July 15, 2018

Review: The Calculating Stars

The Calculating Stars The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is fantastic, and anyone who loved the book and/or movie Hidden Figures should snap this right up. It's an alternate history of the space race with even higher stakes: after an asteroid impact that wipes out Washington DC and most of the East Coast, humanity comes together to get off the Earth and establish colonies in space and on the Moon. This is necessary because (shades of what happened to the dinosaurs) the impact sets in motion what promises to be a probable extinction event, coming within the lifetimes of the people who survived it.

Unfortunately, this book takes place during the 1950s, with all the attendant racism and sexism. This comes bearing down on the shoulders of our protagonist, Elma York, a genius ex-World War II WASP pilot with PhDs in physics and mathematics. When the asteroid hits, she flies herself and her engineer husband, Nathaniel, out of the blast zone, and later on when calculating the size of the meteor for her husband, she realizes just what it will do. Elma and Nathaniel become involved with this alt-history version of NASA, the International Aerospace Coalition, which has the goal of putting humans on the moon in a few years (with a colony to follow), and Elma fights for herself and other women to be included in the astronaut program.

By necessity, this book has A LOT of technical jargon. (It is also impeccably and exhaustively researched, as the author's Historical Note and Bibliography show.) It takes a helluva writer to produce such a dense, technical book without infodumps and without sacrificing the momentum of the story. Mary Robinette Kowal is that writer; the story's pacing and readability never flags. But she is juggling many more plates in the air as well: the era's prejudices; the characters (Elma and Nathaniel are not kids; they have a mature, supportive relationship, and Kowal never resorts to the kneejerk reaction of making the heroine's husband jealous or possessive); the exposure and deconstruction of Elma's unthinking white privilege regarding people of color in such a scenario; and Elma's personal struggle with panic attacks. Any one of these things, if not handled properly, could have dragged the story to a halt. It never happens.

But more than that, this book brings the sensawunda that good science fiction should have, and brings it mightily. If the last chapter in the book, the launch of the Artemis 9 to the moon with Elma aboard, doesn't make you tear up a little, I don't know what to tell you. It's a lovely, triumphant ending, beautifully written, and this is one of the best books of the year.

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July 14, 2018

Hugos 2018: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form


(Disclaimer: I couldn't watch the Doctor Who Christmas special, "Twice Upon a Time." Season 11 is available on Amazon Prime--all except the Christmas special, of course. I visited the BBC America website, but apparently that channel isn't carried by my cable provider, so I couldn't watch it there. I'm not willing to watch the episode illegally, so I suppose I'll have to leave it off my ballot.)

This category, to be frank, is pretty mediocre this year, with the exception of the Black Mirror episode. I watched it for a second time and it holds up better than I remembered, but it doesn't come close to the excellent Emmy winner from last year, "San Junipero."

The nominees:

The Good Place, "The Trolley Problem" and "Michael's Gambit"
Clipping, "The Deep"
Doctor Who, "Twice Upon a Time"
Black Mirror, "USS Callister"
Star Trek Discovery, "Magic To Make the Sanest Man Go Mad"

My ballot:

1) Black Mirror: "USS Callister." This is a deconstruction of toxic masculinity wrapped up in the persona of a sociopathic white male nerd. It's a takeoff of the original Star Trek, here called Space Fleet, with Robert Daly the Chief Technical Officer of Infinity, an online game. This turns dark very quickly, as the "Captain Daly" of Robert's private version of the game reveals him to be the tyrannical god of his own universe, complete with digital copies of his co-workers to manipulate and terrorize.

Watching this for the second time, I noticed that with the exception of Walton, his boss in the real-life version of Infinity who took over Daly's original concepts and didn't give him the credit he apparently did deserve, every one of the imprisoned co-workers is a woman and/or person of color. If that isn't a commentary on Silicon Valley nerd male entitlement, I don't know what is.

2) Star Trek Discovery: "Magic To Make the Sanest Man Go Mad." This would have taken the No. 1 spot, except for the terrible ending. This prequel to the original Star Trek used a technobabble time-loop plot to reveal a good deal about the characters and this iteration of the show. Unfortunately, they tried to update Harcourt Fenton Mudd by turning him into a nasty, murderous con man instead of the bumbling half-baked con artist of the original, only to attempt--and fail miserably--to revert the character to his original persona in the final scene. Since Harry Mudd murdered all the crewmembers of Discovery fifty-some times over in his attempt to hijack the starship's advanced drive and sell it to the Klingons (hence the 30-minute repeated time loop) he should have been tried for 20,000+ first-degree murder charges. And they just let him go? I'm sorry, but forcing him to stay with Stella, his wife--accompanied by her daddy--who have been pursuing him, is nowhere near the punishment he deserved. Come on, people.

3) Clipping, "The Deep" (song). Unfortunately, I'm just not a hip-hop person. This seemed to have a pretty SFnal concept, but I'm not enough into that kind of music for it to make much of an impression on me. However, as meh as this was, it's still better than 5) and 6), which I have deliberately placed below--

4) No Award

5) The Good Place, "The Trolley Problem" and 6) The Good Place, "Michael's Gambit."

Bah. I'm going to be a get-off-my-lawn curmudgeon about this, because I don't understand why this show is here at all. If I'm not a hip-hop person, I'm even more not a sitcom person, which is what The Good Place is. It doesn't have a laugh track, and it does have Ted Danson, who I will admit is quite good in his fallen-angel/Lucifer role. However, those are its only two redeeming qualities, as far as I am concerned. The other characters are so shrill and annoying they made my teeth ache. I am sobbing over episodes of The Expanse, The Handmaid's Tale, and Luke Cage, among others, that got passed over for this. Please, Hugo voters, let's not do this again.

July 13, 2018

Review: Revenant Gun

Revenant Gun Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the conclusion to the Machineries of Empire trilogy. Taking place nine years after the events of the second book, Raven Stratagem, this book focuses on what could be called Shuos Jedao 2.0. The devious, amoral, fascinating General of books one and two is here resurrected as a scared seventeen-year-old kid, with all his triumphs and tragedies ahead of him....and he doesn't remember any of it.

Yes, I know that sounds fantastical. Let's just say this entire series is the epitome of the phrase "advanced technology indistinguishable from magic." This Empire runs on what's known as the "high calendar," which generates exotic effects like faster-than-light travel and various horrifying weaponries. The calendar's engine, as we discover (it's stated definitively in this book, though it was broadly hinted at in book one and especially book two) is the Remembrances, which is ritualized, state-sanctioned torture. Jedao is resurrected by means of what's called the "black cradle," where a copy of his downloaded consciousness and memories is stored. He's given a new body (exactly where this body came from is very important later) and sent out by one of the empire's last remaining hexarchs, Nirai Kujen, to conquer and reunify a fractured hexarchate and stamp out "calendrical heresies." These are calendars different from the high calendar--one of the main differences being they support such heretical concepts as "democracy."

Needless to say, as you can probably tell, the learning curve is pretty steep on these books. This book isn't nearly as bad as the first, Ninefox Gambit, where I read through the first chapters bumfuzzled, thinking: "I don't have the slightest idea what's going on here, but I love it." Raven Stratagem did have quite a few explanations, a welcome trend that continues in this book. This book also benefits from being half again as long as either of the first two, with the added length used to take a welcome deep dive into the world and characters. There are crackling space battles, sharply-drawn ethical conundrums, conflicted and multi-layered characters, and the revelation of an enslaved alien species that I really hope is given some time in a subsequent story, as there is unfortunately no chance to deal with the horrifying implications of their existence here.

This book brings the story to a satisfying conclusion, with the ten-year attempt to overthrow the hexarchate and break up the high calendar succeeding. (Indeed, you could say this coup took four hundred years, as the original Shuos Jedao set it in motion before he was killed and downloaded into the black cradle.) The three books work together very well, building and expanding the world and characters with each subsequent volume, and tying up (nearly) all the loose ends. It's damn good, all of it, and is one of the best books I've read so far this year.

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July 11, 2018

Interlude: Today's Cartoon

You know, I'd have more respect for these people if they'd come right out and say it, instead of waffling around with weasel words like "Western civilization."

Atlanta Freethought Society

July 10, 2018

Hugos 2018: My Ballot So Far

263. Rethinking the Hugo Awards w/ TheG, Cora Buhlert, and Jason Snell

Best Novel

1) The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin
2) Raven Stratagem, Yoon Ha Lee
3) Provenance, Ann Leckie
4) The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi
5) New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson
6) Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty

(Notes: The fantastic conclusion to the Broken Earth trilogy has been my No. 1 since I turned the last page. Since it just won the Nebula, I think Jemisin has a pretty good chance of making the sweep. I think her main competition will come from Six Wakes, a closed-room [or rather spaceship] murder mystery with clones that was not my cup of tea at all, but which a lot of people seemed to like.)

Best Novella

1) "All Systems Red," Martha Wells
2) "Down Among the Sticks and Bones," Seanan McGuire
3) "And Then There Were (N-One)," Sarah Pinsker
4) "The Black Tides of Heaven," JY Yang
5) "River of Teeth," Sarah Gailey
6) "Binti: Home," Nnedi Okorafor

(Notes: This category is very tight. I think Murderbot will come out on top--it just won the Nebula, and the character/voice is unforgettable--but if not, any one of the others could knock it off.)

Best Novelette

1) "The Secret Life of Bots," Suzanne Palmer
2) "Extracurricular Activities," Yoon Ha Lee
3) "Wind Will Rove," Sarah Pinsker
4) "A Series of Steaks," Vina Jie-Min Prasad
5) "Children of Thorns," Aliette de Bodard
6) "Small Changes Over Long Periods," K.M. Szpara

(Notes: This is another crapshoot. I personally loved "Bots," but if Vina Jie-Min Prasad wins the Campbell, as I suspect she will, that might bleed over into this category.)

Best Short Story

1) "The Martian Obelisk," Linda Nagata
2) "Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience™," Rebecca Roanhorse
3) "Sun, Moon, Dust," Ursula Vernon
4) "Fandom for Robots," Vina Jie-Min Prasad
5) "Carnival Nine," Caroline M. Yoachim
6) "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand," Fran Wilde

(Notes: This was the hardest decision, for me. I could have flipped a coin on any given day and placed any of the top 3 at No. 1. "The Martian Obelisk" finally squeaked through because I thought the ending was just perfect. But I would be happy if any of the top 3 won.)

Best Series

1) The Divine Cities, Robert Jackson Bennett
2) The Books of the Raksura, Martha Wells
3) InCryptid, Seanan McGuire
4) The Memoirs of Lady Trent, Marie Brennan
5) World of the Five Gods, Lois McMaster Bujold

(Notes: You'll notice Brandon Sanderson is missing. I've been putting him off and putting him off, and I think that's because I have a congenital aversion to ten-pound bricks masquerading as books. There's also the time factor to consider. In any case, I think the Divine Cities is the one to beat. Let's also remember that Lois McMaster Bujold already snagged this award last year, for the Vorkosigan Saga. Let's spread the love a bit, please.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

1) Blade Runner 2049
2) Wonder Woman
3) The Shape of Water
4) Get Out
5) Thor: Ragnarok
6) Star Wars: The Last Jedi

(Notes: I do not expect Blade Runner 2049 to win, as much as I loved its deliberate pacing and gorgeous look. I think it will come down to either The Shape of Water or Get Out. Although there would be something to be said for giving The Last Jedi the trophy and thumbing our collective noses at the entitled little brats trolling Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran. Also remember that if Carrie Fisher was here [*sigh*], she would undoubtedly chime in with a loud "Fuck you.")

We're rounding the turn to the home stretch now. Onward.

Hugo Reading 2018: The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang

This is the last of the Novella nominations. I didn't own this book, so I had to wait to get it in the Hugo packet. This is a peculiar but interesting mash of fantasy and science fiction, Chinese legend and (actual feathered) dinosaurs, magic--here called "slackcraft"--and science, wrapped in an age-old thread of a tyrannical ruler attempting to control a kingdom, and her twin children who are trying to overthrow her.

I liked it well enough, but I think I liked the premise better than the execution. The world itself, the Protectorate, was fascinating, if a little scanty on the details. No infodumping, that's for sure; we find out about the world organically, bit by bit, the tidbits of information unfolding along with the story. (I particularly liked the idea of children being allowed to choose their gender, and able to change their minds at any given time, even into adulthood. Ialmost wish that's something we could implement in real life.) The prose is smooth and sure, and the author has obviously thought about and worked out the details of her (their?) world, even if we aren't privy to all of them yet.

The main thing that bugged me about this story is the time jumps. Every few chapters, we advance by X number of years. I can see where the plot demands this, but in that case, I think this book needed to be expanded in length to better smooth over the narrative abruptness. As it was, this made it hard for me to relate to the characters and really get into the story. So, my final take on this one: I liked it but didn't love it, and it will not be placed at the top of my ballot.

July 7, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: Midnight Blue-Light Special, by Seanan McGuire

Midnight Blue-Light Special (InCryptid, #2) by Seanan McGuire — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs ...                                                                                                                                                                                                           

This is the second book in the Best Series-nominated InCryptid series. It picks up where the last book left off, with the same protagonist, Verity Price (though that will change in subsequent books, as Verity's older brother Alexander and younger sister Antimony take their turns).  Time-wise, this takes place about six months after the events of the first book, with Verity drawing near the end of her year's stay in New York City.

Verity's sometimes boyfriend, Dominic De Luca, reappears with some bad news: the Covenant of St George is descending on the city for a "purge." The cryptids (creatures of magic, myth and legend, also known as "monsters," hiding in plain sight) are in danger. Verity immediately rallies to save her city, visiting the cryptids to warn them, and gathering the more vulnerable ones to hide in the nightclub where she works, the Freakshow.

Two prominent themes in this book are friendship and found family. Both Verity and Dominic have nice character arcs in this book, with Verity realizing her "job," and true calling, is to protect the cryptids, no matter how much she loves ballroom dancing. Dominic also reaches a personal epiphany; for much of the book he is caught between Verity and the Covenant, between the woman he loves and the organization that took him in and raised him. The Covenant also fed him a line of propaganda about the cryptids, and he finally realizes he cannot be a part of the organization anymore. He throws his lot in with Verity and her cryptids, and just in time, as the Covenant representatives (one of whom is a cousin of Verity's from far back, from a line of the family that did not break away) capture Verity and set about torturing her, both to make her reveal the whereabouts of her family and the cryptids in New York.

The back half of this book is a fast-paced, nerve-wracking rescue mission, as Dominic and Verity's uncle Mike lead a team of cryptids to rescue her. We are treated to an interesting POV switch, as several chapters in the middle of the book are narrated by Verity's adopted cousin Sarah, a telepathic cryptid known as a "cuckoo." (As far as that goes, I wish Dominic had at least one chapter to call his own. Getting inside his head would have been interesting, I think.) Verity, being the badass that she is, breaks free on her own before the cavalry gets there. Despite her torture and subsequent injuries, she still gives a good account of herself. With everyone charging in to save the day, the Covenant is defeated...but Sarah, unfortunately, pays the heaviest price, as her telepathic abilities are needed to scour the Covenant members' memories to ensure others of their ilk will not descend on New York, and doing so damages her mind. Hopefully she will recover in future books.

This series continues to impress, so much so that I ordered the rest of the books. This book is a bit grimmer than the first, despite the levity of the Aeslin mice (intelligent, extremely religious mouse-like cryptids, who worship Verity and her family as gods). The secondary characters are well developed, especially Istas the shapeshifting waheela and her constant deadpan bloodthirsty calls for "carnage." I'm looking forward to the rest of the Price family's story.

July 6, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

This is another of those books that I had trouble getting into, because it's so very English. (I had the same problem with Philip Pullman.) To be clear, this is not because it's a bad book--I liked this better than La Belle Sauvage--but it's due to the prose style, which is chilly and remote and precise and sporting a rigid British lip. This is the first book by Frances Hardinge I've read, so I have no idea if this is her normal way of writing. Nevertheless, this made it hard for me to relate to her characters.

This book is set in 1642 England under King Charles. The time period seems to be meticulously researched, with a wealth of detail about people's everyday lives, both the higher and lower classes. (One thing that stuck with me is that the protagonist hated taking a bath--she thought the water would seep into her pores and drown her. She usually just wiped herself off with a rag. I'm sure she was a blast to be around, body odor-wise.) Our protagonist, Makepeace Littlefoot, is the illegitimate daughter of a high-class family that has, shall we say, some peculiar characteristics, which she unfortunately inherits. To be specific, certain family members carry the ghosts of their ancestors in their heads, and as each generational "vessel" ages and dies, the person next in line is forced to contain said ghosts, which invariably results in the suppression and eventual death of their own personalities. It was this fate that Makepeace's mother, fifteen and pregnant, tried to spare her daughter when she ran away. 

But Makepeace's mother dies early in the story, and her uncle and aunt cannot cope with her, so they send her to her father's family at Grizehayes. There she gradually discovers just who and what she is. This coming-of-age tale is set against the backdrop of a rebellion against the Crown, with her father's family, the Fellmottes, taking the side of the King to protect their interests (and prevent being killed as witches).

There is a good sense of pacing to this story, and the author definitely knows how to write action scenes. Still, this book never crossed into "can't put down" territory for me, due to the remoteness of the characters. This problem persisted throughout, until I hit the very last pages. At the end of the story, there is a sudden switch in POV, to a new character named Hannah. In just two and a half pages, we are given Hannah's story, how after the death of her husband she joins the army by pretending to be a man, Harold; is taught to fight; and following her death, her ghost is scooped up by Makepeace's half brother, James. James, having been freed by Makepeace (and various ghostly allies she collects along the way) from his own nasty brain-sucking spirits, is traveling with Makepeace with a new purpose: saving the ghosts of those "who usually don't get second chances." This makes the book end on a high but frustrating note, as I would rather have read Hannah's story than that of the ostensible heroine.

This book was okay, but no more than that. It definitely didn't knock my socks off.

July 3, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire · OverDrive (Rakuten OverDrive): eBooks, audiobooks and ...

This is another entry in the new Best Series category. The author had a previous nomination last year, for her October Daye series, which did not win. To be honest, I'm not expecting this series to win either, not with such competition as the Books of the Raksura and the Divine Cities (my current no. 2 and no. 1, respectively). However, I enjoyed this more than I expected to, seeing as urban fantasy as a genre seems to be a bit faded from what it used to be. I know I'm reading less of it, myself.

The conceit of this series is the existence of "cryptids," creatures of myth and magic (defined by some as "monsters") that exist in our world, and the family named Price that protects them. This idea requires quite a bit of handwavium to support the notion that in the day of Twitter, Google Maps, and instant cellphone video, the populace at large would not be aware of the presence of sirens, Sasquatch, Gorgons, and the like. (For instance, our protagonist, Verity Price, talks about members of the family riding along on a Greenpeace ship to "hide the annual plesiosaur migration." WHAT!!!??? The reveal of actual Mesozoic-era survivors would be one of the coolest things ever, especially if said dinosaurs were sentient and could say, "Your industrial civilization is destroying the planet.") If you can't overlook this, you are likely to crash and burn on this series only a few pages in. But if, like me, you are drawn in by the characters, worldbuilding and setting, you are embarking on an enjoyable ride.

Verity Price, in particular, is a strong and compelling character. She is spending a year away from her family in New York City, trying to decide between starting a career as a professional ballroom dancer or joining the "family business" of protecting cryptids. She runs across (or rather, gets caught in the rooftop trap of) a man called Dominic De Luca, who is a member of the Covenant of St. George, the centuries-old secret organization dedicated to killing the cryptids. There is a great deal of bad blood between the Prices and the Covenant, as only a few generations ago Verity's great-great-grandparents were members. But upon realizing that more than a few cryptids were sapient beings that did not deserve death, the family broke away, and has been in hiding ever since.

Like many urban fantasy heroines, Verity Price kicks ass and takes names. (Although I think she is wasted as a ballroom dancer. With her mad tumbling, gymnastics, unarmed combat, and free-running skills--she gets around Manhattan by running across rooftops--she could be cleaning up on American Ninja Warrior.) She is snarky and at times impulsive, but her loyalty to her friends is absolute. She and Dominic get involved in a plot to awaken an honest-to-Ghu dragon sleeping under Manhattan, and along the way we learn a lot about the many species of cryptids populating this universe.

I've seen this series called fluffy, and honestly, I don't know where that comes from. It's not as grim as some urban fantasy books I could name, and there's a lot of humor in Verity's snark and various character interactions, but I don't think this is a particularly light read. It is, however, a surprisingly good one, at least to me.

June 23, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett

This is the third book in the Divine Cities trilogy, and wraps up the story in a sad, bittersweet, yet ultimately triumphant fashion. The protagonist this time around is an older, wiser and (at the beginning at least) broken Sigrud,  the ruthless killing machine companion of the first book and the shattered grieving father of the second. This time around, thirteen years after the events of the second book, Sigrud is called back to action by the presumed death of his mentor, the former Prime Minister of Saypur, Shara Komayd.

Things are not as they seem, of course. This storyline is the most complex and layered of the three; the reader has to follow it pretty carefully. We have children of the Divine, one of which can manipulate time; another who, when younger and before coming into his full power, was captured and tortured by Shara's aunt, Vinya Komayd; and finally, Shara's adopted daughter Tatyana, who has no idea she is a Divine child. But this is just a pale recitation of this complex plot, where the mistakes and hubris of the past, not just for the people of Saypur but the Divinities themselves, come roaring back to bite them and nearly results in the destruction of everything.

One of the themes of the previous book, City of Blades, was war and the price paid by soldiers. The overriding theme of this book, it seems to me, is similar but subtly different: power. The cost of possessing it, the stark contrast between those who have it and those who don't, and the arrogance of those who do. The climax of the book comes down to the choice Tatyana makes, to keep that terrible godlike power for herself and burn the world down, or give it away and save it. She chooses the latter (which creates a new and different set of problems, humans being what they are), and in the process remakes the world.

This entire trilogy is just outstanding, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. I'm still reading the Best Series nominees, but I already know what's going at the top of my ballot.