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.

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. :)

Jul 102020
 

Hugo AwardBy long tradition, we read the Hugo nominated shorts in our book club. Spoilers for all stories below. I’d encourage people to read all of them, they’re short, but if you’d like to know which ones I think are the best so you can read just those before getting spoilers, they are: “For He Can Creep”; “As the Last I May Know”; “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”; Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin (not available online)

Best Novelette

“The Archronology of Love”, by Caroline M. Yoachim

A story about loss and longing. I didn’t find it particularly interesting, but this may be because I have a cold, dead heart. ;) Several people in our book club really loved it, and found it bittersweet and poingnant. I honestly can’t even remember much of it after less than two weeks since I read it. It wasn’t bad, just nothing here for me.

“Away With the Wolves”, by Sarah Gailey 

A pretty good werewolf story. It deals with disability and chronic pain in a way that I really wanted to connect with, as someone who is now a sufferer of daily chronic pain and kinda-sorta-techincally-mildly-disabled-I-guess. But for some reason it just didn’t click. It feels unfair to say that, because I can’t point to anything in specific. It just… didn’t connect for me. This was a feeling shared by everyone in my book club, so I don’t think it’s just me, and we all really wanted it to work. I don’t know what the secret sauce is, and it feels shitty to say that something is missing it. :( But, well, there we go. It ended with a nice message of acceptance and community togetherness which was pleasant enough. Just no fireworks.

“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, by Sarah Pinsker

There’s nothing to this story. It’s a bit of cozy mystery fluff with an SF twist at the end. I want to make it perfectly clear that there’s nothing wrong with that. God knows I love a lot of fun, fluffy stuff that’s just pure enjoyment without heft to it. But I was surprised to find this on the Hugo short list. On a craft level, it’s great. Pinsker is an acomplished writer of astounding skill, and kept me reading the whole time. It’s entirely enjoyable too. But I get the feeling she was just having fun here, and I imagine she was as surprised as I was to find it as a nominee. Awards tend to favor works that will be viewed as “influential” on the broader art form by future generations, and it seems unlikely to me that a light bit of mystery fun fits that.

Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin

This is a fantastic satire of terrible message fiction. I laughed several times, which is unusual when reading, for me. It’s not as full-on absurdist comedy as the other Hugo-nominated parody of my time, “The Shadow War of the Night Dragons”, but to make up for that it has an actual plot, with a full storyline and character arc that is more-or-less fulfilling. Being able to pull that off in a parody piece is really impressive. They tend not to lend themselves to that.

There was quite a bit of disagreement between me and the rest of my book club on this story, several people didn’t realize it was a comedy. Tomorrow I’ll be writing up a significantly longer treatment on this, because c’mon, that’s just crazy, one can’t let that go unexamined!

“For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll

Oh my god, this is the most perfect feel-good story and I love everyting about it. It’s about a cat that fights Satan in an insane asylum! And it’s even better than you’re already thinking! I checks just about every single box for things I like in feel-good ficiton. Adorable protagonists with snoots and whiskers and swishing tails, that don’t take crap from demons. The titular character has Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres levels of self-assurance and lack of patience for fools, and doesn’t try to pretend he isn’t awesome. His priorities are all screwed up, but perfect for a cat, and it’s a joy to watch him saunter right into disaster. And the story centers on a madman! AND THE DEVIL! They literally fight freakin’ Satan. Also there is a work of art so intense it can shatter the world. The prose is straight-up gorgeous; it’s lyrical throughout, with some flamboyant flourishes. The plot is engaging and very satisfying, and I literally want to read a dozen spin-off stories based on these charecters, but only if Carroll is the one to write them. If she doesn’t win this year’s Hugo then all love of art has fled from the world, because this is Art.

A thing of note – both “Blur in the Corner of your Eye” and “Away with the Wolves” are also feel-good stories. But “Wolves” lacks the joyful energy, and the intensly lovable characters. Neither “Wolves” nor “Blur”  innovate, and don’t have have beautiful, lyrical prose or experimental style. I believe this is what seperates a Hugo-contender from a “pretty good story.” “For He Can Creep” is impressive and memorable in addition to being a fantastic read.

“Omphalos”, by Ted Chiang

A return to old-school Chiang, where he examines what the world would look like if a belief people claim to hold was actually true. In this case, young earth creationism. I didn’t find it as engaging and pround as some of his other examinations, though. Maybe because this was never a belief I’d held? Perhaps the Chiang stories people most enjoy are the ones that tackle subjects most dear to their own upbringings/beliefs. However it is expertly executed, as all his stories are, and obviously there are enough people with a background of young earth creationism that it had the numbers to make it as a nominee. Mad props to Mr Chiang, as always.

 

Best Short Story

“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, by Shiv Ramdas 

A great revenge story set in colonial-era India. An atrocity is visited upon our heroine, and when she recovers enough to exact revenge, it is graphic and brutal. Some of our book club didn’t particularly enjoy that. I loved it, because I like bloody revenge stories. There is a part of me that wants to see such horrors avenged, to see their perpetrators die screaming, and everyone around them who was complicit can die screaming too. Giving such feelings a safe outlet is what fiction is for. If you like the bloody-revenge part of Tarantino movies, you’ll probably like this. I sure did.

“As the Last I May Know”, by S.L. Huang

Oh damn! Someone took the Roger Fisher proposal that the nuclear launch codes be kept inside an aide so the president would have to cut them out (thus killing a man with his own hands) before starting armageddon, and made a story out of it, and it’s soooo good. It’s set in a different world, so national sympathies don’t get in the way of telling the story. Instead we simply live with the child(!) chosen to be the bearer of the code, as her nation falls closer and closer to nuclear war and the president who’s come to love her has to decide if he can kill her to save his entire nation. Not only is it a great take on a great thought experiment, it’s really brought home by the defection of the girl’s adoptive father/mentor at the end. Despite being a pacifist priest, in the end he breaks, and tries to provide the nuclear codes to the president WITHOUT requiring the sacrafice of the child, because he can’t live with the death of the daughter, but he can’t live with the destruction and slaughter of his country either. It’s brutal.

And the fact that it ends without us knowing if the girl is going to live or die is perfect. The reader is left trying to figure out which ending would I prefer? and thus has to answer for themselves which situation is worse? Is this worth the cost in my own opinion? Is this justice?

While most of my bookclub thought this was an anti-nuclear-weapons story, I pointed out that it seems very much like a Tragedy of Good Intentions. The purpose of the policy is to prevent nuclear armageddon unless it is absolutely vital. But the country that invades our protagonist’s country doesn’t have nukes themselves. They ravage the interior, thousands are killed in the fighting on both sides, and tens of thousands of civilians are killed in bombings, many times more displaced and starved, and cities ruined. Because the invading country figured our president wouldn’t kill this child to launch nukes. The intention behind the policy was good and pure, but there wouldn’t have been an invasion at all if the nukes didn’t require a child sacrafice. Because the invaders would have worried that if they invaded, nukes would have been launched in retaliation and the aggressor nation devestated. Without a war there would have been thousands of soldiers lives saved on both sides, and possibly hundreds of thousands of civilians. As a cautionary tale, the message is obvious — don’t give anyone a reason to think you won’t use the nukes, and you end up preventing wars and saving many lives.

Except, of course, without some deterant on their use, it’s much easier to get world wide armageddon. And shouldn’t someone willing to kill millions of people have to kill at least one person first? If you can’t kill one person, how can you kill so many, so indiscrimently?

And in the end, the nukes might get launched anyway. Damn, man. Really, a very good story.

“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, by Rivers Solomon

Another revenge story. This one is more elaborate, and grows to encompass an entire society. As in “everyone in this society supported this atrocity by their acceptance of slavery, burn it all down.” Again, I like revenge stories, so I liked this. It focuses less on the revenge itself, and far more on how getting your revenge isn’t enough, because afterwards the world is still broken and you are still empty. The protagonist grows over the course of the story, learning to find acceptance and belonging with her friends/surrogate family. In the end revenge stops being the goal, and instead becomes the means towards the true goal, which is family and togetherness. It’s actually a really positive message among all the slaughter. :)

“A Catalog of Storms”, by Fran Wilde

I gotta admit, I didn’t particularly get this story. It’s written in a surreal, dreamlike way, never fully explaining what’s happening, but giving you enough to figure out the broad strokes. Yet, despite figuring out more or less what’s happening, I never really felt a connection. It all felt too unmoored in anything. I dunno… it’s been a while and it still bugs me. I think I’m missing something, and if I reread it a few times perhaps whatever I’m missing will click and I’ll have a revelatory moment. I was hoping someone in my book club would have insights on this, but they all felt basically the same way, which makes me suspect maybe it’s not us, it’s the story. Googling has found only people that say basically the same thing — a cool mood piece, but there’s not much that happens to anyone. I guess all I can say is it wasn’t to my taste. Good imagery, though.

“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, by Alix E. Harrow

A very strong piece about being an outsider in your own society. A woman of peace is tolerated in a warrior culture because her wife is the best warrior in the land, but everyone else shuns her, even her own children. The one child that takes after her is pressed into the military anyway, and as more and more of everything she loves is taken from her and forced into the war machine, she rebels. Unlike the other stories this year, this rebellion isn’t a bloody revenge. She flees, and prevails upon the love of her wife to protect her. The two both do what is right in their own way, despite their methods being antithetical at a first glance. It’s a love story of the type you don’t see often – one about the love of a dedicated relationship after many years together, rather than the passion of new love in youth. I really liked this.

Also of note, since I’m on a world-building kick — absolutely stellar worldbuilding. It was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and good worldbuilding is basically The BCS Thing, and it’s nice to see they are still holding strong to that. :)

“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, by Nibedita Sen

This was a bit of a nothing-burger for me. An infant is taken by the British from an island of cannibal women and raised in a boarding school. She makes a friend who develops a crush on her. The friend then cuts off pieces of herself and secretly feeds them to their mutual friends over dinner. Everyone is very disturbed by this. That could make a good story, but what I just told you is basically the entirety of what you get. It’s told in ten snippets from news or scholarly articles about the event, so you get the story in pieces and have to put it together yourself. I really like this sort of structure play, my Favorite Book Ever does the same thing. Except Vellum has an amazing story with God and angels and alternate universes and fantastic character development. When I put together the pieces of “Ten Excerpts” there wasn’t anything there. Just… hey, here’s a thing that happened, kinda gross right? Cool structure play on it’s own isn’t enough, you still need a good story at the heart of it. For a fantastic example of structure play, I generally refer people to this owner’s manual which is secretly about superstimulus, the crushing power of beauty, and loneliness.

OTOH, one member of our book club REALLY loved it. The story does give you a lot of pieces, and if they really strike your fancy you can certainly arrange them into a larger structure.

Highly Recommended: “For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll; “As the Last I May Know”, by S.L. Huang

Recommended: “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, by Alix E. Harrow; Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin

Jun 092020
 

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

Synopsis: A messiah origin story. On a dying colony planet, humanity unknowingly persecutes the one person who could save them by reconciling humanity with the native alien population.

Book Review: This is a story of extremes. The planet is tidally locked, so humanity has settled in the thin terminator line between broiling day and deathly night, but it is not a happy medium… it’s just the place where the two extremes meet. This is a repeated theme. The two cities are split between an ultra-repressive puritanical hell, and a lawless warzone ruled by warring crime families of hedonists. The two main relationships are a caring platonic couple of unconditional acceptance, and a horribly abusive relationship of exploitation. The humans are exploitative and violent, the aliens are so pacifistic they let themselves be killed rather than fight back.

Overall the theme is strong and well done, but I’m not really sure what it was in service of. It seemed to be more of an aesthetic choice than something used for a purpose. I may just be missing it. But much of the book didn’t quite click for me. I loved Anders’ debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky. It was a delightful, surreal combination of absurdism and sincerity that really captured the chaos of being young. The City in the Middle of the Night decided to turn away from surrealism and instead tried to be a realistic “hard SF” world. Anders wasn’t able to bring her gift for surreal expressions of emotional truth into the world, and it suffers for it.

In tandem with that, there are a multitude of examples of things happening because they are convenient for the plot but that don’t really make much sense upon examination. The protagonist’s mother sacrifices herself to stop a fire from destroying a major food source while her coworkers just bicker. But like… how? We are literally told only what I just said. Did she just throw herself on the fire to smother it? If she was doing literally anything else, why would no one one attempt to assist or try to summon help? It seems like a minor detail, but I am thrown out of stories when humans act like ludicrous caricatures so that a primary characters can demonstrate virtue. It’s Atlas Shrugged-ism without the courage to go balls-out Atlas Shrugged with it.

I don’t know how fair of a complaint this is, because I have been on a tear recently about lazy writing being used to create “great scenes” without any narrative cohesion, and when one is primed to be sensitive to such a thing, even small transgressions can jump out and really irritate. I can’t say for sure that two months ago I would have been as bothered by this kind of thing. An author can’t go into detail about every little thing in the world, there’s just a lot that has to go unsaid. But I’d like to at least believe the author considered it and has a picture in her own head on how such a sacrifice would have actually played out, and I cannot believe that given what we read.

There’s a bunch of similar examples. A villain tells a mook where a character is being held (in detail!) while the hero happens to be in earshot for no reason at all (aside from making life easy for the hero). The humans arriving on the new planet open the airlock and then immediately fall gasping to the ground under the strange atmosphere and increased gravity, because a cool scene is more important than people being smart enough to check the air first, and also feel gravity before the door opens?? Two otherwise intelligent characters tromp through the streets yelling after curfew in the military lockdown city for no freakin reason except because the story needs them to get caught by the police now. When the main character reveals to her friend she can speak to the aliens, her incredibly intelligent and socially liberal friend laughs her off — which is already ridiculous — and the main character responds by never bringing up this ability to anyone else ever again. OK, I get that she’s shy and she has trauma but, really?

The thing is, I still like the story overall. I like Anders’s style, and I like messiah stories. This is a good messiah origin story, and it ends with such a beautiful breakthrough scene that it’ll stay with me for a long time. But all the irritation of people acting ridiculous along the way detracted from that, and I almost didn’t get there because of it. If I didn’t already love messiah stories I don’t think I’d be very into this novel.

Also, half the novel follows a parallel POV character who is really bad ass at first, but who ultimately doesn’t do anything, and I’m not sure why she’s here or why we follow her. The main story is about the messiah coming to accept her burden, the other POV is just… kinda there.

This one is kinda on the line for me, but I guess if I can’t heartily recommend a book, it’s not actually fair to recommend it. So, mildly Not Recommended.

Book Club Review:  As a Hugo nominee, this may be worth picking up due to the meta conversation about this year’s Hugos and the state of the SF publishing landscape. If you’re not into that there are other things that can spark conversation, but it’s hard to say how much it varies from most other works. Several people in our book club didn’t finish it, and almost everyone agreed that the middle was a slog to get through (I was the one exception, I thought it was fine). I dunno, overall, also mildly Not Recommended.

May 162020
 

Agency, by William Gibson

Synopsis: The world’s first GAI throws a coming-out party for itself.

Book Review: A couple months ago one of the panelists (don’t recall which one) at the Reason Roundtable commented that “William Gibson is very good at describing surfaces.” He meant this literally, and it’s true, Gibson does indeed do great visual descriptions, and you really get a feeling for how surfaces look and feel. But it works on a metaphorical level too, because this book is beautiful on the surface level, but doesn’t seem to have much depth to it.

At first I thought it was intentional, because the book is about an AI creating the infrastructure to manipulate the physical world, and her first step is to recruit a human agent. The human chosen is perfect for this role because she is pathologically passive. The world is on the brink of nuclear war and her primary concern is where she’s going to get coffee. She doesn’t really care about anything, and it makes complete sense that she’d do whatever the AI says with minimal prompting. The AI scoured the country and chose her mark well. I liked the nefarious implications.

But then the AI is removed from the narrative about 1/3rd of the way through, and things continue apace. Things keep happening to the protagonist, and she keeps getting shuffled forward in the plot, but there’s never much here to make us care. The protagonist doesn’t have motivation or desire, and makes almost no decisions. She doesn’t really have any agency in the story. Which feels like it should be some sort of theme, given the title, but it is never explored in the way a theme is explored… it’s just there.

The “very good at describing surfaces” comment kept coming back to me. Gibson has created a fantastic world. It has complex power structures and entrenched interests. It has a deep history. It is a marvelous place for stories to take place in, and I kept thinking this would make a wonderful source book for a role-playing game. There was even a plot-thread about an AI establishing its powr base that players could be guided through by a skilled GM. But it lacked characters, and so lacked a compelling story. It was a beautiful surface for a story to be painted on/within.

And upon further reflection, I think this is a feature of Gibson’s works. He crafts incredible worlds that are immensely cool to explore and be inside. The more weird and esoteric the world is, the more there is to explore and and be dazzled by. Like, what do you remember from the original Sprawl trilogy? If you’re like me, you recall there was a plot about freeing an AI-in-a-box, but that’s about it. The main attraction in those books was exploring an insane and awesome cyberpunk future (especially since this was the basically first time that had been done). I love that trilogy with a passion. But I don’t recall much plot, just an amazing world and the bizzare characters that peopled it.

The plot of Agency seems to be mainly about giving us a tour of this world, which has two problems. The first is that it’s a near-future world with very few deviations from our own. Someone whose strength is creating breath-taking new worlds should make them significantly different. That’s what made the Sprawl triology awesome. It’s what made Mieville’s Perdido Street Station + sequels awesome. A near future without much devation doesn’t have much to explore.

That brings us to the second problem. Since there isn’t that much difference to explore, the novel feels padded out to fill a word-count it can’t justify. There’s a lot of action that doesn’t have any purpose. And there’s a ridiculous amount of wasted word count. You know how soap operas will pad out their run time by having frequent commercial breaks, and after each comercial break they will recreate at least a full minute of what aired before the commercial break, except shot from a slightly different angle? That happens MANY times in the novel, when perspectives switch from one charecter to another.

You know how before people knew how to make movies we had wasted shots? To take my favorite example – in the first James Bond movie, Dr No, there’s a scene where Bond knocks out an assailant. He the walks back to his car. And the camera stays on him. On his back. As he walks. Slowly. Back to his car. For a good several seconds.

Because people just didn’t know you cut out the boring parts, I guess? That the audience can infer Bond walked back to his car if the next scene is him getting out of his car at the next location? Anyway, Agency was full of moments like this, completely unneeded descriptions that did nothing and were the literally equivalent of walking back to the car. Yes, the descriptions were good. But you skip the boring parts in a novel. You don’t show us the hero sleeping and going to the bathroom if it’s not important. Agency literally has a scene where someone goes to the bathroom, and it’s not remotely important.

Which is just to say, Gibson is great at making worlds, and skilled at wordcraft, but I found the plot and emotional drive in Agency sorely lacking. I do not wish to besmirch the rightly-celebrated author of one of the most influential works of the 80s. But as for Agency – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Some interesting discussion, beacuse the world really is created very well. But not too terribly much to talk about, as there isn’t much theme or story. Not bad, per se, but not something I can recommend, given how much is published every year. So again, Not Recommended.

May 062020
 

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Synopsis: Necromancers trying to hold together a dying interstellar empire seek to unlock the dark knowledge of the first necromancers on a barren Earth.

Book Review: You know how The Crow is the most goth movie ever filmed? Well the first 1/3rd of Gideon the Ninth is the most goth novel ever written. This alone is among the highest praise I can give it, and you should go read it right now. Highly Recommended.

Not enough? Well, imagine if the initial Warhammer 40K setting was written by twenty-year olds today, rather than 20-year-olds in 1970s, using all of today’s style, slang, and literary advances rather than that of 70s. Obviously you should go read it right now. Highly Recommended.

Still not enough? Oy vey.

This story begins on a literal tomb planet, which is in perpetual night, ruled by an order of dour catholics. The human population is down to maybe a few hundred people, animated skelitons work the fields and do most of the labor, techonology is dying, and everyone wears black. The protagonist (Gideon) is a snarky, bitter kid in her early 20s that kicks insane amounts of ass with a sword, but doesn’t have the patience or focus for subtley or intriuge. Fortunately she has a waif of a sister (Harrowhark) that does the heavy lifting on the social-manipulation front, including animating the corpses of her parents so no one will know their planet is without a legitimate ruler and come subjugate them. The sisters hate each other, of course.

The entire solar system is likewise denuded of population. The emperor is gone. The saints are gone. Humanity has been left to fend for itself, and hasn’t been able to keep up most tech. Interplanetary travel is extremely rare. In the midst of this, Gideon and Harrowhark are called to Earth to partake in a trial. If they can unlock the secrets of the first necromancers, they can ascend to sainthood themselves, and save their planet.

I didn’t love the book *quite* as much once they get to Earth. There is sunlight on Earth, which reduces the goth factor. And no dour catholics. But on the plus side, there’s basically no human life left on Earth at all, aside from a single Hogwarts-like facility that’s been basically abandoned, and the seven other pairs of saint-aspirants that come from the seven other planets trying to uncover the same secrets. For a while this becomes a sort of Hogwarts/Hunger Games kinda situation, with the teams competing against each other in a flexing but non-deadly rivalry to be the first to win. It was my least favorite part, but I rush to point out that I STILL REALLY ENJOYED IT!

And then shit just goes straight to hell, and damn does it get cool again.

This is incredibly fun. Our hero talks exactly like all our friends do, using slang we know and saying what we would say in her place, so we can relate to her on a deep level. She is also badly hurting, and uses this sarcastic humor as a defense mechanism. She doesn’t take shit from people, and generally does her best in the situation she finds herself in. She is, in a word, us.

This is gothic. The world is beautiful and dark and richly mysterious. And it’s such a welcome change from the same old gritty fantasy setting, or the same old space opera.

If you’re like me, you will love this. Highly Recommended.

(Also of note – I assumed I’d resent the 7 other houses, because that’s 14 more characters, and I can’t freakkin remember 16 different characters PLUS the headmaster!! But Muir does such a fantastic job of differentiating them that I had (almost) no difficulty at all! I briefly was muddling on the 6th house vs the 8th house, but that cleared itself up pretty quickly. I was legit shocked how different and easy to remember all the parties were. Very impressive.)

Audio Book Review: A rare special section! I have to comment on the audio book version, because Moira Quirk does the best narration in the history of audio book narrations. First, her accent is lovely and her voice is beautiful. Second, the way she reads the story, it’s like she’s living it. Third, her voices for the 18 different characters are superb, and easily discernable. I reduced the speed on this all the down to 105% just so I could listen to it longer. Everyone in my book club that listened to it rather than reading it rated it one point higher (on average). It’s just that good of a narration. I recommend that you go the audio book route with this one if you do that sometimes. Also Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: The fact that this was such a fresh change of pace made for some good discussion on its own. However I was worried that it would suffer from “everyone loves it,” which, while it makes for great reading, sometimes means the discussions aren’t as good as the book is. I don’t think that’s much of an issue here, because there is a lot about the universe that we are never told, which leads to a lot of great speculation. But I need not have worried, because there was a curmudgeon within our group who had no love for Gideon. So we had a delightful back-and-forth with him, trying to understand how any one person could be so wrong, while he was frustrated by how easily we were willing to let the author get away with necromancers in spaaaaaace without a deeper explanation as to what the hell was going on. It was a hell of a lot of fun. I reitterate: Highly Recommended.

Bonus FAQ: Is it gay? There is a contingent out there on the internet that seems to be making a big deal about this. And yeah, the protagonist is gay. It’s not a big deal, it’s just another thing about her, like her sex or her hair color. It’s not a gay-issues novel. I like my gay novels, and I’d heard this was one, so I was surprised that it wasn’t. I’m just putting this out there because occasionally I’d be like “When are we getting to the gay stuff? I’m halfway through this.” “Huh, I’m 90% through this, and still haven’t gotten there. I was lied to.” I don’t mind that it wasn’t in there, I just wish people hadn’t gotten me excited for it. OK, the protag is gay, but… so? Like, come on, it’s 2020 here. Gideon’s a Ginger too, but no one is calling this a Ginger book. Weirdos.

Apr 232020
 

Hugo AwardThe Hugo Nominees are out. As always, I link all the short works that are available free online on my blog, for easy reference for my book club. If you have a book club, taking one meeting to read all these and discuss them is a great use of a meeting!

Best Novelette

 

 

Best Short Story

 

Apr 212020
 

Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan

Synopsis: A privileged, insufferable idiot has a bad relationship with this girlfriend and whines a lot.

Book Review: This is straight-up LitFic. Some ponce literary author wanted to write “SF” without having ever bothered to read any, and you get crap like this. The protagonist comes into possession of one of the first androids ever created. By the time I got to page 50, he still HAD NOT TURNED IT ON. He was too busy whining about the ennui of being an english major in a university and having a girlfriend that just doesn’t understand him.

By the time we do get to the android being turned on, we do almost nothing with it. It’s just a thing for the protag to be angsty about, and occasionally act like an autistic nephew. This isn’t SF. This is what someone who’s only exposure to SF was seeing an episode of the 60’s Star Trek out of the corner of his eye while someone else was watching it across the room. “Oh man, if I put an android in my novel, it’ll blow people’s minds! He’ll be all… analytic and not understanding of human emotions!”

The “alternate history” parts are occasional exposition dumps inserted in the most boring way possible without impacting anything in the story. Both the “SF” and the “alternate history” parts of this novel could be removed without changing anything of substance.

I don’t think LitFic authors should write SF if they aren’t read in it. The fact that they think they can shows how much contempt they hold for any form of art other than their own. I spit on them.

I’m on record as hating most LitFic, and this is no exception. MFA programs seem designed to ruin art. They give talentless hacks the idea that they can write because they learn how to string words together without actually creating anything of substance, while also denigrating most good art society produces. You know how you get awful crap like Star Trek: Picard? By hiring MFAs who have been taught to disdain what makes SF good and don’t care to do anything right aside from what they were taught makes “good dialog.”

Most MFAs also teach people to only “write what they know,” which is why you get stories of disaffected, insufferable intellectuals whining about their bad relationships. What else has an upper-middle-class kid pursuing an MFA degree done in his/her life?

I would consider this a typical LitFic book in that it doesn’t bother to think about anything of substance, has no higher goal or message, and is just griping about personal relationships with no stakes. To be fair, a couple people in our book club like LitFic and read some occasionally, and they both said that this is an exceptionally bad example of LitFic. To the point that focusing on how it fails as SF is besides the point, since it already fails really hard as LitFic. They assured me there really is some good LitFic out there, and some day I’ll read some of it and be wowed. I’m sure they’re right, but that day is not today.

Vehemently Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Most people gave up long before the end. Everyone hated it, even the LF readers. There’s nothing of substance here, so mostly we complained about how bad it was. Not Recommended.