embrodski

Jan 202021
 

During the past year I didn’t completely give up on getting published, continuing to send out stories and even writing another one. As a result, I had two stories published in the later half of 2020! For those interested, here they are:


 

“Give Me My Wings” is published in Gotta Wear Eclipse Glasses. It’s a very short story (only 2000 words!) about not fitting into the world, and a human-created afterlife. Like most of my stories, I have very mixed feelings on the choices the protagonist makes, but this one moreso than most.

The anthology is full of optimistic stories in a bright future. Before you ask, I don’t know what’s up with that cover… the pay rates for the writers were really good, so I don’t think it’s a lack of funding? I asked about that, but I think I offended the publisher, so…. :/

 


 

“Not Fade Away” is published in Aurealis #136. It’s a piece about remaining useful even as you age and degrade. It’s one of the first stories I wrote, and it took a fair bit of polishing and rewriting to get it to the state it’s at today. I’m glad I didn’t give up on this one.

Jan 142021
 

Most people know that Cyberpunk 2077 is based on the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG. I still have my old copy, and I decided to take a look to compare how the last 30 years actually went vs how they would have to go to get us to the neon & chrome cyberpunk future.

To the left – the cover.

To the right – what Johnny Silverhand looked like before he was Keanu Reeves.

Before we begin, one interesting note about the present’s view of the future —

The copyright of Cyberpunk 2020 is 1990/1991. That means it was considered plausible for this setting to be 30 years in our future. Cyberpunk 2077 came out in 2020, putting the plausible window for the setting 57 years into our future. That’s nearly twice as long. This means people are more pessimistic about the speed of technological improvement, and estimate that we’re progressing at HALF the rate we used to! Quite a change in the zeitgeist.

However it also means people are more optimistic about the rate of civilizational collapse, and think it’ll take us twice as long to get to Night City. Seeing as the cyberpunk genre was born before the 1990s rennasaince, when everything seemed to be spiraling, this isn’t surprising (the collapse of the USA was slated for 1996, just 6 years out from publication!). And since CP2077 was born in Trump America, this means that even in Trump America people on average didn’t feel as anxious about everything coming apart at the seams.

Anyway, on to the Timeline!

1990-1995 highlights:

First Arcology built in 1991
EU established in 1992
New York gets nuked in 1993

 

1996-2002 highlights:

Collapse of USA in 1996
Middle East destroyed in full nuclear exchange 1997
Plague kills 100s of thousands in US/Europe 2000

 

2003-2009 highlights:

Orbital war in 2008, Colorado Springs is wiped out

2010-2020 highlights:

Humans on Mars in 2011
First true AI in 2013
Human cloning in 2017
Orbital colony revolt in 2018

 

 

Jan 132021
 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North

Synopsis: Groundhog Day, but the time loop duration is Harry’s entire life, and he has to stop the world from ending hundreds of years in the future.

Book Review: When I say “the time loop duration is Harry’s entire life,” I just mean that’s the portion of the time-loop he experiences. In fact the time loop lasts at least from the beginning of human history until the end of humanity, and it’s likely that the time loop is literally the entire lifespan of the universe from big-bang to heat-death. But several people in the world (including Harry) remember their lives in all the previous time loops every time the universe resets. And they can use this information the same way Bill Murray did in Groundhog Day. They are also limited in the same way as Bill Murray, because in the end everything resets, everything is the same, and nothing they do matters(?).

There’ve been quite a few books I’ve read between Blood of Elves and now, and Harry August is the one I’ve chosen to restart my blogging with, because it is far and away the best book I read in 2020. It may be the best book I’ve read in several years. It takes everything that was good about Groundhog Day and pushes it into the stratosphere. Groundhog Day was a universe without consequences for Murray, since anything he did would be reset in a few hours, and it explored what that could do to someone. Harry August asks how far out this meaninglessness can be pushed. If everything you do matters for the rest of eternity… but then you wake up after a lifetime and everything has reset, did it matter at all?

My personal interpretation is that it doesn’t, which puts me in a bit of a bind, because that doesn’t seem to make sense. Why shouldn’t it matter that you saved someone’s life, or murdered someone, if it changes the world? Just because in a few decades for you it will look like it was all undone, that doesn’t mean it didn’t effect everyone for the rest of that universe, and that should be impactful. And yet, seeing the same non-awakened people doing the same thing over and over, and having to redo everything you did before, just makes everything feel so… empty. I was very quickly won over to the side of “None of these people matter, nothing I do matters,” and that bothers me a bit. You gotta read the book to get it, it presents it very well.

Or at least, that’s my take, but I already struggle with “Nothing matters,” in real life, and there’s no time-looping going on here, so maybe I’m just predisposed to think that way.

But that’s just the start. Other people who also loop are introduced, and suddenly something matters again. THOSE PEOPLE. Because they remember what you did, they continue to be effected by it from one universe into the next. Actions have consequences again. Unfortunately this now leads to a two-tiered world, of a few people who are real people and matter, and the vast majority of humanity that are basically expendable NPCs and can be used and discarded at will, because next life it’ll all reset and they won’t remember. Which is troubling. And yet, I can’t help but feel that it’s true, on a basic emotional level (in the context of the story, of course).

These people all try to deal with their ennui as best they can, and one of them in particular befriends Harry, and then we learn that he’s trying to change the universe forever with various interventions, that he experiments with and iterates on every life. But these iterations are dangerous to the other loopers, the Real People, and now we get a multi-lifespan, many-loops cloak-and-dagger intriuge that piles deceptions and lies and murder into this giant cake of absolutley delicious action and ideas. And all the while, we aren’t even sure we’re on the right side of this fight, we may be the baddies? Like, I just said most of humanity are non-people that don’t count, wtf is wrong with me!?

This is an absolutely stellar book. If you can only read one book a year, and you haven’t read this one yet, make it this one. The Highest Recommendation.

Book Club Review: Yes, yes, of course yes! The main thing about this book is that it asks a lot of questions about what is meaningful in life, and gives some thoughts about it, but leaves it up to the reader to figure out what is right and what is wrong. It’s basically designed to get people to state their opinions on grand questions, and disagree with other’s interpretations, and really get into the meat of what makes humans human. It does it all while telling a really compelling story, and being very well written and entertaining, rather than a lecture. It made for lots of indepth conversation that went on for quite some time!

I note that this was published in 2014. I almost hadn’t heard of it. How is that possible? Of the books nominated for the Hugos and Nebulas in the corresponding award cycle, only Annihilation was on par with Harry August. This is a bit of an embarrasment, the whole point of awards is to find and highlight books like this. Books which will never be hugely successful in the wider market, but are designed to be adored by the heavy reader like us that wants to see something new, innovative, and fantastic. Anyway, I’m ranting. Highly Recommended.

Jan 132021
 

It’s been a bit of a year. Not just politics-wise and corona-wise (though those have been huge), but personal-health-wise as well. But a couple weeks ago Google mailed me to say that I’m still getting 1k visitors a month to this site, and I’m like “wtf? Really? I haven’t updated it in months, who are these people?” And it turns out I have some new comments on some old posts, and well, that’s kinda cool. So I’m gonna get back into blogging. Just a little bit at a time, maybe catch up on the book club book reviews I haven’t posted, maybe archive my FB links again, maybe a rant here or there. Thanks for still being around, even sporadically. :)

I do podcast with a couple friends of mine twice a month, if anyone’s into that sorta thing, over here.

Aug 242020
 

Blood of Elves, by Andrzej Sapkowski

Synopsis: A series of vignettes mostly centered on a magical girl, used to build a fantasy world setting.

Book Review: The most important thing about this book is that it is not a novel. It is a series of short stories that have some characters in common, but no central narrative arch. These short stories are used to build a very deep background setting for a much longer story that I assume we will get in the following books in the series.

As such, it’s really hard for me to judge this book. Normally one can judge a short story by how well it accomplishes its goal (usually of making the reader feel something special and powerful). But the goal of these short stories isn’t that. There is entertainment along the way, to be sure! It was an absolute blast reading through the “Three Men and a Baby”-style story where these grizzled old mercenaries are trying to figure out how to care for a young girl. :D And the action is well written, when it happens. But the story goals here are almost entirely for creating a world.

I’ve written before about how important world-creation is, so I apprecaite this. The world-building on display is really impressive. But I can’t judge whether or not reading this book was worth it without having read an actual narrative.

Blood of Elves was interesting on several levels. First, the entire book gives you the feeling of someone setting up an immense number of dominos. Every story is another piece being put into place, getting set up for the grand show we’ll get eventually. It’s enticing. But we don’t get a pay off in this book. We don’t even get the beginning, we just see the set being made. It’s like when the DJ is building to a crescendo, but keeps just NOT DROPPING THE BASS and it’s both enticing and maddening.

Also, since nothing ever happens, I never really wanted to keep reading. I didn’t dislike reading it while I was doing so. But after I put it down, there was never a feeling of “I want to get back to reading this, so I can find out what happens next.” If I had lost the book I wouldn’t have gone looking for it, and it always felt a little bit like a chore getting started again, even if the process itself was interesting.

I was surprised that this was mostly about Ciri, the young girl. I had thought this was about The Witcher himself, and maybe later on the series turns into that. But if all I knew about the series came from reading this book, I would have thought it was a coming-of-age-with-magic story with Ciri as the protagonist, whose adopted dad comes around to help her out at times (and he’ll have to die sometime before the final act so she can come into her own).

Finally, since I had played Witcher III before this, it was really cool to already have all the faces and voices of the characters in my head, and already have a feeling of their personalities, and how everything looks. I don’t know what the experience of this would be for someone coming into it fresh, but having played the game before, I REALLY appreciated having that background. Having read this now, it makes so much sense that this was used as the basis of an open-world game. The author puts *TONS* of effort into creating a rich, deep, vibrant world. This is exactly the background that an open world game needs so that players can get lost in a huge, thought-out setting with a million details and characters and political interactions and things to do.

The fact that the setting up is well done but nothing actually happens makes it really really hard to judge this book. Like, how could you judge a movie after watching the first 14 minutes of it? How can you judge a book after reading the first 1.3 chapters? This series doesn’t even pretend to start telling a story yet, so there’s nothing to say “this is good” or “this isn’t good” about yet. I legitimately can’t judge this until I’ve actually read story stuff. So… technically not recommended. Once I get deeper into the series I’ll be able to actually recommend or not, I guess.

Book Club Review:  An interesting trend developed when we met – those of us who had listened to the audio book (including myself) were neutral-to-positive on the book. Those who read it in text were far less happy with it. In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense. Reading is work, and the implied promise a reader is given by an author is “this work will be worth it.” If you don’t get the pay-off in the book you purchased, you might feel cheated, even if that pay-off is much greater in a later book due to the build-up put in here. Also, it’s extra-work to read exposition, and this book has pages upon pages of exposition. It’s probably 50% exposition TBH. When one is listening to the audio book, one has to do far less work. And importantly, one can do other things at the same time as one is listening to the book, so the lack of payoff isn’t as upsetting.

So, first things first, it’s probably best to get this one in audio.

That being said, most people were still neutral-at-best about the book. Because, and I know I’m repeating myself here, not much happens in it. If you want to read this in your bookclub, I think the only way to do that is to set aside several meetings and read the series. After reading hundreds of pages of nothing happening, a group doesn’t have very much to talk about. Perhaps the series is great, but if you’re going to read just one book, this particular book is Not Recommended.

Aug 132020
 

I.

You can tell a person’s character by how they treat vulnerable people.

Throughout history there have always been victim populations. People who are targetted for abuse specifically because they are vulnerable and unpopular. A small subpopulation that doesn’t have the ability to defend itself, that is denigrated by the rest of society as unclean or immoral, and that anyone can throw a punch against to make themselves more popular without any fear of retaliation or consequence.

In a noble society, such a group would be protected. In most societies their plight is ignored. In some of the worst societies, what few protections such groups may have had are systematically stripped away to make them more and more vulnerable.

There are people who say “If I was a 1930s German I would have stood up against the Nazis” or “If I was an early American I would have stood up against slavery,” not realizing that the problem isn’t standing up for a group of noble innocents, it’s associating yourself with a group of hated criminals in front of all of your peers and coworkers.

In 2018 Kamala Harris had an opportunity to gain public favor. To do this, she would have to target a group of people already hated by much of America. A group of people who already don’t have any protection of the law in their workplace. A group made up predominantly of women, minorities, and the poor. She would have to make their already precarious lives more dangerous, taking away some of the few tools they have to defend themselves, and turn the police even further against them. And if that wasn’t enough, Harris would be doing this by furthering the slander that this group is mostly child rapists.

She did this knowingly. Many advocacy organizations contacted her to plead on behalf of the hated group, as most of them can’t do so themselves. People I know in my personal life did some of this work, as they were Harris’s constituents at the time. But Kamala Harris saw the popularity to be gained by attacking this group, and judged that to be more important than standing up for a vulnerable, hated subpopulation in her state.

On March 21, 2018, Kamala Harris voted for H.R. 1865, known as Fosta/Sesta, to advance the persecution of sex workers, and to advance her own career at the cost of their misery and their lives.

II.

It sickens me that the two realistic options on the presidential ticket this year have an opportunistic abuser of the vulnerable on one side, and a wanna-be tyrant with contempt for democracy on the other. It makes me want to burn down the entire system. It makes me want to vote for someone who would do his darndest to destroy these corrupt institutions rather than bothering to actually lead the nation or act as an administrator.

This leads me to realize that’s exactly what Trump is. Trump is the brick thrown by the rioter. He is the molotov cocktail of the enraged, the wrench slipped into the works. In 2016, a vote for Trump was specifically a vote to destroy the system. He is the riot vote. The “a city/country on fire and in ruins is better than this” vote. We’ve had four years of a country on fire. It’s bad. I can’t believe these are my options.

But notice that Kamala Harris’s opportunistic abuse of the weak is what launches this brick-throwing. Kamala Harris is the reason Trump was elected in 2016. Too many people would rather see the system burn than see opportunistic evil like her’s take power.

III

Why yes, the funny part IS that a large part of the reason she got Biden’s VP nod was because there have been many violent riots recently, and people are afraid and want a cop to stop the violence. The cycle continues.

Aug 022020
 

Chicago 2012

In my recent review of A Memory Called Empire I posted

“there is nothing exceptional about this. It’s…. fine. It’s fine. But it’s not good. It’s certainly not genre-defining or among the best things published that year. It’s just a space opera story being stretched out to meet publisher demands for a series. That is not inspired, and it’s not inspiring.

I know there’s at least one Hugo nominated novel that I just don’t get every year, but I don’t think anyone is doing Martine a favor by pretending they think her novel is a Hugo contender. I feel bad that this happened.”

A few days later, A Memory Called Empire won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

This has made me really reflect on myself, SF in general, and what The Hugo Awards are/mean. Here’s what I’ve come to–

The Hugo Awards are given out by the participants of The World Science Fiction Convention. It’s a fancon run by huge SF fans, and it’s great. :) They read a lot of SF, and at some point in the past decided “Hell, we have this big ol’ party/con every year, why not vote on what our favorite books/stories of the last year were, and give them an award?”

As these cons are attended by people who read A LOT of SF, they were pretty decent at picking out really good examples of SF lit. Since the con is often attended by people in the SF publishing industry, and frequently by VERY big name authors in the SF field, the awards they gave out started to get some attention. In time they became a marker of overall quality in the field.

And yes, ultimately it’s a popularity contest. That means works by popular authors are more likely to be noticed, and outstanding novels by unknowns will sometimes be missed. That’s just how things are. Nonetheless, usually things that are really good become popular, so it works out enough that one accepts that The Perfect should not be the enemy of The Good.

But of key importance in a popularity contest is who the audience is. If you are a vegetarian, the Best BBQ In The South of 2020 isn’t gonna matter to you, because as good as it may be considered among BBQ aficionados, it just isn’t for you.

This is why I never bothered with Lit Fic awards. I don’t care how great some piece of LitFic is, I’m not gonna like it cuz it’s LitFic. The Hugo Awards were what I really cared about, because the people who voted on them were like me. They were nerds and dreamers who got excited about fantastic magical devices and weird alien societies, and heroes going through scarring trauma but saving the day in the end. They created a big ol’ nerd con they could all go to once a year where they’d all geek out together over the latest Fantasy epic or SF mind-fuck.

For the last several years, this has been less and less the case. And before we go nuts, I want to stress this is not a bad thing in itself. I’ll explain myself.

When guys hear I’m in a book club, they always assume I’m the only dude in a sea of women. This is because that’s what most non-SF book clubs are like. Ours is different, we have a nearly 50/50 split, sometimes favoring men a little. I assume this is because SF/F is typically viewed as a Guy Thing. There’s a stereotype of the SF nerd, and he’s not female.

We are fortunate to have a wide variety of people in my book club, and it makes for interesting discussions. We even have what I nowadays think of as “the white woke woman.” She’s not a social justice warrior. But she is white, well-educated, politically liberal, works in academia, etc. I want to stress here that none of these are bad things. We all love her, she is a joy to be around, and I consider her a friend. If you were to picture the type of lady that attends monthly book club meetings reading Lit Fic, you’d see her.

She loved most of the things nominated for this year’s Hugos. She was far more into the shorts than anyone else, they really spoke to her. And that is wonderful. It is always a pleasure to see a friend taking true delight in something! It is good for there to be joy in the world, and watching people experience that joy is great, and I don’t want to take that away from anyone.

But it strengthened my impression that the typical WoldCon attendee has been trending further and further away from the SF nerd that used to include me, and now consists mostly of the woke lady reader. I didn’t think anything of the fact that A Memory Called Empire was nominated — every year there is always some nominee that has no place in the Hugo pantheon IMO, but got in through a fluke of popular convergence. They are always sifted out during the voting process. This year, the sifting out decided that A Memory Called Empire is indeed the highest peak that one can aspire to within WorldCon circles.

This isn’t that surprising, when one thinks about it. Men Don’t Read. Not literally true, but when you look at the numbers, women consume FAR more written fiction than men do. If you want to be a successful author, your best bet is to write Romance, that’s where the majority of the money is. Failing that, LitFic aimed at women audiences is also huge. Whether this is because men are inherently less interested in reading, or if it’s because our sexist society systematically discourages male reading, or something else entirely, is unimportant. Women read a lot more, and they predictably have differing tastes in the aggregate.

In the past, SF had a certain aura about it that kept it mostly restricted to SF nerds. Most non-nerds stayed away, in part due to the aura of weird nerd crap that SF exuded. There were definitely nerd women in those circles (like I said, half our book club is women), but they were way outnumbered by the men. Also, they had tastes pretty similar to the other nerds, which is why they pushed through that aura of nerddom in the first place.

In the past decades, SF/F has become very mainstreamed. Normies read and love it now. Which is great! I love when people love things. :) But it means that the ghettos that used to be populated by SF nerds have been gentrified by regular readers. And most of those readers are woke women. They are educated and fairly well off. (It’s not a coincidence that going to WorldCon is far more expensive now. It’s also often an international destination event.) That’s simply how the demographics work out when a written genre becomes popular. Most heavy readers of most fiction words are educated, well-off, and women. Demographics aren’t good or bad, they’re just the way the world is.

So the Hugos are now, in effect, an award given out by a type of person with tastes very different from my own. I am glad they have a community they are happy in, and an award they can give out to celebrate works they love. I admit I am sad to be evicted from a place I used to consider a home. But I ain’t fancy, I’m a basic boi that reads a bunch, and I don’t fit in anymore. When all your friends move out, ultimately you gotta realize it’s time for you to move on as well.

What does this mean for me? It means I can no longer say anything is “Hugo material” or not, because my judgements of quality do not mesh with the audience of the Hugos. It means I don’t really need to bother reading Hugo works, any more than I read LitFic award winners, because they don’t say anything useful about what I will appreciate. And it means I gotta go looking for a community that is more like me, and likes the things I like, so I can go geek out with them and feel at home again. Maybe we can even throw a con for ourselves so we can meet up IRL and fanboy about the latest thing with cool swords and explosions and tormented heroes and freshman philosophical quandaries. :)

On the plus side, WorldCon was my nerd home for a while, and I’ll always have those memories, and the friends I made there

Jul 302020
 

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Synopsis: A diplomat from a space station makes friends with high-level officials of a space empire.

Book Review: The book starts with a really interesting situation. The diplomat has the memories and personality of the previous diplomat uploaded into her head, and the two of them have to integrate into a new unified personality. She deals with foreign reflexes and intrusive emotions, and can speak with the old diplomat in her head to a fair extent. It was a delight to read, and I was looking forward to a great rollercoaster of interaction and personality conflicts. Which was good, because with the setting being a boring diplomacy gig in a safe embassy, the action outside her head was pretty dull.

And then a few chapters in the uploaded personality & memories are wiped out.

Most of the rest of the book is a slog to get through. The stakes are low, we don’t really care about the protagonist’s mission, and the political intruige is poorly done. The personal assistant that gets assigned to our protagonist seems to be fawningly in love with her and her home station, showing far more loyalty to this stranger than her own people. I assumed she was a very bad double-agent for being so unrealistically loyal, but it turns out she really does just exist to give the protagonist an unswerving ally.

Which is a good thing for our protag, because she’s a complete idiot. Early on she, her assistant, and a friend play a game of “Let’s build trust by telling each other secrets!” The assistant reveals a minor sexual fetish for foreigners. The friend reveals something equally innoculous. Our protag reveals the most sensitive state secret of her people. I /foreheaded. Turned out to be fine though, because her assistant is just so loyal!

I get the feeling this book was trying to be A Song of Ice and Fire In Space. There’s a great, inhuman threat descending from the North deep in the galaxy, which cannot be reasoned with or understood, and the small border state that knows it’s coming has to appeal to a larger empire to defend all of humanity, but gets caught up in the machinations of a power struggle within the empire. The problem is that the machinations of the power struggle have to be interesting. GRRM knew how to write political intruige. Martine does not. Ideas are easy, execution is hard, and the execution here left me alternately rolling my eyes and bored.

Deep into the book, a few chapters from the end, the action picks up and SOMETHING worth writing about finally happens in the story. We get quite a bit of fireworks, and it’s actually fun reading for a few chapters! Then the news of the approaching alien onslaught is delivered to the people who can do something about it and the book ends.

This book could have been titled “Space Opera: Prologue.” Because that’s what it is — a prologue that was spun out into a novel for no good story reason. It was done for a pretty good financial reason. As has been bemoaned on this blog before, everything has to be a series now to make any money, and so what should be a prologue within a novel is sold as a seperate novel… even if it has to be padded out with a hundred thousand words of filler. Bleh. A thousand curses upon this dumb trend. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: There’s not much to talk about in a book of such thin substance. Not Recommended

Hugo Note: I’m being a bit harsher on this book than I would normally be. This is because I came in with high expectations. This is a perfectly servicable fluff book for times when people just want to kill time wandering through a space opera prologue. It is mediocre, but it’s a first novel, and most authors need several novels to get their writing legs under them. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I recognize there’s a place for these sorts of things. If I had come into this like any other book, I wouldn’t have expected something really good from the get go, and I would have been able to enjoy it a bit more.

But I didn’t come into it like any other book, because it has been nominated for a Hugo. A significant number of people put this forward as a book that may very well be one of the best SF books written in 2019, a book which may alter and redefine aspects of genre fiction, and a work that any other novelist should be proud to aspire to. So I came in with some expectations. Turns out those were ridiculous expectations and it really hurt the novel that I had them, because there is nothing exceptional about this. It’s…. fine. It’s fine. But it’s not good. It’s certainly not genre-defining or among the best things published that year. It’s just a space opera story being stretched out to meet publisher demands for a series. That is not inspired, and it’s not inspiring.

I know there’s at least one Hugo nominated novel that I just don’t get every year, but I don’t think anyone is doing Martine a favor by pretending they think her novel is a Hugo contender. I feel bad that this happened.

Jul 232020
 

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley

Synopsis: A fascist footsoldier becomes unstuck in time, realizes war is hell, and turns against the system that created her.

Book Review: First, an apology. I moved this month, and that process has drained away a lot of my time. I read this book well over a month ago, and this review is very late. Some of the details are already a little fuzzy.

I was impressed by Hurley’s decision to go with a protagonist that is a fascist in the current political environment. The novel doesn’t glorify fascism, quite the opposite in fact, it shows how evil a system it is. But such nuance can often be missed by people looking to get outraged, so it wasn’t the safest choice. It was a good one though. Portraying how a fascist system is destructive and abusive even to its own members is powerful, and was well executed. The Light Brigade isn’t some cartoon dystopia you find in YA fic, where the snobby elites kill kids for the lulz in a stable evil empire. This was a thoroughly real, crumbling dystopia in a war of all against all, reminiscent of original cyberpunk. It is gritty, and gritty is something Hurley does very well.

I also really enjoyed that the novel stays bitter and angry all the way through. There is no Conversion Moment where the protag joins the holy order and dedicates herself to righteousness and things improve locally. There is only deepening bitterness, and a refocus of anger from what her masters want her to kill, to what actually deserves destruction. This is my cup of tea, and I love it.

The theme is also exactly up my alley — a recognition that violence begets violence and is awful, but done in a way that allows us to see maximum violence along the way, because I get a visceral thrill out of the spectacle even as I abhor it IRL. Any book that gives me violence thrills while making me despise violence generally gets my support. :) This is message fiction done well!

The downside is, I didn’t get anything new here. The protag becomes unstuck in time, and so we get the distorted, chopped-up narrative common to other well-known anti-war books. It felt very reminiscent of both Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. While I consider that high praise, I don’t think it cleared the bar the same way those works do, and so suffered in comparison to them. As I read I felt a number of times that this would be really cool if it was the first time I was experiencing it… but it’s not, I’ve read it before, and I don’t think it improved the recipe. I don’t want to diminish what Hurley has done, because this is better than a lot of things I’ve read in the past couple years, but it honestly felt like a remake that didn’t live up to the original.

I’m not sure how to go with the recommendation on this. Will this turn out to be something that I look back on years later and wonder why I didn’t love it at first? I don’t know. Maybe. If this sounds interesting to you, I don’t want to dissuade you from picking it up. But I would put other things on my reading list above it, so, though I may regret this later, I can’t quite recommend it.

Book Club Review:  This is pretty good for a book club book. The time-loop shenanigans are fun to puzzle over together. Most of the book club found the protagonist to be rather unlikable, which I had to admit is a fair cop, and gave us further things to discuss. I don’t think other readers liked it as much as I did, but the discussion went well, which is a big part of what makes a good book club book. One reader did point out that this is another book that unfortunately trivalizes torture and its effect on the victim, so there’s that. But nonetheless, I think the meeting we had tips it just over into Cautiously Recommended for book clubs. (Cautiously because there is a lot of violence and despair, some book clubs may want to avoid it for that reason… but of course those book clubs would want to avoid any realistic war novels as well.)

Jul 212020
 

Sorry for the long delay, I guess sometimes “tomorrow” means “in over a week”!

I.

Anyhow, yes, Emergency Skin is meant to be funny. I don’t think this should be controversial. I mean, there’s a dick joke in the first paragraph. Not only does the poor protag obviously not know what is desirable in a human body (long thighs?), but he’s being sold a long penis when we all know a long, thin penis is no one’s friend.

Most of the humor in the story is of this style – we see a naive protagonist being lied to by a narrator that is taking advantage of him. It’s a sort of comedy of errors, as we see a couple of complete idiots bumbling about in a Three Stooges-style fiasco, getting more and more wrapped up their buffoonery. Like, how can you not laugh at a society that thinks they’re The Best Evar but apparently hated women so much they replaced them all with “pleasurer robots?” Their entire society is so mentally and culturally deficient that it’s pretty clear that they were politely given the tech to leave by a humanity that really wanted them to move away, and they’ve lied to all their descendants claiming that they were so very smart that they found a way to leave the planet when no one else could. As if they’d had the capability to do cutting edge research, or accumulate vast wealth, with the three brain cells they had left. :D

Anyway, this would just be a straight-up farce if it was simply a depiction of this society of charicatures, but it turns into a satire when we see one of these flunkies coming back to Earth to interact with normal people. At that point, Emergency Skin reads very much like a take down of bad message fiction. It’s holding up a mirror to writers of bad message fic and saying “See, this is what you look like when you don’t do this well.” Writing good message fiction is a skill, and takes a lot of work. When it’s bad, it’s really bad. Satire can point this out via demonstration, and make us laugh along the way.

The really cool part of Emergency Skin is that you actually feel sympathy for the protag here, because he’s so niave and doesn’t know any better. He’s being used by the narator, and so we cheer when he sees through their lies and decides to go back and help his fellow citizens. There’s an actual good character arc, which is pretty unusual for a short satire piece.

II.

Poe’s Law is an artifact from the atheism wars on the early internet, which states that it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views so obviously exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the views being parodied. No matter how ridiculous of a religious claim you made, someone would think it was serious, because why not? Religions are already looney toons. Religious people would often get upset about this, saying that it was plain freakin’ insulting that someone would say they couldn’t tell the difference between an absurd parody and a real religious claim. This sometimes resulted in hilarious own-goals, when it was discovered the original claimant was in fact a religious person expressing a sincere belief that the objecting theist had claimed was so ridiculous that only a liar trying to Own The Opposition would pretend to be confused whether it was a joke or not.

(Related fun study – some conservatives thought The Colbert Report was a pro-conservative show. From a study: “conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.”)

Which is to say that the meta punchline is Emergency Skin is being Poe’d. At least a couple people in our book club assumed Jemisin was writing this as a serious piece of anti-something propaganda. I’m not entirely sure what the “something” in this case is, but I think some combination of Billionaires, Capitalists, Whites, and Men. And, sure, those are all popular targets of the illiberal woke-ists out there. But I don’t think an objective reading of the story can support this.

III.

The story, as a satire, is pretty obviously about idiots the rest of humanity didn’t want to have around. They are shown to be a dysfunctional society brought to the brink of extinction due to their own mental, moral, and cultural failures. They’re just barely keeping old tech functioning, having to scavenge repair parts from Old Earth regularly. They are a fascist slave-owning society with dogma and philosophy completely inimicable to scientific advancement or functional capitalist systems. There is no way they got off Earth on their own. They were basically kicked off, and teach their descendants blatent lies. They do their best to hide these lies from the scavenger scout, but the truth is so blindingly apparent, and the society is so inept at even something as basic as lying, that the figleaf of falsehoods is blasted away immediately upon arrival.

The story, as serious criticism, is…. let’s say “problematic.” It’s the story of a minority group of humans. This minority group has distinct physical features (skin color, facial structure, hair) that make it obviously different from the rest of humanity. This minority group is also mentally, morally, and culturally retarded. Yet despite being vastly inferior to the rest of humanity, they have somehow insideously taken control of major power structures on Earth. In addition, they’ve tricked, defrauded, or outright stolen vast amounts of wealth from those who created it and should rightfully own it, and horde it for themselves. When the rest of humanity was in its most desperate situation, they stabbed humanity in the back and abandoned us, taking all their stolen wealth with them.

Basically, they’re 1930s Jews in Nazi propaganda.

What’s more, it turns out that once they were left to themselves, their true nature of theiving untermensch is revealed, and their new world collapses. Meanwhile, now that Earth is freed of their insidious leeching, Earth flourishes, and ushers in a New Golden Age where everyone has plenty and there is no more strife. By extension, the reader is left to wonder that if only… IF ONLY this vile minority of sub-humans could somehow be removed from the planet everything would be sunshine and roses.

So, yeah. I know this is combining Poe’s Law with Godwin’s Law, but reading this as a serious work of modern cultural criticism, one would be forced to say that Jemisin basically recreated the worst kind of exterminationist Nazi propaganda. And, to be quite honest, I don’t think that’s remotely plausible. It’s as silly as saying Colbert is a secret Republican, or Obama is a secret Muslim, or Scott Alexander is a secret Nazi.

And come on! This is a story that includes lines like “Beautiful? That’s… You’re only saying that beacuse they have skin.” Or “They want everything for everyone and look at where it’s gotten them! Half of them aren’t even men.” These are jokes, and pretty good ones!

Also, would an author that seriously embraced that sort of ideology be one of only two (of the twelve short work authors) who didn’t make the story available freely to all? And be the only author who made the story available ONLY at Amazon, so people are forced to give their money to the boogeyman of the leftists? I had to install a Kindle app to read this, I don’t think anti-capitalism is a driving value here. :)