June 18, 2016

What Goes Around Comes Around

This is great.

And this is just one reason why Elizabeth Warren collected this little trophy.

I'm not sure if she should be the Vice Presidential nominee, but day-um. We're not worthy. 

June 14, 2016

Review: Dark Orbit

Dark Orbit Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm glad I read this book after Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. In a way, it's almost the anti-Stephenson: a mixture of hard science fiction and space opera, with a side of metaphysics and philosophy. Not to mention tighter writing, almost no infodumping, and far better characters.

There is a lot going on here. Interstellar travel not by FTL but by lightbeam: humans broken down molecule by molecule, transported on a beam of light, and reassembled at their destinations--in this case, in an automated exploratory "questship" sent on ahead to find inhabited or inhabitable planets. With all the very uncomfortable questions and aftereffects such a lifestyle would raise: those who do so are called Wasters, as their lives are "wasted" during the years they spend traveling at lightspeed in a sort of suspended animation. A subjective second passes for them, and decades for the people, planets and cultures they left behind. There's a sort of Ursula K. Le Guin style of instantaneous communication similar to an ansible (called a "pepci" here). On the planet called Iris and in the space surrounding it, there are clusters of dark matter that wreak holy hell on the spaceship and people sent to study it. There are also inhabitants of Iris, a previously unknown colony of humans who have evolved to live in utter darkness underground, who forego their sense of sight and expand their other senses, to the point where their minds have learned to, as the author puts it, "translate quantum effects into the macro world," and thus enable them to teleport between their planet and the ship orbiting above it...and, ultimately, to other star systems and planets, some of which may be outside our galaxy.

This is a really dense book. It definitely deserves two readings, I think, to fully get the sense of what the author is trying to say (and I would read it again if I didn't have to return it to the library). It's one of the few books I've read lately (cough*Seveneves*cough) that really needs to be longer, to explore all the facets of its fascinating ideas and world. It's also filled with complex, layered characters, and two well-written female protagonists. The only reason I gave it three stars is because the pacing is off--the last third of the book rushes by, and needs to be slowed down and savored. The ending is also very abrupt, although I certainly hope there will be a sequel.

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June 13, 2016

"Now fill the world with music, love and pride"

For my money, these are the two most cogent responses to the horror in Orlando.

Thoughts and Prayers, by John Scalzi

“I offer my thoughts and prayers.”
Thank you.
It’s not enough.
It never was.
What more do you have to offer?
You’re special.
Those people aren’t like you.
They’re your enemy.
You get to have what you want.
You get to do what you want, take what you want.
(Nobody will do anything to stop you anyway.)
Just don’t cry. Don’t feel. Bottle it all up.
God says it’s okay.
The law says it’s okay.
Long as you’re a man, a manly man, not a pussy, not a queer.
Here, now. Have your gun. Go on, take it.
Don’t use it, of course.
Wink, wink.
Don’t use it.
Don’t stray.
Those are your enemies.
Here is your gun.
And there is this.
The World Stands With Orlando

(Title: From Lin-Manuel Miranda's sonnet, read Sunday night at the Tony Awards.)

June 8, 2016

Review: The Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This novella belongs to the same sub-[sub?]-genre as Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country–the Lovecraftian mythos as reimagined through the lens of characters and/or writers of color. This one is set in New York in 1924. Unfortunately (and this is probably due to the fact that it’s a novella and the plot has to move along) the cultural aspects are not so deeply explored. (Although there is one incident in particular that, sadly, could have been ripped out of today’s headlines.) It’s also more explicitly Lovecraftian–Cthulhu is namechecked and described.

The story suffers, in my view, from an unnecessary POV shift about halfway through. It would have made for a tighter focus and characterization if the author had stuck to the original POV character throughout, although as the story unfolded, that would have resulted in going to some pretty dark places. This one would also have been better at a greater length, I think. As it is, it’s okay, but nowhere near the fantastic Lovecraft Country.

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June 6, 2016

Review: Seveneves

Seveneves Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is definitely for the hard science fiction, technical minutiae crowd. It spans thousands of years and concerns an extinction event that wipes out all life on Earth. It chronicles humanity's desperate attempt to transform the International Space Station into a "Cloud Ark" that will enable the species (and the digitally rendered DNA of Terran lifeforms it carries) to survive the extinction event, and return to re-terraform and repopulate the planet once again.

It's stuffed full of ideas that could have easily filled three or four 860-page doorstops. Unfortunately, Neal Stephenson is very fond of his infodumps, and those infodumps tend to get in the way of little things like, I don't know, pacing and character development. This is not to say that the infodumps are wrong, for the science nerds and physics students who can actually understand them. But I, for one, do not need pages upon pages of treatises and painfully exact explanations about orbital mechanics and many many other things to accept them into the story. I did read them, and they were interesting (I did finish the book, after all) but man they were hard to get through.

Still, there is tremendous power to Stephenson's writing in places, especially with the (blessedly brief) description of the extinction event itself. The event is horrifying, of course, and I don't recommend you read it right before bed; it will haunt your dreams. But one scene in particular, seen through the eyes of one of the main characters, saying goodbye to her father (via Morse code)...if the entire book had been like that, it would have blown me away.

Unfortunately, it's not. It's an unbelievably grim survival story, and almost all of the characters die--down to the titular "Seven Eves": seven women, who through parthenogenesis and genetic engineering, are all that's left to revive the human race. (I will say that this is the most scientifically dubious part of the entire book; I did a few searches, and what I read suggests to me that parthenogenesis is pretty much impossible.) After this, we take a five-thousand-year-leap into the future, wherein the seven races the "Eves" have spawned, now three billion strong, are working from their own tremendously advanced orbital habitats to make a barren Earth once again able to support life.

This last section is very much a love-it-or-hate-it sort of thing. It has better-written and more interesting characters, but the science seems to get more implausible with each passing page. Handwavium abounds, needless to say. And the ending, to me, was totally unsatisfying. There's no sense of closure or emotional punch; it just peters out, and cheapens the epic struggle that came before it.

Still, this was definitely a hard-science-fiction event, and I can certainly understand why it's praised and why it's been up for various awards. I don't regret reading it, but in the end, it's not my kind of book.

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May 28, 2016

Review: All the Birds in the Sky

All the Birds in the Sky All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the first two-thirds of the story, I wasn’t sure this book knew what it wanted to be–either a contemporary fantasy, magical realism, or an absurd tome on the order of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This seemed to vary from chapter to chapter (the chapters alternate viewpoints between the two main characters). Because of this, I felt the story rambled more than a little, so that I wondered when or if it would ever get to some sort of point.

I was never tempted to put the book down though, because Charlie Jane Anders is an excellent writer. Her prose is rich and evocative, and she has a knack for metaphors and similes that turned my fingertips green with envy. She also moved the story right along, so even if I thought we might never get to where we were supposed to go, for the most part I was enjoying the trip.

The two main characters, Patricia and Laurence, represent the two opposing sides of the author's mythos: magic and science. This is made clear right away, in each of the chapters introducing them. A bird Patricia rescues starts talking to her within the first three pages--and pay close attention to where that bird takes her, because the ending of the book is indicated right then and there. In the second chapter, the bullied nerd Laurence invents a "two-second time machine," which immediately portends the various other things he invents throughout the book, all of which play huge roles in the final showdown. It's a masterful bit of foreshadowing, and also of characterization.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, the author drops the bomb. (Figuratively, from my reaction, and literally in the story.) Looking back now, I can see how carefully the whole thing was set up, and how delicate some of the puzzle pieces were. When everything clicked into place, the book took off like Secretariat exploding out of the starting gate, and all I could do was hang on for what became a helluva ride.

This book takes some pretty familiar tropes and turns them inside out. The only quibble I have with it is the meandering first section, and given the quality of the writing, I didn't mind all that much. Your mileage may vary, of course. In any event, the book is well worth checking out.

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May 18, 2016

Review: Their Fractured Light

Their Fractured Light Their Fractured Light by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the final book in the Starbound trilogy, and while I know three books is a real investment to make, this trilogy is worth it. It's also the case that while the authors make laudable attempts to explain what has gone before without bogging down this story, you really owe it to yourself to read the first two books (These Broken Stars and This Shattered World). I think it would be much harder to pick up on what's going on without this background.

But having read the first two books only deepened my enjoyment of the final volume, because all the stray threads are tied together and all the loose ends picked up. About halfway through this book, the four characters from the two previous books meet up with the protagonists of this one, and all six characters take it through the final battle. This shows some very good plotting by Kaufman and Spooner, and my hat's off to them.

Sofia and Gideon, the protagonists of this book, were actually introduced in the previous volume--Gideon is the Knave of Hearts, hypernet hacker extraordinaire, and Sofia is one of the inhabitants of Avon, the setting of This Shattered World. Both are used to hiding behind various masks and distrusting everyone they meet, and of course they are thrown together and must learn to trust each other to survive. Their relationship is a careful, hesitant slow burn of a romance (this book is marketed as "young adult," which is kind of a misnomer in a universe where sixteen is the legal age--Captain Jubilee Chase from the previous book talked her way into the military at fifteen--and the usual YA angst of our world is totally absent; the characters have the feel of mature people, regardless of their late-teen status) as they work together to defeat LaRoux Industries, the sociopathic corporation that is the real antagonist of the series. (We also spend quite a bit of time with Roderick LaRoux, head of LaRoux Industries, but in something of a twist, he is a broken, pitiable man at the end.)

The worldbuilding didn't knock my socks off, but it's perfectly adequate. This is space opera with terraforming, FTL and hyperspace, and an expanding human empire which depends on all three. (Although it's kind of funny to think of Gideon hacking his way through hyperspace. Where were all the cat pictures?) The outstanding element of this is, of course, what comes to be called the Collective, the incorporeal hivemind of energy beings discovered in hyperspace (which is their universe) and exploited by Roderick LaRoux. That's actually the weakest part of the worldbuilding; how on earth could a human contain creatures of pure energy, creatures with the power to create a perfect copy of a deceased person? There's quite a bit of handwaving there, but in the end I decided I could overlook this because the overall plotting and characterization was so good. This book really brought the Collective to life for me, with their asides between chapters.

(And by the way, who had the bright idea to print chapter 38, the one chapter in this book from Lilac's point of view, on gray paper? You'll know why when you get to that chapter. It's just brilliant.)

This book, and indeed this entire series, is one of the best I have read in a long time. Highly recommended.

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May 12, 2016

Review: Kalahari

Kalahari Kalahari by Jessica Khoury
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jessica Khoury is one of the better YA writers out there; her books have a strong science fiction focus and take place in unusual and well-fleshed-out settings. (I was also going to say that she doesn't write trilogies, but I discovered this book is third in a loose trilogy, dealing with the same secretive, shady corporation. I haven't read the second book at all, and it's been a while since I read Origin, long enough that I'd completely forgotten about Corpus.) Just as her fantastic treatment of the Amazonian rainforest in Origin, here the Kalahari desert comes alive, from the sounds of the birds to the snakes and scorpions in the grass, from digging up edible roots to bringing down guinea fowl with a sort of primitive boomerang, to facing down a young bull elephant in rut and wriggling into a warthog's burrow.

Sarah Carmichael has spent her entire life traveling the world with her parents, conservation research scientists. In order to gain a grant, she and her father agree to host five American teenagers for two weeks in the Kalahari, where they have been living for the past few years. As the story opens, Sarah is just beginning to recover from her mother's death four months ago. She meets the five city slickers and drives them to her camp (one of the girls, Miranda, upon seeing the primitive campsite, asks plaintively, "Where's the lodge? You promised there would be a lodge"). Her father, Ty Carmichael, hears a report over the radio of poachers in the area and goes to check it out, taking with him the only other adult, the friend of the family and Bushman Theo. He promises Sarah he won't get involved and he'll be back by dark.

Of course, this grand plan doesn't work out at all.

This book is a mixture of a hard-edged survival story and genetic engineering run amuck, in the form of a secret Corpus lab creating something that, in the usual "there are some things humankind was never meant to know" formulation, gets away from its creators. How you feel about the plot as a whole depends primarily on the plausibility of the second half of this proposition, and I must say Khoury comes up a little short here. She tries mightily, and couches her Metalcium (her inorganic "living metal" invention that reminds me of the "liquid metal" in Terminator 2: Judgment Day) in enough handwavium that she almost pulls it off. This Metalcium is actually pretty frightening: it's inorganic but can self-replicate and evolve; it uses lead to sneak past the body's immune system and can copy DNA to create inorganic copies of organic cells; and of course, once it learns to do that, it decides that all those organic cells in the bodies it's infected need to be replaced, which results in lions, giraffes, bush babies, porcupines, mice and eventually humans turning into creatures of living metal before they go insane and die.

All this is well and good, and sets up a taut little thriller, as an infected lion named Androcles escapes from the Corpus lab and leads a chase that collides with our protagonists. Sarah, her father, and the five city kids are caught in the escalating conflict of the Corpus mercenaries' increasingly desperate attempts to contain the situation. They learn of the true stakes about halfway through the book, and the remainder chronicles Sarah's quest to keep herself and her charges alive, find her father, solve the mystery of her mother's death, cross the Kalahari on foot with little food and water, avoid the Corpus bad guys, and attempt to reach civilization--and not incidentally get all of this done before she succumbs to her own Metalcium infection, from inadvertently touching a contaminated bush baby.

The pacing of this book is very good, and the settings and descriptions are excellent. The Kalahari felt totally lived-in, deadly and real. Sarah is a marvelous protagonist, competent, intelligent and in charge, completely at home in primitive conditions and a fish out of water in anything approaching modern life. Sam Quartermain, her love interest--and I must say I appreciated the fact that there wasn't a bloody love triangle in this book; I'm really getting tired of that cliche--is the best characterized of the five city slickers. The others, unfortunately, are not as well fleshed out. However. Khoury blows a mile-wide hole in the plot with her solution to the Metalcium problem--African bee venom? Really? Bees, who most certainly did not evolve to fight this inorganic menace, can neuter it and break it down in Sarah's body (and the bodies of anything infected, animal or human) with a few stings? If the Metalcium is as intelligent and aggressive as it's made out to be, why couldn't it change its own chemical composition to counter the effect of the venom, or simply take over the bees' tiny bodies before the venom can start to affect it? I'm sorry, but after doing such a good job of setting up this implacable foe, the solution was way too easy.

There is a lot to like about this book, and I'm glad I read it. I can for the most part gloss over the plot deficiencies (the fact that I didn't throw the book against the wall is proof of that), but of course other's mileage may vary.

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May 9, 2016

Review: Everyday Sexism

Everyday Sexism Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this little book should be read by everyone, and it definitely should be taught in high schools and college. It proves that feminism is still needed, and anyone who tells you we live in a "post-feminist" society is simply full of it. The book began life as the Everyday Sexism Project, a website where women could post their stories and lived experiences. According to the book's frontpage, the site has now collected more than 100,000 testimonials from people around the world.

One of the most heartbreaking chapters, to me, is Chapter 3, entitled "Girls." The first three pages detail stories of sexism from literally every year of a young woman's life, from birth to 18.

My father's reaction when he learned I was a baby girl: "They are twins, and girls to boot!?"

My mom told me repeatedly that men won't like me because I was too opinionated...it started when I was 3.

Aged 5, man leaned over the garden wall where I was playing, asked me to twirl so he could see my knickers.

6 years old, as a bridesmaid, took my cardigan off at the reception and got WOLF WHISTLES from adult men nearby. Straight back on.

Being told by age 9 that getting catcalled, whistled, honked at were to be taken as compliments.

Age 12, at KFC, some guy hands me a note with crap handwriting, but reads pretty much as "I want to fook you."

Told I was pretty and then asked my age. Said I was 14 and he asked me to sit on his lap.

Men shouted at me from their car "get your tits out you fucking slag." I was 15.

Working in a bar aged 18, collecting glasses, man waits until both my hands are full then grabs my boobs from behind.

These stories, and many many more, show that sexism runs through a woman's life from birth to death, whether she's married or single, a housewife or a career woman, a mother or childfree. (Also, for those who ask "what about the men?" there's a chapter on them too.) The sheer number of reports can be overwhelming, which is why it took me over a week to finish this book. However, the final chapter, Chapter 12, "People Standing Up," gives reason for hope and urges people to, as the author says, keep "moving small stones to redirect the flow of the river."

True equality can be achieved, and it will. Books like these are invaluable to show us the way.

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