November 14, 2015

"Tears are words that need to be written"

What Scalzi said.

If you believe that every Muslim supports ISIS and groups like it, then you should also believe that all Christians support the Klu Klux Klan and the Westboro Baptist Church and Scott Lively. You should believe that all white people support actions like the Charleston Shooting. You should believe every man celebrates the anniversary of the École Polytechnique Massacre. And so on, across any group or affiliation you might be able to name.

If you don’t believe all of these things, but somehow manage to believe that more than a billion people are somehow sympathetic to, and responsible for the actions of, a cadre of murderous fundamentalists (“fundamentalist” in this case, as in so many cases with that term, not accurately representing the fundamentals of the religion it claims to represent), then the problem is you, not 1.2 billion Muslims.

My condolences to the families and loved ones of all the Paris victims.

November 7, 2015

Review: The Library at Mount Char

The Library at Mount Char The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

On occasion, I've heard people say something about a book I never quite understood: "I'm glad I read this book, but I'll never read it again."

I didn't know what they meant, until now.

I don't even know if I'm glad I read this book. I liked it--sort of--and it held my interest, but I'm never going to reread it, and I won't pick up the sequel if there is one. That's not to knock the writer; his prose is good, his book is well paced, and the characters are well drawn. I guess I just don't care to read about the struggles of a family of sociopathic gods, and a plot that is laden with guts and gore and roasting people alive.

The main character, Carolyn, is indeed a sociopath; the author knows it, the reader knows it, and the character certainly knows it. Carolyn, along with eleven other children, are taken in by a sixty-thousand-year-old deity made flesh from the "Third Age," who is searching for his successor. "Father" needs someone to watch over his Library, which is the supernatural, extradimensional font of all knowledge. To choose his successor, Father subjects all the children to terrible things. This backstory makes clear why Carolyn is the way she is, and I suppose I can't blame her; but again, this is another reason why I don't want to read any more about her.

This is the story of the struggle between the children, and other deities from Father's past, and how Carolyn ascends to the position of Librarian, in charge of Father's Library and apparently our universe. The book's ending leaves the plot open for a sequel.

" said 'they're coming.' Who's 'they'?"

"I'm not completely sure yet. My Father had enemies. Some of them are my enemies now, too. They've begun to move against me."

"Dangerous folks? Dangerous like you, I mean."

"Some of them, yeah."


"Don't worry," Carolyn said. "I have a plan."

I'm sure she does, but I won't be reading it.

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November 1, 2015

Review: The Book of Phoenix

The Book of Phoenix The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is weird, messy and complicated. It's billed as a science fiction story, and it certainly is that; the titular main character, Phoenix Okore, is a genetically engineered being, after all. In this future, climate change has advanced to the point that Manhattan Island is partially under water. There's a two-mile-high tree growing out of what's left of Manhattan that was generated by an alien seed. Phoenix is essentially a superhero, a living bomb (with wings!) who can blow herself up, burn herself and everything around her to ash, and regenerate from those same ashes. She does this several times through the course of the story, and the final occasion supposedly brings about the downfall of civilization.

It should be just the kind of book I like, and I did finish it...but I just didn't warm to it. As a protagonist, Phoenix is nicely drawn, as are the supporting characters, and Nnedi Okorafor's prose style is smooth and unobtrusive. I think the basic setup is what spoils the story for me; the suspension of disbelief is stretched just a little too far to accept everything thrown at me, especially when there's another character who sounds like some kind of mystical Obi-Wan sage who can literally walk through solid matter.

Having said that, the framing story, set two hundred years later after Phoenix's apocalypse when an old storyteller in Africa discovers a cache of computers and a chip with Phoenix's story recorded as an oral history, is pretty impressive. In many ways it's the best part of the novel. The exploration of African customs and the power of myth almost carry the day, and certainly elevate the story higher than I might have rated it otherwise.

I'm glad I read it, but unfortunately, I can't mark it down as one of the best books of the year.

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October 11, 2015

Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant

The Traitor Baru Cormorant The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not for the fainthearted. I'll say that right up front, because it's important, and I don't want to be lashed for not mentioning it. The story is the epitome of the phrase, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," or as the book puts it before the story even starts, "A Promise: This is the truth. You will know because it hurts."

I've never seen an author do that before, but if ever a book lives up to its promise, this one does.

This is the story of Baru Cormorant, and her struggle to take down the evil Empire of Masks from the inside out. The Empire conquered her island of Taranoke, not through the usual way--war--but through trade, a treaty, economics, and the promise of better living. Things like antibiotics, dentistry, and roads. Unfortunately the price paid is high: the island's culture is swallowed up and subjugated, its natural resources exploited and stripped, its children indoctrinated into the Imperial way of thinking. (The Empire of Masks is a particularly nasty piece of work; their society is highly homophobic and subscribes to this world's version of eugenics, i.e., forced marriages and people bred like cattle. Undesirables, like Baru, who is a lesbian [or "tribadist"], are put to the knife--castrated and/or circumcised--reeducated through use of drugs or a more brutal version of our "reparations therapy," or killed altogether.) Baru, a mathematics savant, is trained to be an Imperial Accountant, and is assigned to the country of Aurdwynn. She is determined to free her home, and is convinced that playing the Imperial game and destroying the Empire from within is the only way to achieve her goal.

That description, however, in no way does justice to the brutality and ruthlessness of both this book and its main character. Step by step, we are witness to the creation of a monster, whose obsession leads her to do terrible things. Yet Baru is not a sociopath, not really; she loves, she cries, and she grieves, and she feels every bit of what she is doing, but she will let nothing stand in her way. And so the book's central theme is this: How far will Baru go to get what she wants, and will the time ever come when the ends do not justify the means? What, and who, will she sacrifice to defeat the Empire...and can the Empire ever really be defeated?

It's one of the most complex characterizations I've seen in a long time. I was horrified by Baru, and hated her, but I always understood her, and I couldn't take my eyes off her.

Baru becomes the Fairer Hand, the leader of Aurdwynn's rebellion. (Not by force of arms, mind you, but by force of numbers. She is still the Imperial Accountant, manipulating currencies and people with equal aplomb.) After one decisive battle, where the rebels of Aurdwynn defeat the Imperial troops, I looked at the number of pages remaining and realized the book couldn't wrap up here. This story could not possibly have a happy ending.

It didn't. I won't spoil it, except to remind you that the book's title is The Traitor Baru Cormorant. And yet this book could have ended no other way.

It's dark and disturbing, and if you must have optimism in your fiction, you need to stay far away from this one. But if you read this story, it will haunt you for weeks to come. I gave it four stars because of the awkwardness of the first few chapters, dealing with Baru's childhood; once she reaches Aurdwynn, the book blasts on all cylinders.

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October 3, 2015

Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology by Ann VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There's a nice trend on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites, of crowdfunding anthologies based around specific themes that might not find a home in traditional publishing. This book is a good example. I participated in its Kickstarter, and I'm proud that my money helped this book find a home in the world.

It's a very professional effort, as would be expected from the editing team of Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Unfortunately, all the stories are from years past and cannot be considered for this year's awards, although the anthology itself could be nominated for, say, the Locus Awards. It would make a worthy nominee, as far as I'm concerned.

Some of my favorites:

"The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.," L. Timmell Duchamp--Margaret A. is so feared by the US government that the Constitution is amended to silence her, and she is held in a one-person concentration camp with no contact with the outside world, save for a monthly visit from a journalist. We never find out exactly what she says, and that's not the point. (It is mentioned, though, that Margaret A. is a black woman, which is rather telling, even more so now than when the story was written.) The story is not really about Margaret A., but rather the journalist who speaks with her, and who discovers she cannot live with the status quo any longer.

"The Grammarian's Five Daughters," Eleanor Arnason--a delightful, beautifully written fantasy about the power of words (quite literally the parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions) and the women who wield them.

"The Screwfly Solution," James Tiptree, Jr (aka Alice Sheldon)--a classic of the genre, just as disturbing now as it was nearly forty years ago.

"The Evening and the Morning and the Night," Octavia E. Butler--I've read a lot of Butler's stuff, but somehow I missed this story. It's tremendous.

"Tales from the Breast," Hiromi Goto--the premise of this story sounds absurd, but man, the ending bites.

"Northern Chess," Tanith Lee--a lush fantasy story that hinges on a similar reveal to Eowyn's "I am no man!" from The Return of the King.

But my favorite of the bunch, as dark and depressing as it is, is Susan Palwick's "Gestella," which asks a simple question: what happens when a female werewolf, with canine aging patterns, falls in love with a human? For modern sensibilities, the beginning is a bit squicky, but the story is a powerful treatise on how women are often used and discarded as they age. And the ending is just...oh my God.

There were a couple of stories I liked less, but the general quality is quite high. You won't go wrong with this collection.

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2016 Hugos: Other Recommendations

For those hunting for possible 2016 short fiction nominations, check out this list from io9. There's some good-sounding stories on here.

September 28, 2015

Getting to the Point with Senator Elizabeth Warren

This is a wonderful speech by Elizabeth Warren on race, the Civil Rights Act, and economic justice. Skip ahead to around 12:30 for her remarks. (Other Democratic Presidential nominees need to say something like this, hint hint.)

September 26, 2015

Review: The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've never read any of N.K. Jemisin's work before, but now I'll start collecting her books.

This book is fantastic. I'll get that out of the way right now; it's one of the best I've read this year. It's a very dense book, in plot and character, worldbuilding and writing, and it would definitely reward multiple reads. (In fact, as I was going through it, and peeling back one more layer of the onion Jemisin has so expertly constructed, I found myself returning to the prologue and rereading it, and picking up on the nuances I couldn't understand before. Which I did again just now, after finishing the book. Unfortunately, I have to return this copy to the library, but I'll get my own soon enough.) What I find interesting is that it's being marketed as fantasy, and to me, it's really not. This is not to say I disdain fantasy; I loved Naomi Novik's Uprooted, after all. But this book, while it might have some nominal fantasy trappings, has a very strong science-fiction undertone. Just as an example, the inhabitants of Jemisin's world understand the theory of plate tectonics, the cities have electricity generated by geothermal and/or hydroelectric means, and they also possess the ability to build massive floating (possibly using anti-grav?) crystal obelisks--the purpose of which isn't hinted at until the very last line of the book! (Talk about a cliff-hanger. I immediately went to Amazon to see if I could pre-order the next book, which isn't even finished yet.)

The structure of this book is complex. There are three distinct storylines, and alternating chapters following what you at first believe are three characters--but you gradually realize this is the story of one woman, told at three different times in her life. The oldest version of the protagonist is named Essun, and her chapters are written in second person, present tense. (I've written a story in second person. It's not easy; that sort of narrative is distancing and suffocatingly close all at the same time, and the writer has to make the "you" into a distinct character. Jemisin does this very well.) The earlier versions of Essun, under different names, are written in third person, present tense. Fortunately, the chapter headings make clear which character we'll be focusing on. All this juggling of storylines may sound a bit precious, but it's absolutely necessary to the plot; we have to see why and how Essun has become the person she is, to understand the choices she makes.

The worldbuilding is equally impressive. I've come to the conclusion that, for me, world-building is one of the most important parts of an SFF book; if I can't believe in the world presented, if it doesn't make sense, I get thrown right out of the narrative (and the book tends to hit the wall). Jemisin's world has the weight of thousands of years of history and geology, and carries that weight very well. There are no infodumps. The history/geology is woven in with rare skill, and the story never drags. There are two appendices at the back of the book--a timeline and glossary of terms--that help explain things, which I appreciated, but most readers will be able to follow along anyway. The prose is crisp and clean and deceptively simple, and when Jemisin hits an action sequence, it's like a knockout punch.

This is a very dark story, however, so be warned. The characters never seem to catch a break. There are themes of prejudice and hatred, and a society that oppresses the very people it needs for its survival. There are important questions asked as to how far a person will go to accept something that they know is not right, if they believe accepting the wrong is necessary for their survival, and how and when they will finally break free. Essun is asking those questions, and is on the verge of breaking free, and I can't wait to see what she does next.

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September 15, 2015

2016 Hugos: Short Fiction/Nonfiction Possibilities

Fiction (Category: Best Short Story)

Remembery Day, Sarah Pinsker, Apex Magazine Issue 72, May 2015

(Well, shoot! I thought this issue was already on the website, since it's four months old. It isn't; the last back issue is April 2015. Regardless, I'm putting this out so people will know to look for it when it goes live.)

This is a poignant little tale about war and the costs thereof; and what happens when society decides the price of remembering what the soldiers sacrificed is too high. Clara's mother is a wheelchair-bound veteran of an unnamed War; this war was global and possibly nuclear in nature, but it's never precisely stated. In any event, once a year the survivors and veterans gather across the planet to celebrate and to remember. They can only do this one day out of the year because the rest of the time, their memories are suppressed by the Veil. There's no details given as exactly what kind of memory block this is, and it doesn't matter; as they always do, the veterans vote to continue the Veil, and at the end of the day the memories of what they did in the War are once again suppressed.

This little story sticks with you. It's a possibility for my nomination list.

Toot Sweet Matricia, Suzette Mayr, Apex Magazine Issue 72, May 2015

This story is...I'm not sure what to call it. It's a selkie story and a love story and a story of finding one's identity; it's scattershot and surreal, with imagery more suited to a prose poem. It doesn't really have an actual plot as such. I'm not sure I even like it, but it is memorable, so I'm throwing it out there for other people to see

In Libres, Elizabeth Bear, Uncanny Magazine Issue Four, May/June 2015

At first this story made me chuckle over what seemed like a cute, fluffy conceit. Elizabeth Bear doesn't write cute and fluffy though; I kept reading and this story sucked me right in, with its darker mythological overtones and its library that is an infinite labyrinth, holding a copy of every book ever written. The student Euclavia and the centaur Bucephalus each need one more citation for their thesis and dissertation, and to get them they have to enter the labyrinth and make their way to the Special Collections at its heart, where the Book Wyrm resides with a librarian's spectacles perched on her dragon skull.

Just writing this summary down makes me squee with delight. I'm adding this to my "For Your Consideration" page. (Catherynne Valente's Planet Lion, from this same issue, is already there.)

Nonfiction (Category: Best Related Work)

I Don't Care About Your MFA: On Writing Vs. Storytelling, Kameron Hurley, Uncanny Magazine Issue Four, May/June 2015

(This issue of Uncanny is hitting on all cylinders. I just supported their Year Two Kickstarter, and that's looking like a better decision all the time.)

I really like Kameron Hurley's work. I haven't yet read any of her novels (so many books, such a huge TBR pile, so little time), but her nonfiction pieces are straightforward and practical, and reveal facets of the writer's work and craft that aren't much discussed. This article discusses the difference between writing and storytelling, and how all those shiny MFAs young writers are urged to acquire might not be of such great use after all.

Guided By the Beauty of Their Weapons: An Analysis of Theodore Beale and His Supporters, Philip K. Sandifer, April 2015 blog post

After this year's Puppy nonsense surrounding the Hugos, I'm sure most of us would as soon never hear Theodore Beale's name mentioned again. However, this evil genius isn't going away, and I have no doubt he will try to weasel his execrable e-book SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police on next year's ballot. (Not linking because, well,  who wants to read a badly-written book with two Chapter Fives?) There have been thousands, nay, millions of words written about this year's Hugo spectacle, a small percentage of which was even my own. If we're going to have one piece about the whole mess on the ballot--and we probably will--it should be this one: Philip Sandifer's lengthy treatise on Mr Beale and his fascism.

More to come!

September 1, 2015

Review: The Water Knife

The Water Knife The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was originally going to give this book four stars. I enjoyed it immensely, but I didn't think it was quite up to the lofty standards of Naomi Novik's Uprooted. Still, I kept thinking about the story, and the characters, and Paolo Bacigalupi's chillingly possible near-future world, and I realized if the book has stayed with me that much, it deserves the final star.

So, five stars it is.

This book hits home for me because I live in Arizona, and it is set (mostly) in Phoenix. But it's the Phoenix, and the America, of twenty or thirty years from now, when climate change is really kicking in. Among other things, there are seawalls around Manhattan and Miami; EF6 tornadoes ravaging Chicago (currently the range tops out at EF5, with windspeeds measured between 261-318 mph; EF6, currently rated "inconceivable,"would go beyond that); and hurricanes slamming the Gulf Coast to the point where thousands of people are fleeing Texas, only with the recently passed State Sovereignty Act, states such as California, New Mexico and Nevada are not allowing them in. Water is more valuable than oil or gold, and the so-called Queen of the Colorado, Catherine Case, is employing "water knives" (actually shadowy beyond-the-law assassins) to defend Nevada's water rights. In Phoenix, massive dust storms, far worse than anything we experience today, are slowly burying the city, which is now stuffed with Texas refugees (called "Merry Perrys"--methinks the author doesn't much care for the former Texas governor) and various other factions fighting each other over water. The world is complicated and fascinating, and scary as hell to me, because I can see all of it coming true. (As an example, the day after I finished this book, there was a front-page article in the Arizona Republic detailing the fight over the Colorado River water and the future of the Southwest amidst the ongoing drought.)

You could call this book "climatepunk," I suppose, but at its heart it's a near-future SF thriller. What sets it apart from most potboiler thrillers, however, is its characters. There are three viewpoint characters--Angel Velasquez the water knife, Lucy Monroe the Phoenix journalist, and Maria Villarosa, the Texas refugee who unwittingly gets dragged into the whole mess and plays a surprising role in the end--and these characters are very well done. Each has believable backgrounds, well-thought-out motivations, and a distinct arc, stretched over alternating chapters that fit together like a series of interlocking puzzles. The pacing is excellent and the stakes are high. The ending is a bit abrupt, at least to me, and while it does leave things open for a sequel (something along the lines of "Do they make it to Las Vegas with those senior-to-God water rights, or does California capture them instead?"), the current storyline is for the most part wrapped up.

This book will make you think, and it should. I don't think the author really wants to be known as a prophet, but if the US doesn't get its collective head out of its ass regarding climate change, I think he's going to be more on target than anyone wishes.

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