September 22, 2020
September 19, 2020
Pretty slim pickings in this one. Or maybe I'm getting ever more cranky in my *mumble mumble* years....
"Outer," Hollis Joel Henry
Toozen is a "September," a "child of a child of a child born in late September," after a "big accident when the science men were playing with light." He comes to realize that people are not nice, that hunters are coming to take him out because of what he is (and after he has mindwiped a lot of other people). This is a bleak little tit-for-tat story that doesn't really seem to be going anywhere.
"Eyes of the Crocodile," Malena Salazar Macia, translated by Toshita Kamei
This is an odd little hybrid of rebellious medical nanobots, a settlement on an alien planet, and an ancient myth of the Crocodile Woman. Okay, but not really memorable.
"Mandorla," Cooper Shrivastava
If you want a more science-fictional take on Ents (different kinds of sentient plants arguing with each other at the end of the world), this is the story for you. I didn't care for it.
"The Host," Neal Asher
A former convict, a murderer, thief and smuggler, is spared because of his encounter with an alien (said alien also forces a conscience and empathy on him) and sent on a journey to encounter what is eventually revealed to be this alien's mate. This story seemed awful damn long-winded to deliver what was ultimately an underwhelming message.
"Jigsaw Children," Grace Chan
The most promising story in the issue, this had a nice setup and some interesting worldbuilding. At the end of the 21st century, gene splicing is commonplace (in China; not so much elsewhere), and "natural" childbearing is illegal; boys are given vasectomies and girls are implanted with birth control at puberty without their consent. The thought of bearing a child the old-fashioned way is an anathema, the protagonist Lian has five genetic parents, and children are borne from surrogate mothers and brought up in "Children's Centers." This story started out well, with some thoughtful discussions of the issues raised, but it's undermined by an abrupt and to my mind unearned 180-degree turnaround from the main character.
"Generation Gap," Thoraiya Dyer
I'm beginning to think this author's work is just something I bounce off of. I tried her novel Crossroads of Canopy and didn't like the main character at all, and these characters weren't too great either. Also (a minor annoyance, but it still bugged me) the author uses upside-down vowels and backwards letters in some of the names.
Honorable Mention: "Jules Verne and a Journey Through Genre," Carrie Sessarego
The nonfiction essays definitely outweigh the fiction offerings in this issue of Clarkesworld. This article discusses Jules Verne's "scientific romances": "It's this sense of fascination, wonder and curiosity that truly makes Verne a father to science fiction, more so than any specific futuristic quality of his work. Verne loves to tell us how things work, what things look like, how things taste and smell and feel." This piece easily could have been longer.
Honorable Mention: "Nanobots and Braincases: A Conversation With Tochi Onyebuchi," Arley Sorg
This long, in-depth interview with this author made me sit up and take notice: I hadn't paid much attention to him before. This spurred me to reserve his two latest releases at the library, so I'm sure he'll count that as a win.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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September 13, 2020
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is frustrating. I was about to give up on it, irritated by (among other things) the shallow characterizations and incoherent worldbuilding, when about halfway through it seemed like a light went on in the author's head. Specifically, after a pivotal plot point and an excellent scene involving the protagonist and her mother, the author had a sudden epiphany: Hey, I need to delve into my characters, tighten up this story, and get serious.
So she did, with the result that the latter half of this book is greatly superior to the first. But that doesn't eliminate all the flaws, or take away the sour taste in my mouth left by the first part.
This book is set in a future world following the Partition Wars, during which a megacorporation, the United Continental Confederacy, Incorporated, took over and dissolved the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the US. (Which is just Part 1 of the incoherent worldbuilding. The author tries her best to build a non-crooked house out of her world, but it never really makes sense.) Prudence Wu, the protagonist, is a prep-school student and book smuggler in New Columbia (the former Washington DC area), smuggling uncensored media across the border to UCC territory. On one of those drops, she is ratted out by her contact, and while trying to flee she runs into...a giant cloaked mecha dragon.
This high concept is why I bought the book in the first place. A girl and her sentient mechanical dragon is quite a hook. Unfortunately, except in spots in the book's latter half, it doesn't live up to expectations.
The first problem with this book, and one that never really goes away, is the rapidfire cutesy snarktastic smartass dialogue. I don't know if the author is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and had the Scooby Gang in mind when she wrote this, but that's what it reminded me of. But Joss Whedon's style wears thin fast, especially when all the main characters talk like that. It was enough to bring on a headache, if I was prone to such. I'm not a fan of overabundant dialogue tags, but in this case I wished there were more of them, just so I could figure out who was speaking.
The second problem is that, after setting up her intriguing concept, the author proceeds to do next to nothing with it. To be blunt, the titular Rebelwing should have been a main character from the get-go, right along with Prudence and her three sidekicks, Anabel, Cat and Alex. There should have been a helluva lot more focus on Pru's and Rebelwing's relationship, as in: what does it mean to bond to a sentient mechanical dragon? How does that even work? (Although that is Part 2 of the incoherent worldbuilding, as Rebelwing seems to have a telepathic connection to Prudence and later Alex. Psi powers are not scientific, any more than hyperspace or FTL travel, but they're more or less accepted as genre tropes. But a psionic connection between a computer consciousness and an organic brain? Really? I would have had a lot easier time accepting this if Pru had some sort of implant, even a phone chip in her wrist instead of an actual cell phone, that Rebelwing could have hijacked for its own use. As it was, every time that came up I had to grit my teeth and plow past it.) How does Pru connect with Rebelwing and learn to fly it...or "her," rather, and how did Rebelwing decide it was female? Where's the struggle, the learning, the communication between the two of them?
This is by far the biggest problem here, that the title character, the concept of the entire story...is barely present in her own book. She certainly doesn't have any personality. In the latter half of the book, despite the greater emphasis on the characters (except for her), Rebelwing is little more than a plot coupon, moved around on the chessboard with painfully obvious author manipulation. It's damned frustrating. I would far rather have dispensed with a little (or a lot) of the snarkass dialogue, and had some real relationship-building between Pru and her mechanical dragon.
Having said all this, the back half of the book did level up its game, enough to get me to finish it. There were some well-done fight scenes, a few philosophical discussions involving the value of one life, and the relationships between the main (human) characters were explored and deepened. The climax, involving Pru's mother and Alex's father and uncle, was sad and poignant, as was the final chapter revealing the mystery of Pru's mother's past. But the book as a whole seems very much a missed opportunity, and ended up spoiling its considerable potential.
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September 12, 2020
Now that I'm making a serious dent in my 2020 TBR pile, I thought I would include some magazine reviews as well. I have what I suppose is a near-fatal weakness for dead trees; I'm quite willing to pay extra to various Patreons to get a paperback copy in my hot little hand. (I'm also one of the few people to have a complete set of 2018 Apex Magazine paperback issues, during the single year they were offered--and now that Apex is resuming publication, I'd pay extra for them again, too.) Clarkesworld is one of my favorite SFF magazines. Neil Clarke is an excellent editor, and I very much appreciate his pairing with Storycom to offer translated science fiction, as he explains in this issue's editorial. One of these stories is my favorite in this issue.
"I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter," Isabel Fall
I hesitated to include this story given the eruption it caused when it was initially posted; the author ended up asking for it to be removed from the Clarkesworld website. Coverage here and here. I'm not qualified to comment on the trans issues and reaction from the trans community, but I think I can opine on the story as a story. On that basis, I will say that I thought it was a muddled mess. Every time it started to get a little momentum, it would be derailed by a paragraph or six of meta commentary and fourth-wall-breaking questions on gender. I'm not objecting to these things as such; they might have worked if a) they had been shorter; and b) they had been more seamlessly woven into the narrative. As it was, I thought we ended up with a disjointed story that didn't know what it wanted to be--a piece of fiction or a polemic essay--and as a result failed at both.
"Monster," Naomi Kritzer
This is the somewhat disturbing exploration of what turns a person into a monster, in the form of the protagonist Cecily Grantz and her high school friend Andrew. Andrew is a typical 80's nerd, misunderstood by his parents and picked on by his classmates, who begins to show a bent towards vicious revenge to anyone who wrongs him. He uses Cecily's gene-editing research to create a serum that gives people inhuman speed and strength--killing many of his test subjects along the way. After Andrew flees the US, Cecily hunts him down in China and takes care of him in a powerful plot twist, raising the question of--as much as we're not meant to sympathize with Andrew--just who is the monster here.
"The AI That Looked At the Sun," Filip Hajdar Drnovsek Zorko
An inventive tale of a machine (or subroutine, I suppose) sentience on the Daedalus solar monitoring station with one overwhelming desire: to use the available equipment--in this case, an EVA suit--to see the sun.
"The Last To Die," Rita Chang-Eppig
In a future where consciousness can be digitized and people's minds transferred to cyborg bodies, the last generation of aging humans who refuse the procedure are exiled to islands around the world, both so they can be protected from the dangers of the outside world and shuffled out of sight of the "deathless." On one of these islands, a glass cyborg woman named Beth and her adopted son Max, someone on the autism spectrum (not specified in the story, but that's what it sounded like) who cannot undergo the cyberizing procedure, arrive to shake up the island's inhabitants and grapple with the nature of immortality, aging, and stagnation.
"The Perfect Sail," I-Hyeong Yun, translated by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe
Chang Yeon is a CEO who sends an inhuman "sailor" trawling the multiverse to look for alternate versions of herself, versions she can harvest upon their deaths to transfer their outstanding traits into her own mind to make her more perfect. (She knows they are dying because "brains secreted a special substance about two to three weeks prior to their deaths, regardless of whether or not the person knew their death was imminent." Really?) The one version of herself who refuses to be integrated is the subject of this story--an alternate Chang of the Roo people, a species of human termed "ant-sized" (Chang Yeon's doppelganger is 5.6 millimeters tall [Really?]) who use the sap of a certain plant to physically reincarnate their bodies after death. There's a lot of telling in this one instead of showing, and I just didn't care for it.
"The Ancestral Temple in a Box," Chen Qiufan, translated by Emily Jin
Sonny Huang arrives at his dying father's bedside to be given the titular "ancestral temple," a virtual reality simulation of his clan's history and traditions. There's a lot more to it than this stark description, of course: the traditions of Sonny's ancestors to make beautiful gold-lacquered wood carvings, which tradition Sonny wants to replace with robots; Sonny's realizing that those same carvings constitute the historical narrative of his people; and in the end, Sonny's creating a carving utilizing both machines and humans, a beautiful hybrid piece of art that tells the story of his people, the Teochew. (The afterward to this story talks about the real-life Teochew people of China, and the gold-lacquered wood carvings that are their traditional art.) I really liked this.
September 7, 2020
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I almost DNF'd this book on its first chapter. This book opens on the sad tale of the nameless, titular "First Sister," a space
This wasn't badly written, but I was rolling my eyes and thinking, Really? This setup is a cliche and a half. I decided to give the book a couple more chapters, and I'm glad I did: the next two characters introduced, Lito sol Lucius and Hiro val Akira, Rapier and Dagger (cybernetically linked fighters) respectively, came on stage and proceeded to carry the novel.
The worldbuilding gets fairly interesting here. It's gradually revealed: there are two competing factions, the Icarii with their technology and neural implants, based on Mercury and Venus; and the Geans, with their insistence on "natural" humans and their religion of the Sisterhood, the somewhat ill-conceived mixture of priestesses and sex workers that are co-rulers in the governments of (apparently badly polluted and in Earth's case, more than half dead--it's called "brown" instead of blue) Earth and Mars. Humanity is split along these two factions, along with a third: the gene-modded Asters, who live in and mine the asteroid belt. (A fourth faction, the mysterious Synthetics who abandoned humanity after the Dead Century War, live in the outer reaches of the solar system, after warning humans never to expand past Jupiter.)
There are three interwoven storylines: Lito's, Hiro's and First Sister's. Hers is the weakest of the three, although I warmed to her a bit more towards the end of the book. The main drawback to her character is that the author doesn't drill down enough into the psyche of a woman who was forced into the Sisterhood and had her voice taken from her at age twelve (although she apparently doesn't start her state-sanctioned rapes for a few years after that), or examine the implications for the society that allows the Sisterhood to exist. There is the Icarii, and there are the Geans, and they are at war, fighting over the existence of the magical element hermium, only found on Mercury, which powers their technology. (This also bugged me more than a little; it's another Really? That needed to be better thought out.) They're also fighting over other resources in the Aster-held asteroid belt. All this reminded me of James S.A. Corey's The Expanse, although Corey does it far better.
Still, despite these flaws (and a rather unconvincing plot twist in First Sister's storyline that had me rolling my eyes yet again), there's enough here, mainly in the Lito/Hiro storyline, to move forward, I think. Your mileage will definitely vary; I know a lot of readers will be put off by First Sister's character and story altogether, and I can't really blame them. The author definitely needs to think about their societies and worldbuilding more, and tackle the problems and implications those create. If they do that, they might end up with an excellent book, instead of a flawed but promising one.
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September 3, 2020
Mirage by Julie E. Czerneda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the latest in a series started more than twenty years ago (in mass market paperback, no less! I miss MMPs) about a fascinating alien race. Esen-alit-Quar is a Web-being, a (to use a memorable phrase from this book) "bright blue blobbie that eats tree trunks." Web-beings evolved in vacuum and can survive and travel in it, can take the form of any species whose DNA they assimilate, communicate with each other by exchanging hunks of Web-flesh containing specially sorted memories, and are damn near immortal (though they can be killed and kind of resurrected, as this book reveals). Esen is the Youngest of her Web, and this series tells the story of a bright, inquisitive, impulsive, curious, loyal, and good-hearted Web-being who strikes up a friendship with a Human, Paul Ragem. This relationship is the heart of the series.
Julie E. Czerneda is a biologist, and her endlessly inventive aliens and alien cultures are a highlight of the series. This is a good thing, at least as far as this book is concerned, because the plot comes in a bit of a distant second. That's not to say things don't happen. The All Species' Library of Linguistics and Culture, established by Esen and Paul in the final book of the first trilogy as a repository of information about alien species, is prominent in this book. There is a new mystery and some progression of the overarching plot. It's just reeeealllllly slooooooowww. There are lots of short chapters dealing with three separate storylines, and it seems to take forever to define the conflict in this book and advance the plot. I could deal with the slow pace, and for me the delightful secondary characters (especially Lambo the huffy, shouty Carasian and the Human Duggs Pouncey, who sees Esen in her native form dissolving huge sections of tree trunk and doesn't bat an eye) carried the book along when the storyline was dragging. Your mileage will definitely vary on this.
(One thing I did not like was this book's cover. It depicts Esen and one of the secondary characters, Evan Gooseberry, but...gah. That needed to be sent back for another take.)
A great deal of this book seemed to be setup for the concluding book in the trilogy. I certainly hope there's more plot movement and faster pacing. But this was good enough for me to pick up the final book.
August 28, 2020
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a bit of a hard book to review. I liked it, but it was frustrating at times. The characters, especially the protagonist Immanuelle Moore, had a nice arc, the pacing was good, and the prose overall had good quality. But there were definite flaws in the worldbuilding, and while I was able to more or less overlook them in the end, those flaws remained.
At the same time, given the initial setup, those flaws were just about unavoidable. This is a book with a tight, claustrophobic focus on a religious cult, the surrounding community, and the Darkwood, where the antagonist Lilith's witch coven resides. The followers of the Prophet have nothing to do with the outside world, by design. There are hints that this is possibly a post-apocalyptic or post-climate-change future, and Bethel is established as being a thousand years old. "Heathen cities" are named and mentioned, but none of our characters go there. (Although the levels of technology are inconsistent and erratic and make me wonder if they have, or have had, trade with said cities in the recent past--where'd they get all the paper for the hundreds of books in the Prophet's library, for example?) The story has supernatural elements, which come slashing their way to the fore in the bloody climax. But the book as a whole has a decided contemporary tone, even with the witches and Immanuelle's display of supernatural power at the end. The cult of the Prophet borrows from Puritanism, the Salem witch trials, and the early history of the LDS church, given the polygamy and abuse of women and girls.
This vague, inconsistent worldbuilding was rather frustrating to me, but at the same time I saw how the story demanded it. This is a book about a patriarchal, misogynistic cult and the deconstruction thereof, exploring the mentality of the men who rule in said cult and the women who are prisoners of it. No one comes to rescue these women: our protagonist must learn to deprogram herself and save her family and love, as well as the community of Bethel. This is definitely a part of her character arc, her refusal to run and leave her community to its fate, no matter how much some of the characters (and even the reader, on occasion) may think Bethel deserves it. Looking at it from that standpoint, the "outside world" is irrelevant. If I want to know more about the overall society...well, that will just have to wait, I suppose, for the sequel. (Although this is a fairly self-contained story; a sequel doesn't really seem necessary.)
Having said all this, the reader's mileage will definitely vary. For the most part, I was able to put this aside and it bugged me less the further I got into the book. This is the author's first book, and I think she's a writer to watch. If she does better with the worldbuilding next time around, her stories will be forces to be reckoned with.
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August 24, 2020
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the third book in the Lady Astronaut series, which proposes an alternate history of the 20th century: a meteor strikes the East Coast of the US in 1952, wiping out Washington DC and many other cities and setting the planet down a path to an extinction level event. In response, the world comes together to send humans to the Moon and Mars decades before it happens in our reality, in preparation for getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable. Echoing the "Mercury Thirteen," women who met the same qualifications as male astronauts in our timeline but weren't allowed into space, Kowal's series focuses on the Lady Astronauts. Elma York was the protagonist of the first two books in the series, The Calculating Stars (which won the 2019 Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel) and The Fated Sky, the story of this universe's First Mars Expedition. In this third volume, running concurrently with the events of Sky, Nicole Wargin, her friend and fellow astronette, steps front and center.
One of the highlights of this book is the protagonist: Nicole is over fifty, with a mature, stable marriage (the latter being a running theme throughout this series). She is a pilot and an astronaut, and as we learn from this narrative, she served as a spy during World War II, getting her training at a "Swiss finishing school." This comes in very handy to solve the central mystery of this book, namely who is trying to sabotage the Moon colony. In the series, Earth First terrorists resent the money being thrown into the space program (never mind that the IAC, this series' equivalent of NASA, is trying to get as many people as possible off Earth before the planet heats up and the oceans boil away), and their attempts to slow it down or throw it off track altogether become more and more violent. This comes to a head in a shocking plot twist in this book.
This story is over 500 pages, and a lot of that is due to the level of technical detail needed to depict a 60's-era space program. I cannot imagine the amount of research that went into this. Even at that, this alt-universe's technology is based on but still comparatively more advanced than the technology in our timeline, which makes me wonder how in the hell our astronauts made it to the Moon at all. Mary Robinette Kowal's Moon is eerie and beautiful, but it can still kill you in a heartbeat (see chapters 14 and 15, the nail-biting narrative of a Moon landing rocket crash, for a prime example).
This would seem to result in a book that is all specs and no heart, but the author's characterizations are on a par with her technical prowess. The protagonist is a prime example of this: Nicole is a complex character struggling with her role as a politician's wife--during the course of this book, her husband announces a run for President--and a history of anorexia nervosa. This is depicted straightforwardly and manner-of-factly, as something she will have to cope with for the rest of her life.
This book, due to the events of the plot, is the darkest of the three, so far. I didn't get such an immediate surge of sensawunda from this one--it's a story that takes its time for its twists and turns to unfold, and one you have to think about longer than the first two--but it's a story, and characters, that will stick with you for just as long.
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