August 19, 2018

Your Irregular Political Interlude

Never piss off a writer.

Review: The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World

The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another good, if really depressing, science book. I didn't feel at all hopeful after reading it, and the reason why is summed up by the cover image: the water is coming, and we in the US (and in many places around the world) aren't doing nearly enough to prepare for it.

Of course (to get political for a moment) the current idiot-child in the White House is denying that climate change is even happening, and his rabid followers eat that shit up, so it's not surprising. It's enough to make me hope that Mar-a-Lago is one of the first places to go under. At any rate, read this book. It's impeccably researched, accessible, and written in layperson-understandable language, laying out in blunt detail the threat we are facing. The dream is over, folks. Climate change is real and it is happening now. I'm afraid the time is past for doing much about it, but if civilization and humanity wants to survive, we have to try.

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August 18, 2018

Review: Rat Queens, Vol. 5: The Colossal Magic Nothing

Rat Queens, Vol. 5: The Colossal Magic Nothing Rat Queens, Vol. 5: The Colossal Magic Nothing by Kurtis J. Wiebe
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

I really enjoyed Rat Queens Volumes 1 & 2. With volume 3, "Demons," the series unfortunately took a hard and fast turn for the worse. The Mage University storyline ended on a cliffhanger, with Hannah in a "void prison" and the Queens broken up. Volume 4 disregarded all of this in favor of a soft reboot that restarted the storyline and characters. Yet Kurtis J. Wiebe kept insisting the events in "Demons" were still canon, and promised to address them.

Now he has, and I fervently wish he had left well enough alone.

To put it bluntly, "The Colossal Magic Nothing" is a hot, frustrating mess. The opener, the "Orc Dave Special," is pretty interesting, and better, art- and story-wise, than the rest of the volume put together. "Chapter Six" starts out promisingly, with typical Queens rapid-fire banter, but midway through the art style shifts to some weird Betty Boop-style crap (to show the entrance to another world, I guess) and things start going downhill from there. The further along I read, the more dissatisfied I became, and the less I understood. As near as I can figure out, the fracturing of the Queens in volume 3 led to a splintering of the entire timeline. Hannah eventually escaped from the void prison, but her fury at her supposed abandonment led her to traveling back and forth in time, taking revenge on those who used to be her friends.

This is not only stupid, it is completely unnecessary. Look, Hannah Vizari is a fascinating, complex character. She is the damaged, powerful, cynical, morally ambiguous yin to Betty's upbeat, positive, loving and loyal yang. (Needless to say, those two are my favorite Queens, with Braga a close third.) Exploring Hannah's backstory is entirely legitimate, and I'm not saying to make her a guilty mage searching for redemption, either. Although that could be an excellent story as well, a sort of Queens version of Xena: Warrior Princess.

However, the horrid, misbegotten Mage University storyline was NOT the way to do it. Wiebe really let his audience down, and in my opinion, he has been flailing about aimlessly ever since.

Thus, we get this convoluted, mixed-up, time-twisting revenge idiocy that purports to be an "explanation." Our beloved characters are not acting remotely like themselves, and I can hardly make sense of anything that's going on. Just as a side complaint, I don't like the way Violet is drawn this time around at ALL. She's way too girly and pouty-lipped, even with her sideburns. And wearing a dress? Come on, people.

Also, what the hell happened to Braga? In chapters nine and ten, she vanishes, with no explanation. This is just poor storytelling, and shows great disrespect for one's readers.

Bah. I am very disappointed. I would rather Wiebe had resorted to the cliched retcon of "it was all a [bad] dream" than this. If this is what the series is going to be going forward, just shut it down entirely, please. At least I would have the first two good volumes to go back to.

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Review: Rogue Protocol

Rogue Protocol Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third installment in the story of the cranky, irascible, antisocial, and thoroughly delightful Murderbot.

Murderbot is a cyborg (part organic, part mechanical artificial being), a SecUnit who hacked its own governor module to escape its employers' control. This is not the tale of a Skynet-like cyborg who wants to kill humans, or a Star Trek-style android who wants to be human (in fact, I call Murderbot the anti-Data). It only wants to be left alone to consume its 30,000 hours of downloaded media, highlighted by its favorite serial, The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.

Unfortunately, by leaving its previous owner and masquerading as an augmented human security consultant, Murderbot keeps being drawn into sticky situations where it has to rescue the humans involved. This particular episode is something of a milestone in its character development, as summed up in one succinct sentence:

I hate caring about stuff. But apparently once you start, you can't just stop.

The characterizations in this novella, of both humans and robots, is just pitch-perfect. In particular, the doomed Miki, sacrificing itself for its friends, will bring a tear to your eye. This is also a fast-paced story that sets up the final novella in the series, Exit Strategy (although now there's to be a full-length Murderbot novel! Hooray!), with Murderbot on its way back to the owner it left behind. I'm looking forward to both, and you should too.

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August 10, 2018

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, a good science book does several things. It tackles its subject with a wide-eyed sensawunda and enthusiasm; it explains complex scientific concepts in understandable layman's terms without talking down to its audience; and it tells me something I haven't considered or heard of before. With as many books as have been written over the decades about dinosaurs, that's a pretty tall order. Nevertheless, this book pulls it off.

I've never heard of him, but apparently Stephen Brusatte is a rising young star in the paleontology world. There's little bits of autobiography sprinkled throughout this book, and while some readers may find this annoying, I like to know something about my nonfiction authors. Brusatte's enthusiasm for his topic shines through on every page, and if he comes off as more than a little bit obsessive here and there, well, that's to be expected of a good scientist. In several places he lays out the process he used to make his discoveries in detail, which I found fascinating.

This book covers the entire 150-million-year history of the dinosaurs, from the beginning of their evolution to their extinction, and does so in an eminently readable fashion. Of particular interest to me were the chapters on how dinosaurs evolved into birds; the chapter devoted to Tyrannosaurus Rex, the largest and most successful carnivore ever to stalk the earth (and to think those monsters hunted in packs! It's enough to make one burrow into the earth screaming); and of course, the chapter on the dinosaur extinction at the end of the Crecateous as a result of the Chicxulub asteroid impact (or possibly in concert with the eruption of the massive Deccan Traps volcanoes in India). I was very sad to see them go, but on the other hand...without their extinction, humans wouldn't be around today.

The author ends his book with a bit of a cautionary tale.

We humans now wear the crown that once belonged to the dinosaurs. We are confident of our place in nature, even as our actions are rapidly changing the planet around us. It leaves me uneasy, and one thought lingers in my mind as I walk through the harsh New Mexican desert, seeing the bones of dinosaurs give way so suddenly to fossils of Torrejonia and other mammals.

If it could happen to the dinosaurs, could it also happen to us?

Well, unless we stop burning fossil fuels, it's probably going to happen to us. But that's another book. In the meantime, enjoy this one, for its fresh look at a lost world.

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August 7, 2018

Review: Honor Among Thieves

Honor Among Thieves Honor Among Thieves by Rachel Caine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wish Goodreads had half-star ratings. This definitely ends up between a 3 and 4 for me. Parts of it I really liked, but I had some reservations as well.

This is the story of Zara Cole, a rebellious teenage girl who inadvertently ends up on a trip across the galaxy, aboard a sentient living spaceship named Nadim. (There's a picture of Nadim as the book begins, which doesn't match how I see him at all. He's basically shown as a space whale, but from the book's descriptions I think of him as more of a manta ray.) This takes place a little more than a hundred years from now, when the sapient ships known as the Leviathan have basically saved humanity, granting them the technology to cure climate change and many other of society's ills. In return they ask for a hundred Honors each year, fifty sets of young men and women to travel aboard the Leviathan to various star systems. Most Honors return to Earth after their year, but a few are selected by the Elder Leviathan to go on the Journey, an extended voyage about which little is known.

Zara is shocked to be chosen, and of course there is far more here than meets the eye. A good portion of the book is setup, revealing her character and her struggles on Earth. Some readers may think this is dragging, but it turns out to be necessary backstory and character development. On Earth, Zara was a thief and a bit of a grifter, a smart and determined scrapper, living on the fringes of society, refusing to conform. This becomes extremely important later on, and indeed is why she was chosen. I won't reveal anything further because of spoilers, but let's just say the Leviathan chose well.

The characters are the highlight of this book. Zara and Beatriz, Nadim's Honors, are well-drawn, layered people. I liked Nadim's voice, but I wish the author had made him a bit more alien--sometimes he comes across as a whiny teenage boy (which I suppose he is). This book is pretty much his coming-of-age story. And may I say how refreshing it is that there is no romance? (At least between any of the human characters, although there's a sort of intellectual romantic connection between Zara and Nadim.) Both Zara and Beatriz have their own goals and agency, and once the story starts crackling romance is the furthest thing from their minds.

The reservations I have about this book are the science. Yes, I can accept the sentient space whale/ manta ray. However, I guess being a fan of The Expanse has spoiled me for any SF that doesn't recognize space as being a BIG place, and the distance between planets requiring weeks and months of travel. This book, unfortunately, depicts going to Mars as a quick trip down the block, and traveling from our solar system as a moderate jaunt on the freeway. Sorry, it doesn't work like that. If the Leviathans can actually slip past the speed of light, it seems to me this should be written as a far bigger deal, and maybe a price to be paid for doing so as well. Your mileage may vary, of course. This wasn't a dealbreaker for me because I liked the characters so much, but it did jolt me out of the story a bit.

However, when the action kicked in, I couldn't put the book down. There were some truly memorable battle scenes, and the suspense wound the last half of the book tighter than a spring. The world has been expanded and the stakes have been raised, and I'm looking forward to the next book.

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August 5, 2018

Review: Afterwar

Afterwar Afterwar by Lilith Saintcrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was hard to read, and I can only imagine how tough it was to write. It's basically the American politics of today set 80 years in the future, with the widening divide and heightened polarization that has exploded into an all-out Second Civil War. There is eugenics and "Firsters," "kamps" (with all the attendant, Nazi-era horrors) holding "immies" and "partisans," and the last dying gasp of a white-supremacist culture that has been beaten back yet again, as this country seems destined to do over and over. It's unfortunately all too plausible, and it's scary as hell.

This is the story of Swann's Riders, a mercenary team of raiders at the very end of the war, tasked with hunting down a war criminal with information the Russians, among others, are also hot on the trail of. This information concerns genetic and medical experimentation in a certain kamp, with unwilling victims given what amounts to psychic powers, in an attempt to create a deadly new breed of Firster soldier. Our nominal protagonist, Lara Nelson, was also at said kamp, a victim of those experiments. She manages to escape from there, only to land in another kamp, where she is forced to work in the brothel as the favorite of one of the kamp kommanders, Eugene Thomas...the same monster the Riders are now hunting. (We spend a few chapters in Thomas's POV, which was a deeply unpleasant experience. It's chilling how the philosphies of hierarchies and "knowing one's place" inevitably lead to some people being regarded as less human than others, and making the atrocities described here oh so easy.) The fight scenes are brutal; Saintcrow gets right down into the blood and guts and mud, and while that was necessary for this story, just be aware that she pulls no punches.

There's a remoteness about many of the characters, a thin veneer of distance from the reader and what the characters suffered, in the writing style. For instance, I wish there could have been a tighter focus on Lara, but at the same time, I don't know if as a reader I could have taken it. This is a harrowing book, even with the sliver of hope at the end, after the Riders have tracked down Thomas and destroyed his information. I wish I could say that something like this couldn't happen here...but unfortunately, I know that's not true.

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August 1, 2018

Review: Dread Nation

Dread Nation Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is summed up perfectly on the jacket copy: "This is not your mother's Civil War-era zombie story."

Ah, zombie stories. A more straight-jacketed genre I cannot imagine. World War Z was the last book I read that really stretched its boundaries, and even it settled into the endless hamster wheel of the genre: run fast if they're fast zombies, slower if they're rotting ones, blow zombie heads apart/chop zombie heads off, and kill your fellow zombie slayers if they're bitten. Lather, rinse, repeat. The cycle is never ending, because the zombie can bite a helluva lot faster than humans can reproduce. Just about any zombie tale taken to its logical end has only that one end: Planet Zombie, until the sun expands to a red giant and swallows the Earth.

Therefore, the zombie apocalypse is not about the zombies...but about the humans fighting them. The better ones use the narrow confines of the story to speak not about the monsters our plucky zombie slayers are fighting, but about the monsters of our present day. Which is what this damn near perfect zombie story does, with its piercing commentary on racism, colonialism, and white supremacy.

The zombie apocalypse started at Gettysburg, when the dead soldiers rose again. As one might imagine, this pretty much curtailed the Civil War, as both the North and the South had to concentrate on killing the dead rather than each other. (Even in this alternate history, I gather Lincoln still issued the Emancipation Proclamation, although later on in the story, unsurprisingly, we find many white men in their little [supposedly] zombie-proof fiefdoms aren't paying any attention to it.) Typical of the white supremacist thinking of the day, white people aren't forcibly recruited into this never-ending war: freed slaves and Indigenous people are, under the Negro and Native Reeducation Act. Our protagonist, Jane McKeene, is one of them, a teenage girl training at Miss Preston's School of Combat for Negro Girls in Baltimore, to be a zombie (or rather "shambler") slayer and Attendant, protecting her white charge both from the undead and overeager suitors.

Jane is a marvelous character: clear-headed, pragmatic and ruthless. She knows what it will take to survive, and she does not hesitate. I don't know if I would call her likable, especially with some of the revelations at the end of the story, but she is riveting. The secondary characters, especially Katherine, the light-skinned black girl who gradually develops a close friendship with Jane, are equally well drawn. One thing I noticed right away is that every character is described, not only by the usual qualifiers of clothing/hair/eye color, but skin color, and this is just as much a part of the book as being able to chop off zombie heads. Indeed, as the story progresses, the real horror is not the zombies, but the racist and white supremacist culture Jane and her friends are struggling to navigate.

Like the best SFF novels, this book is using the tropes of genre to deliver a scathing commentary on today's society. If parts of it make (white) readers uncomfortable...well, that only shows how far we still have to go. This is a fantastic story, and I wouldn't be surprised if it gets nominated for awards.

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July 31, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: Best New Writer

This award is also called the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and is stubbornly, defiantly Not A Hugo. (It's just a quirk of the system. Roll with it.)

The nominees:

Katherine Arden
Sarah Kuhn
Jeannette Ng
Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Rebecca Roanhorse
Rivers Solomon

My ballot:

Heroine Complex (Heroine Complex, #1)

6) Sarah Kuhn

The first chapter of this almost read like a parody of urban fantasy, with an Asian-American superheroine fighting off fanged demon cupcakes. A bit too absurd for me, unfortunately.

An Unkindness of Ghosts

5) Rivers Solomon

I didn't care for their book too much--a bridge too far on the handwavey science for me--but this author excelled with their characters, particularly the protagonist. A writer to keep an eye on.

Under the Pendulum Sun

4) Jeannette Ng

Now this is an intriguing book--a Fae gothic, the story of the first Christian missionaries to Arcadia, the lands of the Fae. It's an idea that's obvious and delightful, and made me wonder why on earth someone hadn't written this book before now. That I didn't rate the author higher testifies to the tough competition in this category.

The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy, #2)

3) Katherine Arden

I believe Arden was actually nominated on the strength of her first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, a Russian folklore fantasy. I preferred her second book, pictured here.

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience

2) Rebecca Roanhorse

Roanhorse just won the Nebula for what I believe was her first published story, "Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience." I wouldn't be surprised, and would be delighted, if she duplicated that hat trick with the Hugos.

1) Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Prasad made quite a splash this year, with two stories on the Hugo and Nebula ballots. The story of hers that most impressed me, however, didn't make either ballot--it's the funny and surreal "Portrait of Skull With Man," from Fireside Fiction.

This one was tough. I would be happy with any of the top 4.

July 29, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: Best Fan Writer

Fan Writer is kind of a catchall category: in it you find professional writers and reviewers and artful amateurs. Just about anyone can qualify if you can establish a voice and an audience, which is nice.

The nominees:

Camestros Felapton
Sarah Gailey
Mike Glyer
Foz Meadows
Charles Payseur
Bogi Takacs

My ballot:

6) Bogi Takacs

I'd never heard of or read em before, although e has been involved in the recent Worldcon kerfluffle (which I am not commenting on here). In checking out eir blog, I decided some of the pieces I read there worked better than the ones included in the packet. Still, in the overall scheme of things, I thought e was just so-so. 

5) Mike Glyer

Mike runs File 770, a place where I hang out regularly. Both Mike and File 770 have won this award in the past. However, I don't think last year was his strongest. 

4) Camestros Felapton

Cam is one of the "artful amateurs" I spoke of. I also hang out at his place, and read a lot of the pieces in his packet in their original form, on the blog. Cam tends towards humor and whimsy in his writing, which I enjoy, but his pieces aren't quite up to the quality of some of the others. 

3) Charles Payseur

Charles runs Quick Sip Reviews and also writes for the Book Smugglers. His packet entries go a little deeper into his subjects, in particular making me re-evaluate a book I didn't like at all when I first read it, Sam J. Miller's The Art of Starving

2) Sarah Gailey

Sarah takes a little different tack with her included pieces that is very interesting. In "This Future Looks Familiar: Watching Blade Runner in 2017," she uses simple (but not simplistic) language to talk about the film. It's a marvelous review, and forces the reader to completely re-think the film, as well as the meanings of the words "empathy" and "human." Another piece, the riveting "City of Villains: Why I Don't Trust Batman," turns the character of Bruce Wayne inside out, showing that he is not the "hero" but is indeed a villain, this billionaire who has the money and power to make things better but throws it away with his vigilante's ego. It's really a flash story, Hugo-worthy in itself. 

1) Foz Meadows

This was a tough choice, picking Foz over Sarah. In the end, I went with Foz Meadows because of her gift for insightful and even-keeled analysis. This is shown in this lengthy article on HBO's Westworld, as well as this thorough deconstruction of Alien: Covenant. I love reviewers who can dig into theme and subtext and bring all sorts of interesting ideas to the light. Foz does this very well; her articles always make me think.