April 20, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

At 613 pages, this is one of those books you could use either as a doorstop or a weight for your workouts. I daresay it could keep your doors from slamming in the breeze, and also give you some pretty buff biceps. In my case, since I got it from the library, neither my doors, biceps or bookshelves will ever be in any danger. 

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I wasn't terribly impressed by this book. It's not as bad as some other monstrosities I've slogged through (Death's End, I'm looking at you) simply because Kim Stanley Robinson is a better-than-average writer. The characters in this book are not terribly deep, but they are engaging for the most part, and even his thinly-disguised authorial rants (in the form of chapters entitled "a citizen," "the citizen," et al) are entertaining, snarky and very very meta. He writes some good action scenes--in particular the depiction of the hurricane hitting New York--and for such an enormous book, the story flows fairly well. In fact, the best character here is the richly imagined future city of New York, fighting back against the full unfolding of climate change and a fifty-foot rise in sea level.

I guess what finally got to me about this book is that I can't see any real point to it, other than Robinson's obvious wish to end global capitalism, destroy the financial sector as we know it (by nationalizing all the banks), and convert the United States (and the entire world, one assumes) to a socialist and/or populist utopia. While this may be a laudable goal in and of itself--and this is one facet of the book he's passionate about, as he gets deep in the financial weeds here--I certainly don't think it would go down as Robinson depicts it. (For one thing, in this future, conservatives/libertarians/the Republican Party don't seem to exist any more. Of course, one would hope that in the midst of the global climate change catastrophe they spent the previous century denying, they simply melted away from shame.) There is no real protagonist or antagonist, and after the financial sector has gone belly up and all those wonderful new high taxes, universal health care, free college, etc etc etc have been enacted, the story just sort of peters out. New York still exists, there are still a (very few) polar bears, and one gets the impression that humanity will keep muddling through, despite its own selfishness and stupidity.

This is okay, I suppose, but it's not particularly exciting for me as a reader. In the end, this book just doesn't push any of my buttons. And since I already have doorstops and free weights, I don't have any other use for it.

April 15, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: Short Stories

All of these stories can be found for free online. This may be the first time this has happened with the final ballot? At any rate, with the amount of reading I'll have to do this year, I'm not waiting for the Hugo packet.

"Sun, Moon, Dust," Ursula Vernon, Uncanny Magazine May/June 2017. (Ursula Vernon is famous for gardening and writing whimsical little fantasy folk tales, and both those traits are on display here. Allpa is a farmer who inherits a magical sword from his grandmother, a sword with three warrior spirits in it that are supposed to teach him to fight; but he has no interest in being a warrior. This story is full of quirky laugh-out-loud humor. In the end, the warrior spirits realize it's quite all right to be a farmer after all, and two of them return to the sword to sleep until they are needed. The third remains with Allpa, and we have a hint of a budding romance. This is a lovely, gentle story.)

"Clearly Lettered In a Mostly Steady Hand," Fran Wilde, Uncanny Magazine September/October 2017. (This is a creepy, unsettling tale of--I'm not quite sure what. The narrator is taking a "guest" through what appears to be some kind of museum, an old-fashioned display of grotesqueries? Blood-encrusted nineteenth-century medical instruments? Fairies? Mermaids? Freaks? The writing walks the fine line of being detailed enough for the reader to envision each room the guest is whisked through, and vague enough to assign several possible interpretations to what is read. The ending is ambiguous; I'm not sure if the guest is allowed to leave, or s/he joins the menagerie. It takes a great deal of skill to pull off a story like this.)

"The Martian Obelisk," Linda Nagata, Tor.com 7/19/17. (This is a hard science fiction story of a future where an Earth ravaged by climate change is dying, and 80-year-old Susannah Li-Langford is building, via remote-controlled AI on Mars,what will be humanity's final testament--an obelisk spiraling into the Martian atmosphere. The project is interrupted by the approach of a vehicle from one of the other failed Martian colonies. Is it an artificial intelligence? Or a survivor now stranded on Mars, since Earth will be able to launch no more expeditions? [Which is a horrific thought in itself.] This is a poignant story that absolutely nails the ending.)

"Fandom for Robots," Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Uncanny Magazine September/October 2017. (This is a charming little story mixing a retro 50's feel with the modern Internet and fandom. Computron, the world's only sentient robot, discovers Japanese anime and connects with fans of a particular show. The storyline is a bit meta, of course, but that's its strength.)

"Carnival Nine," Caroline M. Yoachim, Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17. (I have mixed feelings about this one. The setting is unique--the characters are little steampunk windup people with mainsprings that have a limited amount of turns, and they spend their lives making the circuit of a toy train in the "maker's" house--but I don't care for some of the things that happen to the protagonist in this story. Particularly her sacrificing her entire life, all she dreamed of or thought she could be, to care for her son. And the fact that since she was his mother, she was expected to do just that. Your mileage may vary. A lot of people seem to like this story.)

"Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience," Rebecca Roanhorse, Apex Magazine 8/8/17. (I wasn't sure about this story the first time I read it, but it's definitely grown on me. Partly because it's told in second person, which is always a difficult thing to do. The protagonist, Jesse Turnblatt, works at a virtual-reality firm that supplies "authentic Indian experiences" to white tourists--only they aren't "authentic" at all, instead being based on the false sanitized Hollywood version of Native experience. This story is a pretty pointed commentary on appropriation, and the necessity of marginalized populations getting the chance to tell their own stories.)

Whew, this is quite a lineup. At the moment it's a coin toss between the Roanhorse story and the Nagata story for the top spot (I'm also delighted that both Rebecca Roanhorse and Vina Jie-Min Prasad are on the Campbell ballot for Best New Writer), with Ursula Vernon coming in a close third. The other three are...okay. (The best story I read by Prasad, "Portrait of Skull With Man," didn't make the final ballot. If it had, this order would be turned upside down. That story is gonzo and over-the-top in a way that will blow the top of your head right off.)

April 11, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: Provenance, by Ann Leckie

A few years ago, Ann Leckie's first book, Ancillary Justice, took the SF world by storm, winning just about every major award the field has to offer. The next two books in the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, cemented her as one of the top writers in the field and one of my favorite authors. So when I heard about this book, set in the Imperial Radch universe but featuring different characters, I snapped it right up.

Unfortunately, I delayed reading it till now, due to a misapprehension I had about the book. Someone on a site I hang out referred to it as a "caper" kind of story. To my mind, a "caper" is a complicated, twisty, con-artist shell game sort of book, similar to the movie Ocean's Eleven. It's also a genre I don't particularly care for. Therefore, after the book arrived, I set it aside and read other things. But now that it's on the Hugo ballot, I buckled down and read it through, and discovered to my delight that it's not a "caper" at all, as far as I'm concerned.

It's admittedly not as dark or as complex as the Imperial Radch trilogy. Those books grapple with some weighty themes: personal identity, autonomy, the desire of some of the artificial intelligences of the Radchaai Empire to break free and be declared an independent sentient species. Ingray Aughskold, the protagonist of Provenance, wants something simpler: to outwit her foster brother Danach and force her foster mother, as well as other people on her home planet of Hwae, to take notice of her.

Or at least that's what she thinks she wants. Throughout the course of this book, Ingray goes on a delightful coming-of-age journey. What makes Ingray such a good character is that she's so relatable. I love Breq, the hero of the Imperial Radch trilogy, but Breq isn't human; she's the artificial intelligence of the warship Justice of Toren, downloaded into an "ancillary" body when the ship was destroyed. Ingray, on the other hand, is all too human: flawed, young, unsure of herself, vulnerable, prone to crying. Yet despite all this, despite the fact that for the last third of the book she's scared out of her mind, she keeps trying to do what she thinks is right. She's not a badass in the sense of sock-pow-chop awesome martial arts moves, but when push comes to shove she makes a weapon out of whatever is to hand (including an oversize pair of boots that, she insists, aren't even hers), and proceeds to lay waste to her enemies. In the process of extricating herself from the situation her desire to impress her mother has gotten her into, she discovers who she is and who she wants to be; and that person is not her mother's heir after all.

Ingray Aughskold is a delight, and the supporting characters are equally well drawn. Overall, this book isn't quite as good as the Ancillary novels, but it's a worthy addition to the Imperial Radch universe.

April 7, 2018

To Everything, Turn Turn Turn.... (Hugo Reading 2018)

...there is a season, turn turn turn

And a time for every purpose under heaven

~The Byrds, "Turn Turn Turn," written by Pete Seeger

Right now and for the next three/three and a half months, it is awards season. Specifically, Hugo Awards Season. This year's nominees were announced on Saturday, and since then, many of the places I hang out have been abuzz.

Yes, yours truly also contributed to those 1813 valid nominating ballots. I've been voting and nominating for a few years now, ever since the, shall we say, Kanine Kerfluffle of a while back. This sordid tale of right-wing hijacking of the awards is old news, and something I don't particularly wish to rehash. Suffice to say that the impact of those Constipated Canids has pretty much faded away, and the awards are back to normal. There's a strong ballot on tap this year, a decent portion of which I have already read, and I've begun working on the rest.

To that end, all of my next several weeks of reviews will be focused on the Hugo nominees. Some of this is stuff I already own and am simply pushing to the top of Mount TBR (which, as any dedicated bibliophile knows, is threatening to reach Everest-sized proportions); others I have begun checking out from the library. I will do my best to finish as much as I can so I can make an informed decision, but as anyone who looked at the list of this year's nominees can see, the sheer numbers involved, especially with the new Best Series category, is pretty daunting.

Nevertheless, this reader will persist. We begin in the Novella category, with the sequel to last year's Nebula and Hugo winner Binti, Nnedi Okorafor's Binti: Home.

After finishing this, I went back and reread the first novella in the series, Binti. Unfortunately, it doesn't hold up as well as I hoped it would. My main complaint is that the worldbuilding is sketchy, a problem that's not really rectified here. Clearly the author wanted to take a deep dive into the culture of her two tribes, the Himba and the Khoush, and how they fit into a future Africa. Which is fine, and she does a good job of it. However, to me this focus is too narrow--the bigger picture of this future Earth, its technology and history, is simply not there, and the few hints we have just sort of stick out like sore thumbs without context.

Also, the characterization is not satisfying, particularly of the protagonist. To put it bluntly, if I was Binti I would resent like hell being injected with alien DNA and having my body modified without my consent, even to prevent a war; and I certainly wouldn't have anything to do with those who did the injecting afterwards. (Especially since said alien race, the Meduse, murdered scores of people aboard Binti's transport ship, which is not dealt with well at all.) This unsettling relationship between Binti and the Meduse Okwu carries over into this book, as Binti and Okwu return home to her tribe and family and all sorts of complications ensue.

This is just....not the story it needs to be, as far as I'm concerned, and it will probably be placed towards the bottom of my ballot.


April 1, 2018

Review: Stone Mad

Stone Mad Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a novella-length continuation of Elizabeth Bear's weird steampunk Western, Karen Memory. I loved that book, with its classic pulp feel (and in one chapter, literally Jules Verne-esque vibe). This story picks up about a month later, with Karen leaving Madam Damnable's (a house of "seamstresses," or shall we say, ill repute) behind and moving to her own little ranch with her girlfriend, Priya.

There's a side plot involving spiritualists, illusionists, and "tommy-knockers" i.e. borglums (I'm not sure what kind of supernatural creature this is supposed to be; are they similar to leprechauns?), but the real focus of this tale is Karen and Priya's relationship. This is not a cutesy teen romance; they are dealing with real grown-up issues here, and they work it out like adults.

As always, the attraction of this story is Karen as a character, and her irresistable voice. If you liked the previous book you will probably like this. If you haven't read Karen Memory, check it out; it's a fun romp.

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National Poetry Month, Day 1

National Poetry Month starts today!!

I won't post every daily poem I'm sent, but this is a good one. (From April-Is, on Tumblr.)

Good Bones
Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

March 27, 2018

Review: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a marvelous essay collection from Ursula K. Le Guin, drawn from posts on her blog, and sadly the last. While reading it, I was struck by the relaxed, conversational tone that contrasted with the often serious subjects and deep thinking exhibited. As usual, her writing is exquisite, drawing the reader in to the point where she can make a discussion of soft-boiled eggs and egg spoons as riveting as a fast-paced story.

Just a few quotes.

On aging (from "The Sissy Strikes Back"):

It can be very hard to believe that one is actually eighty years old, but as they say, you'd better believe it. I've known clear-headed, clear-hearted people in their nineties. They didn't think they were young. They knew, with a patient, canny clarity, how old they were. If I'm ninety and believe I'm forty-five, I'm headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub.

On her cat, Pard (from "Chosen By a Cat"):

We call him the good cat with bad paws. The paws get him into trouble and cause loud shouting and scoldings and seizures and removals, which the good cat endures with patient good humor--"What are they carrying on about? I didn't knock that over. A paw did."

There used to be a lot of small delicate things on shelves around the house. There aren't now.

And from the aforementioned egg dissertation ("Without Egg"):

The sole imperfection of the egg spoon is that it's so small it gets lost. Horn spoons are larger, but the beautiful horn spoon my daughter gave me finally wore out, its edge becoming coarse and fibrous. Replacement can be a problem; most Americans don't eat their eggs from the shell, and the implement has become rare and hard to find. When I see one, I acquire it. My current egg spoon is stainless steel; on the handle are the letters K L M. I will not go into how we came to own this spoon.

The prose is lovely and deceptively simple, like clear running water. I can clearly see Ursula thinking carefully about each word, re: the difference between "lightning and the lightning-bug," via Mark Twain. These essays are a pleasure to read, and it's so sad that this marvelous voice has been stilled.

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March 26, 2018

Review: Don't Live for Your Obituary: Advice, Commentary and Personal Observations on Writing, 2008-2017

Don't Live for Your Obituary: Advice, Commentary and Personal Observations on Writing, 2008-2017 Don't Live for Your Obituary: Advice, Commentary and Personal Observations on Writing, 2008-2017 by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have several of John Scalzi's books, so I'm used to his snappy, snarky style. This book (published by the small specialty press Subterranean, and a thick, lovely book it is) pulls from several years of Scalzi's blog posts, on his site Whatever. I've been following the blog for quite some time, so I'm sure I've read all these before. But seeing them in one place, and arranged by subject, just reinforces that John Scalzi is a writer with a lot to say, about his craft, his peers, and other topics such as politics.

His writing style does take a bit of getting used to, especially when he really lets loose. As he himself says, "The failure mode of clever is asshole," and on a couple of occasions I've seen him veer perilously close to that line. Thankfully, he mostly avoids that here, and imparts some solid advice on living the writing life. I especially appreciated the practical advice about money, and managing your time, and protecting your intellectual property. There's plenty of books about the craft of writing, but few that wander into the real-life weeds as some of these pieces do.

All in all, this is a good offering from a successful, working writer. Stephen King's On Writing still leads this particular pack (at least as far as I'm concerned), but this book isn't too far behind.

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March 23, 2018

Review: Skullsworn

Skullsworn Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had a heckuva time finishing this book, and make no mistake, I did so mostly out of sheer stubbornness, not because the book itself proved to be especially good. I read some of it, set it aside to read other things, picked it up and set it down again. More than once I thought about invoking the Eight Deadly Words. The last time I picked it up, the plot started moving briskly enough that I was able to finish, although I highly doubt I'll read anything by this author ever again.

The overriding problem of this story is the main character, and for a book written in the first person, this is a fatal flaw. Pyrre's voice simply does not carry the day--she's a pessimistic, grimdark sociopath with no sense of humor whatsoever, and for a book built around the premise of an acolyte attempting to become a priestess of her death-god by killing seven people in fourteen days (including one she has fallen in love with), I would think some humor, even black humor, would be mandatory. Instead, Pyrre slogs along stirring up trouble in the city of her birth, and schemes and manipulates in an attempt to ensnare the former lover she has chosen to love and kill. This evil, tiresome dance is stretched beyond the breaking point, to where I wanted to toss her a knife and say, "FOR GOD'S SAKE, JUST PRETEND YOU LOVE HIM AND CUT HIS THROAT ALREADY!!" (Of course, we would have a much shorter story if that happened, which might not be a bad thing.) There's some page-occupying subplots (I say that because they weren't very interesting in and of themselves) about the city and the inhabitants rising up to throw off a conquering empire, and some immortal denizens of the delta, where this story is set, engaging our so-called heroes in the climactic final battle, and blah blah blah, and in the end I really didn't give a crap about any of it. I think this book is strictly for those who are already fans of the series, which is most decidedly Not Me.

Bah. I think this might be another book that deserves a better life at the library, rather than on my shelf.

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March 19, 2018

Review: This Mortal Coil

This Mortal Coil This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book hit just about every sweet spot I have. Good, logical worldbuilding, strong (at times breakneck) pacing, engaging characters, and a late plot twist that made me reconsider everything that came before. There's a love triangle here that borders on cliche (the entire concept is rapidly becoming a cliche anyway; I wish YA didn't rely on it so much), but takes an interesting path of its own. The only reason I didn't give this book five stars is because at the end, the villain succumbs to I Must Explain My Nastiness Syndrome. Granted, the pages of dialogue that follow do give said villain the motivation that was previously lacking, even if the motivation is pretentious and full of hubris, but we also see the intrusive hand of the author, letting the villain bloviate just long enough for the plucky protagonists to triumph.

In fact, now that I've said that, I see the villain is this book's weak link. The main characters, Catarina Agatta and Cole Franklin, carry the book quite ably, and the worldbuilding fascinated me. (Even if I don't think genetic engineering and nanotechnology will ever be as simple as, and/or comparable to, computer coding and the way all three are presented here. I can usually grant an author one or two severe suspensions of disbelief per story, especially if the rest of the worldbuilding makes sense and sticks to its established rules. This book definitely qualifies on those fronts.)

I'd never heard of this author before I ran across her book at the library, but now I've pre-ordered the second book in the trilogy. I'm fully vested in these characters, and I want to find out what happens next.

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