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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August 23, 2015

Bad Puppies Get Spanked

By now, everyone who's been following the Hugo controversy this year knows what happened to the legal-but-unethical Sad/Rabid Puppy ballot.

Here's a roundup of the many articles and comments. (The last link is a sad commentary on what could have and should have been. So many worthy works pushed off the ballot--not the least of which was the last beautiful heartbreaking story by the late Eugie Foster--and all for the sake of a blind egotistical Nutty Nugget circle jerk. Faugh.)

I watched the ceremony via UStream (and a shoutout to those folks for their flawless streaming) and fist-pumped several times during the ceremony, particularly for the appearance of Mr. Noah Ward for the Best Novella and Best Related Work categories. By that time, it was obvious that the Canines were going down.

XKCD 1357 is relevant here.

Unfortunately, this isn't the end of it. The Impacted Canines' eyeballs may be turning brown, but they don't intend to give it up. Indeed, I'm sure we're in for another year of this nonsense. There were two proposals passed at the Hugo Business Meeting today--E Pluribus Hugo and 4/6--that will curb slating in the future, but these still need to be ratified next year. Which means that 2016 is wide open for another slate, and the Brown-Eyed Pups are already gearing up for it.

(Which is rather contradictory to their stated wishes: to get many more people to vote for the Hugos. They succeeded. If they were honorable, they would accept the thorough repudiation of the voters and retire from the field, or at least stop with the slating. They're not going to do that. Y'all can draw your own conclusions.)

So, what to do? The answer is obvious: NOMINATE NOMINATE NOMINATE. There were nearly 6000 voters for the Hugos this year, a tremendous increase, and a total membership of over 11,000. ALL of those people have nominating privileges for the awards next year. (I'm sure a fair number, including me, have already purchased supporting memberships for MidAmericaCon II, which is to be held next year in Kansas City.) If half or two-thirds of these people would read whatever they normally would and nominate what they loved, we could send the Puppies back to their kennels with nary a whimper.

To that end, from here on out I plan to post reviews of books and stories I have read that are eligible for next year's awards. I also urge people to take advantage of the Hugo Awards Google Doc and the Hugo Awards Wikia, which are lists of potential nominees. (They're especially useful for the short fiction nominees.) I've already added some names to the former. When the time comes, I'll publish my own nominating list, with relevant links.

We can do this, folks, if we all pull together. Let's get to it.

August 16, 2015

Review: Uprooted

Uprooted Uprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my second five-star read of the year. I think I like this better than Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory, and I've been raving about that to whoever would listen. Bear's book is an exhilarating, fun romp with a memorable cast of characters. This book, while it does have its comedic moments (especially in the beginning, with the clash of personalities between our protagonist Agnieszka and the wizard), is much darker. So much so, in fact, that while the protagonist is seventeen, and on the surface you might think the book is for young adults, I wouldn't give it to a younger teenager to read. Especially in the final third of the story, all the carefully woven plot threads explode into a heart-attack-inducing burst of action. There are fights, often gruesome deaths, fleeing, on-the-edge-of-your-seat rescues, a magical siege of a tower that rivals anything Tolkien produced, and a final desperate trek into an antagonist as unique as anything I've read in ages--the poisonous, sentient, killer Wood.

Let's put it this way: This is not a Disneyfied fairy tale, and it's definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Our heroine is Agnieszka (pronounced Ag-NYESH-kah according to the Author's Note). She is an endearingly klutzy young girl who, by virtue of the year of her birth, has to participate in the ten-year ritual of the Dragon-born. The Dragon is the wizard who protects the valley where Agnieszka lives from the Wood, the magical forest on the border between Agnieska's country and the next. There is a great deal of backstory to this Wood, woven in so expertly that it never slows the story down, and indeed this backstory emerges as the prime driver of the plot. (Naomi Novik's worldbuilding for this book is just fantastic. I am in awe.) Agnieszka is not particularly worried about the Dragon's choosing, because everyone knows that the wizard will take her best friend, Kasia, an accomplished blond beauty who stands in stark contrast to Agnieszka's clumsy untidiness. Of course, as soon as I say that, y'all know what happens, don't you? The Dragon comes, tests all the girls...and chooses Agnieszka instead.

Thus begins the epic journey of Agnieszka learning she is a witch, albeit an intuitive, unconventional one who throughly offends the Dragon's notion of what a magic worker should be. The Dragon, whose name we later learn is Sarkan, is the epitome of a scowling, grumpy wizard shouting at everyone, "Get off my lawn!" He comes across a bit nasty at first, yelling at poor lost Agnieszka, whose world has just been turned upside down. But the deeper we get into the story, and the more we learn about the Dragon's task--guarding the valley, and the entire country, from the gradual encroachment of the Wood--the more sympathy we feel for him. His job is one I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, and he is the only one who can do it. This naturally does not inspire a personality of sweetness and light.

The antagonist here, the Wood, is a stroke of genius. Not a person per se, but a magical forest on the far edge of the valley. This forest spits out monstrous mutated animals, and drags people inside either to their deaths, or to be swallowed up by evil heart-trees, or releases them filled with a corruption that leads the victims to murder. The Wood's brooding, malevolent presence is one of the scariest things I have read in a long time, and it rings true on every page. (And for the contrarian who asks, "Why in the hell don't all the people in the valley just leave?"--that is dealt with. Turns out, there is a good reason.)

Because Agnieszka is a witch, she has to team with the Dragon to fight the Wood. There is a great deal more to this layered, complex plot, which is why the book is 435 pages long. None of it is boring, and all of it is stupendously well-written. We have the power of female friendship (Agnieszka and Kasia), Agnieszka's love for her family and her love for the valley (it's her home and she's not leaving); court politics; war; a back-burner romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon; and finally, after the Wood's final defeat, Agnieszka's finding her purpose and her place. She will stay in the valley and she will heal the Wood, even if it takes all of her very long witch-life.

This is one reason why, for me, the ending was so satisfying. The Dragon leaves for the Capital to mop up the mess (to put it mildly; mass slaughter was involved, which is why this book is so dark) the Wood made of the king's court, and Agnieszka doesn't know when, or if, he is coming back. No matter: she has her job, the gradual cleansing of the Wood, and she is not at all dependent on the Dragon. Then the Dragon, all grumpy prickly mortification, returns.

Happiness was bubbling up through me, a bright stream laughing. He'd come back. "When did you arrive?"

"This afternoon," he said stiffly. "I came to receive the taxes, of course."

"Of course," I said. I was sure he'd even gone to Olshanka for the tribute first, just so he could pretend that was the truth for a little bit longer. But I couldn't really bring myself to pretend with him, not even long enough for him to get used to the idea; my mouth was already turning up at the corners without my willing it to. He flushed and looked away; but that wasn't any better for him, since everyone else was watching us with enormous interest, too drunk on beer and dancing to be polite. He looked back at me instead, and scowled at my smile.

"Come and meet my mother," I said. I reached out and took his hand.

This ending was just perfect. The enemy has been defeated, and if there is still rebuilding to be done, you know these people's lives will go on, and there is every reason to hope those lives will be happy ones.

This book is simply marvelous. It's beautifully written, the magic system is unique, the worldbuilding is wonderful, and the characters are pitch perfect. It's my best read so far this year.

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August 9, 2015

Review: Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us

Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us by David Neiwert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best nonfiction book I have read this year, and one of the best I have read in quite some time.

The author obviously has a great appreciation and love for orcas, and his personal anecdotes of various encounters he has had with them add a great deal to his book. There are also fascinating chapters about orca evolution and retellings of Native myths about the animals. Killer whale intelligence and possible sapience is discussed, along with their incredibly close social structure and the fact that they really do have another sense (echolocation) that humans cannot comprehend.

Unfortunately, a great deal of this book is terribly depressing. Neiwert makes a convincing case that these majestic animals should not be in captivity at all, and the way various marine parks (cough *SeaWorld* cough) treat them is tantamount to the deliberate torture of an intelligent species. (For instance, the calves are routinely separated from their mothers when they are a year old, when in the wild calves stay with their mothers and their pod their entire lives.) Orcas in captivity also do not live as long as those in the wild, despite SeaWorld's blatantly false assertions to the contrary. (Yes, I have seen the movie Blackfish, and my heart goes out to the whale profiled in the film, Tilikum. In my opinion, his captivity has left him psychotic, and that's why he killed three people, including his trainer Dawn Brancheau.) In the wild, killer whales swim up to a hundred miles a day; confining them to tanks, even million-gallon ones, is equivalent to confining a human to a bathtub. For life. Orcas never attack people outside of captivity, or each other; their highly social, cooperative natures forbid it.

There are also chapters on the people who have devoted their lives to studying these animals, and attempting to preserve their numbers, in particular the declining Southern Resident population. The possibility of returning some captive orcas to the wild is discussed, focusing on the story of Keiko, the whale featured in the movie Free Willy. All of it is very well done--the book reads like a novel--and all of it, at least to me, is fascinating. Be prepared to be pissed, though, especially at SeaWorld. I for one will never darken their doors again.

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August 1, 2015

Review: Dove Arising

Dove Arising Dove Arising by Karen Bao
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wish Goodreads had a little more graduated ratings system. This book didn't quite make it up to a 3 for me, but it's not a 2, either. Some parts of it were more than just okay, and others weren't. It is a very flawed book, however, and ultimately it didn't excite me enough to want to read the sequel (and with the abrupt, unsatisfying ending, there will definitely be a sequel).

This story is set three hundred years in the future, when Earth has undergone drastic changes due to global warming--the current superpowers, and even countries as far as I could tell, are no more, replaced with floating cities, and there is a functioning colony on the Moon. The people on the Moon are the descendants of the scientists who left Earth when all the shit started coming down (illustrated in a rather heavy-handed way by their swearing "so help you Reason" during a trial, over a holographic copy of The Origin of Species). Religion is banned and the scientific process is the cornerstone of their society. They also have a nice little war going with the floating cities of Earth, with raids back and forth over...what, I couldn't exactly tell, other than the reveal far into the book that the Moonbases are not quite the self-sustaining things their inhabitants always thought they were.

Our protagonist is Phaet Theta (nobody has any individual family names; their last names are derived from the apartment complexes where they live), a fifteen-year-old girl. Her life is disrupted by her mother becoming ill and being dragged off to medical isolation. The family cannot afford to pay for her treatment and face being banished to Shelter, the Moon's equivalent of an internment camp. To spare her brother and sister this fate, Phaet joins the Militia, hoping to earn a high enough rank to pay for her mother's treatment--and eventually her bail, as we come to find out that her mother has actually been arrested for what's called "disruptive print." Even later, in the wildly uneven and disjointed back half of the book, Mira Theta is shown to be the leader of Dovetail, a revolutionary underground group rebelling against the nice little dictatorship the six-person Committee, the ruling council, has going.

Honestly, there are a fair amount of good ideas here, thrown around in a completely half-assed manner. The character of Phaet is one of the better parts of the story; her love for her family drives her to enlist in Militia, its youngest-ever trainee. The first part of the book, with the storyline of Phaet's military training, is to me the stronger half. But once she graduates (and, implausibly, is given the rank of Captain) the whole thing starts to go off the rails. The writing becomes clunky, the characterization diverges wildly from what has already been established, and the pacing goes wonky. Once Phaet's mother is bailed out of Penitentary, her storyline is forced to the forefront, and then we have the reveal of her position as this rebel group leader just after she is executed. Immediately thereafter, Phaet and her fellow Militia trainee, Wes, have to go on the run (and we find out Wes is actually an Earthbound spy), and Phaet winds up leaving her brother and sister behind to flee to Earth.

It's too much, crammed into too tight a space, and unfortunately it turned me off to the entire story. The author's bio notes that she started writing the book when she was seventeen, and it certainly reads that way. I suppose Dove Arising was good enough to get published (barely) but to me, the author needs a few more years of writing and life experience before she can really pull off something like this.

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Note on Comments

This morning a comment in moderation awaited my approval. It turned out to be a long-winded, pathetic MRA screed in which the writer urged men not to marry, to fuck prostitutes, and work on creating artificial wombs and sex robots so they'll never have to have contact with a real flesh-and-blood woman again.

Well, whatever, dude. I can assure you I would never miss coming in contact with such a complete jackass as you either.

I cannot fathom why this idiot wasted his time with this mess. It's certainly never going to see the light of day, at least on this blog. If he bounces from place to place posting stupidities like these and then crows "censorship" when they understandably never appear, all I can say is: Tough shit. This is my virtual living room and I control who gets invited in. If the only reason you're commenting is to take a pixellated dump on my carpet, you can take your nastiness elsewhere, and don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

MRA's and various other stripes of misogynist are not welcome here. Period. You can certainly occupy yourself by writing spittle-flecked rants like the one above, but since all comments are moderated, it will take one click for me to retire them to the ether.

Please keep this in mind, kids. It does say "feminism" right in my header, after all.

July 26, 2015

MovieBob Reviews: PIXELS (2015)

Oh dear Dogg. Tell us how you really feel, Bob. (Warning: SERIOUSLY not safe for work. But I laughed till I cried.)


July 25, 2015

Review: Storm Siren

Storm Siren Storm Siren by Mary Weber
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I tried with this book. Honest to Dogg, I really did. But the clunky writing and terrible metaphors finally caught up with me about three-quarters of the way through, and I threw it down and said, "That's it." I'd nearly hurled it against the wall at the halfway mark; I'd taken it to work to read on my breaks, and threw it on the table and said, "This book is stupid!" But I picked it up again (mainly because I didn't have anything else to read) and gave it one more try.

No more. I'm home now, and I have two more library books to get through, plus my own ever-expanding To Be Read pile. Life is just too short.

The sad thing is that there is a good book here struggling to get out, if only the editor had been a little more diligent. The main character is well drawn. The setting is rather generic Fantasyland (though the story reminded me, more than a little, of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Stormqueen). What completely fractured my suspension of disbelief is the uneven writing--for the most part, the action scenes are good, but the author's descriptions, metaphors and similes are terrible; I don't know why her editor didn't clamp down on this--and the worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is lacking to say the least; cliched and not thought out. Especially regarding the ecosystem of her world: there are "ferret-cats" and "panther-monkeys" (groan) and the final deal-breaker for me--flesh-eating horses.

For crying out loud. That simply does not work. And it's not as though said deer-chomping mounts even play a main role in the plot (at least, as far as I read) which makes the whole thing even more irritating. If you want your readers (or at least this reader) to accept your story and your world, you've got to get these background details right, or the reader is hurled out of your book. If you want a savage carnivorous riderbeast, fine. Just don't make it a horse.

Bah. There's got to be better books than this.

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July 20, 2015

Review: "Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial," by Kenji Yoshino

This book is the story of one of the cases that led to Obergefell vs. Hodges, the recent Supreme Court decision that legalized marriage equality in all fifty states. Hollingsworth v. Perry is the trial that resulted in the striking down of California's Proposition 8, the citizens initiative that banned same-sex marriage. 

Because the author is a Professor of Constitutional Law, he gets pretty deep in the legalese weeds here. No doubt some will find this boring; I found it fascinating, and the story of the trial reads like a novel. The author discusses the plaintiffs (two same-sex couples denied a marriage license), the proponents, the lawyers behind the marriage-equality movement and the history of the movement, the lawyers who brought Perry to trial (including Republican Ted Olson, who ironically won the horrid Citizens United decision before the Supreme Court), and the judge. This all takes place in Part I, a necessary set-up to the trial itself.

Part II delves deep into the trial, including excerpts from the transcript. The author thoroughly explores the arguments put forth by both sides, and explains how the arguments against same-sex marriage simply do not hold up. The proponents' witnesses were, to put it mildly, lacking, and the plaintiffs made their case with a mixture of expert witnesses and people relating their lived experiences. The plaintiffs ultimately prevailed, but of course the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, where it was taken up along with United States vs. Windsor, the case that struck down DOMA (the federal Defense of Marriage Act). The California judge's ruling in Perry was also upheld at that time, albeit on narrow grounds that applied to the state of California only; but in that ruling (along with Windsor) the seed was planted that led to the final victory just last month. 

The author, Kenji Yoshino, does a very good job of explaining torturous legal minutiae and making it understandable for the layperson, and constructing an absorbing narrative. Especially interesting, to me, was his championing the process of the trial in and of itself, and how cross-examination can strip arguments to their bare essentials and create a record that exposes their faults and virtues for all to see. One paragraph I particularly liked:

Finally, trials separate fact from belief. At least in the United States today, the trial requires an innately secular form of argumentation. As such, it operates as a sieve that filters out religious motivations for a law. The Perry trial showed that opposition to same-sex marriage is largely rooted in conservative religious beliefs. Beliefs move people to engage passionately in a cause, and passion can often persuade. Yet as the trial showed, a passion is not a reason, much less a reason for a law. (p. 269)

This is good too:

Finally, a trial is, as one reporter said of Perry, a "great and theatrical classroom." Olson later reflected that Perry "was an enormous education to everybody who was in that courtroom, even those who had been laboring in the vineyard for gay rights." Though the proceedings were not broadcast, Perry has generated numerous books, articles, TV pieces, a documentary, and a play, all of which have extended the trial's reach. While the purpose of a trial is justice for the parties, not public education, trials have been known to provide that education as a collateral benefit. (p. 274)

The author ends the book with a ringing endorsement:

So let me pre-commit myself: Next time such a legal controversy arises that implicates thorny "legislative" facts, let it go to trial. Let us try whether women regret their abortions, whether guns deter crime, or whether climate change is occurring. And let the product of the trial be disseminated throughout all forums in which the debate is taking place. For me, the Perry trial explored not one, but two civil ceremonies--the ceremony of marriage and the ceremony of the trial. I have come to see that my conviction about the importance of the civil trial are just as consequential as my convictions about marriage. And so I say again--for the next great legal controversy that turns on key legislative fact: Let there be a trial.

Everyone knows how terribly flawed the American judicial system is, but reading this book will revive one's faith in it, even for a little while. This is an admirable accomplishment. It's also more meaningful now, in light of marriage equality's ultimate victory.