March 14, 2023

Review: The Terraformers

The Terraformers The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd label this as another "ideas" book, as it is stuffed full of interesting ideas and well-developed characters. What is less successful is its plot, which meanders over about sixteen hundred years from the initial terraforming of the planet Sask-E, owned by the corporation who designed its development and its titular "terraformers," to its eventual freeing from said corporation and a possible transition to a publicly owned planet.

There are three novella-length sections that make up this book, each with its own set of protagonists. These novellas--especially the first, subtitled "Ecosystem Maintenance"--are interesting in their own right (the concluding novella, "Serve the Public," features a sentient train!) but their integration into an overarching storyline is less successful. Maybe that is the overarching storyline: that revolution is messy and uneven and takes time (in this case a whole lot of time, in a universe where people live for hundreds of years and look back on their centuries and/or millennia like we remember things we did 20 or 30 years ago). There are really no Big Bads as such. The evil corps are driven back, and the woman who comes closest to being an antagonist, Ronnie Drake from the Verdance Corporation, the original owner of Sask-E, at the end helps to turn the tables on her most hated enemy, Cylindra, from the competing Emerald Corporation--and not so coincidentally, set the planet on the path to being free from corporate ownership altogether.

Maybe the book is a bit messy and uneven as well, but there are so many fascinating facets to its worldbuilding that I could overlook the lack of a strong plot. In the acknowledgments, the author states that they "wrote this book because I wanted to dream up a more hopeful world," and if that was their goal, I believe they succeeded.

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March 12, 2023

Review: Mockingbird, Vol. 2: My Feminist Agenda

Mockingbird, Vol. 2: My Feminist Agenda Mockingbird, Vol. 2: My Feminist Agenda by Chelsea Cain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This second and final volume in this run of Mockingbird, by Chelsea Cain, carries on the previous volume's quirkiness in a far more linear storyline. This story is a murder mystery investigated by our protagonist Barbara "Bobbi" Morse, aboard a cruise ship, the Diamond Porpoise, in the Bermuda Triangle.

Has Chelsea Cain ever written another comic? I really liked her style in this run; she seems to me to be having a grand old time playing with the limits of the medium and moving beyond them. She perfectly captures the Bobbi's sass, sarcasm and confidence. She also packs her panels with little detours and details that you have to pay attention to in order to grasp the full breadth of the story she is telling (and carried out in most excellent fashion by artist Kate Niemczyk and letterer Joe Caramagna). I thoroughly enjoyed this and the first volume and wish she could have continued with the character.

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March 7, 2023

Review: Children of Memory

Children of Memory Children of Memory by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This final book in the Children of Time trilogy is the most complex of the three, with complicated worldbuilding and a non-linear timeline that jumps back and forth as the plot's mysteries are slowly revealed. This story definitely demands your time and attention. It's also full of meaty concepts and ideas, including discussions of what qualifies someone to be sentient and self-aware and how we should treat other beings, whether they are self-aware or not; as well as the concept of the universe being a giant simulation, which turns out to be a pivotal plot point. It brings back the Portiids, the basketball-sized intelligent spiders from Children of Time, and the octopus civilization and sentient slime mold from the second book in the trilogy, Children of Ruin.

This is not a book to rush through. The twisty plot, which doubles back on itself more than once, may prove overwhelming for some, which is why you need to take your time with this book. About halfway through, I asked the question: "Who is this character? Is she the Liff of the present, or the Liff of the past, or both?" This is about halfway through the story, when the carefully constructed setting begins to unravel. All questions will eventually be answered, and in a satisfactory manner which ties back in with the book's main themes, but you do have to have patience.

Personally, I think I'd give a slight edge in quality to the author's other space opera series, "The Final Architecture," the last book of which comes out later this year. This book and series is a bit more old-fashioned in the sense of having meatier ideas, I think. All three books are stuffed with out-there SF ideas and concepts that the author rigorously works his way through. For example, see the discussion the intelligent (or are they?) corvids Gothi and Gethli have with the AI of the Portiids' ship, Avrana Kern:

"The essential fallacy," Gothi picks up, "is that humans and other biologically evolved, calculating engines feel themselves to be sentient, when sufficient investigation suggests this is not so. And that sentience, as imagined by the self-proclaimed sentient, is an illusion manufactured by a sufficiently complex series of neural interactions. A simulation, if you will."

"On this basis, either everything of sufficient complexity is sentient, whether it feels itself to be or not, or nothing is," Gethli tells her. "We tend towards the latter. We know we don't think, so why should anything else?"

"And in the grander scheme of things, it's not important," Gothi concludes imperiously.


By then it's time for the meeting. The Kern wihout opens the wall to the other two birds, the originals, with a clear barrier in place at first in case of violence. The two pairs of Corvids inspect each other, strut back and forth, and take short flights. They mirror each other for a bit, then tire of that. They chatter and murmur and rasp. And Kern already knows everything's going to be fine. Because the natural birds might have been all about territory and pecking order, but these uplifted versions have reasoned themselves onto a plateau of enlightened non-sentience, where they're perfectly capable of accepting a simulation as real, whilst knowing it's a simulation. In the same way, the fact that there are now two Gothis and two Gethlis gives them no existential dread, since they are determined not to have any real inner existence.

And of course Kern's verdict is the the Corvids of Rourke must be treated with all the appropriate dignity of sentient creatures. In spite of, or because of, their complex and fervent reasoning to prove that they are not.

If you don't like your science fiction dense and chewy and full of weighty ideas, you won't enjoy this book or series. But if you can give it the time it deserves, and think over what the author is trying to say, you will be rewarded.

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March 6, 2023

Review: Mockingbird, Vol. 1: I Can Explain

Mockingbird, Vol. 1: I Can Explain Mockingbird, Vol. 1: I Can Explain by Chelsea Cain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is actually the second time I have read this graphic novel, and I enjoyed it more this time around. It's a pretty subversive story, taking on both the superhero trope generally and Marvel's hopelessly tangled storylines in particular.

Barbara "Bobbi" Morse, aka Mockingbird, was once an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Marvel's CIA/FBI equivalent) and also married to Clint "Hawkeye" Barton. She was given an injection of superhero serum/infinity formula by Nick Fury and has been exhibiting strange symptoms ever since, symptoms that require her to visit her local S.H.I.E.L.D. medical facility. That isn't the only story in this collection: there isn't really a linear storyline in the five collected issues here, but that doesn't hurt the overall collection (surprisingly). This is due to the self-aware and gently mocking edge to the writing, and the general awesomeness of Bobbi as a character. The art, by Kate Niemczyk, is also excellent.

The five issues are almost self-contained little stories, bopping around in time and tying together in issue 5. This run of Mockingbird by Chelsea Cain didn't last too long, unfortunately (there's a second volume, My Feminist Agenda, which I'm reading now). That's too bad. Cain shows an understanding of the medium and a reluctance to succumb to its usual silliness and excesses that is refreshing, and I wish she could have continued with the character.

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March 3, 2023

Review: Magic Tides

Magic Tides Magic Tides by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Kate Daniels urban fantasy series finished with Magic Triumphs a couple of years ago. It was so popular that the author has continued the story with additional self-published novellas, including this one.

Up till now, I haven't had much luck with self-published works: the quality is mostly lacking (severely in some cases). That isn't the case with this book. It stands right up with the traditionally published novels, and the fact that it is set after the main series works to its advantage: Kate, Curran and Conlan have left Atlanta and moved to the coast city of Wilmington, and the result is a back-to-basics reset. Kate isn't saving the city of Atlanta and/or the entire world. She's going up against one local supernatural baddie and solving one local supernatural problem. This may change later (assuming these novellas keep coming, which I hope they will) but this is a much lower-key plot than the main series, especially the final few books.

Having said that, the key elements of the main series are still there: Kate's snarky, sarcastic humor and total badassery, combined with the welcome addition of Curran and Conlan POV sections. (Although the author sure seems to love her C and K names--sometimes I wished the names weren't so similar.) This world is one of the most detailed, intricate and fascinating of any urban fantasy series, and I welcome a chance to explore it further, from a setting on the fringe of the main world, as it were. At the same time, this is a taut, self-contained story with excellent pacing. (And who can resist Cuddles the mammoth jenny? Apparently mammoth donkeys are a real thing in the world, although it is of course exaggerated for Andrews' magic-laden near-future.) I appreciated the tradpub editorial quality of this book, and will buy any others the author releases.

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February 27, 2023

Review: The Infinite

The Infinite The Infinite by Ada Hoffmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the final book in the Outside trilogy, wrapping up a tale of quantum supercomputers ascended to Godhood to rule over humanity, and a group of revolutionaries on a breakaway planet who wish to overthrow them. Central to the narrative is Yasira Shien, who was on the autism spectrum and as a result of mindlinking with the extradimensional-Lovecraftian-cosmic horror realm of the Outside in the last book, has now developed into a "plural," bearing many personalities in one body. Yasira, with her plurality and the mind which now hosts Outside energy, turns out to be the one thing that can defeat the Gods, and her choice to sacrifice herself to save humanity is the central plot point and decision of the book.

"If it was anyone else that's what would happen," said Yasira. There was a burning clarity in that gaze, something that unnerved Tiv. "With me, she'll try. But we all know I'm not like the rest of you anymore. My soul is half-broken. No, I know you don't like words like 'broken,' Tiv, but that's what happened. I cracked into pieces and what fills me in between the pieces is Outside. I'm the closest thing we have to Outside itself walking the earth in human form. Even closer than Ev or the gone people. And the Gods can't see Outside. Do you understand? It doesn't function according to rules they can process. Say I die. Say Nemesis tries to eat me up. That means sooner or later She takes my soul into Hers, into the very center of what makes Her a sentient being. She takes Outside inside her. She won't be able to help it. And Outside will fucking rip her apart."

This entire scenario rests on the fact that in this future, scientists has been able to confirm the existence of souls, and said soul-energy is used to power the quantum supercomputers that turn themselves into Gods. At first, Nemesis and her sisters only take terminally ill volunteers, but as their power and hubris grows, they take over the planet and mandate that every human gives up their soul at the point of death. This allows them to set up the world of the trilogy, with Nemesis and the other supercomputers the tyrannical Gods who are ruling over humanity only for their own good, really.

This is a complex book, as it has to wrap up the many plot and character threads of the previous books in the trilogy. The many multiple POVs of the previous book carry over into this one, with is the one minor ding I have against it--I wish the author had focused more on Yasira and her lover Tiv. There's also a bit of metaphysical handwaving at the end, as Yasira ascends to a Godhood of her own to defeat Nemesis and the others, somehow ending up existing in the Outside. Your mileage may vary on that, but the author thankfully doesn't dwell on it too much. These minor nitpicks aside, this is a satisfying ending to a trilogy that is one of the most inventive and absorbing in the past few years. All three books are well worth your time.

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February 18, 2023

Review: The Keeper's Six

The Keeper's Six The Keeper's Six by Kate Elliott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kate Elliott does excellent worldbuilding, and this story is no exception. It's a two-hundred-page novella, but it packs enough background and worldbuilding for a full-length novel. Pair this with a sixty-year-old protagonist and grandmother who takes on a quest and faces down a dragon to save her son, his partner and their children, and you have a winner.

Esther Green is awakened in the middle of the night by a frantic call from her son Daniel: he's been kidnapped and taken to another Realm, across the dangerous multi-dimensional Beyond that is Elliott's version of the multiverse. Esther calls the members of her Hex, the six-person troupe that makes travel through the Beyond possible, and goes to the Realm where Daniel has been taken. There she meets and clashes with the dragon Zosfadal, who has been searching for Daniel's partner Kai. Kai, as we find out, is one of the dragon kindred imprisoned by magic in a humanoid body; and kwos is also a very special dragon, one who can bear hybrid children (as, indeed, kwos has done, giving Daniel two-year-old quadruplets). Five years ago, on a mission to find and destroy a Realm that engages in the trafficking of sapient species, Esther discovered Kai held prisoner in that Realm and brought kwos/him (Kai goes by both) home to Earth, where Kai and Daniel fell in love. But Zosfadal was involved in Kai's kidnapping, and he blackmails Esther both to find Kai and erase the debt the dragon owes due to his previous misdeeds.

Of course, Esther is going to do none of this, and the book is the story of her trying to maneuver through this sticky situation and save her son and grandchildren. Esther is a wonderful character: thoughtful, mature, stubborn, and doggedly determined. She clashes with the members of her Hex, five other well-drawn characters, and discovers something of a love interest in Zosfadal's lieutenant Shahin (although the fledgling romance is not the focus of the story). The complicated worldbuilding is dropped into the story a little bit at a time, mainly as Esther explains to Shahin how the Beyond works, and never overwhelms the narrative. The Beyond itself, as well as the various Realms (Earth is a "Schedule Four" Realm, a "minor" pit stop in the Beyond with very few people aware of the multiverse's existence) is a fascinating place, with monsters and bursts of interdimensional light that will burn you to ash.

In the end, though Kai is exposed for what he is, he is allowed to stay with Daniel and their children. Esther's Hex is fractured, with one member, the possibly traitorous Marianne, leaving to work for Zosfadal. This is a well-paced, thoroughly absorbing story, and I would happily read more (preferably a full-length novel) about these characters and world.

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February 17, 2023

Review: Interzone Magazine, Issue 294 January 2023


I was vaguely aware this magazine existed, but as it is published in the UK I never had a chance to read it. This was remedied recently as I won a giveaway from the publisher, and was sent the January issue. 

I prefer to get the dead-tree version of magazines if possible (yes, I'm an unrepentant Luddite dinosaur) and when it arrived, I was surprised by its weight and heft. It's a square booklet with nice thick paper stock that feels good in the hand. The font is readable (if a bit small--curse aging eyes) and there are interesting illustrations for all the stories. There is also an extensive book and film review section (seriously; for the latter Nick Lowe covers 30 recent movies in one fell swoop) and interviews with British SF authors. 

The stories seem to be above average quality: there were none I outright hated (although there was one I cast a side-eye to, but that was because of the gimmicky concept). There are four good to very good stories in the issue:

"Murder by Proxy" by Philip Fracassi. A wise-cracking detective with a deep-rooted fear of ventriloquist dummies tries to solve a locked-room mystery where the victims are being murdered in an impossibly brutal fashion.

"The Coming of the Extroverts" by Daniel Bennett. Aliens invade under the guise of East City’s newest band, The Extroverts. Only one person can stop them: Moog, part time holo-synth player, who is looking to replace them on the bill…

"The Building Across the Street" by R.T. Ester. To avoid getting chipped and interred at a facility for the unhoused, Leland agrees to help intercept alien dispatches originating light years from Earth.

"Last Act of the Revolution" by Louise Hughes. Esther was a woman who lived the revolution, fighting with every breath she had to free a world from its corporate overlords. Trouble is, the revolution won.

(Descriptions from the website)

"Murder by Proxy" is a long story (word counts aren't given, but this has got to be a novelette at least)
with a noir/horror edge. The opening lines--

The room is scarlet. A valentine from hell.

As a twenty-year veteran in the most crime-ridden area of the city, I've seen things no man or woman should ever lay eyes on. But even I had to wince at the carnage in apartment 327.

--set the tone immediately, with the protagonist's cynical, world-weary voice. Granted, this is bordering on cliche and nothing we haven't heard countless times before. Still, as the story goes along it gets more interesting and gradually sets itself apart, especially with the introduction of the AI antagonist and the touch of the supernatural in the protagonist's phobia of puppets. The author does a very good job of describing how creepy toys can be. 

"The Coming of the Extroverts" is a shorter, cyberpunkish story with a protagonist (amusingly) named Moog. (Somebody remembers the Moog synthesizer, eh?) The editor demonstrates their facility for picking stories with killer opening lines:

"They move amongst us like predators, looking to dominate with their will. The relentless force of their personalities: really, it's a kind of murder. At every step of my life, they've dogged me, beaten me down, beaten us all down, if you think about it. Extroverts! Don't you ever wonder what they are?"

This story has a nice twist to it, and it's all there in the opening sentences. The ending is also a clever little tip to UFO buffs and X-Files fans. 

"The Building Across the Street" is an absorbing little onion of a story. It gradually peels the layers back on an interstellar mystery, with the setting serving up a side of dystopia, as shown in the opening lines:

The night Leland met Agent Everly, he had expected her to inject him with a Homeless Tagging Chip.

The chip was for adults--able-bodied and otherwise--without proper living arrangements. You could not sleep on a park bench without the chip passing electric currents through your body in intervals. You could not ride the train past a set number of stops.

As an aside, how sinister is this idea? One gets the impression there are certain people and organizations now who, in their dislike and patronization of the homeless, would be eager to implement this if they could. 

"Last Act of the Revolution" is a quiet character study asking an interesting question: what happens to the fiery revolutionary when she can't let go of all the years of fighting, now that she has attained her goal? The opening lines:

Everyone knows the name Esther Wright. We know her face. We know her deeds. But can anyone really know her? This woman who broke us free from the shackles of Try-N-Mite corporate control.

The Esther Wright I met on Memorial Day was a woman trying to stay out of the limelight. Dressed simply, in a long green coat, torn at the pockets and elbows, and a headscarf of rainbows, she seemed to cling to the revolutionary identity she lived with for so many years. I think we can forgive her for not wearing purple.

She is a woman not used to following the rules.

Talk about painting a picture with few words. I think this is my favorite story in the issue.

Altogether, this is an outstanding magazine worthy of support, I think. It's too bad airmail delivery across the pond is so expensive, or I would be tempted to get the print version myself. 

February 14, 2023

Review: American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy

American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy by David Corn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read the basis thesis of this book before--that over a period of decades, the Republican Party has slowly been drawn into the thrall of its extremists and kooks--but I haven't seen such a concise and well laid out timeline until now. David Corn is a respected journalist for Mother Jones magazine, and in this book he goes back to the roots of the Republican Party and how they have always turned to white supremacists, racists, and conspiracy fearmongers to gain power.

In going over this history, it's interesting (not in a good way) how nothing has changed. For instance, in talking about Barry Goldwater's presidential run from 60 years ago, the comment is made (p. 72):

They were, though, in the business of exploiting the anger of extremism. Russ Walton, a Goldwater ad man, described the campaign's strategy for reaching voters: "We just want to make them mad, make their stomach turn, take this latent anger and concern which now exists, built it up, and subtly turn and focus it."

And from p. 113/114, regarding the Nixon years:

Nixon's triumph was no salve for the grudges and malice that animated his politics. A few weeks after his triumph, he told his aides: "Never forget, the press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. Professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard 100 times and never forget it."

Sound familiar? A certain recent former President said similar things all the time.

Of course, this culminates in the terrible presidency of Donald Trump, who said out loud all the things the GOP had been insinuating for decades. But the case is made here that the problem was not so much Trump--though he certainly did his fair share of damage--but rather the base voters who succumbed to the mindset of resentment and grievance and the party apparatus that enabled and sucked up to them. From p. 331:

To be a Republican was to be a Trump devotee, and that meant accepting Trump's propaganda about the election. This became the party's loyalty oath. Trump would endorse only adherents of the Big Lie and those who shared his quest to undermine democracy. He vowed vengeance against those who would not carry this banner. The GOP candidates who parroted Trump's lies tended to win Republican primaries. Adhering to the truth often meant a death sentence in Trump's GOP. As Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an autocracy expert and history professor at New York University, observed, Trump had transformed the Republican Party: "He's changed the party to an authoritarian party culture. So not only do you go after external enemies, but you go after internal enemies. You're not allowed to have any dissent."

Perhaps the 2022 midterms dampened this Trump cult and its adherents a bit, but they're still out there, as we saw during the recent State of the Union address. I have no idea what it will take to solve this problem, but this is an engaging and absorbing account of what's gone wrong with the Republican Party.

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February 4, 2023

Review: Once and Future, Vol. 5: The Wasteland

Once and Future, Vol. 5: The Wasteland Once and Future, Vol. 5: The Wasteland by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More and more as I read comics, I'm finding I like stories that are one and done, rather than legacy characters that are endlessly rebooted and rewritten (looking at you, Marvel). That gets boring. This is why I think for the most part Boom! and Image comics are superior, and this series is a good example of why.

This is the final volume of the Once & Future series, which is basically Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table returned to England as nasty zombie monsters. The series also has some interesting things to say about stories, as the mythic tales of the past are brought to sometimes gory life. Our lead character Bridgette (a rare example of an older woman leading the way) is a fascinating example of a morally gray and generally not-nice person, but her knowledge, experience, stubbornness and overall badassery saves the day.

In this tale, zombie monster Arthur, his Knights, and Merlin are eventually defeated, by Bridgette, her grandson Duncan, and Duncan's girlfriend Rose, who in a nice twist ends up being the reincarnated Arthur and pulling Excalibur from the stone. Of course, after all is said and done, the three have to drink the waters of Lethe and forget everything that happened....except in the final pages, Bridgette looks at a note left by her previous self that says, "Vomit now!" She sticks her finger down her throat and ends up remembering everything that happened, including the roles of Duncan, Rose and her own lost daughter Mary, Duncan's mother, who stayed behind in the underworld.

The final panel shows Bridgette bluntly stating that she's not a good person and if she had to, she'd drag them all back in again. In that way, the door is left cracked for a reboot or continuation of the series, but I really hope they don't. This is a satisfying story with a proper ending (and the art and lettering is gorgeous) and it doesn't need to be revisited.

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