she’d be an ineffectual infiltrator, since her guilt-wracked conscience would give her away.

And that was what made the ending so simultaneously heart-wrenching and gratifying. In the end, Baru turns toward her lover. She could look away, have the execution erased from her mind, but instead she watches as Tain Hu is dashed against the rocks over and over. It is an acceptance. An acceptance of Tain Hu’s sacrifice, and her love. It it’s Baru’s moment of growth, where she realizes she is strong enough to continue forward. It is her reaffirmation that her goal (freedom from the evil empire) is worth the price she has paid and is paying. Fuck them. She can overcome even this. They will have nothing to use against her.

(I also love this story because it acknowledges that love for your loved ones is a weapon that your enemies can use against you, which is a deep and unreasonable fear of mine, and which is why I’ve kept myself emotionally isolated much of my life. This story is an affirmation that you can love, and have that love used against you, and still not be destroyed. It’s like the counter-thesis  to that Iain Banks novel that I won’t name because I don’t want to spoil yet another novel. Point is, I love this story, and I love Seth Dickinson for writing it.)

The “problem” with the novel is that it doesn’t conform to the standard fantasy tropes.

“What?” you say. “How is that a problem? I’m sick and tired of all the standard fantasy tropes!” I agree, I am too. And obviously Seth Dickinson was as well. Can you imagine sitting down to write 100,000 words of fantasy to pound out another cliché Rebels vs Empire story? Ain’t nobody want to do that, least of all an aspirational rising talent! So instead he wrote an interesting plot, full of interesting characters, with lots of intrigue and political wrangling, and very shrewd and intelligent gambits. It’s a good story, and it would make a good novel, except it is supposed to bring us back to the Baru of the short story.

I had come into the novel expecting to see some sort of Star Wars-like story, with strong bonds between the rebels, and a passionate ongoing romance with Tain Hu. Instead we see rebels that are constantly infighting, suspicious, looking to back-stab each other, and are clearly using Baru simply to further their own agendas. I don’t mind as much when these people are betrayed. The empire, rather than being typical Fantasy Nazis, are distasteful and sometime horrifying, but ultimately more pragmatic than pure evil, and they bring a lot of good things to the people they conquer to offset some of the evil & oppression. Tain Hu, rather than being the love of Baru’s life, is kept at a distance the entire book, and they don’t even confess their love to each other until just a few pages before the betrayal. That’s not Wesley and Buttercup. It’s more akin to Trinity’s confession to Neo.

I was asked in my book club “What was the brain injury in the last chapter for?”, which I think is a great encapsulation of the problem with the novel. In the short story it is a crucial aspect of the story, the characters, and the resolution. In the novel it shows up so briefly that it doesn’t have any narrative weight. It feels extraneous. The short story depends, ultimately, on a subversion of classic fantasy tropes. We already have the entire Rebel Princess story in our minds, and Traitor Baru takes that story, turns it upside down, then puts it right-side up again, while stabbing you repeatedly and telling you “This is what it takes to win in the real world. If your fantasy stories were real, these are the choices your heroes would be facing. Isn’t this a better story?” AND IT IS! When Dickinson wrote the novel, he kept that Rationalist view. He wrote a fantasy story that would make sense if it was in the real world. Not Fantasy Nazis and Shining Heroes, but real people and realpolitik. And that blunts what made the Traitor Baru story such a knife-in-the-heart to me. The betrayal at the end of the novel didn’t feel like someone amputating their own limbs. It wasn’t a loss of everything good. It was just another manipulation in a book full of manipulations and treachery. A bigger one than any we had seen previous, of course. But not unusual. It was true to character, rather than a betrayal of our ideals. I didn’t feel it would lead to suicidal levels of guilt and self-hatred.

That being said, I HATE to have said all this. I contemplated for many days before posting this. Because (as Seth has said in the past) nowadays no one engages short fiction. Traitor Baru is excellent, and I’ve recommended it a few times to people. But I’ve never posted about it at length deconstructing what made it great, until the novel came out. The Traitor Baru novel has been mentioned many times on many “Best of 2015” lists, but was the short story on any such lists? Even though the short story is better? For that matter, do you recall seeing very many “Best Short Story” lists ever, at NPR or IO9 or wherever you get your news? Nope. People simply value novels far more than short stories, and it’s a damned shame. It’s likely that the Traitor Baru novel has gotten far more reads than the Traitor Baru story, even though the story is less than 1/10th the length, has been out far longer, and is freely available to everyone online! (and IMHO is better)

I even feel guilty trying to point people at the story rather than the novel, because Dickinson has got to pay his rent and buy food, and short stories don’t pay. If you want to make a living writing, you have to write novels. Each person that I convince to read the short story instead of the novel is money I am taking out of Dickinson’s pocket. :( And, if I was given the choice to read either the story or the novel, I would tell past-me to read the story instead, and pay more for the privilege than I would have paid for the novel. It is a far more efficient use of my time, and I am willing to pay extra to get the same emotional payoff (“entertainment” as I call it) in less time. It leaves me more free time to pursue my other pursuits.

So, if you really like the Traitor Baru short story, please do not punish Seth Dickinson for his genius. Buy the novel, to say thank you, even if you don’t read it. And, next time you read a truly amazing short work, please consider purchasing something from the author, even if you’ll never read it, to support their work.

Nov 252015
 

the-traitor-baru-cormorantThe Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Synopsis: To overthrow the Empire that devastated her homeland, Baru infiltrates it to become one of its powerful bureaucrats and destroy it from within.

Book Review: The first thing you see in the book is the map (below). And right away the book lets you know this will be different from what you’re used to. Maps always show what is important to the mapmaker. In most fantasy books this is the territory of the journey. The hero’s hometown to the Stronghold of Evil. In between are national borders, the mountains that stop armies, the Dark Forest where the hero is tested. In Traitor Baru, the borders barely matter. They’re loosely roughed in. There are no major physical features, aside from the rivers that facilitate trade. What the map DOES show is political allegiances, economic ties, and resource dependence/abundance. Right away the book is telling you “This is not about wars and movement. This is about political influence, and economic power.” It’s a brilliant way to start a book. Or rather, to start THIS book.

If you like smart characters with smart opponents who manipulate their environments with whatever tools they have – tools which they often go to great lengths to make available to themselves – you will like this book. And by “environments” I do mean physical environment sometimes, but more often the social and political forces that can alter much more around you than you could alter by yourself. This is a book of out-thinking your enemy, and hard choices.

And really, the hard choices is what it all comes down to. I’ve written before about how much I love Seth Dickinson’s short fiction. One of his recurring themes (and certainly present in Traitor Baru) is “How much are you willing to sacrifice, to do the right thing?” How much will you give up to save the innocent from the corrupt? Forget silly things like your body or your life – how much of your soul will you give? Is your very humanity that important, when compared to the world you will be saving?

This theme runs a livewire through my psyche. I cannot get enough of it. Dickinson executes it well… although not quite as well as in his short stories. In his shorts he holds nothing back. The novel Traitor Baru is, surprisingly, very emotionally reserved. One fellow reader speculated that this is an effort to get us to sympathize with Baru’s life trapped in the closet. Not just about her sexuality, but about every single thing she cares about. Her world is lies upon masks upon lies, and she assumes that everyone around her lies just as much as she does. As a result she can never show true emotion, and expects that no one else does either. This makes sense as self-defense, but it hurts the emotional narrative. Another fellow reader speculated that this was necessary as a mercy to the reader, because, if we were too involved with Baru emotionally, most readers would not be able to endure the story (it is a very painful story), and especially not the gut-punch ending (seriously, the ending is fucking amazing). It’s hard enough to read even as emotionally-dampened as it is. Perhaps that’s true? But I want that pain in my fiction, I thrive on it. I was disappointed it wasn’t sharper. A final conjecture was that Baru is at least somewhat autistic, which… duh. Of course she is. That doesn’t mean the emotion needs to be held back from the reader, we’re inside her head.

Also, I really could have used some more visceral scenes of the Empire’s evil. Yes, I get it, colonialism is bad. Agreed. But “colonialism is bad” isn’t emotionally compelling, whereas “watching teeth fly and blood pool as someone kicks my father to death” is. There was a lot of the former and very little of the latter.

So, it’s not a perfect book. But it is still really good. Recommended.

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Book Club Review: This book sparked one of the best discussions we’ve had. First, there’s simply so much to discuss. Not just about imperialism and sexuality and technological change either, but ranging across Baru’s choices, her view of the world as a puzzle, and the nature of our humanity. Is there anything that should be off-limits to sacrifice, if the rewards are great enough? At what point does certainty-of-outcomes breakdown enough that you should revert to deontology over utilitarianism? If you somehow exhaust that topic, there’s also stylistic choices that Dickinson made to be discussed–there’s plenty to say about his writing as well as about what was written. Even the people in our group who really disliked the book said this was an amazing discussion, they loved the book club meeting itself, and they were glad they read it and attended to discuss it. I’m not sure you can get a much greater endorsement when evaluating a book for book-club-suitability. HIGHLY Recommended!

Cultural Appropriation Watch! The protagonist is a dark-skinned, gay woman. Seth Dickinson is a white man. I dunno about his sexuality, cuz I don’t know him well enough for that to be any of my damn business. The Appropriation Police would not allow this book to be published. They shame their ancestors, let us hope they repent their ways quickly.