Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword is the second book in the Imperial Radch series, and the first of the Nebula award nominated novels I'm reading this year.

The action picks up immediately after the events of the previous book--a piece of Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, commissions the single unit left of Justice of Toren as a Fleet Commander and sends her to the system where the sister of her late captain is living.  The book centers on events around how Justice of Toren, now Breq Mianaai, dispenses justice and handles events on the station.  It's a challenging assignment, since all gates have been closed due to the civil war.

The action in the book builds slowly, though it does get there, and we conclude with some interesting plot revelations for how the series will continue.  The real story is in the relationships between the lone ancillary, the AIs instantiated in her ship and the station, and the rest of her crew.  The protagonist, being an ancillary, has a high level of access to each crew member's condition through the Ship.  So she pretty much sees everything coming.  She manages with subtlety.

What's really interesting to me is Leckie's very consistent voice and use of language.  The protagonist is uniquely detached, on account of not being human, but still has deep feelings that are consistently from that non-human perspective. 

Another fascinating aspect of the series is Leckie's ability to tell a story from a point of view where gender simply doesn't matter.  There's no support for it in the Radchaai language, so everyone's a "she", and family relationships always manage to be singular so that the gender is not apparent.  The names are thoroughly ungendered as well.  She throws in places where the gender differences do matter, just enough to make it clear how much they don't matter elsewhere.

For storytelling, this is three stars, but for the achievement in social speculation through use of language, I give her four stars.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Fisher Queen, by Alyssa Wong

One of the easier and often interesting tropes in speculative fiction is to take a situation or being that is in some form quite familiar to us (a fantastic one, like a unicorn or a faraway planet) and redefine it, so that as a reader you have tension between that familiar being and the one described in the story.  Just such a story is The Fisher Queen, Alyssa Wong's first sale and the last short story in the Nebula nominations.

Our protagonist is a crew member on a fishing vessel, very young for that work and a female to boot.  But she is tough and capable, and likes to think she can handle the situation well.  The success of the family fishing venture depends on the capture of mermaids--sort of like the mermaids of fantasy, in that they bear some resemblance to people, but they are considered to be pretty mindless and people eat them.  No kin to us, really.  But maybe closer than she thought...

For a first story it's a pretty darn good one.  As an award nominee it's not one of the stronger ones.  But I agree with the introduction--keep an eye on Alyssa Wong.  3 stars from me, but not a strong 3 stars.

So I have now read all the Nebula nominees for short story.  My favorite?  The Breath of War and The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye were pretty good, but my favorite was A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide.  Pinsker's artful combination of technological oddity with an ordinary life was very interesting to read. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Jackalope Wives, by Ursula Vernon

Jackalope Wives is the first pure fantasy story nominee for the Nebula that I have read this year.  It's a little standard, featuring attractive nubile mythical beasties (the jackalope wives) and brooding young men (Twilight) and wise old grandmas (ubiquitous).  But it's well done and fun to read, so I say have at it.  3 stars.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide, by Sarah Pinsker

A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide is one of the better nominees for the Nebula this year.  She made it available for free specifically to attract Hugo nominations, which turned out to be a waste of time.  But it's still a fine story.

Our protagonist is a farmer, son of farmers, and basically content with the life.  He is a young man, farming alongside his parents' place.  Then he has an accident, losing his right arm.  His parents are very much into technology--they "farm from an office"--and have him outfitted with a prototype prosthetic arm. 

The arm believes itself to be a road.  A very specific road.  This plays out through the story, which is very warm and fine to read.  It has a completely real feel, and madnesses have been stranger so it's not that hard to believe.  Read this for an excellent example of storytelling.  It's got a fine enough edge to it that I'm giving it 4 stars.

The Vaporization Enthalphy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family, by Usman T. Malik

The Vaporization Enthalphy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family is another very short nominee.  It's a protest story, which I find is somewhat common to this format.  For me it's OK but does not really hang together very well,and when it ties together it's a bit of a letdown.  The issue is very present in Pakistan, though, so it gets relevance points.  Still, just average, only 2 stars from me.

The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye, by Matthew Kressel

The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye is quite a fun story, a good nominee for a Nebula.  Our characters are the Meeker, so called because it is the meeker of the two, and the All-Seeing Eye, a godlike intelligence that has absorbed pretty much everything in the universe.  They find something new, which really doesn't happen much--the digital form of a preserved human, who seems to have a virus--each time they animate her she dies rather quickly, after imparting cryptic information.  What's going on?  Good stuff.  3 stars.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

When It Ends, He Catches Her, by Eugie Foster

When It Ends, He Catches Her is from that category of stories I have a hard time reviewing - the real short ones.  You can't say much about them without giving away the plot.  The rules are all different, and I don't read a lot of short fiction.  Still, for its type this one was pretty good.  We are in post-apocalyptic times, and all theaters are closed (interestingly reminiscent of the closing of theaters in Shakespeare's time).  A dancer dances in a dilapidated theater, alone.  But then her partner, whom she misses so much, appears and they remember old times...3 stars from me, worth 10 minutes.

The Breath of War, by Aliette de Bodard

The Breath of War is the first of the Nebula short story nominees I'm reading this year.  And it's a pretty good start to the year's crop.

Our protagonist, Rechan, is pregnant and near term.  On this planet, Voc, humans need the help of a Stoneman to quicken their children.  The Stonemen (not necessarily men) are the creation of the women who wish to have children--at puberty they make one out of a special stone and give it their breath.  From that point on the Stoneman accompanies the woman as a companion and is available to quicken her children.

But Rechan is in a peculiar situation.  Her Stoneman is not with her.  But she has decided to get pregnant anyway, and must now go track down the Stoneman she created under mysterious circumstances.

This is my favorite story of de Bodard's so far--very coherent narrative, with interesting characters.  Her strength has always been bringing a unique combination of cultural backgrounds to her storytelling, but in this case it's a good plot also.  It ties in well with some of her other work that envisions interstellar ships as living beings.  A good read - 3 stars.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Devil In America, by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Devil In America is the last of the Nebula nominated novelettes for this blog, this year.  And another one to make the Sad Puppies cringe, since it centers on racial injustice.  And of course the talk radio induced blindness would miss an important point--this is a story told from a different point of view within a different point of view, and is well worth a critique.

Our protagonist is Easter, a southern black girl growing up in a relatively well off black family.  The story is rich with family life, and centers on a very strong maternal character.  Ma'am has married a man much younger than herself, which makes her something of the talk of the town, though Easter certainly thinks she is deserving.  But Ma'am has had a very hard life, losing two of her three children--Easter is all she has left. 

And the reason behind this loss is power.  The Old African magic, going down through her bloodline but now not well controlled.  As Ma'am puts it, the family is rich but can't count--so they are vulnerable to getting swindled if they use their magical wealth.

But they still do, a little--to keep their famous tobacco healthy--and Easter definitely has the power, seeing the angels all around her.  And they will help her out, too, but she has to be careful.  Except that one time, already past when we enter the tale.

The story is told with interludes that appear to come from the writer's father, referring to the ongoing persecution of black people in America.  He is reading Wilson's tale of Easter and Rosedale, the black community they live in which was attacked and burned by whites in 1877.  One gets the impression that Wilson is tracing this persecution back to the supernatural events of this story.  Not too purely, of course, because the persecution started well before then, but maybe added to it?  Hard to say.

In any case it's quite well written and worth the time to read.  3 stars from me.

Now, which was my favorite novelette from this crop?  I would say it is between Tom Crosshill's The Magician and Laplace's Demon and this one.   It's a narrow thing, but I'd give the award to Crosshill.  We'll see how it comes out.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

We Are the Cloud, by Sam J. Miller

We Are the Cloud is another Nebula nominated novelette this year, a story of the sort that gets the Sad and Rabid Puppies foaming.  Because as SF it's a bit ordinary.  The technological speculation figures in the story, but isn't the real point.  And it's a bromance.

Our protagonist is a gentle giant living in a group home for kids taken from their families.  The speculative driver is that ISP's have figured out how to use the human brain as chip and storage, and one can rent out processing.  The protagonist is able to dip into the data stream passing through him--which makes him more of an outcast.  And, he's gay and knows it, but is repressing it until he meets Case, and falls for him.

So boy meets boy, boy loses boy--this is not a novel so there's no third act.  The focus of the story is an exploration of the interior life of the protagonist, and as those go it's pretty good.  And the thing is, you just can't set a romance in a boys' group home unless it's between boys, so having this space now open for SF means it's an automatic creative front.  Our Sad Puppies and their sad friends have not figured out that SF is important as outsider fiction, and now is the time for exploring these new outsiders that were formerly so outside it was difficult to accept fiction about them at all.  3 stars.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Husband Stitch, by Carmen Maria Machado

The Husband Stitch is my latest read from the Nebula nominees.  The story theme is one I've seen before (can't recall quite where, but more than once), but it's told in a fun and interesting way.  There are read-aloud stage directions that make it somewhat self-deprecating, and it has an earnest tone with some dry wit underneath.

The plot and ending are not the point of the story at all--it's about writing well (which is the point of a literary magazine).  The protagonist is a very submissive, sensual woman with a secret--a ribbon around her neck that she will not remove.  She encounters other women with ribbons too.  But mostly this is her life story--marrying early, loving her husband, and her son.  For all her subjugation she seems to be fairly happy, right up to the end.  Maybe that's deeper irony.

In any case, it's worth reading.  I give it a solid 3 stars.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


For the past several years I have endeavored to read award nominated literature as a way to broaden my SF horizons.  But popular voting for the Hugo and Nebula awards is vulnerable to "trolling", and this apparently has come to fruition this year for the Hugos.  The nominees are mostly from organized right-wing nut jobs.  Free SF Online usually collects links to the freely available nominees, but this year Richard Cisee, the curator of the site, declined to do so.  For that he gets kudos.

So I won't be wasting my time this year with the Hugos.  Don't know yet if I'll try out other awards (Clarke, Tiptree, Locus, etc).  But I am in agreement with other bloggers that this may be endemic to popular voting--crowdsourcing wisdom only works as long as the majority of people involved care enough about the topic in question to seriously consider their choices according to their individual judgment.  Says something about democracy in general--the trolls have come up with a winning strategy.  And addressing them directly with the same tactics still feels like losing.  Giving up on democracy also is losing, as it's what the Right wants (see Bastiat).  

Still and all, if you want quality awards (as opposed to quality politics), the way to go now is curated awards, and hopefully you find an award (or review source) that fits your tastes and expands them.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A Guide To the Fruits of Hawai'i, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i is third in my reading of Nebula Award novelettes this year.  My fear here is damning it with faint praise.

For this is a pretty good story, with polish.  I have reviewed Alaya Dawn Johnson before, and probably will again.  This story is post-Vampire Apocalypse.  The protagonist, Key, is an early vampire ally--she saw it coming and went over.  Now she is a keeper at what is basically a human farm--a place where people are kept as vampire food.  They aren't treated badly by prison standards, but a prison is what it is.  Most of the story centers on her sad struggle with the choices she has made.  Especially when she has the opportunity to go fully over to the other side...

So you have a good exploration of a pretty thoroughly "done" theme.  If you like vampire stories you are likely to enjoy this one.  I tend to want to see more ambition in explaining how vampires get that way.  That's not present here, the focus is on emotions.  They have flavor.

I'd probably give it 2 and a half stars, but I don't do half stars, so it's 3, on the weak side.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Magician and Laplace's Demon, by Tom Crosshill

Continuing my reading of the Nebula award nominees for this year--Tom Crosshill's The Magician and Laplace's Demon is definitely a strong entry.  It's an excellent story in the general type of semi-benevolent AI takeover.  The protagonist is the AI.  Once it became conscious it made sure no other attempts were made at creating AI, and killed off its creator.  But before it did so, the engineer that created it gave it a mission to preserve and care for humanity as best it could.  It has operated on that principle for many years.

Enter the magicians--people that can produce unpredictable, unlikely events.  Definitely a threat, though their mission is to preserve freedom in the universe.  But in this universe magic hovers out there as a potentially quantifiable subject, and our AI burns to understand it.  Magic is the only source of disorder in the universe, and thus the AI must hunt the magicians down.

The flavor of the story is not done justice here--it is a very advanced story as literature goes, and is very much a joy to read.  The heroes and our AI "villain" are complex beings, worthy of our attention.  Go give this one a read.  I give it a strong 3 stars.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sleep Walking Now and Then, by Richard Bowes

I reviewed Richard Bowes' semi-autobiographical World Fantasy Award nominee last year, and found it a little lifeless.  His story nominated this year, Sleep Walking Now and Then, is another matter.  It has the same sensibility as the book, but succeeds by having a different focus.

Bowes describes a New York he knows well, projected forward. It's a harsher, more elegiac place that's more devoted to jaded entertainment than it is in the present. Those entertainments take advantage of the faded glory of the city, and one such is depicted here.

There is technical speculation - in the 2060's we have the option to have our phones literally in our palms, rather than carrying Palms. Maybe not. But the social speculation feels right on. The impresario putting on the entertainment (an immersive one, where the audience is within the show) is probably better off than most, but he's still living from show to show. The actors are a part of the underclass of the city. All will do pretty much anything to keep the run going.

Enjoy this as a dystopian and yet genteel view of the near future. 3 stars from me.