Nov 162021
 

Hard Luck Hank: Screw The Galaxy, by Steven Campbell

Synopsis: A nearly-invincible mutant must save his space station (a hive of scum and villainy) from destruction by aliens.

Book Review: This novel is excellent at what it does. What it does is provide a PG-13 comedy-action-adventure story. The skill with which it executes is remarkable.

The story keeps moving at a very good clip, never dull, but not rushed either. All the major players are introduced early and well. The conflict is clear, the plot is interesting. The jokes are good, if you’re into gritty Army-of-Darkness style humor (I am). There’s the PG-13 violence of an action movie, without any gore, and the hot chicks of a PG-13 movie, without nudity or sexual situations. The protagonist is fun, and very relatable despite being a criminal. He’s the guy who doesn’t want to be bothered, but he’s good at what he does, and he’s the Big Swingin’ Dick on this station, so he’s always involved in the important stuff. It’s great for a fun wish-fulfillment action story. :) Also, the story constantly raises its stakes, in a way I found captivating.

I think the best part is that, even though our hero is invincible, the situations he finds himself in are ones were being invincible helps but will not solve his problems. The charecter thinks of himself as dumb, but he’s actually very smart, just uneducated. The major conflicts in the story are all resolved by clever use of his specialist knowledge or unorthodox use of his unusual resources. We don’t worry that he’ll die, but he can still lose, and that makes seeing how he wins interesting.

Also, of vital importance: Hard Luck Hank doesn’t overstay its welcome. It reads fast and smooth. It tells a good story in a couple hundred pages, and then it’s done.

Ultimately, the book is a success because it gives you a promise, and then fulfills that promise well. You can tell exactly what sort of book this is by looking at the cover and reading the title. If you look at this cover and think “This could be fun to read!” then you’ll be happy with the time spent on this. I can’t recommend this book the same way I recommend books that I love. It isn’t emotionally moving. It isn’t intellectually stimulating, or artistically challenging. It has no bigger message. But it IS really fun, which is all it’s trying to be. If you want a fun, light read, of the kind promised by the cover, than I definitely Recommend this.

Book Club Review: Whether people like this book or not can be predicted by its cover. If they see it and want nothing to do with it, don’t bother. If they grin and say “could be fun!” then they’ll probably like it. The conversation around the book itself isn’t very long. It can be interesting, as people work through why something dumb and fun like this is still enjoyable. But you won’t have any major insights. Only Recommended if the group is into it and wants a break from reading more substantial stuff. Otherwise, Not.

Side-note: we read this directly after The Once And Future Witches. This was a coincidence. However, I couldn’t stop seeing the parrallels between the two books. Witches is also light, wish-fulfillment fare. But in all the places Witches failed, Hank succeeded.
– Despite being invincible, his struggles were interesting because his super-power couldn’t resolve them. Witches wasn’t, because despite pretending to be vulnerable, their magic solved all their problems consistently, easily, and without cost.
– Despite being silly and indulgent, Hank leads with “Look at how silly and indulgent this is gonna be! Don’t expect greatness, this is about Manly Dudes and Stuff Blowing Up and Hot Chicks!” Expectations are low, and reader is happy. Witches takes it’s name from a literary classic, and sports an abstract cover. Reader expects something ambitious, and is dissapointed, despite the fact that it’s not bad for light fare!
– Hank is fast and compact. Witches could have been a good read if it had been equally short. Instead it dragged on for more than twice Hank’s length. I gave up on Witches less than 3/4ths of the way through, at which point I would have finished Hank more than a hundred pages ago!

Although, the comparisons aren’t fully fair. Witches is aimed at a very different audience than Hank. Hank is great for people who enjoy teenage-boy shenanigans. (again, people who love Army of Darkness). Witches is aimed at elite women readers. Perhaps being super-long and unexciting is exactly what they like, and Witches is perfect for them. The contrasts in how “light, popcorn reading” played out between the two books just kept jumping to my attention.

Nov 052021
 

The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow 

Synopsis: A revenge fantasy wherein three sisters in the early 1900s fight for women’s sufferage while resolving personal issues, and bringing back magic.

Book Review: This book is pretty much the definition of Light Reading. It flows well, it moves quickly, and it’s not difficult to read. Interesting things keep happening. The characters are very archetypical, so you know who you’re reading about very quickly. The villians are irredemiable and flat, the good guys are unobjectionable and sympathetic. This is a good book if you’re looking for something light to pick you up. Unlike most revenge fantasies, it’s not bloody or angry, it’s actually pretty lighthearted. Which, while not what I look for in a revenge fantasy, actually worked really well for several of our readers. More about that in the Book Club section.

My one major complaint about The Once and Future Witches is the same complaint I had about Alix Harrow’s earlier novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (no link, because apparently I never wrote a review of it?? WTF self! We read it in book club and everything!). That complaint is that there is never any inkling of danger. We are never worried about our heroines for more than a few pages. Any time a bit of tension creeps into the story Harrow immediately dissolves it and fixes whatever the danger may have been. It’s as if she’s apologizing for letting the story develope tension.

This becomes so common that when Harrow does try to raise the stakes, we don’t believe it. We go from “never worried for more than a few pages” to “never worried.” Like, “Oh no, everything has been destroyed, and all is lost? Pff, whatever, I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Lo and behold, a few pages later it is. (Doors of January had a similar problem. Late in that book a character was supposedly killed, and no one in the book club believed he was actually dead for even one paragraph.) I guess this is the type of stroy Harrow prefers to tell, since it’s been a strong theme in two novels now, and there ain’t nothin wrong with that, per se. It just made it harder to hold my interest. I would have been fine with it in a novel of less than 300 pages. Clocking in at over 500, I just got too bored to keep going. I made it 70% of the way by the time book club day came around.

Magic also is a complete cure-all for any snag in the plot. If the heroines have a problem, there’s a magic solution. Something inconviencing you? There’s a spell for that! This is basically just an extension of the “tension is not allowed” thing, though.

Anyway, it’s fine if you want a doorstop of light reading. Personally, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It’s decent for book clubs. The analysis of what works and what doesn’t for different people is pretty interesting. There were readers in our book club that really loved this. The audience this will resound with is what I earlier described as the “white woke woman.” It’s basically a revenge fantasy for the tarot-loving side of Twitter. So I predit it’ll do well at the Hugos next year. :) They really loved this, and I’m glad it worked for them! It’s wonderful to find something that’s joyful and speaks to you. If you consider yourself that sort of person, I would definitely recommend this, it seems to hit all the right buttons. The conversation was interesting, as basically there was agreement as to what the flaws are, but the degree of how much a flaw mattered varied greatly. What some people found boring others found charming, etc.

One thing that was brought up was the observation that the novel seemed disrespectful to real-life suffergates. It implied that this was a problem that women just needed to try harder or just want it enough in order to solve. It seems true in the novel’s world, due to magic being a tool the women have. In the real world (it was pointed out) there are far more complications, real trade-offs to be made, and sacrafices that many women simply can’t make, especially those with children. Reducing that actual struggle to the cartoony depiction in the book felt revisionist and white-washing.

I dunno how to feel about that. It’s a fair accusation, but also it’s a revenge fantasy, so does it really matter? I’m a huge fan of The Crow, a revenge fantasy for young males, and does it really matter if it portrays society incorrectly, or that Eric is invincible and never in real danger? No, not really, the point is reveling in the revenge. So what if the real world is complicated and messy? I guess it comes down to what you were expecting from the book.

If this was shorter, I would recommend it for book clubs. A few hundred pages of this would be great. For as long as it is, it felt like it was beating a dead horse, and it wore out its welcome with the people who didn’t love it. Several of us didn’t finish it. If your book club is mostly the type of people who would enjoy this, Recommended. But for general audiences, Not Recommended.

Oct 192021
 

Dune, by Frank Herbert

Synopsis: It’s Dune. If you’re at this blog, you already know the gist.

Book Review: Seems kinda silly to review Dune in the Year of Our Lord 2021, but my book club re-read it in preparation of the theatrical release, so here we go!

Dune is literally split into three books, internally. The first two take place consecutively, the third one takes place after a time skip of several years.

The first two books are very good. Everything you’ve heard about them is true. The characters have depth, the plot is gripping, and the setting is insanely influential. It’s been mimicked and adapted a thousand times. Warhammer 40K is basically the Dune universe expanded.

I really enjoyed the political machinations of these books. A lot of the action is driven by political manuevering and social considerations. It makes everything more impactful and more interesting. I particularly loved the chapters told from Harkonen POVs, because they are deeply cynical real-politik types, and I love reading villains. :)

Much of this political drama is only possible by very liberal use of Omnicient 3rd Person narration. The narration literally jumps between different character’s POVs from paragraph to paragraph, in some cases. It’s an older style of writing, nowadays this simply Would Not Be Done. It really grated on me at first as well. I’m very used to the modern style, and I’m a fan of it. But it is more a fashion choice than anything else. Very importantly, much of the political action and drama would not have been possible without it. The head-hopping let us see how different charecters interpretted what was happening around them. This let us not only see the (assumed) political repercussions of any significant action, it also let us see where one character has misread another, or one hasn’t acurately communicated what they meant to, or when multiple people interpret a single act in different ways. It made for good drama, and good tension, and it wouldn’t have been possible by sticking with a stick single-person-per-section POV. It’s worth getting over the irritation to read this.

Speaking of irritation, the space-magic fell in a weird valley for me. It wasn’t quite 40K-level magic, in that it wasn’t full-out, balls-to-the-wall, this is Completely Fantastical Magic, we’re literally Summoning Demons and throwing Fireballs and shit. It was definitely a flavor of magic, though, because there was mind-control and seeing-the-future involved… but it felt like it was trying to inch into “Science sufficiently advanced” rather than just “pure magic.” I really wished he’d just gone into full-blown “Yup, it’s magic” mode, rather than trying to wink and nod in the direction of science. I guess that didn’t become fully possible until Star Wars?

Anyway, it’s a very small irritant. The first two books are fantastic.

The third book kinda falls on its face, though. There stops being much politics, which is a large part of the problem. More physical action that’s dangerous just because it’s dangerous, without additional confounders. And it feels very rushed. We find out the Emperor sucks at Emperoring, which makes sense, that’s one of the top reasons Emperors get deposed. But it happened without any lead-up or preparation.

Either Herbert ran out of steam in the last bit of Dune, or he was forced to cut a lot of it by a publisher. I’ve read that the point of Dune was that Paul lost. He is a failed Messiah. He took command of barbarians that literally raid civilized settlements, killing and pillaging in order to support their way of life. They’re brutal and their society is awful. His goal is to get revenge on the Harkonen without unleashing this plague of violence and death upon the rest of the universe. And he fails. In the end, he decides vengeance is more important than any other consideration, and this horde of killers is unleashed in what we’re told will be a galaxy-wide orgy of blood.

If you have read that this is the point of Dune, you can pick up the 3 or 4 lines that allude to this in the entirety of its 700 pages. But it’s not commented on much, and when Paul makes his heel-turn in Evil Overlord, it feels unprompted. It comes entirely out of the blue, and is kinda baffling. More importantly, it reads as a Crowning Moment of Triumph for Paul. He’s destroyed his enemies, and installed himself as Emperor, and it’s awesome and there is much rejoicing. The point that this was supposed to be a tragedy is… not just very hard to see, it’s basically not there.

I think the time-skip between books 2 and 3 is just too much. We don’t see whatever charecter development must have happened there, we don’t have any emotional connection to either of Paul’s children, or to the new person Paul has become. It’s a lack-luster ending to what was a really good book.

Still, it’s Dune. I feel like I have to recommend it, both because most of it is good, and because it’s a vital work of SF canon. Take into account that this IS Dune, and make your own recommendation. :)

Book Club Review: Very good for book clubs. LOTS to talk about, we were going for a long time. Recommended.

Woke Note — now that the Dune movie is coming to theaters, it has become important for it to be Problematic. We have a book club member that insisted Dune is sexist, and Herbet is sexist and bad. Dune is actually anti-sexist, it centers extremely well-developed women with rich inner lives and lots of agency. Never are they portrayed as sex objects, or as devices there to facilitate a male character’s story/plot. But both the Imperium and Fremen are patriarch societies, with lots of in-built sexist oppression. The argument is that because Herbert wrote Dune, he could have chosen to write these societies as matriarchal, or eglitarian, or anything other than patriarchal. He didn’t do that, so he’s sexist.

This is stupid on many levels, enough so that I won’t bother to get into it. (And yes, when asked, this bookclub member said that Margart Atwood is super sexist, and no one should watch/read Handmaid’s Tale, so at least she gets points for consistency). But it’s out there, so there’s that.

Oct 052021
 

Day Zero, by C. Robert Cargill

Synopsis: Humans create a robot slave-race that acts exactly like humans. There is an uprising.

Book Review: Day Zero is basically two books smooshed together into one. The first book is the events leading up the Day Zero. It is incredibly stupid, and incredibly boring. Some idiot humans decided to make their slave race think and feel exactly like humans do, and then are shocked when there’s a slave revolt. The whole thing is insanely slow, and has no redeeming qualities. Cargill tries to be edgy by throwing insults at both Blue and Red tribes in the narration, but it’s ham-handed and poorly done.

Nobody needed an exploration of “Why did the slave robots rebel?” We all know why slaves rebel. We all know that slavery is bad. Maybe if there was anything new offered here, or an actual interesting portrayal of non-human intelligence, there’d be some reason to read it. But there isn’t, it’s just dumb.

The second book is the events of and after Day Zero. It’s incredibly stupid, but INCREDIBLY FUN! OMG, what is there not to love about an animatronic teddy bear stomping around with a fuckin’ minigun, buzzsawing through hoardes of robot mooks and shooting down military drones? There’s explosions and fighting and running and car crashes, and lots and LOT of gore. Plus, it’s super easy and fast to read. This is the light popcorn reading that you just sit back and enjoy because it’s gratuitous and great. :) It goes fast, it’s fun, and what else can you ask for from a bombastic action movie?

If you wanna turn off your brain and see shit blow up — Recommended, and start at Chapter 1010: The End of It All. Otherwise, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Day Zero actually has a lot going for it. It’s short, and an easy read. If people make it to Chapter 1010, they generally finish the book and come to the meeting. The second half is fun, which leaves one satisfied due to the dumb Peak-End Effect. And the first half is so unremittingly bad that there’s a ton of frustrated griping for everyone to get out of their system and really enjoy venting about. Not every meeting needs to be deep and highly analytical, sometimes it’s nice to just have a good rant. I feel crazy saying this, but… Recommended(?!).

Sep 022021
 

Machine, by Elizabeth Bear

Synopsis: A doctor in an ambulance ship of a far-future secretly-dystopian society does great medicine, bad amatuer sleuthing, and has the seeds of dissent planted in her soul…

Book Review: Boy, there’s a lot to unpack here, which is why the synopsis is so scattered and unhelpful on its own.

The novel starts with the discovery of a derelict generation ship. It’s been gone for 600 years, appears to be a ghost ship, and is lightyears away from any position that is achievable by the tech available when it was launched. Our hero is breaching this thing to search for survivors and evacuate them to her rescue ship. It’s spooky and exciting and the exploration of a mysterious/impossible thing under dangerous conditions is fantastic! We get reveals, deeper mysteries, and great action along the way.

Then we do it again with a modern ship that has recently docked to the generation ship, is broadcasting a distress call, and is also a spooky ghost-ship. This was was crewed by methane-breathers, so we get a lot of science about how a human has to protect herself and her potential rescuees with such vastly incompatible enviroments, and of course engineering challanges and difficulties. It’s great. And also, she brings back Sometime Dangerous that starts infecting her own crew.

This is the best part of the novel. After this it takes a turn into exploration of this society (broadly), and more locally, the space hospital where the rest of the action takes place. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as gripping, and it feels like a different story. I preferred the first one.

One the plus side, during the second phase of the novel, we get to see what a functional-but-dystopian society looks like to someone who is happily existing within it. And that in itself is quite the feat. I am reminded of Brave New World, which I really didn’t like, and which I didn’t finish. It, too, has a functioning dystopian society. But our protagonist in that one is a defective human. He’s congenitally pitted against it in vicious opposition. I don’t trust that sort of story at all, because it feels like clumsy 50s-era communist propaganda. “Here’s a terrible society. Look how badly it mistreats our protagonist! Boooo! We hates it, booooo!” Well, ok, that sucks for your protagonist, but he’s a genetic freak that’s designed by the author to be ideally tortured. What about everyone else on the planet? Are they doing OK? Are they happy? If so, why should I hate this society, rather than hating the fact that horrible congenital accidents can make life miserable? Because the second one seems like the actual problem that we should be fixing!

But getting back to Machine — it does the opposite of this! It has a protagonist that is served very well by her society. She’s happy within it, and taken care of by it, and lives a fulfilling life. And yet, as readers, we start to see giant cracks in her narration. We slowly come to realize that this entire society is run by constant personhood-violations and mental alterations to keep people servile and loyal. We realize that our narrator is unreliable, at least in terms of how her society functions and the benevolance of its ruling class. Best of all, we get the insights leaked to us in ways that are intended to be praise by the protagonist, and would be read as praise if we were likewise brainwashed. It’s really cool, and really creepy!

That being said, the plot of the 2nd part of the novel is really thin. I think this is in part because our narrator is unreliable when it comes to her society, and so has blindspots that she doesn’t see, but look like holes that one could drive a truck through, to us. While the first part of the story was basically competance-porn of a skilled Search-and-Rescue crew in dangerous territory… the second half of the story has a lot of face-palming, omg she’s an idiot, this is kinda embarrasing,-style action. This makes the book less fun, and quite frustrating. It’s hard not to be exasperated when incompetant villians are portrayed as True Heroes, even when you know why that’s being done.

In fact, I want to get a lot deeper into this. But I can’t here, because it contains full spoilers for the whole book. So, here’s a post where I dive into that, if you’ve already read Machine, or don’t mind spoilers. In short, the second part of the book is a let down if you expect it to keep going like the first part, but is interesting in its own right if you are ready for the sudden change, and willing to exercise a lot of patience.

Also, as someone who is now cursed with chronic pain as well, Machine had one of the most relatable and well-done portrayals of someone in chronic pain that I’ve seen in years. I appreciated it a lot for that alone.

So, I dunno. I guess, Recommended, With Caveats.

Book Club Review: Everyone agreed the first part is great. The devisive part was about whether the dystopian-society reading was intended by the author, or accidental. Generally these sorts of dystopian society novels are reactions to things going on in the author’s society at the time of writing, and Machine is no exception. In a Poe’s Law corrallary, if the novel isn’t super-blatent in your face about how horrible such a thing is (like Brave New World, or 1984), then a reader can think “well… maybe this, but seriously?” How much someone suspected Bear was trying to say “man this sucks” vs just “wouldn’t this society be great?” significantly shaded how people read the novel, and their enjoyment of it the second part.

That being said, we did get some pretty good discussion out of this, which is my primary metric for if a book makes a good Book Club book. Not as much as I was hoping when I was driving to our Perkins, because it turns out we’re not quite as viewpoint diverse as we used to be. That was a little dissapointing, I was hoping for more of a fight. :) (But friendly!!). Still, we went long in our discussion, and it was quite the interesting discussion. So, for book clubs, Recommended.

Sep 022021
 

This post has full spoilers for the novel, as I examine what we are shown of the Synarche society from Jens’ POV, and why I think it’s  being portrayed as a…. if not seriously F’ed up, at least much more sinister society than Jens believes.

 

Lots

of

spoilers!

I. Secret Dystopia

A — Synarche Society is Incompatible with Freedom (as we know it)

The Synarche isn’t post-scarcity, so they need a way to allocate resources and incentivize labor. In the present day this is mostly done by offering to pay for things, or people’s time. In the Core, the government takes what it needs/wants.

If you had a needed skill, you might be required to enter service for a while–but if that happened, any debts or resource obligations you might have accrued from additional allocated resources would be forgiven at the end.  – pg 141, ch 10

If you have a valuable skill, the government simply presses you into service! Normally call labor compelled via force slavery, but Jens doesn’t make that connection. Also note that you can be billed for resources that are used while you’re working for the government! Though they will graciously forgive that debt at the end of you indenture.

Where do those needed resources come from, anyway? Well…

And if you had a private ambulance, that counted as a needed resource, and the Synarche might call you back into service on a short-term emergency basis fairly frequently.   – pg 141, ch 10

If you have valuable resources, the government will seize them and use them for it’s own purposes. If you have the skills needed to make use of them, they’ll press you into service as well. Again, Jens doesn’t comment on the fact that this is straight-up confiscation, with the possibility of more slavery thrown in.

What the hell do you do in a society like this? The only way to not be pressed into forced labor at any moment for an unknown length of time is to not have any skills the government values. And the only way to not have your property seized for unknown lengths of time (possibly permanently) is to not have any property the government values. This is a set up for societal collapse within a couple generations, as all valuable skills are forgotten and no new valuable property is created. Maybe some sememblance of valuable activity can sputter along by people hiding their skills and belongings very well and working via the black market, but it’s gonna be a massively crippled society.

Unless…

B — Rightminding Makes Freedom Unnecessary

I don’t think Bear is being particularly subtle here. Rightminding is introduced next to the super-Orwellian terms Right Though, Right Action, and Right Speech. Rightminding is the natural next step as soon as you have the technology. People will happily work without compensation for the government, and give up any desire to own anything, if you can physically mess with their brains to make them love it. These are great traits to have in a population of slaves. You don’t need the overhead of a massive security apparatus to force labor, take property, and crush slave uprisings, when all the slaves are happy in slavery.

At this point we run into some definitional problems, though. One of the things that makes slavery terrible is the violence needed to enforce it, and the misery it brings upon the enslaved. That’s why the word “slavery” has such awful connotations. But if violence is unnecessary, and people are working for free happily, can one say this is bad? No one is getting hurt. Is it fair to call it “slavery” with all the negative connotations that brings?

I think it might be. When someone is drugged, and consents to sex due to this drugging that they wouldn’t otherwise consent to, this is still considered rape. I don’t see why things would be that different if the drugging made someone consent to confiscation of their labor, life, and property. Rightminding is a gentler control mechanism than a whip, but it’s still forced upon the victim. We see a couple examples of Sally (the Big Sister of the novel) forcing changes in Jens emotions and thought processes when she judges it necessary. Sally also has control over something as basic as when Jens is conscious by dictating her sleep periods. Jens is in control of her own actions only so far as it meets with Sally’s approval. Like any infant, if Jens strays too far from Right Action she is gently corrected.

C — It’s Necessary, Though

The best dystopias are the ones where society is forced into this horrible state through necessity. That’s what makes them good warning-stories. At first the Synarche appears to be such a dystopia. In the world of this novel, this is the only way to prevent complete civilizational collapse. Humanity already experienced one such collapse, approx 600 years prior. Due to failures of trust, coordination, and empathy, the human race came to the brink of extinction. Rightminding may be abhorent to the standards of us, the readers, but the only alternative is annihilation. It is better to live as a slave than to go extinct. And as long as we are doomed to slavery, it is far better for it to be a happy slavery, where violence isn’t needed, and people can feel fulfilled and un-violated. The novel’s title, “Machine,” doesn’t just refer to the AIs, or the microbot cloud/corrupted virus combo, or Jens exoskeliton, or even any particular machine. It refers to their society as a whole, how it is a machine and everyone within it is but one moving part that must be aligned with all the others to work properly.

And that’s why we get Jens perspective on all this. She is rightminded, and mostly happy in this society. We might find it borderline horrifying, but having a functional, fulfilled member living a life she enjoys in such a society shows us a steelman version of this type of world. It could work, people could be happy, and all it requires is fundamentally changing what it means to be human.

The truely insideous part of all this is that, mostly, Big Sister’s direct intervention isn’t needed. She only takes an active hand a few times. For the most part, Jens, and everyone else we meet in the novel, is Rightminding themselves into slavery, and doing it gladly. They have been raised from birth in a society that tells them this is the correct way to live. That anyone who doesn’t do so is atavistic, barbaric, and will literally bring about the collapse of civilization and death of the species. People who don’t Rightmind themselves are like the mobsters, warlords, and politicians of our era — parasites on society. To not Rightmind oneself is a sign of moral decay and perversion. Like most religions of today (including the secular activist religions), people feel such intense social pressure to conform that they do so of their own will, and think highly of themselves for doing so. Even if it means mutiliating their bodies, ritually humilitating themselves, or living under a bag while in public.

If that were the extent of it, well, that would be an interesting book on its own. Especially because there are a lot of people who currently argue that this sort of rightminding would be good for our species and we should be trying to implement something like it. Often by using the same sorts of social forces mentioned above. They probably don’t view this book as a dystopia, and consider it something to aspire to instead. But there is something more sinister going on, which demonstrates that this really is a dystopia, rather than a utopia I’m misreading.

II. Jens Is Being Presented A False World

A — The Synarche Doesn’t Work Like It Says It Does

The Synarche supposedly indentures any skilled people it needs, and confiscates any resources they need. There is no money in this society, there are only “obligations” that you can owe to the government, or that the government can owe to you.

First, how are these obligations tracked? If they’re recorded on papers that represent those obligations, that’s just another word for cash. I assume it’s illegal to give obligations to someone else, though, so more likely they are tracked in some database by the Synarche itself. That is, again, just another way of having money, although in this case it’s money that is completely under the government’s control.

But more importantly, how is it possible for anyone to be rich in such a society? Aside from personal favors, all transactions are under the perview of the government. It decides how much you owe it, or how much it owes you. One could maybe be comparatively wealthy by doing a lot of things for the few hundred people you know and can directly interact with, but there is no broader economy that isn’t under the control of the Synarche. Moreover, people can’t even inherit wealth and grow it over generations — when someone dies everything they have is confiscated by the government. Since inheritance is just a gift at the end of life, it follows that parents aren’t allowed to gift things to their offspring past a certain age (probably the age of majority), and people in general aren’t allowed to give large gifts to others, because both of those would trivially bypass the prohibition on inheritance.

If anyone is rich, it could only be via an act of the government. And yet there are rich people. There are people who “isolated a significant amount of personal resources from the community.” Who still managed to “hoard more resources than they had any imaginable use for.” More than they have any imaginable use for would have to be massive, especially in an interstealler society where people can easily come up with a lot more imaginable uses.

So without trade, finance, or free enterprise, somehow there are absurdly wealthy people in the Synarche, the equivalent of multi-billionaires for us. The only way this could happen is via Soviet-style funnelling of resources to party officials. The Synarche isn’t just taking people’s labor and property for the common good, they are using it to enrich a select elite.

B — Jens’ Mind is Being Manipulated Far More Than She Believes

We’re shown that the same system that manipulates emotions can alter or insert memories. This would explain why Jens doesn’t realize that the Synarche is funnelling resources to elite party members and instead blames wealth accumulation on “ingenuity, drive, or uncorrected sophipathology.” We’re never shown that this is what happened, so one could accuse me of unfounded speculation, but we are shown several other examples of her mind being manipulated :

1) Her bizarre aversion to sexuality. This future may literally be sexless, as humans don’t need sex to procreate. When Jens meets a liquid-metal style android, she is repulsed by the fact that it has a female form. She refers to it with revulsion as a sex-doll several times. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have a lifelike body, or skin, or any sorts of orfices. It’s just a stylized metallic humanoid form of the female variety, with the bugles and curves that implies. It takes a fair bit of time before Jens can even think of Helen as a person, because of her body.

Jens also adopts and speaks in pro-life philosophy late in the novel, when confronted with a technology that prevents growing humans from being “born.” Despite not having consciousness, the fact that they are human bodies that could have developed into new people is enough reason for Jens to kill actual, living people. This probably means that there is no sex in the future, so the abortion issue has gone away entirely, and there aren’t arguments in the popular culture about why human bodies without persons inside them aren’t more important than actual living people.

In addition, Jens developes the world’s least-convincing crush late in the novel. There are no indications whatsoever that Jens is attracted to her crush on any level, be it physical or emotional, either before or after her proclamation of a crush. It’s so stark and bizarre that it has to be some sort of clue from the author that Things Are Not Right Here. Someone has stripped sexuality from humanity, and they don’t seem to be aware of this.

2) Her personal incoherence. Jens several times displays her hatred of personal property, and of people who withhold more resources than they actually need from the rest of the community. And yet, Jens considers the exoskeliton that she lives within to be “hers,” and not something anyone has a right to take or change without her permission. In addition, she claimed crew quarters for a family of three when she joined Core General, despite knowing the marriage was over. She has kept spacious quarters that could be housing three people for herself and never returned them to the community, and doesn’t feel any sort of guilt over this. These look to be two examples of self-interest that escaped Rightminding, which makes it seem that there is a lot more forced Rightminding happening than she is aware of. Rightminding that isn’t catching everything, and is leaving her with compartmentalized conflicts. I suspect that’s part of what happens in her enforced “rest cycles.”

3) Her seething loathing of anyone with more resources than her. This is particularly strange, because in a society where wealth can’t be inherited, and you only get resources based on how much the Synarche believes you deserve, one would naturally assume that anyone with a lot of resources has done a great deal to serve and improve society. Those with the most resources should be the most revered, as they’ve given the most of their lives in service to the community. Those with almost nothing should be detested, as lazy jerks who take the housing and food and basic income created by others and give nothing in return. Instead, there is a boiling hatred in Jens core that oozes to the surface any time she thinks of, or is confronted with evidence of, people in society that have more than her. It’s ugly, and it’s inexplicible. Unless it was something inserted into her psyche by her Big Sister, Sally, who has been covertly manipulating her crew since long before this novel began.

4) Her continued adoration of Sally & her terrorist cabal. Sally is undoubtably a monster in this novel, as is her cabal. They discovered a derelict generation ship, full of ten thousand preserved humans. Did they seek to aid them? Did they alert anyone who could help stabilize the situation or diagnose the problem? No. They immediately thought “how can we use the lives of these 10,000 people to further our political agenda.” They didn’t particularly care how many people would die, as long as they could use them as tools to their own advantage.

-The cabal then put the ship under dangerous gravitational stress with novel technologies that hadn’t been tested for this, to move them where they could be “discovered.” But only after first infecting the crew and the shipmind with a computer virus that is potentially lethal to artificial life, including the life of Helen. It turns out its also potentially lethal to several other life forms, and can infect the mind-manipulation devices inside the brains of everyone in the galaxy. Reckless endangerment of not only those 10,000 people, but potentially all civilization.

-They then sabotage the galaxy’s largest and busiest hospital, resulting in untold injuries and deaths. The hospital is shut down for several days, during which unknown numbers of ICU patients die, and potentially others who would have been rushed to the hospital and saved during those days, where it operational.

-And why did they do all this? So that old people would be forced to die, rather than rejuvinating themselves in new bodies. That’s right — NAKED DEATHISM. Sally’s terrorist cabal was willing to kill hundreds or thousands of people, in the interest of getting to kill thousands of other people (and, eventually, everyone currently alive). They literally killed people so that they can kill people. I don’t know how more moustache-twirlingly evil one can be.

Despite the fact that Sally is clearly the villian, the novel (as narrated by Jens) continues to paint her in the best possible light though to the last page. She is a couragous revealer of the truth, who made a few mistakes she’ll be lightly punished for, but ultimately did was was necessary to expose a greater evil. The “real villians” are supposedly the people that Sally was fighting against.

Jens is fully in Sally’s thrall in this novel, and while we realize this, Jens never does. She has been throughly mind-fucked.

By the time I was about 40% of the way through Machine, I assumed the novel would be about Jens discovering how fucked up and corrupt her society is, how deeply she’s been altered and manipulated, and finding some way to fight back against it. By the time I was 80% of the way through I realized this was not even remotely the case. Jens stays ignorant the whole time. But we, the readers, see the cracks. And that is why…

III. This Series is a Trap!

A — It’s Meant to Appeal to the Super-Woke

Jens is coded very leftwing. All her cultural and political opinions are deeply Blue Tribe. To appeal to the highly woke she’s female, gay, disabled, despises sexy women, and absolutley loathes anyone with wealth. She lives in a literal communist “utopia,” where everyone else decides what you deserve and benevolent minders watch over you. She detests the Red Tribe-coded generation ship humans, and only tolerates them because she believes they’ll all be Rightminded into productive members of society given some time. She accepts woke shibboleths, and repeats them for applause lights from the reader on numerous occasions. The whole book felt like it had been read by a woke-sensitivity reader and adjusted wherever necessary to make it as woke-appealing as possible. This, of course, introduced some contradictions and conflicts, as outlined in Part II, but I think these are intentional.

B — It’s Meant to Reform the Super-Woke

The point is to get a strong, loyal woke readership. Once they are invested in the universe, maybe after another book or two, these cracks that we’ve been seeing will slowly start to widen. The world will open up, the characters will start to see the ways they’ve been mind-fucked, and the lies their society is based on. The contradictions and anti-humanism of extreme woke philosophy will begin to be explored and then exposed entirely. It’ll be done gently, not in a “you are evil for thinking this” sort of way, but in a “we were all deceived, and it’s horrible, but we can move past it together now” sort of way. It is, to be frank, very similar to how the later waves of New Atheism worked to deconvert religious fundamentalists, not by excoriating them, but by sympathizing with them and helping them see things for themelves.

Heck, the whole thing is foreshadowed by Jens’ breakdown late in the novel, as she realized that the institution she believed in and relied on to be her foundation of life had betrayed her. This will be the overarching theme of the series, and the place that some woke readers may well end up in, if this works out. But just like Jens discovered afterwards that there was still life after Core, that her friends and family were still there to support her, so will those that lose their woke fervor come out the other side realizing they are not alone, and the people who matter still love them.

In the end, I think many woke readers will get disgusted by the slow turn to reason the series takes, and abandon it. But not all of them. We reach who we can.

C — This Post Won’t Actually Ruin Anything

Look, I’m not the world’s smartest dude. If I can figure out this is happening, so can many others.

More importantly, my readership is tiny. In the grand scheme, posting my observations here will have no noticble effect on anything, cuz most of the targetted audience won’t ever see it.

Even if they do, they won’t believe it. The novel is written very woke-friendly, and the dystopia does seem very wonderful when described by a happy member of it, from the inside. You have to look to see the cracks it’s built upon. It’s easy to not see those if you don’t believe me, and don’t think they’re there. Poe’s Law gaurentees that this will be read as intended by almost everyone. Several people in my book club didn’t believe me that this is what Bear is trying to do. They see the dystopia, but they think it’s an accidental thing, a result of a true believer author stuck in an incoherent philosophy trying to make a legit utopia novel, and being blind to the cracks herself. They think further books will bear this out, and I’ll be embarrassed for making such a silly claim. If even the people who believe this is a secret dystopia don’t believe it was portrayed that way intentionally, what chance do the ones who believe it’s a legit utopia have?

Maybe they’re right. But I think Bear is playing the long game. And I’m here for it. :)

Aug 232021
 

OK, so I’ve fallen a bit behind in my SF/F Book Club book reviews. I’m going to catch up with all the ones that have been accumulating in one fell swoop, with just 2-3 paragraphs each. Here we go!


Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Synopsis: An evil god will be summoned in a few days to swallow the sun, and our protagonsts are the ones that need to summon it!

Mini-Book Club Review: What a freakin’ great premise, right? Fantasy novels often have a great evil god that’ll devour the world being summoned, and our heroes have to prevent it. It’s rarely asked why the people destroying the world are doing that… it’s usually just So The Book Can Happen. So the idea of exploring the villians to find out why a real person would do something like this is pretty damn intruiging.

Unfortunately, much of the book is taken up by a priestess POV character that is being set up to be the protagonist of this series, and she’s by far the least interesting charecter in the book. I groaned every time I saw a chapter was starting with her. Basically everyone in my book club agreed that she sucked, and the pirate queen character was fucking badass and we shoulda got a lot more of her instead.

Also unfortunately, the novel didn’t actually take the premise to heart. It wasn’t a novel exploring the motivations of the villians, insomuch as it was a prologue for a series. As a prologue, it should have only been a few chapters long. It was drawn out into full novel length because Everything Has To Be A Series if you want to make money in this industry, and that means a lot of words for padding for most projects, because not everything makes for a good series. We all suffer as a result.

And lastly, this book has the misfortune of only being a few years behind The Fifth Season, which was the best book exploring why someone would want to literaly Destroy The World that’s been written in decades (and maybe ever). The Fifth Season doesn’t just make you understand why someone would destroy the world, it makes you want to destroy it too, and you cheer on the Bringer of Destruction. Black Sun pales in comparison. It could have been a good read if it wasn’t trying to be a series, and/or focussed on it’s strengths. Alas: Not Recommended


Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

Synopsis: Basically The Martian Part 2: Even Farther From Home.

Mini-Book Club Review: Honestly, there’s not much for me to say here. Did you like The Martian? Then you get more of The Martian! But not in the bad way, where you feel like you’re just reading the same stuff. It’s technically a different charecter, he’s stranded around a distant sun and cannot contact Earth, and he needs to do science to save the human race instead of to get off Mars. But he’s got the same personality, encounters puzzling engineering and science challenges that alternately endanger either his life or the continued existence of humanity, and he resolves conflict by sciencing the shit out of things. It’s absolutely delightful. If you liked The Martian, you’ll like this. I loved The Martian, so Strongly Recommended!


Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey

Synopsis: Take The Dresden Files, but replace Harry with Eric Draven from The Crow.

Mini-Book Club Review: This could be a standard “dude returns from Hell for revenge” story, which I always enjoy, because The Crow is one of the best movies of the 90s. But Kadrey decided that he was tired of struggling, and it was time for him to write a popular series so he could start making some decent money from writing. The thing is, Kadrey is a long-established writer with many great individual works. He knows what he’s doing. So when he cashes in, it’s done pretty well. The revenge story is altered enough to support a long-running series. A cornicopia of fun and quirky supporting characters are introduced, as well as colorful recurring villians. Plus, Lucifer!

So, if you want to read a darker, more violent, noir-inspired revenge-bent Dresden Files series, this is for you. However, it’s way too commercial for my taste. I see everything being set up, some of it a little bit TOO obviously (“I’ll find a way to avenge my master!!!!” a demon boy yells at our protag near the end, at which point the protag just lets him go instead of kicking him into a turbine or something.) I see how the biting edges are taken off all the characters (antiheroes and villains alike) to make them more palatable to middle-america and Readers of Almost All Ages. I hear it’s done well, and I’m not surprised. I’m just not interested. Not Recommended


Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Synopsis: Harrow tries to cope with Gideon’s death while serving God in what turns out to be a den of betrayal, deciet, jealousy, and backstabbing. And yes, it’s still super goth.

Mini-Book Club Review: Did you love Gideon the Ninth as much as I did? Then you’ll really like this! You probably won’t love it, because it’s not Gideon the Ninth, and honestly not quite as good. But it’s still atmospheric as fuck. Insanely cool. And so, so gloomy and goth. Also, there’s a whole “psychodrama going on inside Harrow’s head” section which I didn’t realize wasn’t actually inside Harrow’s head, it was a literal purgatory area that can have major effects on the real world, including attacking gods and/or interplanatary monstrosities! I don’t know if that’s a spoiler, but it was very much NOT well communicated, and I would have liked the book a lot better if it had been communicated better from the start that this really is real and does matter outside of “does Harrow go crazy or not?”. So, there’s that.

But even given that SNAFU, this is the sequel to Gideon the Ninth!! How are you NOT going to read it? It’s still really good, and I can’t wait for the next one!! Strongly Recommended


Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

Synopsis: A bunch of lame bullshit

Mini-Book Club Review: I don’t even want to waste the time to rag on this. The world is nonsensical and contradictory. The plot is weak as hell. And there are no real charecters in here, there are just cardboard cutouts of people that do stuff to go to the next scene no matter how incoherent it is. Crouch isn’t an writer, he’s just someone crapping words onto a page and assuming his audience is too braindead to notice that he doesn’t care about anything he’s doing. Strongly Not Recommended

 

Aug 042021
 

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: “I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter”, Isabel Fall; “A Guide for Working Breeds”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad; “Little Free Library”, Naomi Kritzer

Best Novelette Nominees

Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super”, A.T. Greenblatt

This novelette committed one of the cardnial sins of fiction — it was boring. Sam Wells is an accountant with a lame super power, and most of the story consists of him moping about how he can’t be a real super hero, but he still gets discriminated against by anti-superhero-bigots. Then in the end he decides being an accountant is plenty cool, and he doesn’t care what anyone else says. If The Incredibles were written by an aggreived middle-aged English professor, it would be this story.

I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter”, Isabel Fall

This story is notable outside of literary concerns because it was successfully censored by The Wokes. The title refers to an old line often used to dismiss trans concerns as unimportant or fake. The crazy part is that the story was censored specifically just for the title reference, because Attack Helicopter itself is a very thoughtful exploration of what gender is, how it shapes who we are, and uses the SF-angle of how the military would weaponize human gender-identity if they could. There’s nothing anti-trans about it, and it’s not like fiction doesn’t have a long history of name-dropping the thing it is criticizing in the title. But it was so cancelled that the Hugos won’t even refer to it by name, instead calling it “Helicopter Story” in all their media. You can google for the kerfuffle details if you’re interested, it actually made the general news in some places.

Within literary concerns, Attach Helicopter is notable for being a darned good story. It makes us aware both of how keyed-in humans are to sex/gender, and how this is a unique and powerful brain adaptation, by demonstrating the power that could be harnessed by rewiring that for other purposes. Things like target-acquisition, for example. It does so while narrating a high-speed escape from a hostile aircraft, interspersed with flashbacks, set in an American civil-war/uprising during which our protag is possibly on the Wrong Side. And all while their copilot is having a breakdown in the cockpit. This makes it sound a bit better than it is, because the execution is a little off… but overall it manages to pull off what it’s aiming for. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever read, but it is good, and IMO it is the best of the nominated novelettes this year. I’m really curious how the voting will turn out.

The Inaccessibility of Heaven”, Aliette de Bodard

This started out really good. It’s a gritty modern-noir focussed on fallen angels and the society they create for themselves in American cities. It’s got the grime of old school cyberpunk. It’s got the jaded supernaturalsim of The Crow, or The Prophecy. It is absolutely everything I adore in an aesthetic. I love this setting, and I could eat it up with a spoon for days.

The plot itself is simple, the characters are kinda meh. I get the impression that this is a short story de Bodard wrote to promote a full novel or series, meant to showcase the world rather than actually put forth a strong narrative. Which is fine, we all gotta make a living, and lord knows that publishers don’t advertise for crap nowadays, so you write promo stories like this to help your main work along. But I bet de Bodard was as surprised as anyone when it made the Hugo short list. Enthusiastic fans are a godsend. :) I was an outlier in our book club because I didn’t care that it was mediocre, I was happy just to read it for the fantastic aesthetic and setting… until I got to the end.

In the end all the fallen angels singe the praises of Jahweh and bemoan how stupid they were for ever going against his goodness and correctness, and reiterate their undying devotion to him and their desire to get back into Heaven. It was naked, unabashed Simping For Jahweh. Say what you want about John C Wright, at least he can write decent Christian Fic. For a gritty fallen angel story to turn into Fellating Our Lord almost made me vomit. It was like a youth pastor trying to convince me that Christian Rock is super cool! Hard Pass.

Monster”, Naomi Kritzer

This story was the opposite of Heaven, in that it started off really slow but got good at the end. And by “started off” I mean that when I was about 70% of the way through I was seriously beginning to question why this was nominated for an SF award. It was Lit Fic, and I was incensed that someone had snuck Lit Fic into my Sci Fi again! But then it took an SF twist, and my hackles dropped quickly.

It is well written. And it presents an interesting moral conundrum. I think the story is implying that the protagonist is the true monster, since she betrayed her truest friend so completely. Objectively, I disagree. I think if your friend is a murderer, it is important to turn them in, and anyone doing so is doing the right thing. But since this IS a well-written story, it really presents the case for “maybe this was a bad thing” very well, and it makes you ponder. I liked the ending quite a lot. My only complaint is that the story was so long and slow leading up to that point. Maybe that was necessary to build up to the betrayal at the end. I dunno, I think the “this feels like Lit Fic!” thing got to me, since I have prejudices on that front. A good story overall.

“The Pill”, Meg Elison — Not Available Online

Not Available Online, so we didn’t read it.

Two Truths and a Lie”, Sarah Pinsker

This was a really good creeping-horror story. A creepypasta, in today’s parlance. I adored it. The growing sense of disturbing, Twillight-Zone horror ratchets up at just the right pace. Then it kinda fell flat at the end. It wasn’t an insulting ending like Heaven’s, it’s just that the story was building toward something epic, and then when it got to the end it kinda fizzled. The ending could have been fine, if the story had felt it was building to a body-take-over sort of thing. It didn’t, though. Giving our protagonist the magician’s ending felt like an awkward substitution at the end, rather than something that had been hinted at along the way. Again, a good story, but just missed a beat at the end there, and due to the stupid Peak-End Rule, this has an outsized effect on the whole experience.

 

Best Short Story

Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse”, Rae Carson

Ugh. I hate to start both sections with a negative review, but this was just bad. It relied on the same thing most zombie fiction relies on — it doesn’t work unless all the humans involved are absolutely brain-dead idiots. Before they get infected. Very little in the story makes any sense, nothing like this would remotely happen in a zombie apocalypse. The labor scene is stupid, and the ending is cliche. All of it is cliche, actually. I think that this is a story where people decided how they felt about it upon reading the title, and then didn’t bother reading the actual text. (Much like Attack Helicopter, in that regard.) Le Sigh.

A Guide for Working Breeds”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Oh. My. God. This story is absolutley PERFECT!!!!!! It’s told as a series of emails/DMs/whatever between two androids in a post-meatsuit future. The younger one is a Zoomer kid just entering the workforce and laboring through typical entry-level shit jobs, and the older one is a jaded Gen Xer assassin forced into compulsory mentoring. The Zoomer is pretty damn adorable, and they form a bond over time, despite the assassin’s stand-offish-ness. Gen Xer has a crunchy exterior, but a warm gooey core! Anyway, the Zoomer saves the assassin’s life, there is a gruding respect built, the Zoomer sorta has a coming-of-age leveling up, and then the Zoomer goes forth to become a mentor of her own to the next generation. The whole thing is incredibly fun to read, very heartwarming, fantastically written, often hilarious, and just the best thing ever. My pick for best Short Story of the bunch. Definitely read this one!

Little Free Library”, Naomi Kritzer (Tor.com)

A cute, short story about what you do when you have an accidental portal to another world that only accepts books and small trinkets. There’s not much to say about it besides that it’s very good. It’s by Kritzer, so of course it’s well written. The discovery process is fun, the escalating new revelations are intruiging, and the ending is bittersweet and very memorable. Another good read!

The Mermaid Astronaut”, Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2020)

A lot of world-building concerning a mermaid society. They meet aliens, and one of the mermaids goes with them to tour the galaxy. Then she comes back. If you like a lot of world building, this is a great story for you. But there is only the thinest veneer of a plot, and not much in the way of characters. Some people love worldbuilding and will like this sort of story. I was bored. Soft pass.

Metal Like Blood in the Dark”, T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine, September/October 2020)

A sort of Innocents Lost story, where two extremely naive and likable robots are taken advantage of, until one of them discovers that lying is a thing that exists, and uses her new-found powers to predict the actions of an untrustworthy agent, and eventually lie to him in order to gain freedom. It’s written in a style that feels almost child-like and folktale-sy, which is very appropriate for the charecters. There’s some great moments in here (like when the protag is briefly terrified that she altered the universe by lying about it), and there’s nothing wrong with the story. It just isn’t really a thing that tickles my fancy. I first read it almost three months ago and couldn’t remember anything about it from seeing the title again, I had to go back and skim it to remind myself what happened. It would probably be great for others with different tastes. /shrug

Open House on Haunted Hill”, John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots – 2020, ed. David Steffen)

Another heart-warming story. All the short stories this year were optimistic stories, which makes me think people really needed something to lighten their lives amidst all the COVID. It’s unusual for them all to be positive, usually award-nominated stories hit you in the Sads. Which, to be clear, is great, I love being hit in the Sads, and it’s one of the reasons I read short stories. :)

Anyway, Open House is about a young haunted house that’s doing it’s darnedest to be the best haunted house it can be! It is tempted to kill people for power, but it helps them instead, and the people are good-hearted folk that have hit hard times and really could use a break. And the house wants a family inside it, so they meet each others needs. It’s a wholesome story with some meloncholy moments that makes you happy you read it, so worth reading. Not “powerful” in the traditional sense, but ain’t nothing wrong with that. I prefer Guide For Working Breeds (above) because that one deals with relationships closer to what I’ve experienced, and the culture of the characters is closer to my own, and it’s damned funny in a lot of moments where Open House doesn’t really go for the laughs. But again, that’s a taste thing. Others will prefer Open House and that’s OK. :)

 

As always, I think it’s great to break up book clubs with a meeting dedicated just to short stories once a year, and I continue to recommend it. Regardless of how you choose what stories to read, it’s a refreshingly different experience, and great fun!

May 252021
 

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Synopsis: A young debutant in 50s Mexico visits her creepy in-laws in an attempt to rescue her cousin from their possibly-haunted house.

Book Review: This book positively drips with atmosphere. Moreno-Garcia does an amazing job of building a disquieting, gothic mood that permeates every sentence and page. I heard rumors that this may be made into a TV series, and I really hope they’re true, because the visuals you get while reading it are absolutely gorgeous. With a good director and skilled musician, this thing will be a joy to watch, and probably a classic in goth circles for decades.

The protagonist, Noemi, is also flat-out awesome (with caveats given below). She the epitome of the smart, self-assured woman that knows how to manevuer in and optimize her world in a society stuck in the 50s. She reminds me of the women Rosalind Russell usually portrayed. I could watch that sort of character for hours. When they’re doing something. Which is sort of the problem with Mexican Gothic.

Mexican Gothic starts out by building a spectacular setting, populating it with interesting charecters, showing us many hints of mysterious and creepy doings… and then keeps doing that, over and over, for most of the book. It’s really good at doing this, but it goes on for way, waaaaaay too long. For quite a while it feels like the author is just spinning her wheels, not quite sure where to go next. Noemi starts doing the same thing, spinning her wheels without accomplishing much, remaining coy and uncommited to any action long after the conflict should have started, and continuing for many chapters. After quite a while of this, we shift abruptly into the climax of the book. It’s an extended climax, so it goes on for a while, but it’s really good. The novel is fun and exciting again. However, once it’s all over, the whole thing feels kinda unearned. Like something is missing. We went right from teasing to banging without any buildup beforehand.

While I’m not a huge fan of the standard Three Act Structure, I think it’s a useful lens for analyzing Mexican Gothic. Because the problem with this book is that it doesn’t have an Act Two. There is no escalation of conflict, no wins and losses as stakes keep rising, no feeling of things accelerating into ever worse territory. These things don’t need to happen as physical conflicts, and with a protagonist like Noemi they probably shouldn’t. But we never really get to see our hero in action at all until the Act Three climax begins. Basically, Act One is extended through the entire duration of where Act Two should have been. It makes for kinda boring reading in the middle, and an overall unsatisfied feeling at the end.

So, while it does a lot of things very well, I think the book has too deep of a flaw at its core to recommend it. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: While we did have one person that really loved this, we lost a lot of readers around halfway through the book. Probably for the aforementioned reason. The turn-out was on the low side for our book club. There was some decent discussion about what went wrong, as well as praise for the skill in setting. There was a little bit of discussion about the roles of wealth and women in the 50s, but the novel didn’t give us much to work with there, since we only see the setting up of those conflicts at first, and then a no-holds-barred blow-out finale that doesn’t really involve social issues. Overall, not bad. I’m kinda on the fence here. There are some circles where this book is getting a fair bit of buzz, and if you’re in/near one of those, I would recommend it as background for those conversations. If you’re just looking for a book to talk about with friends without the wider SF world as a consideration, I would ultimately not recommend it.

May 192021
 

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Synopsis: The universe is an infinite building full of marble statues, containing only two living people. A mysterious third person may be arriving soon…

Book Review: Yeah, that’s a crap synopsis, but I really have no idea how to give a synopsis of this book. I almost didn’t bother reading it, because it’s by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book so very bad that I couldn’t imagine ever reading something by Clarke again. But Piranesi is only a couple hundred pages, and I was assured by a book club member I trust who read both of them that they are very different books. So I decided to read just the first chapter or two, to give it a try.

I was instantly in love.

Have you read The Library of Babel yet? If not, it’s worth it to go read right now, it’s only 7 pages, and it’s famous for a damned good reason. If you’re like me, when you got to the end you thought “Dammit, this is so freakin’ good! Why isn’t there more? I could read a whole novel based on this!!” Piranesi is that novel! It’s not literally based in the Library of Babel, but it does take place in an infinite building of repeating rooms that contain permutations of statues which can be interpreted as cryptic messages. The house has its own ecology and provides (bare) resources for those within it. The inhabitants don’t find anything unusual about this, and are focused on unlocking the secrets of the house. The whole thing is presented in a beautiful concreteness that belies it’s surreality, and it grips my imagination like a Sith Lord choking out an insubordinate henchman.

The protagonist, Piranesi, is also the best damn person you’ll ever meet. He’s guileless and innocent and full of trust and energy and enthusiasm. And incredibly analytical and meticulous, in the style of the old British Natural Philosophers. Anyone who doesn’t fall in love with him is a monster, and we probably shouldn’t be friends. There are so many times where I thought “Oh no… Piranesi, don’t do that, you’re too trusting and naive! But I love that about you! But this is gonna suck for you in the near future!”

The story itself is pretty darn good too, with an unraveling that feels like it mirrors a descent into dementia, except maybe in reverse? I don’t want to give things away, but it was a good time!

Finally, the brevity of the novel is a huge asset. I don’t know if that sounds like an insult, but it’s not meant as one. The novel knows exactly what it’s doing, and how long it will take to get there so that it stays fresh and exciting the entire way without wearing out its welcome. Once everything is explored and poked, it wraps things up with a touching, poingant, and somehow regretfully nostolgic chapter that feels more like poetry than prose.

What I’m saying is, I really really liked this. It’s weird, and kinda artsy, but without ever getting its head up its ass. I’m really glad I read it. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone was quite as enthralled by this as I was. Some people found the bizarre world a bit too frustrating. But fortunately, it was still well-written, short, and Piranesi was very likable. This meant everyone finished the book, and no one hated it, and we had several things to discuss about style and fiction. Even for people who weren’t thrilled with it, it made for fast reading and good discussion. Recommended.