Mar 032021

The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: Five people become embodiments of the five boroughs of New York, as the city struggles to awaken and become sentient, while being opposed by an interdimensional evil.

Book Review: Look, you don’t need me to tell you this is a well-written book. It’s N.K. freakin’ Jemisin, one of my favorite contemporary authors. She wrote one of the top-five most moving books I’ve ever read. She’s a master of the craft, and giant in the genre. But I’ve been putting off writing this post for weeks. I’m dreading posting it. But… we really have to talk about “The City We Became.” Because “The City We Became” is one of the most racist novels I’ve ever read.

I will admit, I haven’t read a lot of racist novels. I tend to avoid them. But the last time I read something this unapologetically racist, it was written in the 70s and I was unable to finish it. Unlike Lucifer’s Hammer, I forced myself to finish this one, because it felt important to be informed on this. It was hard to do.

In “The City We Became” all people can be placed into two groups. Those who “actually love New York” and “those merely occupying and exploiting it.” The former are human beings that may have flaws, but can be empathized with and dealt with as people. The latter are parasites and vermin whose internal experience consists solely of a drive to dominate and degrade all the good people. Fortunately, it’s super easy to tell who belongs to which group. All you have to do is note the color of their skin.

The rest of this review contains spoilers for “The City We Became” because I can’t discuss this without massive spoilers. If you’d like to read the book and be shocked by its overt racism without spoilers, please do so before continuing.




Without fail, every white person in this story is a monster, and all monsters in the story are white. Not just in a passing way, it is explicitly their whiteness that makes them monstrous, and makes them want to destroy and exploit all that is good in the world. In “City”, the only thing you really need to know about someone is the color of their skin to know their moral character. It got to the point that one can tell when a new antagonist or ally is being introduced as soon as their skin color is described. It got to the point of farce when hairstyles that are popular among young white men are called literal signifiers of evil in the same manner that goatees are such in comedy and satire. No, it’s not presented as a joke, it’s presented as bitterly ironic that now such a signifier exists in real life when before it was just the sign of campy script writers.

This isn’t just a subversion of tropes. Having The White Woman be the big bad evil, and having her be the whitest white woman in existance — that’s subversion of tropes. Introducing many supporting characters and side cast who are white specifically to show them being intentionally malicious over and over… that’s not trope subversion, it’s just the standard demonization any hate group engages in

The one attempt to portray a white person in a “sympathetic” light focuses on a mentally handicapped white woman, because I guess only a mental handicap can be considered a plausible excuse for the moral sin of being white. Nonetheless, she ultimately gives in to her hateful white nature, and by narrative fiat Staton Island is ejected from what is the True New York City and replaced with a borough that has the correct racial demographics for a “good” city.

I know it’s hard to believe. Please read it yourself to confirm.

This is a shame, because there are some really interesting ideas growing beneath the pall of hatred in the text. For example, the heroes are presented with the possibility that they might be able to save tens of thousands of lives, at the expense of sacrificing their own families. They reject this option out of hand, but it does make one stop to think… why was it rejected so readily? This is a classic trolley problem, wouldn’t heroes at least agonize for a bit over pulling the lever?

Cleverly, this is a set-up for an even bigger reveal later, where we discover that a city becoming sentient requires the annihilation of tens of thousands of universes. Not planets, not even galaxies, but full *universes.* Uncountable trillions upon trillions of people will die, if our heroes succeed and New York awakens. If they fail, consequences are bad for our heroes — the wiping out of Pompeii happened when it failed to wake up, and the erasure of Atlantis happened for the same reason. On the other hand, the evil White Woman seems to have been getting better at stopping cities from awakening with lessened consequences. Her last victory was preventing New Orleans from waking up. The devastation wrought by Katrina as a consequence of failing to awaken was awful for that city and its people, but it was a far cry from being wiped out. And importantly – even if New York was completely annihilated, it’s still an insignificant harm when compared to killing *tens of thousands of universes* of people. It seems that the White Woman is the true hero, in an objective sense, and our protagonists are the monsters willing to kill any number of innocents to protect themselves. This is a brilliant narrative twist, and it’s exactly the sort of fantastic moral complexity that I expect from Jemisin after reading her Broken Earth trilogy.

And yet, this takes a distant back seat to the constant racial animus. Instead of focusing on the emotional twisting of choosing to become a monster to save your family, we are treated to the spectacle of tolerance being portrayed as a vicious character flaw that evil people delight in.

This leads me to…


Why?: What was the purpose of writing a novel-length racist screed? I have a very hard time imaging the author of the Broken Earth trilogy as someone who is committed to racism!

My best guess is that this was done as an homage to Lovecraft. The book itself dons the mantle of a Lovecraftian horror. It names the Lady In White as such in those exact words. The evil city from the other dimension is named R’lyeh. This isn’t a subtle hint, it’s in the actual text. And the thing that Lovecraft is most known for in pop culture (behind C’thulu) is his rampant racism. If one was trying to fully recapture the Lovecraftian experience, but for a modern day audience, one may very well attempt to make it as racist as possible, to really get that Lovecraft stink on it. If this was the intention, bravo. It was pulled off magnificently.

I’m torn as to whether this is a good thing, though. On the one hand, I personally find it distasteful, and I think there are some things we’d be better off leaving in the past. On the other hand, the essence of horror is to make the reader uncomfortable. You are supposed to be squicked out and repulsed by a good horror novel, right? You’re supposed to be fascinated by the depravity, in a “I can’t look away from this horrific thing that’s happening” sort of way?

But then… why are the more standard forms of racism not acceptable when used in that manner? Maybe it’s just because they’re so passe. When I read regular old “Lucifer’s Hammer”-style racism, I throw some invective at the bigotted author and I stop reading. I even said in my review that “it’s always fun to rip on bigots for a while.” I guess that’s only true when they’re in your outgroup. This review was NOT fun to write. I feel kinda sick writing it. If that’s the goal of a horror novel, the goal was accomplished.

I think this wouldn’t have affected me as much if I hadn’t recently read Jemisin’s “Emergency Skin.” A complaint of several other readers was that Emergency Skin felt like a serious representation of the author’s views. I held that it was obviously satire of bad message fiction. It was so blatantly over the top and absurd that it could only have been meant as satire. After all, there’s no way I could imaging the author of the Broken Earth trilogy seriously supporting *exterminationist rhetoric of a minority demographic.*

And yet, I’ve now found myself saying that I can’t imagine something like that twice, and I’m starting to get nervous. I’m starting to feel like the guy at the party who thought we were all laughing at Steven Colbert’s caricature of a racist talk show host, and is starting to realize everyone else is laughing at the joke about how awful minorities are for real.

I dunno. I think we all went a little crazy over the last four years, living under Trump. Everyone’s stressed out, everything is more polarized, the world’s on edge. We’ve had a pandemic and a coup attempt, and people were circling the wagons. Maybe now that Orange Man is gone and the pandemic’s about to be crushed, things will cool off. The last thing I want to see is a resurgence of racism in SF.


In summary: Not Recommended.

For book clubs: Still Not Recommended, but you can probably get a lot of discussion out of it if your group is willing to tackle a problematic novel.

Feb 222021

Antediluvian, by Wil McCarthy

Synopsis: A series of four novelettes in stone-age settings exploring technological advancement.

Book Review: This is a hard novel to summarize. It would be called “historical fiction” perhaps, except that it happens in literal pre-historic times, so that technically doesn’t apply. :) Also, historical fiction usually focuses a fair bit on the actual historical events/people/places that we know from that era, which isn’t a primary focus of Antediluvian.

What Antediluvian does focus on is a sense of wonder, surviving cosmic forces, and technological advancement. It does this from the perspective of very ancient humans, though. So I think rather than pre-historical fiction, it would be most accurate to call this Cave Man Science Fiction. It takes the conventions and interests of classic SF, and puts them in a primitive human perspective.

In this regard, it feels very much like Roots of Progress, or Primitive Technology. Like both of those projects, this novel is fascinating. I know it’s not everyone’s thing, but seeing how our ancestors slowly made their way from banging rocks together to creating cities and sea-faring states that smelt iron is a wonderous thing to experience. There are many ways that telling this sort of story could have been boring, and McCarthy manages to avoid most of them. We get to experience what it could be like to work out how to make floating craft, and discovering that putting a spear tip in a fire can make it harder than before. We even get a peek into what it might have been like to be around when the very first technology was being invented, a tech I won’t spoiler here, but one so basic that it could arguably called that which made us human, and was partially evolved as much as it was created.

Every single one of these stories was engaging and felt like old-school SF to me in terms of tech-dependance, exploration, and wonder. However, it’s not all good. There is a framing story about a guy in the near future with some past-seeing device which, to be honest, seems completely unnecesssary. It felt like a distraction to me every single time. I didn’t care about this professor or his invention, and the framing device felt like something that was tacked on after the fact to tie the dissparate stories together. I didn’t need this, the stories were interesting on their own, and the professor’s story never had any stakes or tension. I just wanted to get back to the good stuff.

Likewise, like the classic SF this reflects, there isn’t much in terms of “characters” in these stories. There is enough to keep you interested and move you from one cool dicovery or action to the next, but they aren’t a major concern. I only vaugely remember any of the characters now, or the personal journies they went through. Normally this would be bad, because that’s usually what novels are written for. But not in this case. The heroes of these stories aren’t the individual characters, they are the human race as a whole. Our continued progress to know more of the world, and make it more managable and livable. In the style of Utopian SF that shows us how amazing the human race can be when we defeat death, conquer physics, and spread out to the stars, this novel shows us the first faltering steps in those processes, as we were first beginning to understand that we can make the world better and safer as we learn how it works and how it can be altered. Ultimately, I don’t need every story to be angst and drama. When its done well, the joy of exploration and science can carry an entire book.

I have to put in a personal disclaimer here – I know Wil McCarthy IRL, and I quite like him. He even wrote a guest-post on this blog when this book releasted. I have no illusions about the fact that this must inevitably color my reading of any of his works. I have strived to be as objective as I can, but there are limits to how much one can disentangle personal emotions when judging something that’s specifically designed to evoke emotions (like all art does). So, that’s a thing to keep in mind? Though if the book was bad, I either would have said that outright, or just not reviewed it at all to prevent hurt feelings.

As for recommendation — my metric is always “would I recommend this book to the me of the past that hasn’t read it yet as a good use of my time?” Initially, I was kinda torn on this. Antediluvian is a fine story, but it doesn’t have the pathos and drama that I so adore in fiction I read. It isn’t like the best thing I read in 2020 or anything. But on the other hand, it’s a lot better than much of what I did read in 2020. And, crucially, it has aged very well in my memory. A lot of novels that are fun at the time fade from my memory very quickly, and I can’t tell you much about them even after six months. Antediluvian, OTOH, still comes up in my mind from time to time, as something unique with an interesting perspective. I am glad I read it. I would put several things before this one in a strict ordering, but I would certainly include this on a list to myself of things I will be happy that I spent the time to read. Thus – Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is a harder call to make. The major problem with this book is expectations. Based on the cover, and the framing story that opens the book, almost everyone in our book club was expecting a near-future SciFi work. It’s not that — it’s prehistory novellas — and the clash of reality with expectation really threw a lot of readers off. They were frustrated by the back-and-forth of the novellas with the framing story, the feeling that whenever they were in the past it was a distraction from the “main story” (even though the prehistory novellas are the large majority of the word count), and the fact that the framing story didn’t have much substance. Again, I believe this would have been a better novel if the framing story was excised completely. After our discussion, several people said “I probably would have liked this if I thought I was reading prehistorical fiction, rather than expecting SF.”

I think, if you can set these expectations, there is a lot in here to talk about in terms of human developement and the history of technological advancement. Sadly, we didn’t quite get to that point. So, as is, probably Not Recommended. But with some initial intervention – possibly! If someone gets a chance to do this, please let me know how it goes, and I can updated this page.

Jan 132021

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”!


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.


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.


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.