Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The City Born Great, by N. K. Jemisin

The City Born Great is N. K. Jemisin's entry in the Hugo short story category, though it's nearly a novella in length.  Our protagonist is a homeless man, first seen ululating at the city of New York.  In general.  Is he a madman, or clued in on its future?  Pretty quickly we find out the latter--he is chosen to bring the city to birth.  This will not be at all easy or safe. 

Along the way we get a take on our current relationship between blacks and cops.  But the intent of the story seems to be to show someone deeply in love with his city, knowing it in a way others do not.  Not the first of these I have read, and New York is often a focus (see James Blish's Cities in Flight series--this story reminded me of these, if only for the setting).  It's enjoyable and a fine entry for the short story award.  3 stars from me.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Tomato Thief, by Ursula Vernon

The Tomato Thief is a Hugo nominee for the Novella award this year.  This one fits into the Native American tradition, with some interesting twists.  Our protagonist is an elder (the term isn't used in the story), Grandma Harken.  She grows the best tomatoes in the area, and they are getting stolen.  Turns out the thief is a shapechanger--a woman who is also a mockingbird.  The story revolves around what happens when Grandma Harken catches the thief and learns her story.

Vernon had a story called Jackalope Wives nominated for the Nebula in 2015.  Grandma Harken is the protagonist there also, and there's a brief reference, but you don't have to have read it to appreciate this one.

Vernon has constructed a very interesting world in a short space.  We have magical, sentient trains that speak like mystics.  A child with cholla ribs for bones.  It's a fascinating read, and will be a contender for the award.  I give it a strong 3 stars.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Touring With the Alien, by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Touring With the Alien is the first Hugo-only nomination I have read this year, and it's a very strong entry for the award.  We have a pair of protagonists--Avery, the exotic loads driver, and Lionel, the child abducted by the visiting aliens.  They are inscrutable inside their massive, seashell-like "ships".  There is no evidence that these things traveled to get to earth, but they either did that or grew here.

Then an alien wants to tour the country, so Avery is hired to drive the bus.  She starts talking to Lionel and discovers the crux of the story.  These aliens are not conscious, in the exact same sense that we can act without self-consciousness.  They are in the zen flow, every day, all the time.  No self reflection.  No sense of self, so no sense of death.  They act in the world, harnessing technology and other species to work for them, but all without that sense of self that humans have. 

But they get that sense through their abductees--or adoptees.  And it turns out that consciousness is like a drug.  It tears the aliens up and ages them prematurely, but they can't kick it.

The story unpacks this notion, including some of the creepy physical aspects.  The story itself is limited, but the idea is such a dandy one that you just have to admire it.  I will give it four stars for the "zinger".  Fun!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Everfair, by Nisi Shawl

This is the fourth of five novels I'll be reading for the Nebulas.  Everfair is categorized by its author as an alternate history steampunk novel.  And while there is steampunk to be found, it's pretty heavy on the history.

The setting is an imaginary country in Africa, carved out like all others from European conquest.  In this case it is not by force, but by "purchase" from the Belgian king Leopold.  Well-meaning whites in the British Fabian Society facilitate the purchase, and it becomes an African democracy.

The story is one of forward-thinking hope--the narrative is driven by a lesbian love triangle and interracial romance.  Everfair is modern in all aspects--it is scientifically as well as socially advanced.  The technology is interesting--we have bicycles powered by very small steam-turbine nuclear reactors, and very intricate prosthetics (driven by atrocity).  But the technology in most cases does not seem to interact as much as it might with the history, the exception being the development of flight as freight transport through advanced dirigibles.  Mostly it's a recitation of the various political struggles and intrigues of a colony formed by idealists, trying to avoid Liberia's fate.

Personally I just did not find it engaging.  There's very little action that matters, and while drama is the central driver, it rarely reaches more than a simmer.  Everfair kind of bumps along, speaking lessons to our time but in a way that reminds me of an overly warm summer school classroom.  Took me forever to read.

It's a book you want to like, but in the end I can only give it two stars.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

I have not heard of Yoon Ha Lee, but plenty of people have.  The basis of his SF is math, and he is now devoting most of his time to the Machineries of Empire universe, of which Ninefox Gambit is the first full length novel.

The technology here is the calendar--the regulation of life by holidays and appointment.  The calendar can be used as a weapon, and rebels against it make use of those properties as well.  It's a sort of magic, though never discussed as such here.

There's lots of action and intrigue, and much to enjoy.  Yoon Ha Lee has plenty of fans.  But I have to say I found the book hard to read, and it never really took off for me.  It could be a lack of familiarity with the cultural context--it is apparent that Lee is making different assumptions from what Westerners would.  Still, I spent a lot of my time reading this book confused.  I don't think that's how action novels are supposed to work. 

I guess this reminds me of Aliette De Bodard's work--confusing when it should be transparent.  It still sort of works, but I can't say I favor it for an award.  A weak 3 stars from me.

Monday, May 8, 2017

This Census-Taker, by China Mieville

This Census-Taker is my first read for the Hugo Awards this year.  The Hugos are a clean enough list this time that Free SF Online is listing them again.  The book is up for a novella award.

Mieville is inconsistent, which drives fans nuts in some ways.  The City and the City was one of the most brilliant social speculative fiction books I have ever read.  He is incredibly daring in the topics he takes on, and his style is unique.

But sometimes he just misses, and gets published anyway.  This is one of those time.  This Census-Taker is set in a place with a recent chaotic past, where there is some technology but it's not all tied together.  I thought of somewhere like Croatia when I read it.  The protagonist is a young boy in a family that seems schizophrenic in a very detached sort of way.  The father is definitely mentally ill.  Neither mother nor father seem comfortable at all with the rest of their town, or the world.  The father has a talent for making "keys" that make wishes come true in a limited way, thus the speculative element.  He also has a thing for killing small animals.  The book opens as the narrator, as an adult, describes himself running into town shouting about his father killing his mother.

The perspective of the book is supposedly adult, as I said--the narrator refers to himself living in another country, writing in a different language.  But the point of view of the book never seems to depart from that of the boy.  A series of sad events are described in the limited perspective of a seven year old, and aren't really informed by the adult perspective of the narrator.  It just kind of ploughs along.  I kept waiting for the action, or resolution, or something to start.  It eventually does resolve, but you feel like it never really got started.

So I'm not real sure why it was nominated for a Hugo, beyond name value, and I can't really recommend it.  Two stars for me.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Borderline, by Mishell Baker

Continuing my reading of Nebula award nominees for this year, I read Borderline by Mishell Baker.  The basic theme of the book is that an agency exists (the Arcadia Project) that serves as a contact point between the world of Fairy and our world.  Now, this theme has been done more times than I can count--Charles Stross' Laundry series, Jasper Fforde, Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, and more YA series than you can shake a stick at--but it's a trope that keeps on giving. And this book has a lot to offer as an entry in the category.

The Arcadia Project uses the mentally damaged as its agents.  Our protagonist, Millie, suffers from Borderline personality disorder that has driven her to attempt suicide.  The attempt cost her parts of both legs.  We get detailed expositions of life inside a BPD person's head, and dealing with prosthetics ("every amputation's unique, you learn to do what works).

She and a crew of multiple personality, paranoid, psychopathic and dissociative agents investigate the disappearance of Fey visiting our world.  The worlds have much to lend each other--Fey value our social structure and organization, we value their creativity.  Highly creative people tend to have Echoes in Arcadia--Fey who are attuned to their person and can lend them creative vision.  The details are lots of fun.

The mystery and personality disorder elements are well woven together.  Millie is the only truly detailed character, but we get a strong supporting cast.  Her 19 year old boss Caryl is also well done.

This one is going to be hard to beat as a book to simply enjoy.  I can highly recommend it for a good, juicy read.  I had a hard time putting it down, and I have much experience with putting down good books.  I give it four stars.  Go get it now.