June 11, 2024

Review: Liberty's Daughter

Liberty's Daughter Liberty's Daughter by Naomi Kritzer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is both a near-future thriller and a commentary on the politics of today, particularly an examination of and tearing apart the philosophy of libertarianism. The author sets up her world and follows through the implications to the end, and shows that a libertarian society is not one most people would like to live in.

Rebecca Garrison, or Beck, is sixteen years old and living on the "seastead," a somewhat ramshackle cobbled-together outpost of retired cruise ships/aircraft carriers/cargo haulers/artificial islands built and maintained by people who want to live away from the rules and taxes of most countries (and/or run away from the charges levied by said countries after breaking their laws). Since there is no public school system (or public anything, including basic services and health care--everything is paid for through fees, subscriptions and selling one's self into debt slavery), Beck has a job as a "Finder." That means she is hired to find the odd little luxuries not readily available on a isolated seastead. During her search for a pair of shoes, she is asked to discover what happened to one woman's sister, and this search and what Beck finds out not only upends seastead society but pretty much brings it down at the end.

This book is a bit depressing though, because even though the book's ending is hopeful, I cannot believe how supposedly intelligent people can be caught up in such a toxic idea as libertarianism. In this future, anyone can come to the seastead, but only those who have money really thrive there, creating a rigid system of haves and have-nots. The rich buy a stake to get in, and the poor are "bonded," having to work off their debt to live there. If a bonded person gets sick, their bond can be sold (without the person's consent) to anyone willing to pay for their treatment. (Obviously if you don't have money and no one will buy your bond, you just die, which is the natural outcome for a society that doesn't believe in any form of taxation for the public good.) This is what happened to the woman Beck is looking for: she fell ill and needed a kidney regeneration, and her bond was sold to a "skin farm," which uses dangerous caustic methods to create brand-new young skin for (again) rich people who can pay for it. This woman, Lynn Miller, ended up in literal debt slavery, chained to her station in the skin farm until Beck shows up to free her.

Our protagonist, Beck Garrison, is a well-written and interesting character. She's a sensible, down-to-earth teenager who was brought to the seastead by her father at the age of four (who is, as we find out, a domestic abuser/mob boss who tried to kill her mother and kidnapped her child, fleeing to the seastead with Beck). She's smart, practical, stubborn and persistent, and her great strength in this story is knowing how the seastead works and how its inhabitants think. This enables her not only to find and free Lynn, but when she gets involved with a "Survivor"-type reality show filming on the seastead, to find participants for the show who are secret union organizers, thus setting in motion the events that bring the seastead's leaders down.

This storyline pits the seastead's rich and ruthless bosses against the ordinary people who actually make it run, who want to live and work there without selling themselves into debt slavery. The bosses go so far to engineer a tailor-made "worker bee" nanotech virus that will force the bonded people to cooperate and be happy in their work, but it backfires into a plague that sweeps the entire seastead (and also sets off a cholera outbreak on one of the ships, the community of Lib, which is another result of having no taxation or regulatory apparatus for public safety). Beck helps solve this problem as well, working with one of the seastead's mercenary companies to get aid to Lib and discover the source of the "worker bee" plague.

Beck is able to do all this because as the daughter of Paul Garrison, one of the seastead's higher-up movers and shakers, she has a great deal of privilege. The story doesn't shy away from that, but in this case Beck has enough of a conscience to use her privilege for good. (It's also interesting, and telling, that most of the seastead's inhabitants are white. There's not a white-supremacy plot thread as such, but the uncomfortable implications are there, if a bit under-explored.) At the story's end, with most of the rich bondholders fleeing, Beck voids the bonded people's contracts and turns over the running and ownership of the seastead to them. She also reunites with her mother, who has come to the seastead aboard the aid ship, and goes to California to live with her. (Her father, the union-busting sociopath who was involved in the tailoring of the worker bee virus, escapes at the end for parts unknown, and good riddance.) Beck is going to live on the mainland at least until she turns eighteen, but she still views the seastead as her home (and has a bit of a budding romance with a boy there as well) and intends to return later on.

This is an interesting story because of Beck and her world, and the implications thereof. I have heard libertarianism defined as the "ultimate ode to selfishness," and this book shows that is pretty much the case. If you don't like political-tinged SF, you won't like this, but I think it has some cogent commentary on certain elements of our world today.

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June 4, 2024

Review: The Book Eaters

The Book Eaters The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book straddles the divide between science fiction and fantasy: to me, it has strong SF underpinnings (the titular Book Eaters, according to their own mythology, were genetically engineered to somewhat resemble humans and placed on Earth thousands of years ago to gather information by an alien Collector, who left and has never returned) but a fantasy/horror feel. (Especially since the Book Eaters are a weird zombie/vampire takeoff who consume literal books and magazines with their "book teeth," which enables them to instantaneously learn and store vast amounts of information. In perhaps the ultimate expression of "you are what you eat," when a book eater dies their blood turns to ink and their bodies decay into rotting rolls of paper.)

(This book also has a strong element of macabre humor.)

This is also a bit of a horror story as well, as the book eaters are divided into five authoritarian, patriarchal Families. Our protagonist, Devon Fairweather, is one of a dwindling number of female book eaters, and she is forced to marry and bear children for different people. The species as a whole is in decline, as there are very few "mother-brides" left and a book eater woman can only bear two children, rarely three, before they go into premature menopause. The book eaters realize they are headed for extinction and are attempting to repurpose human IVF technology for themselves, but in the meantime this (barbaric) breeding program is enforced by the families and a faction called "knights" that arrange the marriage and police book eater women. There is also a third kind of book eater, a "mind eater," who are born with long proboscis tongues that can be inserted into a victim's ear canal and suck out part of their brains (which is why this is something of a zombie story). Devon's second child, her son Cai, is a mind eater. The main storyline follows Devon and Cai and their attempts to escape from the Families and get Cai a supply of Redemption, the Family-manufactured drug that controls his cravings. Unfortunately the only Family making the drug, Ravenscar, has fractured due to a civil war and has fled to an undisclosed place that Devon has to find before Cai starves.

This is pretty detailed worldbuilding and a convoluted plot, but the heart of the story is love, motherhood and the monsters both can turn us into, as the book explores the depths of what a mother will do for her child. For Cai to survive, Devon has to hunt down humans and feed to him, and she picks those on the fringes of human society: the elderly, the homeless. When Cai feeds, he absorbs the minds of the humans he feeds on, and as a result he is a combination of many different people: is there anything of Cai left? Yet sometimes the vulnerable five-year-old who needs his mother peeks through.

As a matter of fact, as far as monsters go, pretty much every character in this story is a monster: the book eaters view themselves as a superior species and humans are pretty much the vermin under their feet, and the heads of the Families are even more entitled and arrogant than that. (As evidenced by the fact that they consign their women to what amounts to reproductive slavery. I've read a few of those kinds of stories, and for once I would like to see someone say, "Fuck you, if I don't have kids and the species dies out, so be it. If forced breeding is what it takes for us to survive, we don't deserve to.") That doesn't make them less compelling: the reader comes to empathize with Devon and Cai, even acknowledging the terrible things they do to survive and stay together. It takes a good writer to make us care about characters like that.

This story is pretty much wrapped up, but there is room for a sequel, as Devon also has a daughter, older than Cai, that she needs to rescue before the girl grows up and is forced into the cycle of marriage. I would read such a book myself, but all told this is a pretty harrowing, gruesome world. Still, the characters, as horrible as they can be, carry the story.

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May 30, 2024

That's Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!!

 Sorry to break the usual flow of SFF related stuff, but I can't resist going political for just a moment:

I wasn't going to celebrate today, but I will now. Fuck yeah. 

May 27, 2024

Review: A Restless Truth

A Restless Truth A Restless Truth by Freya Marske
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This second book in the Last Binding trilogy follows the plotline generated in the first (that of a rogue group of British magicians searching for the three items that make up the Last Contract with the fae before they left this alternate world, which items would enable the magicians to share each other's power), but concentrates on different characters. In this case, our protagonist is Maud Blyth, the sister of Robin Blyth, the hero of the first novel A Marvellous Light , and Violet Debenham, an actor/performance artist/magician she meets on board the Lyric on its cruise back to England with Elizabeth Navenby, the holder of the second item of the Last Contract.

(The Lyric is mentioned as being a ship of the White Star Line, presumably a sister ship of the Titanic in this alternate history. At least the author resisted the temptation to let this ship sink.)

Unfortunately for Mrs. Navenby, she is murdered in the first chapter, and the rest of the book tells of Maud's and Violet's attempts to solve her murder, find the item she has been guarding, and keep said item safe. Along the way we get the full backstory of the Forsythia Club, the group of four women who discovered the items ("coin, cup and knife") of the Last Contract decades ago and hid them. Oh yeah, and Maud and Violet....don't exactly fall in love, as Maud's brother Robin and Edwin Courcey did in the previous book, but they do start a relationship. (The timeline for this book is six days on board ship, which would have been a bit too insta-love for me. Fortunately, the author realizes this. Maud and Violet don't say they are in love at the end, but they do intend to keep seeing each other.) Violet Debenham is a complex character with several layers and a bit of a traumatic past, and lingering issues that do not get solved in this book, although at least she makes a commintment to do so, for Maud. Maud, on the other hand, stubborn, noble, idealistic and naive as she is, explores her sexuality and discovers there are many layers of grey to the world. She also finds out she is a spirit medium. (Odd not-quite-magical talents seem to run in the Blyth family, as Robin is a foreseer.)

We also find out a bit more about this world's magical society and the strict limits this universe places on magic. I appreciated the obviously well-thought-out worldbuilding. The secondary characters in this story, particularly the grumpy and sarcastic Lord Hawthorn, Edwin Courcey's former paramour from the first book who gets roped into Maud's schemes, are well drawn and given ample opportunites to shine (and apparently Hawthorn takes center stage in the third and final book).

This book does not lag as so many middle entries of trilogies do. I'm looking forward to the last book.

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May 25, 2024

Movie Review: Furiosa, a Mad Max Saga (The War Rig Rides Again)

This film is the prequel to George Miller's stone cold classic from nine years ago, Mad Max: Fury Road. This is the continuing saga of Max in Australia's post-nuclear-apocalypse wasteland, but the previous movie introduced the iconic character of Furiosa, portrayed by Charlize Theron, whose backstory we get here. Because Fury Road was in many ways more Furiosa's story than Max's, George Miller decided to tell the story of her growing up, being kidnapped from the Green Place, her fight for survival in Immortan Joe's Citadel and her attempts to get back to her home. 

The first thing to note about Furiosa is that since Miller decided not to de-age Charlize Theron and cast two different actors instead (Alyla Browne in the first two "chapters" of the story, when Furiosa is ten or eleven-ish, and Anya Taylor-Joy fifteen years later, which takes place an unspecified but not very long amount of time before the events of Fury Road), both actors nail the part. They look enough like each other--both have the same sharp-chinned, heart-shaped face--that you can imagine both Browne and Taylor-Joy growing up to be Charlize Theron. They also, since Furiosa doesn't have much dialogue, tear you to shreds with their wide-eyed gaze. 

The other character of note is Chris Hemsworth's Dementus, a rival wasteland warlord to Immortan Joe who is both unhinged and "crazy like a fox." I can see why Hemsworth took this part--it's about as far from Marvel's Thor as it is possible to get. Dementus has more dialogue in the film than nearly everyone else combined, and he spits out his combination of crazed, erudite, and over-the-top lines with scene-chewing glee. 

Unfortunately, there are a couple of plot holes in this one I feel compelled to pick at. The biggest one is after Dementus leaves Furiosa at the Citadel as part of his bargain with Immortan Joe, she is put with Immortan Joe's "wives" (also known as reproductive sex slaves). She manages to escape and after cutting her hair disguises herself as one of the Citadel's War Boys, eventually falling in with Praetorian Jack, the driver of the War Rig before Furiosa herself. This is years later as her hair has grown out again, but at the climax of the movie Immortan Joe doesn't recognize her or seem to notice that the younger version of Furiosa escaped? Dementus also had that problem, not realizing until the last confrontation that the steely-eyed, grease-masked warrior pursuing him is the child he kinda-sorta rescued years ago and called "Little T." But Furiosa's face is distinctive enough that both of them should have known who she was. Also, one of the reveals of this film is how Furiosa lost her left arm, but following the torture scene where Dementus strings her up by said crushed left arm and drags Furiosa's lover Jack to death behind a motorcycle, she seems to have the apparent superpower of being able to chew her own arm off while simultaneously keeping herself from bleeding out? (Followed by a nasty scene of maggots writhing at the end of the stump, thus explaining why she didn't die from a massive infection.)

Technically, there is a bit more CGI in this film, as opposed to Fury Road which was almost entirely practical effects, and nothing like the metal guitar guy in Fury Road whose vehicle was stacked ten feet high with speakers. Dementus does get a six-wheeled rig that can roll right up the sides of steep sand dunes, and Praetorian Jack's war rig is even longer than Furiosa's. The editing is also nowhere near as tight as Fury Road's (editor Margaret Sixel rightly won an Oscar for it). I didn't miss Tom Hardy's Max in this movie (we will not speak of Mel Gibson) as both Alyla Browne and Anya Taylor-Joy held my attention as the title character, and I enjoyed finding out more about the sometimes batshit crazy wasteland world. 

I saw this on an IMAX screen, my second such experience this year after Dune Part Two. This time I was able to get a seat near the top (for IMAX, nosebleed seats are definitely the way to go). This film was loud enough that I stuffed my fingers in my ears at several points, and the theater irritated the hell out of me by showing thirty effing minutes of previews before the film I had paid fifteen dollars to see actually started. This pointless annoyance did not engender any urge to see the objects of said previews, with a possible exception of the fourth-wall-breaking Deadpool & Wolverine

Altogether, this film did not scale the heights of Fury Road, which is a masterpiece. However, it is worth watching on its own terms, and I expect to buy it on Blu-Ray when it is released. If you can, see it on IMAX, as you can really get the sense of the blasted, collapsed, dying world these characters are trying to survive in. 

May 20, 2024

Review: A Marvellous Light

A Marvellous Light A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book in a trilogy about magic, magical objects, a well-thought-out magic system, and queer romance, set in an alternate-history Britain with native magicians who inherited the magic of the fae when they withdrew from the world. Hundreds of years later, this so-called Last Contract, with its potential to allow unethical magicians to basically steal others' magic without consent for their own purposes, is the subject of a hot pursuit by a group of ruthless magicians who have penetrated to the upper echelons of British magical society--and they are willing to kill to get their hands on the "cup, knife and ring," the three items that will unlock the Last Contract.

Our first of two viewpoint characters, Sir Robert (Robin) Blyth, is unwittingly drawn into this mess when he is appointed to a civil service position after the disappearance of the previous holder of the job, Reginald Gatling. Unknown to Robin, Reginald's great-aunt Flora Sutton is the leader of the Forsythia Society, a group of self-taught female magicians who discovered the "cup, knife and ring" decades earlier, and upon realizing what the Last Contract could mean for British magicians, separated the three items and hid them away. But the aforementioned people trying to hunt the items down could not wring any information about them from Reginald before he was killed, and now they have focused their attention on Robin, thinking he might know something. A painful curse is laid on Robin, and his attempts to get it removed bring him to the attention of one Edwin Courcey, the son of one of Britain's magical families. Edwin unfortunately has very little magic himself, but he has a keen intellect and a knack for solving puzzles. He is also gay, as is Robin, and naturally after their meeting a romance follows (albeit a reluctant one on Edwin's part, due to his dysfunctional family and his fraught relationship with his bullying elder brother Walt). Edwin and Robin work together to remove Robin's curse, discover who killed Reginald, and locate the first of the three magical items, the ring.

This is a really fun story. It's also so very British, down to slang and atmosphere and stiff upper lips (especially on Edwin's part) and the rigid classes of the time. Edwin is the more damaged of the two main characters, and I think undergoes the greatest character growth: he has to overcome his fears of his nasty elder brother and his own self-doubts and low self-esteem due to his small natural magical ability. He also must navigate the hurdles of his burgeoning relationship with Robin (the laws and discrimination against queer people at the time are not explored in any great detail, but they are there). Although Robin, at least initially, is the more well-adjusted of the two, he undergoes a bit of an awakening of his own, as the curse laid on him uncovers a latent ability of foresight.

The best part of this book, however, is the worldbuilding. The magic system is well put together, and sticks to its stated rules--no gotchas or plot-dictated "whoopsies, I can do this now when I couldn't in the previous chapter." There's a rich sense of history to this alternate world, and many unanswered questions: why did the fae leave all those years ago, for instance, and why on earth did they agree to let humans inherit their magic? The fae, or at least the specter of them, are sort of hovering in the background of this whole thing, making me wonder if the dark prophecy of "something is coming" thrown out by those in search of the Last Contract, as the reason for their willingness to kill to find it, is the possibility of the fae returning.

We will see. I've just started the second book of the trilogy, and I've placed a hold on the third at my library. I wasn't expecting too much when I started this series, but now I'm going to see it through to the end.

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May 16, 2024

Review: Unraveller: A Novel

Unraveller: A Novel Unraveller: A Novel by Frances Hardinge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is only the third book I have read by this author, but while the first, A Skinful of Shadows, didn't grab me, I loved the second, Deeplight. This book definitely follows in Deeplight's footsteps. Hardinge's writing, purely at the craft level, is lush, precise and gorgeous:

Over thirty years, the marsh-woods had started to reclaim the clearing. The grass was thigh-high and ridden with giant thistles and sweet-knot. Trees stretched out their boughs over the clearing and tried to touch fingers. There was still a ragged canopy of sky left above, however. A few stars winked through the evening haze, and the moon was a half-closed yellow eye.

I also appreciate that she doesn't seem to do series, at least not yet. Almost all of her books appear to be complete, self-contained stories. It's a testament to the strength of her imagination that she comes up with these fresh new fantasy worlds every time.

This story takes place in the country of Raddith, a secondary fantasy world full of magic, intelligent spiders known as Little Brothers, many different kinds of fae and faerie monsters (though they're not called that)--and curses. The monsters live in the marsh-woods called the Wilds, and decades ago humans tried to conquer them:

Raddith is ruled by Chancery, a government of master merchants who believe in honest dealing, level-headedness and worth you can measure. A hundred years ago, Chancery looked at the Wilds and saw only wasted land. Great dykes were built to subdivide the marshes so that they could be drained more easily. Trees were hacked down, the seeds harvested, and smoke used to clear the spiders.

Then the Wilds struck back.

The humans soon found themselves outmatched, and they journeyed into the heart of the Wilds to negotiate with what lived there. The two sides came up with the Pact, an agreement that humans do not want to break. This backstory is summed up in a creepy, atmospheric three-and-a-half-page prologue before we get into the story proper: the tale of Kellen, the teenager who makes his living undoing curses, and Nettle, his sidekick whom he freed from a curse of her own, after she had spent three years living as a heron, cursed by her stepmother. In this world, we discover, curses are borne by violent emotion, "curse eggs" growing inside people until they are released to transform their victims into pretty much anything--animals, clouds, inanimate objects. The cursers are taken away when caught to be imprisoned in the Red Hospital. But Kellen can, as he calls it, "unravel" curses if he can discern the motives behind them.

There is a twisty plot here, borne along by Kellen and Nettle's excellent characterization and the superior, atmospheric writing. One can almost feel the dampness of the marsh-woods and swamps, and hear the noises of the strange creatures that live there. Kellen and Nettle confront those who do not want cursers to be imprisoned away from society, who want them to be able to live with their own people and not be afraid of discrimination. This is a group/cult known as Salvation. Along the way, Kellen discovers the true origin of curses, and realizes he must step up to take responsibility for those whose curses he has unravelled, something he refused to do before. Nettle, on the other hand, must come to terms with certain things she did during her time as a heron, and reconcile herself with her human life.

There is no romance between Kellen and Nettle, which is a good thing: the book as a whole has a dark-fairy-tale feel to it, borne along by very good worldbuilding and the lovely writing. This is a satisfying stand-alone story for children of all ages.

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May 13, 2024

Review: The Siege of Burning Grass

The Siege of Burning Grass The Siege of Burning Grass by Premee Mohamed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book starts out as fantasy and evolves into more-or-less science fiction at the end: it's admitted that the human inhabitants of the planet are the descendants of colonists who came from (presumably) Earth thousands of years ago, and their floating cities and other technology are plausibly the repurposed remnants of their colony ships. This, however, is very much not the novel's focus. Its central conflict is the opposing philosophies of violence/war and nonviolence/pacifism, as embodied by the protagonist Alefret and his jailer/torturer/warrior companion Qhudur.

Alefret is a leader and founder of the Pact, the pacifist group who staunchly refuses to fight in the never-ending war between the conquering, biotech-based (they have giant pillbugs serving as tanks, for example) country of Varkal and the more technological country of Meddon, with their floating (antigrav-powered, probably, though it's never specified) cities. At the book's opening, Alefret has been captured after one of his legs was blown off in the war, and the Varkallagi medtechs are regrowing it with their specially bred medicinal wasps. He is offered the chance to win the war by using his reputation to infiltrate the final Meddon floating city and bring it down. This book is the story of Alefret's and Qhudur's journey to that floating city, and what they really find there.

Alefret is an interesting, complicated protagonist: he is an extremely large man (seven feet four) who is viewed as a "freak" and a "monstrosity" by Qhudur and the people in his home village:

So huge, so ugly; look at that face, must be simple, he'll never speak, never read, never think, not really. He'll eat you out of house and home if he lives. And you can forget having in-laws, forget being taken care of when you're older, you'll die alone and penniless, you should never have let him be born. All those things people said to them as Alefret watched. As if he could not understand the words. His parents had never defended him, only nodded, wept, nodded.

He wished he could hate them for it, but even now, with them both dead, he could not; there was only a great bewilderment, because he could speak, and could write, and think, and they dismissed it all, till he himself wondered whether he really could do any of those things or was simply imagining them, locked into a skull as thick as everyone said he had. As thick as a bull's, they said. No room for a brain. And that great misshapen forehead: like horns.

Even when he was older, and had made his living teaching mathematics and geometry and science to the village children, when he had his own school at the family farm, sold his own wool and eggs, even when he purchased his house, the village said: We love you. And in the next breath: You monster.

Qhudur, Alefret's minder, is sent with him to infiltrate Meddon's floating city. Qhudur is dangerous, and more than half nuts, and espouses some disturbing ideas of his own:

" You're part of the masses. You think you shouldn't be given the vote?"

"I don't vote with the masses. Anyway, both countries used to have the right idea. Ruled by a king. Or a dictator. Maybe with a small council of wise men unaffected by this...rabble. More educated. Able to think for themselves instead of doing what everyone around them is doing."

Alefret sighed. It was another rehearsed speech. Qhudur had again betrayed his youth, no matter how experienced he claimed to be in matters of war. He thought like a surly teenager. In his daydreams, when he fantasized about the subjugation and (no doubt) mandatory high-pressure washing of this hypothetical mob, he was never among them. Qhudur was the king, the tyrant, the grand vizier: no undignified crowd of ignoramuses had voted him into power. He had power because he was one of the ones who deserved power. Or he had been appointed by a man of power, singled out, sanctified and raised up, to sit on this mythical council of wise men.

When Qhudur and Alefret finally reach the floating city (they're towed there by one of Varkal's giant genetically-engineered pteranodons) they meet up with an underground group inspired by Alefret's writings. Alefret tries to start a nonviolent revolution in the city:

"It's not the way to end the war," Alefret said, trying to quell the thin man's unease. "It's a way to end the war. Nonviolent solutions to anything have to be tried again and again and again, and at different angles and in different ways and with different people. Governments like the violent solution because they've tried it, it works, and it's fast. They don't want to conceive of anything different. But there are other things to try--slower, more experimental, because they call for more people. And anything with lots of people moves slowly. But it has more power when it does."

This tension, this ongoing grappling, between violence and nonviolence, war and pacifism, makes for fascinating reading. This is not a breezy, fast-paced book. Alefret manages to thwart Qhudur's murderous plans and bring the floating city down without much loss of life, but we see at the end that there is still much more work to be done. Alefret is going to return to his home town of Edvor, see if he has any friends remaining, and start over: organizing "properly this time," as he puts it. The SF/fantasy elements are there, but the worldbuilding isn't the book's focus: the ideas and themes are. It makes for a very good read, if the reader is willing to adjust their expectations to what they'll actually be getting. It's an unusual story, but it's worth it.

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April 29, 2024

Review: Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 211

Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 211 Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 211 by Neil Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another good issue of Clarkesworld, with four outstanding stories and one story that I thought was....kinda weird, but still notable.

We start out with the longest story in the issue, Rich Larson's novella "The Indomitable Captain Holli." Now Rich Larson can be hit or miss with me; he tends towards the cyberpunk in his stories, and I can only tolerate so much of that. But while this story starts out with a cyberpunk narrative and setting, it gradually reveals what it really is: a post-apocalyptic story of survival, with what may be the last humans on earth living in two giant towers (think Burj Khalifa-size) in a ruined city, guarded--and preyed upon--by the AIs and robots in each opposing tower. The primary viewpoint character is six-year-old Holli, who takes turns being cute and being a little sociopath. It's a deft, risky characterization.

On the other end of the length spectrum, the delightful "Occurrence at 01339," by Kelly Jennings, comes in at only 1800 words but packs a helluva lot into a few pages. This little story explores the search for sentience and how it would be defined. Ruby the mining bot is trying to answer that very question, proposed by an alien probe under the threat of human destruction if she cannot satisfy it in 10 queries. There's a nice O. Henry style twist at the end.

"An Intergalactic Smuggler's Guide to Homecoming," by the fine new writer Tia Tashiro, is a crisis of conscience of sorts, as the titular Miko smuggles seven hundred intelligent thumbnail-size aliens out of their home system, where one bioluminescent faction of the Xellia are being targeted for extinction in their civil war. When she delivers her cargo and discovers why the client really wants them (for a "potent psychoactive" they naturally produce, the extraction of which will cause the death of all the aliens), she bolts with the Xellia. Her quest to save them dovetails with her reunion with her estranged twin sister Rina.

The novelette "The Arborist," by Derrick Boden, is a bit of a mythological horror story, set on an alien planet being terraformed by a "vast solitary organism," genetically modified, which will wipe out the nasty native life and prepare the planet for the arrival of humans from Earth. But some of the team members on the planet supervising the organism's progress begin to have second thoughts about their mission, naming the organism after the mythological "world tree" Yggdrasil, and calling it a "plague" that will eventually spread along with humans to other worlds and exterminate all life. This story has a bit of a philosophical divide and struggle, pitting human survival against the survival of other life, and whether humans have any right to wipe out other life, intelligent or not, to save themselves.

Finally, the aforementioned weird story, "The Rambler," by Shen Dacheng, translated by Cara Healey, is the fantastical tale of a pedestrian bridge that comes to life, pulls its four concrete supports, like legs, out of the ground, and walks off. We follow it as it learns to maneuver its "body" and flees into the wilderness. I guess this story could be called "magical realism," perhaps, as this one essential strangeness is just accepted by everyone in the story. While those following the bridge intend to disassemble it if they can make it stand still long enough, it eventually fords a river and escapes.

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April 26, 2024

Review: Ghost Station

Ghost Station Ghost Station by S.A. Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This author seems to be making a career out of sci-fi horror, and a successful one: this book, her second, is more assured than her first. The back cover blurbs also compare this book to the classic sf/horror movie Alien, although that's not entirely accurate--there are no Xenomorphs to be found here. But there is a mystery and the slow reveal of alien possession, and the dawning horror of being taken over by a mysterious outside entity.

As in the author's first book, the protagonist Ophelia Bray is a troubled woman with a traumatic past of her own. She is the daughter of one of the richest families on Earth, and she is also the daughter of Field "Bloody" Bledsoe, who succumbed to ERS--Eckhart-Reiser syndrome--and killed twenty-nine people about twenty years before. Ophelia, then known as Lark Bledsoe, was present during the massacre and needless to say has been haunted by it ever since. She is now a psychologist studying the syndrome and trying to come up with ways to cure it, and as the book opens she is preparing to go into cold sleep for a three-month interstellar journey to join the Reclamation and Exploration team of the ship Resilience. They are on their way to an abandoned planet where an ancient alien city has been discovered, and Ophelia is taking new equipment provided by her employer, the Montrose corporation, to see if ERS can be prevented.

But the R & E team don't want Ophelia there, and she has a difficult time settling in with them on the planet. Then comes the slow reveal of things starting to go wrong, and the rising horror of the ruins infecting all the team members and taking them over. One of the most effective things about this is that the cause of the possession is not defined--is it the two black alien towers on the planet, some sort of sentient nanotechnology that killed the original inhabitants thousands of years ago, an alien organism that manifests itself as black sludge oozing out of noses and ears, or something else altogether? It doesn't really matter, because after all the pieces are set in place this becomes a tightly written struggle for survival, as the surviving team members race to get off-planet before they are completely taken over and no longer in control of their own bodies.

Along the way Ophelia undergoes a nice character arc: she is riddled with survivors' guilt and self-hatred for being the daughter of "Bloody" Bledsoe, and she has to learn to let that go and recognize she is neither responsible for the past sins of her father or the current sins of her mother's family. There is a hint of romance between Ophelia and Ethan Severin, the commander of the expedition, but for the most part the focus is firmly on the horror of the situation and the fight to survive. After reading the author's first book, I can see how she has improved as a writer: this effort is more mature, with better pacing, worldbuilding and characterization, and simply a better story. This book is well worth your time.

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