June 16, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: The Tea Master and the Detective

The Tea Master and the Detective The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novella (in a gorgeous Subterranean Press limited edition) is set in the author's Xuya Universe, a far-future space opera that features humans and sentient spaceships that dive into "deep spaces," traveling faster than light rather like sperm whales swimming the ocean depths. But those same deep spaces are mind- and body-twisting unrealities that can be fatal to humans, and severely traumatizing for one of our main characters, the mindship The Shadow's Child, a former troop transport that lost her crew and nearly died during a mission gone bad.

All this backstory is expertly woven into a tale the reader comes to realize is basically a far-future Sherlock Holmes mystery, with The Shadow's Child standing in for Watson and the other main character, the human woman Long Chau, assuming the role of the drug-addicted detective. (Quite openly so regarding the drugs, in fact--she has bots that live in her long-sleeved robes and inject her as needed.) Long Chau seeks out The Shadow's Child to blend the personalized teas that allow humans to function in deep spaces, in preparation for taking a dive in search of a particular corpse.

The mystery is wrapped up neatly enough, but it's the two main characters that are the stars here. The Shadow's Child (grrr, that's annoying typing that out every time; I wish the author had given the shipmind a nickname of "Shadow" or something, but apparently that's a part of shipmind culture, to use their full long-winded names), works through some of the PTSD from her accident, and the abrasive, detatched, single-minded Long Chau makes a connection with someone she hesitantly calls a friend at the story's end. This book feels a bit slight, but I think that's primarily because it serves as a setup for the characters' further adventures. These two are more than interesting enough to return to, and I hope the author does so.

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June 14, 2019

Review: Wastelands 3: The New Apocalypse

Wastelands 3: The New Apocalypse Wastelands 3: The New Apocalypse by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Joseph Adams is one of the foremost editors and anthologists of our times. The list of anthologies he has edited or co-edited is impressive, and I own several of them, including the first two volumes of this series. I don't think this is quite as impressive as some (especially Cosmic Powers) simply because this end-of-the-world concept has been done so many times before that it's really hard to come up with a fresh take on it. At this point in the series, I think the stories have to be more about the people surviving the apocalypse rather than the apocalypse itself. Looking at the stories through this lens, here are the standouts.

"Bullet Point," Elizabeth Bear, the opening story. I've read elsewhere that this is a bit of a refutation to Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog," with the protagonist's quick and brutal rejection of the standard we're-the-last-two-humans-on-earth-and-we-have-to-reproduce nonsense. (I wonder why none of the men spouting this bullshit stops to think about the inevitable consequences of inbreeding.) Yes, there is a dog, and no, the dog doesn't die. This story is interesting because the only explanation given for the apocalypse--apparently everybody on Earth just up and disappears--is, possibly, the Rapture.

"The Elephants' Crematorium," Timothy Mudie. One of my favorite stories in the book, this is a lovely, lyrical tale about the elephants' despair after the apocalypse, and their immolating themselves because of it, until one pregnant woman shows them there is life and hope.

"Echo," Veronica Roth. The best story in the book, in my opinion, is this tale of Synthetic Intelligent Life Forms versus humans, and a young woman whose life was saved by those same "sylphs" deciding where her true loyalties lie.

"Polly Wanna Cracker?" Greg Van Eekhout. This is a nasty, sly subversion of the apocalyptic-survivor-mutant cliche, told from the point of view of a flock of parrots (probably African grays, I would imagine) generations after the nuclear war. It's also a reminder that large flightless birds are badass mofos.

"So Sharp, So Bright, So Final," Seanan McGuire. McGuire, with her love of medical apocalypses, digs up another one: a mutating rabies virus that becomes airborne.

"The Air is Chalk," Richard Kadrey. This one is downright weird, even for an anthology of this type, full of gore and body horror, and an anti-hero protagonist who most definitely gets what's coming to him.

The rest of the stories are of generally even quality, with only one or two I didn't like. I suppose one could say that, overall, this anthology is pretty depressing, which is only natural given its subject matter. But there are occasional flashes of hope, and this is a reminder of how stubborn and resilient human beings can be. You probably have to be in a certain state of mind to enjoy this, but it's worth the read.

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June 6, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: The Labyrinth Index

The Labyrinth Index The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Couldn't finish this one, unfortunately: the Eight Deadly Words came into play early on. I guess this series just isn't for me. Although the Black Pharaoh could certainly explain Britain's recent tendency to ricochet from one disaster to another.

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Hugo Reading 2019: The Nightmare Stacks

The Nightmare Stacks The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a muddled mishmash of Tolkien, Lovecraft and supernatural noir spy thriller, run through a twee, cutesy British filter and sporting a hefty amount of Neal Stephenson Overexplaining and Deadly Minutiae Syndrome (pages upon pages of weaponry description, just like pages upon pages of orbital mechanics, does not a story make), that made me struggle to finish it. Needless to say, I didn't like it very much. If that sort of thing sounds appealing to you, by all means have at it.

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May 27, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: Night and Silence

Night and Silence Night and Silence by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book follows on the heels of book #11, The Brightest Fell, and deals with the consequences and fallout of the events in that book. As a matter of fact, you could sum up the entire October Daye series with those two words: "consequences" and "fallout." It's rather refreshing to read a story that takes everything that has occurred previously into account, and demonstrates that these characters have to pay the piper. (It must be hellishly difficult for the author to keep everything straight, but I think Seanan McGuire is doing an admirable job.) There is a revelation in this book that upends pretty much everything that has gone before, and I presume the next book will deal with this. The extra side novella included, "Suffer a Sea-Change," tells the story of the climax of this book from another POV, and is a fascinating coda. I also appreciate that the characters are not recovering quickly from the events of the previous book, and in fact Toby's fiance Tybalt is suffering from a form of PTSD and has to take time away from his kingly duties to heal. To let a male character be vulnerable, and admit to needing help, just shows the author's increasing skill with her characters, and the depths of their characterization. "Suffer a Sea-Change" also gives us some nice insights into the Luidaeg. On the whole, this is a very satisfying story.

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Hugo Reading 2019: The Brightest Fell

The Brightest Fell The Brightest Fell by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The October Daye series is a good example of an author's evolution, and giving the author room and time to improve. The first book, Rosemary and Rue, released in 2009 at the start of the urban fantasy craze, is serviceable enough, and perfectly adequate. It is not outstanding. But keep reading the series, and you can trace the author's improvement in craft, prose, characterization and plotting. One of the greatest pleasures in reading this series, in fact, is how the seeds carefully planted in the earlier books spring to surprising and/or noxious life in the later ones.

The main character has changed a lot over the course of the series. Toby once wanted to be human, or as human as possible for a part-Fae changeling; now she embraces her Fae blood and powers. (Although if I were her, I would magick up some way to carry bags of replacement blood with me wherever I went, as she seems to lose gallons of it over the course of a book.) She once prided herself on needing no one, rejecting help, and pushing other people away; now she has a painstakingly built found family she is fiercely loyal to and will fight to maintain. She has even developed a friendship with her terrifying aunt, the Luidaeg (who is one of my favorite characters).

As Toby's character has deepened and expanded, so has the author's world. This book takes her into the depths of Faerie and brings her face to face with the older half-sister she never knew. It also reunites her with the person who betrayed her, Simon Torquill, who gets an affecting character arc of his own. There is a lot of trauma in this book, realistically portrayed, and it doesn't exactly end on a hopeful note.

(I also appreciated the inclusion of a side novella at the end, exploring a different character. This story, "Of Things Unknown," is an interesting blend of Faerie and cyberpunk.)

This is book number 11 of the series; as of right now, two books remain. I think McGuire is lining everything up and getting her ducks in a row for the finale. I'm looking forward to it.

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May 26, 2019

Hugos 2019: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form is "a dramatized production in any medium, including film, television, radio, live theater, computer games or music. The work must last less than 90 minutes (excluding commercials)." In practice, that's mostly meant episodes from TV series, with Doctor Who dominating. This year, there's a very intriguing entry that's a combination music video/short SF film...but we'll get to that.

My ballot:

7) The Good Place, "Jeremy Bearimy"

I simply cannot comprehend many Hugo nominators' and voters' continued affection for this mess. This show grates on me like coarse sandpaper. In the interest of fairness, even though I hated the two episodes that were nominated last year, I tried to watch this and had to turn it off fifteen minutes in. The only good thing about this episode was the title, which provides a fairly witty, rhyming new name for "looping time-travel shenanigans."

6) No Award

5) The Good Place, "Janet(s)"

The only reason this episode is (barely) above No Award is the actor playing the various Janets (Chidi, Eleanor, Jason and Tahani in Janet's guise), D'Arcy Carden. She alone made the thoroughly unpleasant--and in the case of Jason, cringingly dumb--four main characters slightly less unpleasant. (Also, the Void special effects were cool.) Carden gave a tour de force performance in this episode, and she should be nominated for an Emmy.

4) Doctor Who, "Rosa"

This retelling of Rosa Parks' showdown on the Montgomery bus line the night of December 1, 1955 suffers, I think, because of viewing it through a British lens. Jodie Whittaker, as 13, continues to be excellent, and there is a very good scene between Yasmin and Ryan where they talk about the difficulties they have as people of color in the present day. But the sight of the Doctor and her companions running around behind the scenes striving to make sure that history unwinds as it should
struck me as frantic and rushed, and in a way, cheapened Rosa's decision. This story deserved a more restrained, subtler episode, and this isn't it.

3) Dirty Computer, Janelle Monae

This is the unexpected, pleasant surprise of the category. I'm not now and have never really been into hip-hop and R & B, but this is a collection of music videos with a framing science-fiction story about a "Dirty Computer," or rather android, Jane 57821 (Monae) having her memories (the individual songs/videos) wiped one by one. Tessa Thompson, of Thor: Ragnarok and Sorry To Bother You, plays Zen, her love interest. Janelle Monae was also in Hidden Figures, one of my favorite films of the past few years, so I knew she can act. The Dirty Computer Emotion Picture can be found on YouTube, and it's well worth your time.

2) Doctor Who, "Demons of the Punjab"

This retelling of history comes off far better, because it's British history: the Partition, the dividing of India and Pakistan on August 17, 1947, seen through Yasmin's grandmother's eyes. There's a fascinating alien race introduced: the Thijarians, once master assassins and now witnesses to the dying, which includes Prem, Yasmin's grandmother's unknown Hindu first husband. There's some unpleasant, and deliberate, parallels drawn to today, where an artificial declaration of a border can turn neighbors and friends into enemies. This episode works from beginning to end, as "Rosa" doesn't.

1) The Expanse, "Abaddon's Gate"

I nominated the entire Season 3 of The Expanse for BDP-Long Form, so it's no surprise that this episode, for me, comes out on top. When I rewatched it on Amazon (where you can stream the first 3 seasons, and where Season 4 will air later this year), I was struck by the tightness of the writing and the suspense the story builds, along with the excellent performances (particularly from David Strathairn and Cara Gee--Drummer is just a boss). There were also some good character moments, especially the scene between Amos and Reverend Anna. The effects were top-notch, considering the first three seasons came out on Sy Fy. The final voiceover, from Holden, not only sets up next season, it centers the series on its human drama. I can't wait for Season 4, where, among other things, we will get to hear Chrisjen Avasarala in all her F-bombing glory.

(Next year, of course, Game of Thrones will be back--well, maybe, considering all the uproar over the final season--and I wish the Hugo powers-that-be would restrict this category to one episode per show. I mean, really: no Handmaid's Tale? No Westworld, or Man in the High Castle, or Haunting of Hill House? Come on, voters. There's life after Doctor Who and that other show I will not name, you know.)

May 21, 2019

Hugos 2019: The Lodestar

(Note: The Lodestar, for young-adult science fiction and fantasy, is technically Not-A-Hugo along with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, although it is presented during the Hugo ceremony.)

I read quite a bit of young-adult SFF, so these books were part of the first load of Hugo nominees I checked out of the library. Only one of my nominees made the ballot (although I was a bit surprised that Tomi Adeyemi wasn't nominated for Best New Writer). I'm going to be wielding the scalpel of No Award a bit more this year, starting with this category, as I did not like two of these books at all.

7) The Belles, Dhonielle Clayton

I couldn't even finish this. The worldbuilding was thin and made little sense, and the characters were shallow and petty. To the extent I could understand the book's premise, the characters--or at least the protagonist--were meant to come across this way, and maybe she had a nice redemptive arc by the book's end, but the protagonist turned me off enough that I really didn't care. If I can't get interested in a story by the first 100 pages, I'm moving on.

6) The Invasion, Peadar O'Guilin

I finished this one, but I didn't like it any better. The characterization and pacing--particularly the latter--were the two big problems with this, and the book never overcame them. There's also a lot of gore and body horror in this story, far more than I would have expected for a young-adult novel.

5) No Award

4) Tess of the Road, Rachel Hartman

This was....okay. It's more of a deep character study than anything else, an inner journey echoing the outer one, hesitant and meandering and one step forward and two steps back, until the end. The world opened up a bit, but I preferred the two books about Seraphina, Tess's older half-sister.

3) Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

This book just won the Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult SFF at the Nebulas, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it come out on top here. I thought this fast-paced fantasy based on Nigerian culture, gods and mythology was very good, but it's still the author's first published novel, and it shows in the uneven characterizations (and especially the ill-advised romance between two of the main characters). I can't place this one on top, but I expect the next book to be better.

2) The Cruel Prince, Holly Black

This book draws you in slowly, and you wonder why on earth the protagonist is doing what she is doing...but as more layers to her character are revealed, you understand perfectly.

None of the characters are likable, but they are fascinating. This is not a cute and treacly Faerie, not at all: for the most part, the Gentry are beautiful, charming, ruthless sociopaths, and our main character is perilously close to becoming one as well. This world is harsh and the story is cruel, and the book is the epitome of the phrase, "Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it." But damned if I'm not going to snap up the next books in the series.

1) Dread Nation, Justina Ireland

This is the only one of my nominees to make the ballot, and it's definitely going on top. This Civil War-era alternate history zombie story, which starts with the dead rising after Gettysburg, is so much more than a zombie apocalypse: it's a searing commentary on racism, colonialism, and white supremacy, and the white supremacist culture that the protagonist and her friends are navigating turns out to be more dangerous than the zombies. The author is using SFF tropes to explore today's society, and it's damn near perfect.

May 19, 2019

And Now, Your Political Interlude

Welcome to 1819 2019.

Where the Confederacy has never died.

And the ghost of Harriet Tubman is shaking her head.

Bonus: Leslie Jones' righteous Saturday Night Live rant.

This has been your weekly Pregnant Woman in a Coal Mine commentary. Be afraid, but be prepared, America.

May 18, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: "Binti: The Night Masquerade," by Nnedi Okorafor

The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

This is the third in the Binti series of novellas, and the longest. It's on the border between novella and short novel. It wraps up Binti's story, and we find out more about her and her family, her village, her Himba people, the war between two alien races, and the secret behind the dreaded Night Masquerade. 

For all of that, this entry in the trilogy is curiously uninvolving, at least to me. A large part of that is because, as much as I hate infodumps, I like a bit of explanation, and precious little is provided here. (For instance, I know I should pick up on contextual clues, but despite my best efforts I was never able to figure out what Binti's "treeing" ability actually is. Considering that she seems to do it every other page, this got quite annoying after a while.) The characterization in general was just not that great, and the story seemed to meander aimlessly to the end. It was okay, but it's definitely not in my higher tier of quality.