Jul 102020

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

Best Novelette

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

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

“Away With the Wolves”, by Sarah Gailey 

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

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

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

Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin

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

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

“For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll

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

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

“Omphalos”, by Ted Chiang

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


Best Short Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Catalog of Storms”, by Fran Wilde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 092020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 162020

Agency, by William Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 062020

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

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

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

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

Still not enough? Oy vey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 232020

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

Best Novelette



Best Short Story


Apr 212020

Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vehemently Not Recommended.

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

Apr 122020

The Player of Games, by Iain M Banks

Synopsis: The post-scarcity Culture recruits their best game player to destabilize an expanding civilization that selects its rulers via an incredibly complex board/card/tabletop-war game.

Book Review: Banks is best known in the SF community for his creation of The Culture, an incredibly advanced post-scarcity civilization, and the series of books that take place within it. Player of Games isn’t the first book in the series, but it is the one that is considered the best entry point into the series. This book feels like it was written specifically to introduce people to The Culture. First we’re introduced to a typical citizen, and we get a typical day-in-the-life narrative to show us how these people live. World details and tech levels are displayed, and then this citizen is recruited to become the representative of the entire Culture to an alien civilization. Much of the conflict comes from the culture clash of this outsider navigating among strange people with strange ideas and customs, and every time there is a conflict not only do we learn how the alien civilization is structured, we also learn how The Culture is different in contrast. It’s pretty darn ingenious.

If this was just a tour of The Culture I’m not sure it would make an interesting book… you do need some story to get me excited. Fortunately, it is a lot more than just that. Yes, the novel does start out very slowly. The first few chapters drag on far longer than their word count would lead you to believe. Perhaps this was intentional, to get the reader to relate to the boredom and ennui of the titular protagonist, but it’s still a slog. It is, however, worth it. Once the central plot is engaged, the story really picks up, and it just keeps getting faster and better as it goes. Plots thicken, stakes are raised, and eventually hell is raised, bullets are flying, and everything is on fire.

More than that, though, this book reminded me that speculative fiction is the genre of Big Ideas. SF/F should be about something. Lots of times, it’s not. It’s just cool stories of interesting people doing exciting things. The Player of Games has a central thesis. I didn’t even realize that I had been starved of stories with a Big Idea until this novel gave me one and reawakened that thirst. It was wonderful, and I hope to not forget this again for a long time.

Dan Carlin often mentions the adage that civilizations ascend wearing wooden clogs, and descend wearing silk slippers. Meaning that only when life is hard and miserable do people struggle to make things better, and once a civilization is rich and secure it becomes weak, its people become lazy, and it declines. This is probably a perpetual fear of anyone living in a rich empire, but it’s hard not to take it seriously. One wonders, is it only by cruel strength, and the hard-bitten willingness to sacrifice the weak that people can advance? Is any great liberal society doomed to be out-competed and replaced by something leaner, meaner, and ruthless? The Player of Games asks exactly that question, pitting a rich, liberal society against a hungry, brutal one. And more to the point, it doesn’t do this by putting them in violent conflict, which would only resolve which civilization is better able to wage ware. It pits the ideals of the two societies against each other directly by abstracting those ideals into a high-stakes game that winnows out the weak and breaks the unworthy.

Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: For the reason stated in the previous paragraph, this is a very good book club book. There was a lot to talk about, much of it being very thought-provoking. Even outside of the central thesis, The Culture itself makes a fascinating topic of conversation (one of the reasons these books have become so popular, after all), and that along can keep a group going for quite a while. And while the beginning is slow, we didn’t lose any readers to it, because the kind of people that go to SF book clubs tend to also be the kind of people that have been gamers for ages, and so the promise of a book about an Uber-Game kept everyone engaged until things go going. :) Recommended.

Podcast Note: A friend of mine has a reaction-style podcast where he and a friend are reading through the entire Culture series together. He’s read it before, the friend has not. The three Player of Games episodes are 1, 2, 3. And the whole series can be followed at the Discord, or the RSS.

Mar 312020

The Devourers, by Indra Das

Synopsis: A trio of vampire-ish/werewolf-ish shapeshifters travels to turn-of-the-century India. One commits a crime that sickens even these monsters, causing the trio to turn on each other, with much collateral mayhem.

Book Review: That synopsis really doesn’t do this novel justice, and I think the synopsis is pretty exciting as it is. This isn’t just a story of vendettas, betrayal, and personal clashes. This is a story about what it means to be human. It is, in my opinion, a statement on human sexual dimorphism and what it means to be a woman in a world were half the population can overpower you and wants to consume you. It’s about what it means to be a man in a world where men are considered predators by everyone, and not for bad reasons. It is about power and honor. It asks if civilization is a glorious thing that lifts mankind up from the wretched natural state we are born into, or if it is the shackles we’ve forged that prevent us from being free and noble and true.

It does all this while telling a great story of a proud person wronged, and of monsters that lurk in the dark to consume us. The plotting is exciting and the visuals are amazing. When one of these shifters goes into its monster form and starts to absolutely destroy the humans trying to oppose it, it was better than most anything I’ve seen on movie screens in ages. It was terrifying and glorious at once. When two such shifters go full-Sayen and attack each other, the prolonged ensuing fight is Akira levels of epic.

The rationalizations of the monsters are seductive, as well. I started to wonder if maybe they were right. Maybe their actions are net positive, and the being devoured is better than the alternative? Das does a great job of getting us to sympathize just enough to waver, even as he exposes us to the horror and violence of this predation.

The one downside to this novel is the framing story it uses. The tale in India is relayed to a young modern-day professor, and the professor is boring AF. The couple chapters with him are OK, but once you get into the meat of the story in India, you don’t want to go back to him. Then the final 25% or the book is JUST him, and that part is a drag. Nothing much happens, the professor has no personality and no motivation, and we’re left wondering “Why does this awesome, powerful, sexy werewolf have any interest in this schmuck?” It’s not terrible though, it’s just kinda dull. And Das has built up so much good will by giving us an absolutely outstanding main story that I didn’t mind coasting through that final part.

If I can speculate for a moment, I think it was required to bring the novel up to an acceptable word-count for a publisher of a first time novelist. Word count is ridiculously important to publishers, even though readers don’t really care. It’s kinda infuriating. Anyway, I think Das did the best he could with what they forced him to do, and the framing story isn’t a total loss, it has a few cool parts.

So, with that small caveat — amazing characters, amazing story, amazing writing, amazing action. Seriously, look back at the first three paragraphs I wrote. This is an absolutely stellar book. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: One of the best book club books we’ve had in a long time, and we’ve had some good ones! This is a fast read, and is gripping on its own. But in addition, it raises many interesting and thought-provoking themes, and comments on them via the actions of the characters just enough to really get conversation going. We went on for far longer than usual, and we all loved every minute of it. There were readers who disagreed that this was about sex roles in particular, and said it was more about power imbalances in general. There were readers who saw tones of trans identification in the monsters being able to change their forms over time. There is just so much to talk about, and all of it is on topics were the novel shows you examples of what it’s talking about and how it affects the people in the book but never preaches at you. If your book club reads only one book this year, it should be this one. Highly Recommended.

Coronavirus note: I’ve been a slacker, and I’m behind in my book reviews. Both this review and the next one I’ll be posting were meetings we had before the outbreak.

Mar 092020

Empress of Forever, by Max Gladstone

Synopsis: Kinda a lesbian Inuyasha in space, and the galaxy is post-apocalyptic.

Book Review: With a synopsis like that, one would expect this to be an amazing ride. :) It is, however, just OK.

The characters are easy to relate to, and everyone will have one favorite one. They are all very archetypical, so as soon as you find the Type that you love most, you’ll really glom onto the character and enjoy them. The action goes fast, and it has ridiculous over-the-top anime combat that’s fun.

And ultimately, that’s mostly what this book is – action set pieces woven together by well-realized archetype characters. This is a perfect story for a video game, where you get to have all the fun of actually kicking huge amounts of ass in all the action scenes. It was a pretty typical JRPG plot as well, starting with a single character who gathers allies to form her party, beats several challenges, then the party is all split up near the end, and finally unites again against the multiple phases of the final boss. It’s definitely OK, but it’s told in the wrong medium, IMHO.

I think this book can be summed by a scene from within itself. One character is asking another why she reads fiction, and the reader answers “Simple. You know what the problem is, and you know how it will all turn out. It’s fun to watch it happen.” That was basically the experience of reading Empress, and if you like comfortable, actiony beach reading, this is for you. For those like me: Not Recommended.

(Also, as a personal gripe, I was really annoyed that the main character is supposed to be smart, but didn’t figure out why she had been yanked into the future, like, immediately. It’s clear from almost the very beginning, and it seems the only reason she never figured it out is because the author wanted to hold onto the reveal for a dramatic moment instead of after her thinking about it for 2 minutes. It’s just one of those things that irritates me.)

Book Club Review: The experience of talking about this book was much like the experience of reading it. Kinda fun, hard to complain, but nothing exceptional. I found myself very surprised that the entire story seems to have been wrapped up in one book. This is exactly the sort of ensemble cast and universe that lends itself to a long drawn-out series of monster-of-the-week books. As I was reading it I had the impression it was trying to set itself up as another Dresden Files style of series. But the ending seems pretty damn definitively an ending. Someone else in the book club mentioned that the ending felt rather rushed, like Gladstone had gotten tired of writing this story. Maybe creating a profitable series was his original intention, but he found it too tiresome to continue? He has written some really good things in the past, maybe this was just trying something new that didn’t quite work. While speculation on how the creative process works, and how maybe business decisions might interact with it, was kinda interesting, I don’t think it’s worth dedicating a book club slot to. Not Recommended.

Feb 122020

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

Synopsis: A paint-by-numbers 2nd world fantasy with medieval Africa flavor rather than medieval Europe flavor.

Book Review: Anyone who was a kid in the 80s will recognize this novel. It’s a basic 2nd world fantasy that fits right in with the pulp fantasy of that era. If you’re a kid, and it’s the 80s, this is ok. Because kids don’t have good taste, and in the 80s this whole 2nd world fantasy thing was still new and exciting and lots of authors were exploring the possibility-space of this newish genre. But I’m not a kid, and the 80s are long ago.

This novel doesn’t have an ounce of ambition. Everything here has been done before so many times that you can see the ruts in the ground as you’re trundling through them. The one difference is that the scenery is African rather than European, and even THAT isn’t new, it’s been done since at least Quest for Glory III in 1992, and likely much earlier via D&D supplements.

What’s worse, Blood & Bone doesn’t even take inspiration from the better stuff of the era, it dives right into the careless schlock. The plotting is actively stupid – things happened not because there was a good in-world reason for them to happen, but because the author decided that they wanted the thing to happen… so now it does. Goons were cartoonishly incompetent, they literally stood around until it was convenient for the heroes to fight them, like in those bad ninja movies. Villains are cartoonishly evil, genociding populations just for the heck of it. There’s the standard pairing-up of the opposite-sex protagonists because they’re opposite sex and protagonists, what other reason does one need?

This reads like a cheap cartoon where the writers didn’t care one whit for making good stories for children, they just wanted to churn out weekly 22-minute animated ads for toys. I haven’t read genre fiction this bad since Grant’s “Deadline”. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone hated this as much as I did. While no one thought it was “good writing,” there are people in our book club that haven’t become jaded grumpy readers, and can still take joy in a silly schlock adventure. You may get a good book club meeting out of discussing differences in tastes, how expectations affect perception, and what different people want out of a reading experience. Plus the haters get to vent some steam by hating, and the non-haters can laugh at them and talk about the fun bits they enjoyed. Still, it’s not really the sort of discussion I think book clubs are seeking, more like something they occasionally stumble into. Not Recommended.