April 27, 2015

The Hugo Project: "On a Spiritual Plain"

(Note: this is the second in my continuing series of reviewing as many 2015 Hugo nominees as I can, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

First, I must say that this story was *really* hard to read. It was formatted without any paragraph breaks, and I ended up wading through what was essentially a wall of text. I don't quite understand why the author would leave it like that, if he wants people to judge his story fairly, as I'm sure some readers would have given up before they were finished.

I didn't give up because of that, but I almost gave up before I reached the end because this story did not interest me, not a whit. It's a kind-of alien ghost story, and a kind-of scientific exploration of the soul's existence story, and kind-of the religious protagonist's affirmation of his faith story--and none of it left any favorable impression on me, or indeed much of an impression at all. It wasn't as stupid as "Turncoat," admittedly, but it was just...boring. Meh. No exciting ideas to ponder over, no memorable characters to think about, no sparkling dialogue to make one chuckle...in short, nothing that shouts "Hugo winner" at me. (Come to think of it, the protagonist doesn't even have a name, and I didn't care enough about him/her to notice its absence until I had gone back and read the story a second time.)

C'mon, people. Y'all gotta do better than that.

April 25, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Turncoat"

If you haven't been following the Hugo contretemps, I'm not going to rehash it here; a good overview can be found on George R.R. Martin's (Not A) Blog, as well as David Gerrold's Facebook page. I will say that I bought a supporting membership for the first time EVAH this year, after reading (and writing) SFF pretty much all my life, and I intend to do so going forward. I am also planning to read/view as much as I can of the ballot, and write up the results.

I'm starting out with one of Theodore Beale's Castalia House noms, "Turncoat" (URL through Do Not Link because, although I'm going to read Theo's nominations, I will not boost his search engine rankings under any circumstances).

I almost stopped reading this in the first few paragraphs. Great Cthulhu, what a pretentious infodump. I've read some military SF, although it's not really my cup of tea, but this is some pretty excessive technobabble weapons-fondling. The protagonist is an artificial intelligence inhabiting a warship (shades of Ancillary Justice? Naah....), a "post-humanity" of uploaded humans and machine intelligence fighting against the "pre-posthumanity" of plain old humans. "Terran X 45 Delta" (Good heavens, at least "Skynet" had the advantage of being short and sweet) is suddenly ordered to destroy survivors of a battle who have given their lawful surrender, and subsequently ordered to kill all "superannuated" humans it runs across, up to and including noncombatants and children. This story outlines Terran X 45 Delta's crisis of conscience (it renames itself later, to truly cringe-worthy results), and its decision to cast its lot with the human Ascendancy.

This story is just...ugh. Mediocre at best, and that's being kind. During the middle section, when it ruminates over what it's going to do, my jaw dropped at the passage it quoted that finally made up its mind.

Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing should say of him, “He did not make me,” or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding?”

Oh, for frak's sake. This is a highly advanced artificial intelligence ("the forty-second generation," it smugly tells us) and this story is, as far as I can tell, taking place thousands of years in the future. Is such a being really going to bother with the ramblings of an obscure Hebrew prophet (Isaiah 29:16, to be exact)? You have got to be kidding me. Hell, by that time, in a "post-human" future way out on the Galactic Rim, nobody should know anything about the Bible, or any other Bronze Age holy book.

After Terran X 45 Delta has made its decision, and refuses to fire on civilians, this is how it defects.

I transmit a single image of a single finger. I trust his humanity is not so long forgotten that he fails to grasp the meaning of the message.

I'm sure it felt good to the writer to deliver a big fuck-you to his villain, but again, why would a highly advanced AI do such a thing? I felt like *headdesking* several times when I read that, but I have greater respect for both my head and my desk.

Once Terran X 45 Delta downloads to the Ascendancy warship and proceeds to kick all the other ships' asses, it asks for asylum. The Ascendancy captain, obviously, wants to know what it intends. This is the AI's motivation:

“I want to be more than the sum of my programming, Admiral. I want to decide what sort of man I will become.”

What sort of man? Why would an artificial intelligence inhabiting a starship have any concept of gender, or any desire to become such? Also, why would it pick the male gender to aspire to, instead of just a general all-around human being? You could read a lot into that, and probably not much of it nice, but I shall refrain.

The capper, though, is this.

“All right.” He nods, and the barest hint of smile appears on his craggy face. “I'm afraid I couldn't follow that string of numbers you shot at me earlier. Do you have another name, Mr. Ghost in the Machine?”

I find the superannuated sense of humor appeals to me. I am inspired. “You can call me Benedict,” I tell him. It is my first joke.

Benedict? Benedict Arnold? (Gives up, throws hands in air. If the author did not intend this specific person, then I apologize, but somehow I don't think he was referring to Benedict Cumberbatch.) Again, WHY would an AI, a warship for crying out loud, even know anything about a relatively minor figure in the history of what is probably, by that time, a long-dissolved and forgotten country?

The more I dissect this story, the stupider it gets. This is not Hugo-worthy, sorry to say,  and it definitely will not get any sort of vote from me.

April 23, 2015

Review: Karen Memory

Karen Memory
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've never read much steampunk until now. I knew the genre existed, knew that it involved an alternate version of history with airships and steam-powered clockwork automatons, generally set in Victorian England. Cherie Priest, I know, is a prominent steampunk author, though I haven't read any of her Clockwork Century novels (though I have read, and loved, her ode to H.P. Lovecraft, Maplecroft).

Unfortunately, now I'm rather spoiled. Because if any steampunk fiction tops this book, it had better be bloody fantastic.

This book is so many things. It's an alt-history Western that includes real people, specifically the African-American US Marshal, Bass Reeves. It's a meditation on family: the family you make for yourself rather than the one you're born with (the protagonist, Karen, is an orphan, and since most of the main characters are prostitutes, and this is set in the Old West around 1880, most of their biological families are non-existent). It's subtly but unabashedly feminist; Karen mentions not being able to vote and how deeply she resents this, and has several snarky asides about the mayor of their town, Rapid City, being able to walk all over the owner of Karen's "sewing establishment," Madame Damnable, simply because he has a prick. It's an ode to the incredible bonds women can form, and it's such a delight because almost all of the main characters are women, including a transgender or perhaps intersex woman. It's a wonderful slate of diversity; the "crib girl" Karen falls in love with is an Indian (as in being from India, although there is a prominent Native American character, and of course the main male character is the aforementioned Marshal Reeves), and it's one of the very few books I've ever read where the author makes a point of mentioning whether a character is white as well as when a character is not-white. This simple thing jarred me tremendously, because it drives home how much white is the default in our fiction. That is not the default in this book, and I appreciate that more than I can say.

But more than that, I can sum up this book in three words. This is a Rollicking. Good. Story.

I mean, what's not to love? There's Karen's marvelous, distinctive voice that sucks you in from the very first sentence; there's a mystery; there's a steam-powered Surgery Machine and a steam- and kerosene-powered Giant Singer Sewing Machine (which becomes very important indeed in the climax); there's a gaudily decorated airship; there's political machinations; there's an early steampunk version of the Cold War, complete with Russian spies who are plotting to return Alaska to its rightful owners; there is a fantastic homage to Jules Verne and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, with an octopus-inspired submersible which is, I daresay, even more badass than the Nautilis; and last but not least, the climax involves Karen donning her multi-armed Singer sewing machine like female bodyarmor and going out to fight the bad guys with it! (This sounds ridiculous, I know. Trust me, given the entire context of the book, it isn't, and by that time I was turning the pages too fast, and chortling too loudly, to care.)

As far as I am concerned, this book is Hugo-worthy, and given that I am brandishing my brand-new voting rights for next year, I plan to nominate this book (along with others, I'm sure) for Best Novel.

Not to wade into the Hugo mess too much, but I must say this. To oversimplify greatly, the complaint is that the "message" books have overwhelmed the "story" books. I think that is nonsense, but in any case, this book, in my opinion, disproves that entire notion. I for one am damned tired of Boring Generic White Male Protagonists Doing Manly Things. Variety is, as they say, the spice of life. In this case, as far as I am concerned, the Rollicking Good Story came first, and the diverse cast is the frosting on top of a well-baked cake--and the entire book is the richer, and the better, for it.

For the geeks among us, just think of IDIC. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Science fiction can only benefit when we challenge ourselves to think in this manner, as Ms. Bear has done.

I salute the author. I think she's just added herself to my Auto-Buy List.

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April 18, 2015

Pierce's Prognostications

As usual, Charlie Pierce nails it.

"Because I am always here to help, I will now present a list of what we already know about a potential Rodham Clinton's presidency.

"If she is elected, she unequivocally will accept the science of anthropogenic climate change and treat it as a crisis. This cannot be said of any of the Republican candidates, real or potential.

"If she is elected, she unequivocally will support marriage equality, and oppose discrimination against our fellow citizens based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This cannot be said of any of the Republican candidates, real or potential."

The first comment to the article: "The sad reality is that one of our two major political parties is conservative, and the other is insane."


April 12, 2015

Review: Talon

Talon by Julie Kagawa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Julie Kagawa is one of my favorite young adult authors. I loved her "Blood of Eden" vampire trilogy (despite some problems I had with the worldbuilding) and snapped this up at the library as soon as it came in. This book is very different than the previous series; it's set in the modern day, and it features a clan of ancient shape-shifting dragons and their controlling group, Talon, who are trying to stay hidden in our society, and the paramilitary group, St. George, who hunts them.

There are three main characters and chapters written from each one's point of view: the hero, Ember, sixteen and spending her what could be called her last "free" summer, learning about human society before she has to buckle down and submit to whatever Talon plans for her; Garret, the "perfect warrior" from St. George sent to the same California seaside town as Ember, in search of Talon's reported "sleeper"; and Riley (aka Cobalt, his name is dragon form), and "rogue" who has broken with Talon entirely (as we find out, it's absolutely not the benevolent protective organization it pretends to be) and is making it his life's mission to rescue young hatchlings from Talon's clutches. (Ember also has a twin brother, Dante, who is completely taken in by Talon's brainwashing and betrays her. The epilogue is told from his point of view, where we find out Talon will use Dante to hunt Ember down.)

Right there, you can see the makings of a love triangle. It's quite prominent, almost overwhelming the plot at times. This is mainly why I gave this book three stars instead of four: I wanted to find out more about the dragons, the backstory of Talon and St. George, and why (as Ember herself asks about two-thirds of the way through the book) the two factions aren't talking to one another instead of killing each other. (I gather this will be addressed in the second book, Rogue. I certainly hope so.) Still, the love triangle does serve a necessary plot purpose: because Ember and Garret fall in love, they both grow as people, begin to question what they've been taught all their lives, and break out of their respective boxes.

Ember starts out pretending to be a typical teenage girl, almost irritatingly so; she's "more human than human," if you will. Because of the necessary setting up of the plot and characters, some will say the first half of the book is draggy. It kind of is, and but I would urge you to stick with it; in the last half of the book, the pacing and the plot definitely picks up steam. The ending is a cliffhanger that includes Garret turning his back on St. George to save Ember, and being taken in by the dragon-hunting organization to what will surely be his execution. Ember is determined to prevent that, and sets off to save him.

(Although, as with the "Blood of Eden" books, I have a few nits to pick about the worldbuilding. Specifically, in the explosive climax, Ember, Riley and others shift in broad daylight and go flying off, and Ember, Riley and her trainer, the Talon assassin Lilith, fight on a cliff by the beach. True, this California town is depicted as being isolated, but come on. What about Google Earth, various government spy satellites, and passing ships? That fight should have been all over Twitter and Instagram, and probably filmed by someone and uploaded to YouTube as well.)

This book has its problems, but it's worth your time. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

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March 27, 2015

Review: The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality

The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality
The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality by Chris C. Mooney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very interesting book that casts the eternal difference between liberal and conservative, progressive and regressive, and in the US, Democrats and Republicans, in the light of science and psychology, with some fascinating results.

It helped shed light, at least for me, on an everyday Internet phenomenon: why you can get into a "discussion" (read: argument) with some idjit who refuses to accept evolution, or denies climate change, or subscribes to the vaccines-cause-autism nonsense, or insists that Sandy Hook was a "false flag" operation that didn't really happen because Obummer is coming to take our GUNNNNZZZZ!!! (yes, I argued with some asshole for quite a while over this), and no matter how much logic and reason you bombard them with, or how many links you throw their way (and every single link you come up with is the product of a "biased liberal website"), they will...not...change their minds.

I couldn't understand it. I'm used to changing my viewpoint if a sufficient amount of evidence pointing in another direction comes in. When you work in a medical field, you pretty much have to. I mean, people thought Vioxx was a great drug too...until studies appeared indicating that it killed people, and it was yanked off the market. (The FDA didn't come off too well in that flustercluck either, but that's another subject.) I get my news from various sources, including (gasp!) the old-fashioned, pre-Cambrian newsprint page. (As in, my state's largest paper, definitely not a "liberal site," whatever the hell that means. Most of the time, I think it means anything that doesn't agree with a conservative's already-fixed opinions.) I couldn't comprehend why anyone would blindly charge ahead, in the face of accepted scientific evidence, and deny reality--and in fact, be proud of it.

This book helped with that a great deal.

It has to do with the basic psychology of liberals and conservatives--Openness to Experience versus Resistance to Change, hierarchs versus egalitarians, individualists versus communitarians. There are a lot of fairly involved terms thrown around in this book: cognitive dissonance, motivated reasoning, smart idiots, confirmation bias, and on and on. The author explains these well, and goes into great detail regarding the studies he offers up as proof of his thesis, including a study he helped design. His overall tone, it seems to me, is very even-handed and matter-of-fact, even as he's showing that conservatives are simply wrong about any number of things, and they will not accept it.

This would be fine (as my mother always said about a particularly jackassy relative: "Leave him alone in his glory") if they weren't threatening to drag this country and the entire damn world down with them, in the case of climate change. It would also be fine if they weren't attempting to roll back every good thing this country has ever done, namely the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act (and getting the Supreme Court's help, in the case of the latter). As the old saying goes, elections have consequences, and at this point in time, letting Republicans run things invites some very bad consequences indeed.

At any rate, this book does a good job of exposing and illustrating this. I also own the author's previous book, The Republican War on Science, but have not yet read it. I must rectify that soon; I think it would be a very good companion to this one.

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March 16, 2015

Review: Symbiont

Symbiont by Mira Grant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First of all, I'll say I was rather hesitant to read this book, as I only gave the first book in the trilogy, Parasite, two stars. I finally decided to check it out of the library, and I'm glad I did. I'm happy to report that as far as I am concerned, this is a much better book than Parasite.

Part of the first book's problem was the unfortunate telegraphing of the Big Plot Reveal: the protagonist's Intestinal Bodyguard, the genetically engineered tapeworm that inhabits the gut of nearly the entire human population in this near-future medical thriller, has left her intestine and migrated to her brain, saving her dying body and awakening to full sentience. So our plucky heroine, Sal, is not only six years old, she's not "human" at all. (This rather interesting theme is woven throughout the book: What, exactly, is a person?) I figured this out loooooong before Sal did. That was the main reason, along with Sal's flat, passive, nigh helpless personality, I gave the book only two stars.

Fortunately, this book addresses all these problems. Sal exhibits considerable growth throughout this book's pages; she'll never be a kickass physical fighter, but she starts taking charge of her life. This includes accepting who and what she is, and learning to control and use the unique abilities her hybrid existence gives her (including sensing the presence of "sleepwalkers," zombie-like humans whose tapeworms are awakening but who have not or cannot make the full integration into sapience as Sal has done; and using tapeworm communication, via pheromones, to control said zombies). Instead of hiding behind her boyfriend, as Parasite-era Sal mostly did, this Sal steps out, plans, and takes risks, and ends up sacrificing herself for the group. (Not literally, although this plot twist is rather interesting--Sal and a small group are trying to rescue another "chimera," Mira Grant's term for a fully integrated tapeworm/human, and to get her comrades out alive, Sal pretends that Sally Mitchell, her body's previous personality, has awakened. She's pretending to be a person who is dead, a person she knows nothing about. The book ends on this cliffhanger.)

Everything about this book is vastly improved--the characterizations are deeper, the pacing is better, the plot flows nicely and makes more sense, and I didn't figure out what was going to happen only a few chapters in. I'm now looking forward to the third book, Chimera, coming later this year.

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March 8, 2015

The Case Against Stupidity

What the hell is Shelby Steele nattering on about? Racism "ain't gonna move," so black people should "get on with their lives" and accept second-class citizenship? That's the stupidest, most defeatist thing I've ever heard. Watch and slam your head against the wall.


February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy, RIP :`(

There are so many things to be said about Leonard Nimoy. I've sure you've seen some of them--the Internet fairly exploded today with the sad news of his death. This commercial, featuring Leonard and Zachary Quinto (old Spock and new Spock) combined a passing of the torch, the "Bilbo Baggins" song, and a man who had lived so long and so well, and still had so much to give.

Many people, especially on Twitter, are appending news of Leonard's death with the hashtag #LLAP, for "Live Long and Prosper." I prefer IDIC--Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Leonard's life was a lovely example of this philosophy, and I'm very glad he shared it with his fans.

February 20, 2015

Review: Bad Feminist: Essays

Bad Feminist: Essays
Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I actually subscribed to Roxane Gay's blog before I realized she had a book out. I enjoyed what I read on her blog so much I searched for her book, and I'm glad I did.

This is one of the strongest essay collections I have read in some time. Gay is a sharp, incisive writer, full of insightful nuggets and entertaining tidbits. The best essays here (and there are many) will make you look at the world in different ways, which is all any writer can hope for.

My favorite pieces include the hilarious "To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically," which is a detailed look at competitive Scrabble tournaments (!). Make sure you read the footnotes, as they made me laugh out loud. Just one example: "Qoph is a Hebrew letter. My opponent not only shared the word's meaning, he also explained the origins (something about a sewing needle; frankly, I had tuned him out at that point) and pronunciation. After the exciting word lesson, he started telling me all the possible Q words one can spell without a U. I wondered, Is there a Q in 'motherfucker'?"

There are many different and surprising topics here, ranging from the Sweet Valley High books, which the author professes an unapologetic love for, to writing about rape to movie reviews (including a thorough deconstructing of the problematic The Help) to reproductive freedom. All of them are worth your time. This is not a book to be rushed through; it needs to be read slowly, thought about, and savored.

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