July 20, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: Best Professional Artist



I'm not an art connoisseur. I know what I like when I see it, but I couldn't explain "the details, technique, or principles of an art," the definition per Merriam-Webster. Still, that's the nice thing about the Hugos: you don't have to be an expert to judge and vote. 

My ballot:



6) Yuko Shimizu

This artist definitely has a Japanese style (I guess I can call it that), with fine lines and lots of somewhat strange colors. Unfortunately,  it didn't do much for me.





5) Charles Vess

This book is three inches thick and will break your arm. It's beautiful, and Saga Press did a bang-up job with it, but for the most part I didn't think the illustrations were particularly outstanding.





4) John Picacio

This Uncanny Magazine cover had a rather interesting perspective, of this woman's opponent down on the ground, looking up at her as she prepares to end her/him. I liked the questions this cover inspired better than the cover itself. 





3) Galen Dara

Galen Dara does some interesting things with color palettes, the color blue especially. She also has a very distinctive style. 




2) Victo Ngai

I really liked this. It's distinctive and whimsical. Ngai's work has a lot of personality.





1) Jaime Jones

But in the end, I had to go with Jaime Jones, because he so perfectly brings one of my favorite fictional characters, Murderbot, to life. 

Next up: Best Fan Artist



July 19, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: Best Fanzine



The definition of "fanzine" is fairly loosey-goosey in these days of self-publishing and websites, but the general consensus seems to be that it's something the participants don't expect to make money from. Something that's done, either with pixels or on paper, for the love of it.

My ballot:

6) Galactic Journey

This fanzine is an exercise in nostagia, as it covers SFF books/movies/stories/music/politics/the world 55 years ago. This results in quite a few "OMG" moments: pictures of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones from 1963; an amazingly young Sean Connery in Dr. No; reviewing the brand-new British TV series Doctor Who; snapshots of Dr. Martin Luther King; and so on and so forth. Despite this, I have never particularly warmed to this magazine. I guess I'd rather look forward than back.

5) Journey Planet

This zine seems to go in for themed issues: the ones included in the packet explored Star Wars, Silicon Valley, and Flann O'Brien, among others. There were moments of interest, but there was too much meh here for me to place it any higher.

4) Rocket Stack Rank

This zine is statistics and rankings oriented, a number-cruncher's dream. The extensive database on display here is nearly more impressive than the content; I can't imagine the amount of work needed to keep this up and keep it as organized as it obviously is. Unfortunately, as I paged through the packet, it began to overwhelm me. I realized I much preferred more detailed reviews of a few stories than a one-sentence summation and numbered rankings of every single thing.

3) Quick Sip Reviews

Reviewing short fiction is really hard to do well. The sheer compression of space means that a short story has to hit its marks right out of the gate (to mangle a few metaphors) with not much room or time for subtlety. Charles Payseur does an admirable job in the few paragraphs allotted to each of these reviews, zeroing in on the characterizations and themes, and summing up the strengths and weakness of each story he tackles. This impressed me.

2) Lady Business

Lady Business won the rocket in 2017, and sat out last year. Now it's back on the ballot, and while it's still one of my favorite sites, it just didn't seem to be as strong this year.

1) Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together

Sometimes you only see the overall excellence when disparate articles are grouped together. That was definitely the case with this fanzine. Their packet was grouped by subject--Fiction Reviews, Feminist Futures, Spotlight on Horror, Conversations, Visual Media Reviews, and Features--tackling subjects as widespread and quirky as Marvel comics, Frankenstein, video games, feminist separatism, and synthesizers. I thoroughly enjoyed their packet offerings, and put them on top.

Next up: Best Professional Artist






July 13, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: Best Semiprozine



"Semiprozine" is a bit of a hard category to nail down, and is defined on the Hugo website thusly.

Semiprozine is the most complicated category because of the need to define semi-professional. A lot of science fiction and fantasy magazines are run on a semi-professional basis: that is they pay a little, but generally not enough to make a living for anyone. The object of this category is to separate such things from fanzines, which are generally loss-making hobbyist pursuits. To qualify a publication must not be professional and must meet at least one of the following criteria:

The publication pays its contributors and/or staff in other than copies of the publication.

The publication was generally available only for paid purchase.

This probably needs to be updated, but I'm not tackling that at the moment. My own definition of what makes a good magazine encompasses stories, of course, first and foremost--that's what I'm there for. However, if I just wanted good stories to the exclusion of anything else, I'd stick to anthologies (which I buy a lot of anyway). To me, a memorable magazine must engage its audience in a broader, more timely manner, incorporating essays, reviews, and editorials. A good magazine must have its finger on the pulse of not only what is happening in the fiction world, but what is happening in the world around us. It must be engaged, committed, and angry when appropriate.

With those points in mind, here's my ballot.

(Disclaimer: I also support some of these magazines on Patreon: Fireside and Strange Horizons; and have contributed to Uncanny Magazine's Kickstarters.)

6) Beneath Ceaseless Skies

I used to subscribe to this magazine, but stopped when I realized the stories they were publishing had gradually turned to stories I didn't care for all that much. The two sample issues they included in their packet showed that this was still the case.

5) FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction

As I read through this magazine's packet, it seemed to me that the flashes of brilliance were matched equally by flashes of meh. This was true both of the stories and the poetry submitted. This wildly disparate quality meant that I couldn't place it any higher.

4) Shimmer

This magazine has apparently shut down, which is too bad. Its last issue was included in the packet. Some of its stories were notable--Sarah Gailey's "From the Void" in particular--but again, the quality was too uneven.

3) Uncanny Magazine

In recent years, Uncanny has been a bit of a juggernaut; it's won the past three Hugos. Perusing this year's packet, I can certainly see why: many of the stories included were on my personal longlist, and three of them made the final ballot. So, in the end, the thing that made the difference for me (since my top three was so razor-tight) came down to the nonfiction articles. Both Strange Horizon's and Fireside's nonfiction was a whisker better.

2) Strange Horizons

I get the feeling this magazine has been a bit overlooked in recent years, and that shouldn't be the case. Their Hugo packet entry showed a fine, well-balanced collection of stories, essays and reviews, including an outstanding story "Strange Waters," by Samantha Mills, which I wouldn't be surprised to find on the Hugo longlist; a nice roundtable discussion with five trans authors; a really interesting roundtable discussion with five authors, including some of my favorites, about domesticity in space opera; and good, lengthy, in-depth movie and book reviews. This one just barely squeaked out of the top spot.

1) Fireside

The first thing that strikes me about this magazine: Julia Rios is a really good editor. The stories included in their packet were on the shorter side, but nearly all of them packed quite a punch. Two of them, "STET" and "The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington," made the final Hugo ballot, which is a fine testimonial to her ability. These stories (especially "STET") were also more experimental than we usually see, which reflects well on the editor's instincts. The subjects of the nonfiction essays included gender relations, disabilities, energy as the future of humankind, and the 2017 #BlackSpecFic Report. This is an exciting, well-rounded magazine, one I'm happy to put on top.

Next up: Best Fanzine


July 11, 2019

Hugo Reading (Viewing) 2019: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form



I lucked out with this year's Long Form noms, as I had already watched all of them, and most of them were on my own ballot. I think this is only going to get more difficult in the coming years, with the ever-increasing numbers of SFF movies and (especially) television and streaming adaptations. (Which is why I maintain that the rules for BDP-Short Form should be changed to say that only one episode per series is allowed.)

By the way, if you haven't seen any of these films, there will be spoilers in this post. Just sayin'.

My ballot:



6) Avengers: Infinity War

This was the Big Superhero Showdown Marvel's been aiming towards for ten years, but when I saw it, it felt a bit....underwhelming. With so many characters tossed into the mix and so much to do, there wasn't time for any of them to make much of an impression, with the possible exception of Thor and Rocket. Also, if I'd been Chris Pratt, I would have been ticked off by the way my character was forced to wield the Starlord Stupid Stick, not once but twice. If Peter Quill had only killed Gamora in the beginning, like she asked him to do and he agreed, Thanos would never have found the Soul Stone. Of course, then we wouldn't have had a $2 billion-plus grossing movie.....




5) A Quiet Place

I liked this better, but it still had plot holes. It was better in the sense that I didn't start thinking about said plot holes while I was still watching it, so in that way it was a success. John Krasinski spins a credible, creepily atmospheric tale of a family living in silence, trying to survive an onslaught of alien invaders that hunt by sound. I enjoyed the performances of Emily Blunt and Millicent Simmonds, a Deaf actress cast in the role of Regan, whose cochlear implant proves crucial in figuring out a way to take the aliens down. Left as an exercise for the viewer is why a teenage girl could come up with this solution and not the world's militaries and think tanks (especially after seeing the huge ears on the aliens). 




4) Sorry To Bother You

This trailer doesn't reveal the third-act twist, but let me say that the film takes a seriously surreal SF turn. It's also a biting satire of capitalism and corporate rapacity, with the protagonist Cassius Green using his "white voice" to succeed as a telemarketer. I'm happy that a weird little movie like this was able to make the Hugo ballot, even if I ended up liking others better. 




3) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

This just took the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation at the Nebulas (and the Oscar for Best Animated Feature), so I think its chances are pretty good here. I liked it well enough, but I wasn't gosh-wow over it. 




2) Black Panther

I was gosh-wow over this, however. This juggernaut rolled into the Academy Awards and came away with three, Marvel's first. Eric Killmonger is (so far) Marvel's best villain, because he was very much the hero of his own story; even though I didn't like what he was doing, I could see that he had a point. And Shuri and the Dora Milaje are just...everything. 




1) Annihilation

I know this probably won't win, but I loved this movie. (Disclaimer: I haven't read the book.) This slowly unfolding, steadily escalating terror ride was beautiful and creepy and unsettling, and the ending reportedly gave the studio fits. Kudos to Alex Garland for keeping it, even though his film ended up under-promoted as a result. PZ Myers, an actual evolutionary biologist, also liked it, so it's not as wrong-headed in its science as some of the reviews on IMDB are claiming. Finally, there's a podcast discussing the film--Part 1 here

Next up: Best Semiprozine



July 10, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: Best Novel



Now we come to what George R.R. Martin calls "the big one." For the past three years, of course, this has been won by N.K. Jemisin, for each volume of her remarkable Broken Earth trilogy. I'm sure the finalists in this category were a little relieved that she didn't have a book out last year.

My ballot:

7) Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

I almost feel as if I need to apologize for saying this, as I know this book is popular--but I did not like it at all. I couldn't even finish it. The over-the-top tone, stream-of-consciousness narrative, and hundred-word sentences just left me exhausted (I certainly didn't want it to be all terse one-syllable words a la Ernest Hemingway, but a little variation would have been nice), and I either didn't appreciate or couldn't get into the humor. It's not the author, either, as I enjoyed her novella The Refrigerator Monologues. This book is the quintessential definition of "marmite."

6) No Award

5) Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

For me, this book was just so-so, and I summed it up on Goodreads as "warm, fuzzy and plotless." It's a fairly deep character study, but it's also one where not much actually happens, and the quality of the writing unfortunately was not enough to make up for that. The best thing I can say about it is that it was nice, but to me, "nice" isn't "award-worthy."

4) Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse

Urban fantasy has never gotten much Hugo love, and I don't think this book will change that, despite the fact that it's a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy with a unique setting and characters. This is a first novel with some of the typical attendant first-novel problems, so I couldn't bring myself to put it on top. However, I am happy to report that I just finished the second book, Storm of Locusts, and the author has notably improved in her craft. I think she's going to have a very good career.

3) Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik is the author of the nine-volume Temeraire series, but with this book and her previous Nebula-winning novel Uprooted, I think she has really leveled up. This is a very loose reimagining of the Rumplestiltskin story. What immediately struck me upon reading it was her skill in characterization; there are several different first-person viewpoints used here, and unlike some books that switch characters by chapter headings, these characters switch POV within chapters with no differentiation except line breaks. Yet within a paragraph or two I always knew who was speaking and where we were. This book also has lovely, evocative prose and an intriguing setting.

2) Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee

I've really gone back and forth with my placement of the remaining two nominees. I finally went back and read my Goodreads reviews, and realized when I reviewed this book after I first read it, I was more praising this book as the concluding volume in the Machineries of Empire series than an individual entry. Which is not to say this book isn't good; it is. I gave it five stars in my review. But this book, more than any other in the category, builds on what came before, and you need to have read the previous two volumes (Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem) to fully appreciate it. (Which you should absolutely do.)

1) The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal

I loved this book to pieces when I first read it, and I still do. This alternate history of the space race, set in motion by an asteroid slamming into the East Coast and precipitating a probable extinction event, brings all the sensawunda you could ever want from SF. This book is laden with the hard science of space travel, worked seamlessly into the narrative, and also deals with 50's sexism and racism. The last chapter, the launch of the Artemis 9 to the moon with the protagonist aboard, is a beautifully written triumph. This book just won the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and I suspect that Mary is about to make it a two-fer.

Next up: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form








July 9, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: Best Novella



The novella (17,500-40,000 words) has had something of a resurgence in recent years, mainly due to Tor's excellent novella line. (I know the ones I've bought are taking up nearly a full shelf in one of my bookcases.) This time around, five of the six nominees are from Tor; the only exception (Aliette de Bodard's The Tea Master and the Detective) was published by Subterranean, a niche publisher that puts out lovely limited collectible editions. (Which also take up a not-inconsiderable amount of my own shelf space.) For a lot of stories, the novella is the perfect length, and I'm glad to see its growing popularity.

My ballot:

6) "Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach," Kelly Robson

Bah. This started out well, with an interesting main character and an intriguing world, and the ending totally blew it. That ending either should have been chopped out and rethought, or this entire story expanded into something larger (and the conclusion still chopped out and rewritten). This was just a complete pacing and ending fail. So disappointing.

5) "Binti: The Night Masquerade," Nnedi Okorafor

The first book in this trilogy took both the Hugo and Nebula in 2016. I liked the first Binti well enough, but since then the series has undergone a considerable dip in quality, IMHO. This volume was okay up to a point, but then it became pretty much a muddled mess (one plot point in particular stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point). I'm not a fan of infodumps, but in this case a little more explanation of what was happening would have gone a long way.

4) "The Tea Master and the Detective," Aliette de Bodard

This is basically a far-future Holmes/Watson mystery. Watson is a sentient spaceship, a retired troop transport with PTSD, and Holmes is an abrasive, obsessed human woman (with this universe's version of opium issues) out to solve a very personal mystery. The mystery is okay, but the main characters are the primary draw. I would read further stories about them.

3) "Beneath the Sugar Sky," Seanan McGuire

This is the third book in the Wayward Children series, and while my favorite so far has been the second volume, "Down Among the Sticks and Bones," this one wasn't bad. This was more of a straightforward quest story, with the welcome return of a character from the first book (and we also get to see more of her world, the Halls of the Dead) and an interesting new character who is apparently going to be the protagonist of the fourth book.

2) "The Black God's Drums," P. Djeli Clark

Now we get to the top tier of this category, with this steampunk alternate history of New Orleans. In this world, a truce was declared between the Union and Confederate armies after eight years of war, and New Orleans was made a free port. There are airships in this story, and the titular supernatural weapon from Haiti, and an African orisha named Oya that manifests herself through the protagonist, thirteen-year-old Creeper. It's a rich, heady stew, with just enough details in the worldbuilding to draw the reader in without overwhelming. 

1) "Artificial Condition," Martha Wells

Murderbot! For fans of All Systems Red, last year's novella winner, that's all you need to say. Our favorite anxiety-ridden, serial-watching, rogue SecUnit is back, trying to solve some of the mysteries of its past. Murderbot's character and voice is the main attraction of these stories, but this book has a close competitor in ART (aka Asshole Research Transport). I personally liked the final volume of the four-novella series, "Exit Strategy," a little better than this one, but for me, this is definitely the class of this category.

Next up: Best Novel




July 8, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: Best Novelette



Now moving up in length. "Novelette" is kind of an odd duck, as it's jammed between short story (7500 words) and Novella (17,500-40,000 words). It's honestly just a reaaaallllly long short story (with oxymorons intact). 😉 As with the Short Story category, however, there is some very good work here.

My ballot:

6) "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth," Daryl Gregory

This is a sort of slow apocalypse: the story begins in 1975, when Earth is bombarded by an extended meteorite shower that turns out to be millions of seeds of an invasive alien species, distributing themselves across the planet.  The characters never discover where these seeds come from, and the ending is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the invasion will be defeated at all (although the story hints that it will be). This is because the plants are not the story's focus. This is an entire human life, namely the protagonist LT, against the backdrop of this alien invasion. It's a slow, restrained, quiet story, a deep character study that certainly had its moments, but didn't seem very memorable to me in the end.

5) "If At First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again," Zen Cho

I'm a bit surprised that this story found its way to the ballot, as it was originally published at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy blog. This is the tale of Byam, a Chinese snake and its quest to transform into a dragon. It tries many times over the milennia, until it's sidetracked when it falls in love with a human woman. This is another quiet story, brimming with emotion, that nevertheless doesn't quite rise to the quality of the others on the ballot.

(And now we get to the point where there isn't a finger's worth of difference between the nominees. I've put together various combinations of the remaining stories in my head for quite a while now, and even after I write this down I can't guarantee you that I won't change it.)

4) "The Thing About Ghost Stories," Naomi Kritzer

This is a lovely story about just what it says--ghost stories, not ghosts. Although ghosts definitely make an appearance, in the form of the narrator's mother, who recently succumbed to Alzheimer's. (The details of this ring scarily true, by the way.) This is another quiet story, but in this case, the still waters run deep, and the mother-daughter relationship depicted here is sad and beautiful.

3) "The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections," Tina Connolly

This is a story of injustice and revenge, spun by a chef who can bake memories into his pastries and uses them to bring down a tyrant. I don't know if there are real recipes for the various tarts and chocolates described here, but you can taste every bite. Taste is one of the hardest senses to describe well, and the author just nails it.

2) "The Only Harmless Great Thing," Brooke Bolander

When I first read this, I thought for sure it would be my top choice. This riveting tale of a past and future alternate timeline with sentient elephants, mythic tales of mammoths, the real-life Topsy, the renegade circus elephant who killed a man and who was electrocuted in 1903, and the real-life "Radium Girls," who suffered radiation poisoning by painting watch faces with glowing radium paint, comes together in another searing story of injustice and revenge. This is Brooke Bolander at her best, full of righteous fury.

1) "When We Were Starless," Simone Heller

This story is just beautiful. When I reread it, I couldn't deny that it belonged at the top. Taking place on what might be a far-future Earth after humans have seemingly poisoned it and abandoned it for the stars, this focuses on a tribe of lizard-people crossing the wastes, wringing a meager, miserable existence from the ruins. They stumble across a dome, an automated NASA (or future equivalent) visitor center, and learn from the holographic guide left there to dream of other worlds, and a better future. These characters may not be human, but the universal values of love, sacrifice and hope are illustrated by this wonderful story.

Next up: Novella.



July 7, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: Best Short Story




This year's Short Story nominees are a fine group of stories, and even if one or two of them don't quite work for me, I can see how they got on the ballot. I would be happy if any of them won, really, but the top three, for me, were decided by coin flips and blind finger-pointing. It's a nice problem to have.

My ballot:

6) "STET," Sarah Gailey

This is the most experimental story on the ballot, which means it is probably the most marmite story of the six. In this case the format proved to a bit of a deal-breaker: the Epub version of the story didn't really work, as the placement of the footnotes, the editor's marks, and the protagonist's increasingly angry and impassioned "stets" (which are the story) weren't very readable in this format, at least on my e-reader. The PDF version made the story into handwritten notes in the margins, but my e-reader program turned these notes into such small print I couldn't really follow the narrative, and fiddling with the zoom didn't seem to help much. Fortunately, the author included a link to the original online version published in Fireside magazine, where the editor's marks and the "stet" replies are arranged in text boxes to either side of the main column of footnotes. This version was the most readable, but by then it seemed to me that the story had to make such an effort to get out of its own way that I couldn't place it any higher.

5) "The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat," Brooke Bolander

This is definitely a meta fable-fairy-tale sort of story, only in this case, I can easily imagine the wise, scarred raptor grandma telling it to a hissing, downy clutch of newly hatched babies. Brooke Bolander's signature rage runs through this tale, as it does in nearly all her stories, but this time it's more restrained and the story is the better for it. This would have been placed higher, except for the other four stories....did I already mention what an excellent ballot this is?

4) "The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society," T. Kingfisher

T. Kingfisher, AKA Ursula Vernon, is a treasure. This story definitely falls on the funny, whimsical side of the spectrum, with its group of fae sitting around and moping over the human woman they loved and lost. It's supposed to be the other way around, but Rose MacGregor is the kind of woman you can't forget. Kingfisher spins up these characters and world in six delightful pages.

3) "The Court Magician," Sarah Pinsker

This, by contrast, falls more towards the horror end of the spectrum, with this story of a young boy recruited to be a court magician, and the slippery slope he willingly slides down as he uses a spell of one word to get rid of "problems" (read: people) for his Regent, despite the price he pays: said spell eliminates body parts and other things he loves. It's a terrifying look at power and what we will do, or ignore, to keep it. (The most horrifying thing about the story is the implication provided by the narrator, another court magician who apparently uttered the word until nothing remained of him but a disembodied voice.)

2) "The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington," Phenderson Djeli Clark

This is another experimental story, in that it doesn't have a plot as such: it's a look at the lives of slaves who donated teeth to George Washington's dentures. But in those few paragraphs devoted to each person and tooth, there's an entire alternate world built, of myths and magic and mages and legends, crossing swords with (and sometimes joining) either the Continental Army or the British troops. I would love to see this expanded into a book...but at the same time, since slavery still exists in this world, I would quite understand if the author didn't feel inclined to write it.

1) "A Witch's Guide To Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies," Alix E. Harrow

This does have a plot, one that's heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time: a librarian/witch who gives a broken foster kid the Book he needs most, and with it the means to escape his life into another world. The fact that the author uses examples of real books (Harry Potter, et al) to illustrate her story's points give it real power, and is one of the reasons I couldn't forget it. When you can't get a story out of your head, no matter how much reading you've done since, that makes a story award-worthy. As I said, I would be happy if just about any of these stories won...but I'm pulling for this one.

(Yeah, I'm buckling down to my reading and ranking now. Only three and a half weeks left.)






Review: Fleet of Knives

Fleet of Knives Fleet of Knives by Gareth L. Powell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to last year's Embers of War, and the author has definitely upped his game. It's a tightly written, well paced exploration of the consequences of what happened in the first novel, and it's not an exaggeration to say that everything goes kablooie. Powell is an author who takes every character and goes for the deepest twist of the knife.

When the book opens, the sentient warship Trouble Dog and her crew are recovering in the aftermath of waking up the Marble Armada, a 5000-year-old alien fleet. The Trouble Dog, now retired, renounced her commission after her participation in the Battle of Pelapatarn, in which hundreds of thousands of people and a billion-year-old sentient jungle was destroyed. Now working for the House of Reclamation, the Trouble Dog takes on rescue missions, and is called back into service to save the trader Lucy's Ghost, which was attacked by a malevolent being out of the hypervoid, the higher dimensions used for faster-than-light travel in this universe. The crew of the Lucy's Ghost has taken refuge aboard the Restless Itch, a ten-thousand-year-old generation ship that, unbeknownst to anyone, the Lucy's Ghost had intended to cut into and strip whatever they could salvage.

This is an ancient universe, with aliens plying the stars long before humans emerged from the trees, and the author does well in portraying this sense of forgotten empires with advanced tech that comes roaring back to bite you. This is never more evident than the Marble Armada, a million-strong fleet that abruptly decides to put a stop to the human propensity for violence by taking out the means to make it, by destroying every warship and weapons factory in the human Conglomeration. This is very much a case of "the ends justify the means," and the morals and ethics of this make for some meaty discussions among the characters, even in the midst of some pretty relentless action. The theme in the last book was atonement: both seeking it and wondering if it can ever really be found. This book's theme is honor--what it means and having the strength to choose it. This theme is dealt with in various ways by each of our five viewpoint characters, and they all are given some good (or not so good, in the case of Ona Sudak) character development.

But there is another threat looming here, in a form the Marble Armada itself is afraid of, and part of which manifests during the rescue mission on the Restless Itch. This storyline has a bit of an Alien vibe, with claustrophobic hallways and chambers and deadly slime-dripping monsters looming out of the dark. It all adds up to a nail-biting thriller with the stakes raised exponentially. This series has just positioned itself in the ranks of my favorite space operas ever, and I can't wait for the concluding volume.



View all my reviews

July 4, 2019

Review: Permafrost

Permafrost Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think time travel stories are among the hardest to write well, simply because it's all too easy to get bogged down in illogical paradox loopiness. This is among the better ones I've read recently, and it's definitely not perfect. Mainly because the global event that sets it off, if you stop to think about it, is so grim and hopeless I wondered why these people were even bothering. (And also because I highly doubt the event as described would cause such a shattering planetwide catastrophe in such a short period of time. Even the end-Permian extinction, the most severe of Earth's five major extinction events, took place, at a minimum, over hundreds of thousands of years.) I'm sure a great many of them would have rather just quietly committed suicide rather than face the struggle of trying to live on a planet scoured of nearly all life.

That's neither here nor there, I suppose, although it shows you can't ponder this novella's worldbuilding very much. This definitely gets a one-star dinging from me. On the plus side, the time travel mechanism seems fresh--at least I don't remember reading a mechanism quite like it (although I'm sure there has been). These time travelers are not the people themselves, but rather their consciousness, moving up and down the time stream. There's a lot of high-level quantum physics in this book. The author makes a decent stab at explaining it, but after a while I just substituted the words "Luba Pairs" with "woo-woo," because that was about how well I understood it, and thought, "Just get on with the story."

In this case, the story has to be paid close attention to. The structure of this novella is very much like the time travel shenanigans the author is describing--definitely non-linear, bouncing back and forth between 2028 and 2080, doubling and tripling back on itself. As we come to find out, the time stream can be manipulated, and indeed the protagonist ends up being forced to do so. This contributes to the feel of the story's being rushed; indeed, there are almost too many ideas and concepts here for a novella length. The mission starts to come apart as time paradox creeps in, and one incident in particular, about the middle of the book, gives the reader a horrifying jolt that snaps you back to the very beginning, making you re-evaluate the story. As it was meant to.

I liked this well enough, but I would have liked to spend more time with the two main characters, Valentina and Tatiana. I also would have liked the overall situation to not be quite so hopeless, which no doubt contributed to the rather abrupt ending, as the author seemed to have written himself into a corner. This was readable and interesting, but flawed.

View all my reviews