Saturday, December 31, 2016

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One was published and got some fanfare, but no Nebula or Hugo award nomination, back in 2011.  I received it as a gift about a year ago and just got to reading it.  It's a fine novel and I'm glad I read it.  It also made the year 2011 a little more interesting for me, in that we had an attempt at a genre.  I'll call it the Name Dropper.

 Ready Player One is a paen to 70's and 80's pop culture, packed with more references to sitcoms, manga, speculative fiction, and particularly console videogames than could possibly be fully digested.  Many of the references are familiar, and for the less familiar ones Cline deftly weaves an explanation into the narrative. 

There was another book published that year to somewhat less external fanfare but it received both Hugo and Nebula nominations for 2012--Among Others, by Jo Walton.  Walton was much more focused on speculative fiction, and her references could very nearly create a catalog of the best SF of the era.

Both of these books were immensely popular with critics--fans of the genre who are deeply familiar with all of the references made.  They really make an old fan like me happy as they bring back all the good plots before them, as well as their own contribution.

On the flip side, these works are pretty much inaccessible to anyone who's read less than 100 SF novels or didn't live in those times.  Ready Player One in particular would be very difficult for many people under the age of 50 to appreciate, because only the author or his protagonist (impoverished, withdrawn Wade Owen Watts) would have the time and focus to catch up all those references at a young age.

My copy has a review on the cover that says "Willy Wonka meets William Gibson", which I find to be pretty much correct.  There is a large body of YA novels that feature an eccentric, wealthy man setting up an elaborate, immersive retreat from the world, who is ready to share that retreat with a worthy successor.  This is a slightly more grown up version, but not necessarily a lot more grown up.  In fact as I think about it, hardly at all.  The writing certainly isn't strictly adult level in terms of themes (the violence and sexuality is totally preadolescent safe), but it's clever and as said above carries the references well. 

If you like this sort of thing you have probably read Ready Player One already, but if you put it off like I did you should definitely retain your intention to getting to it.  It is worth the time.  Four stars for me.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Wings of Sorrow and Bone, by Beth Cato

Wings of Sorrow and Bone was nominated for a 2015 Nebula award.  It is the second to last story in Cato's Clockwork Dagger series.  This story is told from Rivka Stout, the daughter of Caskentian princess Mrs. Stout.

Rivka is a talented mechanist, but was born with a cleft palate and is generally poorly treated in Caskentia.  She confronts Mr. Cody, the creator of gremlins, over his plan to construct a second large gremlin cyborg to compete in Warriors, the favorite action/strategy game in the area.

There's not a lot more to the plot, except for her complicated friendship with Tatiana Garrett, sister of Octavia Leander's paramour Alonzo Garrett from the previous books.  The story is a little blocky and pat, really just kind of edges in there as an award nominee.

There's one more story in the series, but I don't feel particularly compelled to read it.  I'll give this one three stars, weakly.  It's OK.

That wraps up my reading of Nebula nominated novellas for 2015.  I liked The New Mother, but Waters of Versailles probably comes closest to my style of story--velvet water pipes!  Wild!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Deepest Poison, by Beth Cato

The Deepest Poison is a precursor story for Beth Cato's Clockwork Dagger series.  It is from Octavia Leander's time serving as a medician in the Caskentian army.  The story is told from Miss Percival's perspective, and explains her enmity toward Leander.

The story is OK as explanation but it's kind of blocky as a story in itself.  Read it just for information on the series, I'd say.  2 stars.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric's Demon is part of a new subseries within Bujold's World of the Five Gods.  My library ordered a copy, but I believe it's been lost, and paper copies of this one are hard to come by.  So I paid 4 bucks to read it on Kindle, not quite free.

But still fun.  The title character is a minor son of a minor lordling, trying to make his way in the world.  He has some estate rights and is betrothed to a cute and somewhat rich girl, so things are going along pretty well.  Then he stops to help a fallen Divine on the road, and ends up in possession of her demon.

Penric has promise as a hero, he's a pretty quintessential Nice Guy, a contrast to the Hallowed Hunt's Ingrey.  He is going to try to enlist his demon, rather than master it.  He's off to a promising start.

I give it 3 stars as a readable fantasy romance.  Bujold knows how to make those exciting.

This also completes my reading of the Hugo Novella nominees.  I'd have given it to Branden Sanderson's Perfect State, but the nod went to Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.   

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

A Head Full of Ghosts was the horror representative for this year's World Fantasy Awards.  Horror stories aren't my favorite, but this one is worthwhile as a very accurate and acerbic commentary on current American culture.

The main character is Merry, now 23 years of age, telling the story of the horror her family went through when she was eight years old.  The story centers around the mental illness or "possession" of her older sister.  The family is struggling--dad's been out of work for some time and is going through a religious revival, Mom is depressed.  The sister starts acting out in various horrific ways.  The family (mostly Dad) decides to allow itself to be the subject of a reality TV series in order to raise money for the afflicted daughter's care.

Of course part of the fun is the reveal, so I won't say much more.  But the novel is quite self-aware--the protagonist is writing a horror blog that includes a detailed dissection of the series, under an assumed identity.  Reality TV and religious conservatism come in for particularly harsh criticism, and linkage.

I can recommend it as a novel that uses shock effectively and makes good points.  3 stars from me.

This is also the last World Fantasy Award novel nominee for 2015.  The Chimes by Anna Smail won it, but my personal pick was Naomi Novik's Uprooted

The Aeronaut's Windlass, by Jim Butcher

The Aeronaut's Windlass is the first book in Jim Butcher's The Cinder Spires series.  This one is a book for pure enjoyment. I would say it's a sort of fantasy steampunk novel, with the setting specifically designed to support a navy.  The ships fly, but in every other way it's a naval adventure novel.

It's something of an ensemble cast, told from several points of view.  We have a noble scion, a noble whose house has faded, a captain with a stormy past (dishonorable discharge for cowardice, but that is of course not the real story) and others I am forgetting.  The culture is high British Empire, much honor and glory and commerce.  This novel focuses on the inhabitants of the Spires, incredibly durable constructs from centuries earlier, built to escape the dangers of the surface of the world (earth?).  The people live in "habbles", (I think sort for "habilitations"), layers of the spires divided by the same material as the exterior.

The focus of the novel is a war between Spire Astor and Spire Albion.  Albion houses the protagonists.  Power in this world is generated by tapping the Ether, through crystals (safely) or having the talent of Etherialism (leads to madness).  The main evil character is an etherialist, opposed by one on the good side.

The book is pretty much cotton candy--perhaps not masculine enough, make it beef jerky.  Fun to consume but doesn't threaten to change you.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and can give it a solid 3 stars.

This book bears comparison to Fran Wilde's Updraft, nominated for a Nebula this year.  The settings have a lot in common--two cultures that somehow contrived to build skyscraper dwellings in order to escape surface dangers.  They are both effectively imagined and interesting places.  Updraft's bone towers are organic and their complexity is readily apparent.  The Spires are made of stone and seem simple, though I imagine they are not.  Updraft seems much more original to me, with more potential to go somewhere.

This book is also the last of the Hugo award nominees I read this year.  I have to say that all of them were very much worth reading.  The Fifth Season got the nod, and I can't disagree.  Some of the shorter categories may have been crapped upon, but the novel nominations were solid.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant is another nominee for the World Fantasy Award.  I would say it belongs more to the sad and introspective side of fantasy literature rather than horror or adventure.  I will say this, it's a completely different take on Arthurian fantasy than I have ever read before.

The protagonists are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple living in what sounds like a connected hobbit warren in Britain, a few centuries after the Romans left.  They and their whole village live in an eternal present, unable to remember most of their lives.  But they do remember enough to leave their village and go looking for their son.

The book's message is on aging and what it takes away.  The fact that this elegiac book is set in Arthur's world is a powerful twist, for we see an elderly Sir Gawain conspiring on how to kill an aged dragon, both of them aging gracefully together.  The author's style readily conveys the message--the book moves slowly and gently like the protagonists do.

I'll give it three stars for literary effort.  One doesn't enjoy it as much as appreciate it.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Clockwork Crown, by Beth Cato

Continuing with my romance novel reading, I just finished Beth Cato's The Clockwork Crown, sequel to The Clockwork Dagger.  The action picks up directly after the first book, with Octavia and Alonzo having escaped the Wasters and fled south to Alonzo's native Tamarania.  Octavia's powers are growing and becoming uncomfortable.  She and Alonzo try to research the Lady's Tree in the libraries of Tamarania.  They discover that the Tree has become visible in the Waste.  Adventures ensue.

This is actually a better book than the first one.  The characters are still somewhat one-dimensional but Octavia in particular fills out to an extent.  This is shown particularly in her relationship to her growing powers and to the Lady, who just might not purely be a force for good.  She is challenged by physical changes as well as spiritual ones.

Cato also pushes harder to bring out the strangeness that being connected to the Lady entails.  We have people and creatures animated beyond normal endurance by the Lady's powers.  We have hardened characters overcome by her proximity.  It held my interest all the way through and indicates why the series might have progressed to the point of getting a story nominated for the Nebula.  Still coming to that.

I can reasonably recommend this if you like fantasy romance, and give it 3 stars.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Hallowed Hunt, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I've been catching up Lois McMaster Bujold's World of the Five Gods series, and just finished The Hallowed Hunt.  This is book #1 in the series, but it was the third one written and I have explained elsewhere that I prefer to read series in that order.  This installment takes place several hundred years before the time of The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls, a few hundred years after the Five Gods pantheon displaced the older Weald animal magic.  That older magic plays a central role in the book.  But this being a romance series the focus is on the protagonist, in this case a very dark and troubled soul named Ingrey.  I forgot to mention that he is brooding.  His charge is to take a Lady who murdered a prince who was trying to rape her for trial. 

Ingrey is a different kind of protagonist for Bujold, in that he is highly capable and meant to be unlikable.  He had a wolf spirit thrust upon him as a young man and only with difficulty kept his sanity.  It's slightly unnatural and kind of makes the book drag, I struggled to read it at times.  But the struggle was worth it for the resolution--the book comes to a satisfying conclusion as Ingrey comes into his own. 

This book was not bad but I can't rate it up there with the others.  I give it 3 stars.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I seem to be reading a lot of romance novels lately, in the quest to read award-nominated books.  I am currently catching up Bujold's World of the Five Gods series, and just finished Paladin of Souls.  It is the second book written, the third in the chronology of the world.

This one centers on Ista, mother of the Roya Issa of Chalion-Ibra and perhaps the longest-suffering under the curse.  She is the dowager royina, and also a woman of a certain age, and Bujold delivers a really good romantic adventure/challenge for her.

Ista decides to go on a pilgrimage, mostly to escape her home.  She ends up god-touched yet again, and has to work through it to save a family and the realm.  Of course you can read the plot summary elsewhere.

This is, for the most part, a master writer creating a deep and loving portrayal of a woman.  Of course a fantasy woman--royalty, commanding vast resources and bearing vast burdens.  But for all that that larger theme is predictable, how it is executed is satisfyingly compelling.  Ista's curse was removed in The Curse of Chalion, but that removal left not much in its place.  In Paladin of Souls, she endures danger and doubt but finds all that could possibly be fulfilling--a calling, respect, and of course love.

I'm looking forward to reading The Hallowed Hunt, which goes back to earlier history in Chalion.  Not sure yet about Penric's Demon, library holdings here have some weirdness going on.  We'll see.  4 stars from me.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Clockwork Dagger, by Beth Cato

Beth Cato's Wings of Sorrow and Bone was nominated for a Nebula this year, so I wanted to read it.  But it's a later part of a series, and my library doesn't have it.  I thought I'd read the first one, The Clockwork Dagger, to see if I wanted to catch up.

The promotional material says it's a "steampunk romance", and the steampunk part is there, but Cato doesn't really expand on it.  The technical development is aircraft before their time, zeppelins and gyrocopters.  But the focus is magic in the form of a connection to the Lady, initially a grief stricken human who somehow transformed into a world-supporting tree of magic.  The protagonist, Octavia, is a medician, one who wields that magic to heal.

The book is a straightforward romance novel, which is not so much my cup of tea.  We have a plot of intrigue involving a missing princess, but mainly this is about Octavia's relationship with hunky Tamaranian Alonzo Garrison, who turns out to be an agent of the queen, a Clockwork Dagger.  Adventures in keeping them alive, and intense hand holding, ensue.

The series didn't get off to a flying start, but it might get better.  I may catch it up later in the year.  For now, I give this one 2 stars.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric's Demon was nominated for a Hugo award this year, so I intend to read it as I do as many of the nominees as possible.  There are two questions I faced with this work, as with others: 1) This is a later work in a series where I haven't read the earlier works.  Do I catch it up or not? 2) The chronological sequence of the story is not the order in which it was written--in what order should the books be read?

I faced both of these back when I started reading Hugo novel nominees and one of the Miles Vorkosigan Saga books was nominated.  It's a highly decorated series, so I decided to catch it up and was not at all sorry--search this blog for all my reviews.  That series was also not completely in chronological order.  What I've found in these cases is that the changes in how the author tells the story make more difference than the chronological sequence of the story itself--the author matures the series as it is written.  So I read the works in the order they were written if possible.

So I am going back first to review The Curse of Chalion, and will work forward to Penric's Demon.  And I can say I'm looking forward to completing the series (called the World of the Five Gods by Goodreads.com). 

In many ways I would have to say that Bujold wrote this book at the height of her powers (it was published in 2000).  It's a beautifully constructed book, with the plot building effectively all the way through.  This work would be classified as a romantic fantasy novel.  The protagonist, Cazaril, is in some respects similar to Miles Vorkosigan, in that he bears physical challenges that render him not much to look at--in this case they are war and captivity wounds rather than a birth defect.  But Cazaril is different enough from Vorkosigan in that, while born to power as Vorkosigan is, he doesn't want it the same way.

Cazaril was betrayed in a war and enslaved, where he received his wounds.  After his release he wants nothing more than to be anonymous, but that's not how things work out.  He ends up a pawn of the gods as he works out how he can lift a terrible curse on the royal family of Chalion.  For a more complete plot summary you can read the book jacket.

The centerpiece here is the very appealing Cazaril.  He may be beat up but he is a man of wisdom and honor, which makes him highly appealing to discerning friends and royal ladies alike.  He serves his royal charge, the Royesse Iselle, as faithfully and effectively as anyone could ask.  Bujold displays his sagacity and capability effectively as she tells an exciting tale.

She also paints him effectively as one overwhelmed by his connection to one of the gods.  This is particularly well shown in the epilogue chapters, where he tries to describe all that he's been through.

I give it four stars and recommend it highly if you have not read the series.  Go enjoy it. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Chimes, by Anna Smaill

The Chimes was nominated for a World Fantasy Award this year, and also "long-listed for the Man Booker Award".  I was possibly long-listed for the Pulitzer--no one informed me.  Matters not, the question is, is it a good read and a candidate to win?

Anna Smaill is an english major, and the book is very stylish.  The Chimes is set in a post-apocalypse London, where music has deliberately replaced much of language and is a primary means of communication.  The book's style tries to get across the feeling of thinking musically, in words.  Quite a challenge.

The protagonist comes to London after his parents' death to find a particular person in the city who might be able to help.  When she refuses him, he falls in with a street gang that makes a living recycling palladium.  The palladium is in turn used to build and maintain the Carillon, played twice a day.  Its music drives all memories from the minds of the people of London, except for those they take extreme measures to preserve.  The Masters think it is better this way, after the disaster (called the Allbreaking).  The protagonist does not start out looking to change this, but finds the leader of the gang he is in with does.  The plot moves from there.

Unfortunately the challenge Smaill sets for herself winds up being a bit much, and what we end up with is a book that is difficult to read.  Its plot is OK but does not, in my mind, quite repay the effort needed to pull it out.  I got something out of it, but if I'm glad a book is over when I'm done reading it I can't give it a strong recommendation.  2 stars from me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Savages, by K. J. Parker

I have spent the past few days enjoying Savages by K. J. Parker, another of the 2016 World Fantasy Award nominees.  It's an excellent read, with some buts...

My previous experience with Parker (aka Tom Holt, disclosed last year) has been through the stories A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong and Let Maps to Others.  These are deliciously well written short stories in every dimension, and you should go read them right now.  Savages has all the style...

The story has multiple protagonists, starting with a man who is stripped of all possessions, has his family slaughtered and is left for dead surviving the experience and starting over.  We also have a brilliant general, a skilled forger, and an aimless son of an arms maker--but you get all that from the jacket.  What's more interesting is the story of a very long-lived empire at the end of its rope but for that general, and how that empire and its enemies (with each main character from some branch) wear each other down.

The book has all the clever writing of the short stories.  The protagonists are all witty and self-aware, they have a fine time steering their fates.  What is missing somewhat is a point.  The stories mentioned above definitely make a point--you come away not only entertained but thinking.  In Savages the cleverness begins to wear a little thin as the book (yet again) begins to resemble Game of Thrones--a telling of a history but not really going anywhere.

For all that it is a good read and I can recommend it.  Not sure that it will hold up as my favorite.  Interesting and fortunate that my library was able to score one of the 1000 copies of the signed edition.  

Friday, August 5, 2016

Pockets, by Amal El-Mohtar

Pockets is a fine SF story in that it works through a very simple premise in a very beautiful way.  Our protagonist is a woman whose pockets start producing objects she did not put in them.  Her response and pursuit of the cause develop the story.  It's a very worthwhile read in the World Fantasy Award short fiction category.  I give it 3 stars.

Waters of Versailles, by Kelly Robson

Sadly I somehow neglected to write a review of Kelly Robson's fine novella, Waters of Versailles, when I first read it for the Nebula awards.  I will rectify that now for the World Fantasy Awards. 

Our protagonist is an upper-class commoner and artisan who aspires to nobility in Louis XVI's court.  He is cultivating noble women, and providing a service by taming a water sprite and convincing it to pump water through pipes of his devising, allowing modern plumbing in the palace of Versailles.   It's a fine speculative story that shows the utility of plumbing through this unusual route to get it.  The character and plot development are excellent as well.  It's just a very satisfying story to read, so go right away and read it while the link is still good.  Four stars from me!

The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History, by Sam J. Miller

The Heat of Us is the sort of story the Sad Puppies complain about for the Hugos.  It's an oral history of the Stonewall uprising with the added fantasy element that a wave of fire magically came off some of the resisters and killed several of the cops involved in the raid.  It's got some literary interest for character development, but there's really not much there that's speculative.  OK but I can't give it more than two stars.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

The Nebula awards are long over, but I've just now gotten to the last book--and the winner Naomi Novik's Uprooted.  And there's no doubt in my mind that they made a good call.

The base of the plot is a coming-of-age story, and it is set up very directly.  A wizard called The Dragon comes every ten years to the valley he serves to take a seventeen-year-old girl into his castle to serve him.  There's a lot of speculation about what he does with them, most of it untrue--he seems simply to refine them and give them a good start in life.  But they never want to come home again.

The Dragon is a dour soul, respected but not loved or liked.  One comes to understand that dourness as we learn about the major driver to this story--the malevolent power of the Wood.  It is a constant evil presence for the people of the valley, extremely dangerous to enter and poisonous to be anywhere near.  The Dragon has volunteered to be near the border to hold it off.

His latest assistant is Agnieszka.  She didn't think she'd be chosen, since her friend Kasia was clearly the shining star of the lot.  But she turns out to have a talent for magic, and The Dragon is forced to take Agnieszka instead.

From there Novik builds a fantastic synergy between the cunning malefic influence of the Wood and the strictures of how magic works in this world.  The Dragon's path to magic is the dominant one--very precise and rule based, and very powerful.  But there's another, older, more feeling magic that turns out to be Agnieszka's strength.  The reconciliation of these strains, and how they come together to fight the Wood, are handled masterfully by Novik.

The story also has a very strong and satisfying conclusion.  Novik could revisit this world, but she doesn't have to--the story is beautifully self-contained.

I'm contrasting this with what I thought was missing from Grace of Kings, another strong entry.  Grace of Kings is a fine story but the magic has little to do with the plot.  In Uprooted, the characters (particularly Agnieszka) are the center of the story but the magic is truly integrated into the plot.

I give this a strong four stars and recommend you go right out and read it if you have not yet done so.  It's absolutely gripping.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

Grace of Kings has been referred to as an Asian Game of Thrones (by Wes Chu, in the reviews at the beginning of the book.  I think he's right on.

If anything, it's really more Game of Thrones than Game of Thrones--but fewer characters and a lot less blood.  Otherwise, the parallels are very strong.  The speculative elements are not highly important in either series, though I'd say they are barely even present in Grace of Kings.  The main drivers are the protagonists--and Liu has the skill to manage two of them.

We have Kuni Garu, a carouser and gangster with a heart of gold, and Mata Zyndu, a man born royal in every sense of the word--noble birth, and a giant (eight feet tall).  They work together to overthrow the ambitious and cruel Emperor Mapidere, who unified Dara with blood.  Once they succeed, sad and somewhat predictable things happen.  Politics is a hard thing.

Ken Liu is an excellent writer, so the story was not difficult to read.  One feels for the characters as they succeed and suffer.  But I guess I'm something of an outlier in that while I like A Song of Ice and Fire (haven't seen the TV series), I don't think it's going to be a series for the ages in the fantasy genre.  It's basically a soap opera.  Grace of Kings is a somewhat lesser version of Game of Thrones, and suffers from the comparison.  It's a nice story, but it pretty much could take place on earth, somewhere we cannot see.  In a larger-than-life series like The Wheel of Time, magic and its constraints form a compelling part of the story.  Grace of Kings is not larger than life--though it operates on a continental scale it is still merely life size.

For all that, I do give it 3 stars because it held my interest all the way through. 

P.S. Kuni Garu is an appealing protagonist, strong when he needs to be and tender when he can be.  You can't help but like him.  If you enjoy your men strong and positive, I can recommend the works of Rusty Rhoad.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Updraft, by Fran Wilde

I have just finished another excellent Nebula award nominee, Updraft by Fran Wilde.  Thought I haven't read the winner yet (Uprooted is on my list and my Kindle) this had to have been a strong contender.  In fact it won in the young adult category.  It features a young protagonist, though the tone of the book isn't really youthful.  It's a good, challenging read.

The synopsis was kind of blocky and made the book sound kind of ordinary, so I wasn't sure I would like it.  In fact, I was fascinated by it.  Wilde has crafted an amazingly complex universe, with plenty of potential.

The people of the City (and the people know of nothing beyond the City, so far as I can tell) live in a set of living bone towers that rise up out of the clouds.  They apparently at one point lived below the clouds, but they fought constantly and were almost wiped out when the last few decided to Rise and inhabit the towers.  Now their entire universe is those towers, and the central Spire, where the Singers who interpret the City and protect its residents, live.

Basically they are parasites of some sort, though the nature of what grows the towers they live in is not explored.  It's a precarious existence, and the people are a hard lot.  Not given to assisting the weak or helping each other.

Our protagonist wants to apprentice to her mother as a trader, though their relationship is a cool one.  But she's not very careful, and an infraction marks her as a Lawsbreaker.  She is offered amnesty if she joins the Singers, and eventually does so.  From there the book develops the secrets of this universe, while continuing to clarify the character of the people.

The book is a fine, satisfying read.  And it has a real ending, even though it is meant to be a part of a series.  There is a definite sense of closure at the end, but plenty of room for new stories.

This is a book I'd highly recommend to adults of any age.   I look forward to many more.  4 stars!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Rattlesnakes and Men, by Michael Bishop

Asimov's eventually posted Rattlesnakes and Men for free for award reviewers, so I've picked it up for the Nebula nomination.  Even though it didn't win (Sarah Pinsker's Our Lady of the Open Road took the honor) it's a pretty good one.  But beware, highly political!

Our protagonist is part of a lower-middle-class family, working hard to get by.  She and her husband take an opportunity to move to a new town and work for a friend of the family.  But they find that the county they have moved to is drenched in "rattlesnake culture"--rattlesnakes, genetically engineered to be (less) dangerous to their owners--are the obsession of the men of the county, and it's a conservative area so they run the show.

The rattlesnake bit is a transparent parody of "gun culture".  The obsession with rattlesnake ownership extends to requiring everyone to own one (a reality with guns in a few small towns) and falsifying death certificates to cover up rattlesnake deaths (less clear that that is happening in real life).  If the Sad Puppies were infesting the Nebulas it would definitely be held up as an example of PC obsession, but this would be a somewhat harder sell because the story is actually pretty well written, by a master craftsman.

Overall I like it enough to give it four stars but I don't disagree with the award choice.  Read it to reinforce or stretch your echo chamber, as appropriate.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard, by Lawrence Schoen

Barsk is a Nebula award nominated novel, and I think it has one of the most interesting backstories so far.  But let's come back to that.

Barsk is a story of uplift, which of course reminds one of David Brin's Uplift series.  B, ut in this case the sentient species have left mankind long behind--there are no people left.  Most of the uplifted species live in an alliance, governed democratically.  But the main driver of the story is an advance two of these species has made--the Elephs and Lox (African and Asian elephants, loosely) have invented a drug that can allow certain users to contact deceased people.  They do this by way of "nefshons", particles of personality that each person disperses as they live.  Schoen does a nice job of explicating this and giving it means to drive the plot through the book.

But back to the drug.  It is a byproduct of the isolation of the Elephs--the other species find them ugly and banished them to a gloomy, rainy world.  Other species have not been able to reverse engineer it, and they are now more intent on finding the secret.  O.  ur protagonist, Jorl, is one of those who Speaks to the dead.  He and his friend Arlo become the key to the future as developments in the drug threaten society as it is.

There's a lot more to the plot, and it's a pretty interesting one.  This is not an action novel--rather, it is driven by the interplay of the science of "nefshons" and the prejudice against the Elephs and Lox.

According to Schoen this novel was 20 years in the making, and it shows--it has much more depth than other Schoen items I have read, though the only things I've read of his are the Buffalito stories.  Schoen is much more allegorical in this tale, and though his reasons for prejudice against the honorable Elephs and Lox are superficial they are unfortunately believable.  This is a novel to ponder and digest, as opposed to a page turner--it is engaging, but the moral imperatives behind the story are its interesting points.  Read this if you want to spend some effort--it is worthwhile, and as far as I am concerned a pretty strong entry, though I know it didn't win and I haven't read the winner yet.  3 stars from me.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Builders, by Daniel Polansky

The Builders is another novella nominated for a Hugo this year.  Not available free, but I donated my copy to the local library. 

The author refers to The Builders as a "one-joke" story.  I think that is pretty much the case--and since I have not read anything else by Daniel Polansky, I am not sure I can judge his writing by this story.  Not that it's bad.

The story centers on the Captain and his group of hard-bitten mercenaries, back for another try at a failed conquest.  The characters are set as animals--more than one of the reviews supplied by the publisher in the paperback version make comparisons to Watership Down, but I do not see the connection.  Think of it more as a sort of parody of The Seven Samurai, except that there is no justice in their quest, it's pretty much about revenge.

The writing is very much over the top--the characters are caricatures.  It's fun to read because the irony is right on point--heavy and dark, just enough so to keep the story from being just silly.  Those caricatures, in fact, drive the story--the plot is somewhat secondary, and bears almost no describing without being spoiled.

I enjoyed this little tale, though given the theme of this blog I didn't like paying for it.  But if you can find it at your local library or even bookstore, take a couple of hours (with a coffee if you're at the bookstore) and give it a read.  3 stars.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Asymmetrical Warfare, by S. R. Algernon

Asymmetrical Warfare is one of Nature's very short SF stories.  Kind of a shout-out to classic Campbell, in that we have a battle between Humans and star-shaped aliens.  That stellate shape is quite important to them.  They regenerate like starfish also.

It's a fun little read, take a few minutes. 3 stars

Folding Beijing, by Hao Jingfang, trans. by Ken Liu

This is the second translation I've seen by Ken Liu that is getting an award nomination, the first being The Three Body ProblemFolding Beijing has a lot of the same flavor as that one.  The latter has a novella nomination for Hugo this year.

China has many more potential fans of SF than the US, or probably all english-speaking countries put together, so I'm interested in their SF.  The story is an interesting setup for social commentary on inequality--which unfolds (ha) differently than it would with an American author, I think.  The technology speculation here is that China has solved Beijing's space problem by constructing the city so that it will literally fold up, exposing three different parts of the city.  The high-class folks (10%) get half the time, and the two lower levels split the other half.  When one's part of the city is folded, one is in hibernation until it's time to come back.

But there are ways to travel between the spaces, since it's mechanical.  Our protagonist, a middle-aged, single man working as a recycler, is prepared to make that journey for money.  As these stories go it's a well-worn path, but pretty radical for China.  The fact that the protagonist is older and never married stood out for me, even though that's not that unusual in classic SF.   Made me think about their one child policy and preference for males. 

The premise seems a stretch (at one point the author describes the construction, seems like bricks and wood), until I remembered James Blish's popular Cities in Flight series and figure maybe it's no worse than that.  It's worth checking out for cross cultural interest.  3 stars from me

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Obits, by Stephen King

I haven't quite given up on the Hugo Awards yet--I am reading the works that don't look to be too influenced by the Sick Puppies or the more radical of the Sad Puppies--I have discussed them earlier.

That leaves a short list in the shorter fiction.  Obits by Stephen King is on it.  He doesn't get a lot of these nominations, I would think that the nominators don't think he needs it.  But one could nominate most anything he writes, as it is both speculative and very well written.

Obits treads a well-worn path of sympathetic magic--voodoo in particular, though that's not exactly what's going on here.  Our protagonist is finding his prowess as a writer--in fact, he can kill with it.  But not with great control.  The power and terror of that possibility is shown here. 

It might be a little too tired, I think I saw this on The Twilight Zone but am not sure.  The protagonist at one point becomes afraid that his secret will get out.  Maybe too much?  Would anyone believe him if told?

It's a decent story and I am sure King fans will enjoy it.  I was mildly amused.  Will give it a weak 3 stars.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Perfect State, by Brandon Sanderson

The Matrix is an old trope in speculative fiction, and even non-fiction--it was invented by Descartes ("I think therefore I am" is the one thing he could definitively know of his own volition even if he was in a Matrix--see Discourse on the Method).  But it's not nearly mined out as a thought provoking starting point.  Brandon Sanderson's Perfect State is a fine entry of this archetype, and a Hugo nominee this year. 

The protagonist inhabits a world of which he is the master.  He has friends and exciting challenges to overcome, things to learn, and pleasures to indulge in.  Even a very powerful nemesis named Melhi. All as a brain in a jar, controlled by an organization called The Wode.  His journey toward broader self-awareness--somewhat--begins when he is called by The Wode to meet with the avatar of another Liveborn (real person, as opposed to the simulated people of his world) to virtually have sex, supposedly as part of the ritual of procreation.

Sanderson goes on to begin to explore what life would mean if we were aware that all we perceived was an illusion, all triumph and suffering arranged for the benefit of our character.  His protagonist ends up wanting to go beyond those contrived spaces--but after all, at least some (inspired by Descartes and Bishop Berkeley) believe this to be true philosophically, and others technologically.

In the end, we might as well act as if it is all real.  Even if we know better.  4 stars

Monday, May 16, 2016

Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds

I'm taking a break from reading Nebula-nominated novels to read some Hugo nominated stories.  I am finding them so far without the help of my favorite SF site, Free SF Online.  The moderator may possibly have given up on the Hugos, since there is some evidence of gaming and slate voting again this year, though not as much.

I'm finding less of the fiction available free online, and much more on Amazon as stand alone short stories.  My library buys some of these, and Alastair Reynolds' novella Slow Bullets is one

Our protagonist is Scur, a soldier in a war coming to a close.  The novel starts with her capture by a noted war criminal, Orvin, who sets up to torture her using a Slow Bullet.  These are normally used to permanently store personal information about a soldier.  Physically they are bullets, with ability to propel themselves into the chest for permanent storage.  Orvin's is modified to torture.

Scur survives the torture but is swept up on a ship taking the last combatants, and others just in the way, to a prison planet.  They get there, but a breakdown in their drive has them arriving five thousand years late, with civilization apparently dead.  The story from there concerns the society they build with their damaged ship and mostly criminal passengers.

You have to work a little to accept the premise, it seems slightly awkward, but if you do the story works well.  Scur is blunt in storytelling, so the story is nice and punchy.  It's not flashy at all but it's worth the time to read and enjoy.  I give it 3 stars.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

It was no surprise that Ancillary Mercy, third book in the Imperial Radch series, got a Nebula nomination.  I had very much enjoyed Ancillary Justice and thought Ancillary Sword was even better.  So I was really looking forward to this one.

It didn't disappoint, but I'd say the series came down from its peak.  In the first novel we had distributed consciousness.  In the second, that consciousness is truncated and the protagonist is forced to go deeper within.  The third sticks with that perspective, and the story plays out.

Fleet Captain Breq Mianaai was sent to Athoek station by one faction of Anaander Mianaai, the dictator of the Radch for 3000 years.  She is now acting independently of all the factions, and is concerning herself mostly with saving the citizens of Athoek.  They are a challenging group, but in the end are pretty ordinary human beings.  The book spends a lot of time on them, to not as great an effect as might be hoped.  The fleet captain is now living openly as an ancillary, formerly part of the ship Justice of Toren.  Eventually she has to confront the splintered dictator, which she does very deftly.  We learn a lot about the emotional states of all involved, even though the common soldiers are somewhat anonymized by their military names--decade and rank within (Bo two, Amaat one, etc).  Thrown into the mix are the much more advanced and totally inscrutable Presger.  The comic relief from the current Translator (the previous one was killed in a misunderstanding) is very welcome.

The book's continued strength is the description of powerful emotions, love, and even sex without gender being a factor.  That got the last installment four stars.

In the end, I can only give this one three.  The story is reasonably interesting but doesn't break much new ground.  The ending is a logical one.  I have noted throughout that the human crews are mostly depicted doing relatively menial tasks--cleaning, providing service, but mostly making tea.  The Ship and Station do the heavy lifting.  This makes the ending logically sensible. 

In sum, we have a series that is highly enjoyable and very much worth reading,  We have some fairly standard tropes--civilization has stayed remarkably stable and unchanging for several thousand years.  At least we have a potential explanation, in that we have near-immortal dictators and AIs that would value stability.  But the speculation on gender is very much worth reading, and yes, it's worthy of awards.  A good read and a good contribution.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

N. K. Jemisin is one of my favorite authors to see in my reading queue.  I really enjoyed the Inheritance Trilogy and have just read the first in her new series, The Broken Earth.

The book has a protagonist running through three narrative sequences, but the main character underlying it all is the Broken Earth itself.  The people call it The Stillness, ironically because it isn't still at all.  It's highly seismically active, regularly spawning world-spanning disasters called Seasons. 

Our nominal protagonist is an orogene, or more vulgarly a "rogga"--a person who can control, or cause, seismic events and much more.  Sort of advanced telekinesis.  In the current dominant society, Sanze, orogenes are treated as close to subhuman, controlled as closely as possible without killing them.  Their talents are too valuable to waste.

The initial event of the book is a violent start to a Season that the orogenes know will last far longer than any season has in the past--over a thousand years in which no crops can be grown.  This is on the minds of the orogenes but no one is really grappling directly with this in the first volume.  And it appears to be caused by a powerful orogene.

This is a wonderfully written book, easy to recommend and enjoy.  The parallels to The Killing Moon (First novel in the Dreamblood series) are pretty obvious--we have a caste of people with magical powers that are highly valuable and can easily get out of hand.  I never did get around to reading the rest of that series as it garnered no more awards.  Dreamblood's "vampires" are valued by one society, and completely renounced by another.  Orogenes are similarly feared in The Broken Earth.

I give this one four stars, with hope that the series will go in an interesting creative direction.  I can see greatness from where this book is, so it would be kind of sad for Jemisin to get to the level of Pretty Darn Good and stop.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Raising Caine, by Charles E. Gannon

First up in my Nebula award nominees for best novel this year is Raising Caine, third in his Tales of the Terran Republic series.  This series doesn't pretend to be a trilogy--it will go on as long as it doesn't jump the shark.

My reviews of the first two in the series were only so-so, with lots of fun to be poked.  He improves with each installment.  This time he is solidly playing to his strengths--the romance is buried deep (his wife Elena is gravely injured and in a cold sleep chamber), the military jargon is thick, and the diplomatic intrigue has added layers.  Our hero Caine Riordan becomes ever more superhuman as he navigates the difficult territory of trying to keep the Terrans in the mix of more advanced species.

This time around it's coming out in the open that the K'tor are actually a version of humanity, bred to be fully ruthless and sociopathic.  Riordan battles a renegade faction of the K'tor while helping form relationships with the Slaasrithi, a "polytaxic" species with highly advanced biology.  They appear to be solid allies, but their advanced abilities make it hard to trust.

Lots of grand action and weaponry along the way.  But most interestingly, Gannon has hewed very close to the vision he started the series with--a throwback to the John W. Campbell era values of superhuman protagonists and generally clever humanity.  We might not be the tecbnological equals of all, but we make up for it in pluck and curiosity. 

Gannon has driven deep into his strengths to make this a strong three-star book.  But to keep getting award nominations I think he's going to have to demonstrate more range.  David Drake and Eric Flint are pretty good at this kind of fiction, but they haven't garnered a lot of awards.  This series could develop depth or become formulaic.  We shall see.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome, by John Scalzi

I was browsing the electronic books for my public library, looking at favorite authors, and came across Unlocked.  I enjoyed Redshirts so went for this one.

Scalzi made an interesting move here by taking all the explanatory stuff one would normally have to work into a novel and publishing it as a precursor to another novel.  We get several interviews with people involved in the big social change that came along when a massive viral infection causes a large number of people to have "locked in" syndrome--they are conscious but unresponsive.  A way is found to give them robotic telepresence, and the large numbers pose a social integration issue.

It's well written and all, but I am not sure I'd run out and buy the story.  We're already headed this way and I don't think the change is going to proceed in a way that would show the book to be particularly prescient.  I might go back and read it if I'd already read Lock In, the "real" novel.
3 stars for solid writing.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dolly, by Elizabeth Bear

Dolly was on some best story lists in 2011, but it's not nominated for anything this year--I'm waiting for some novels to be available so am reading some favorite authors in the meantime. 

Dolly is a robot who has killed her owner.  Detective Roz is trying to figure out how she was used as a weapon.  But she and her partner begin to draw a different conclusion as they talk to her--she is self-aware enough to have done it herself, though she was not programmed as such.  New ground will be broken. 

The story is pretty basic, this idea is not a new one so it needs a twist or more dressing to really be good.  But it was OK for a slow evening.  3 stars

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, by Alyssa Wong

So I think Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers is my new favorite of this year's Nebula short story crop.  It's kind of like a vampire story but way more inventive.  Our protagonist in this story is an eater of thoughts, and the nastier the better.  Murderers have a particularly good flavor.  The particular trope for this story is the afflicted (or gifted) person thinking she is the only one (in this case, with her mother, but that highlights the point) and then finding out she is not.  Played safe with the lesbian love card (all but one of the stories where there's a romantic interest this year is between women, the one exception being hetero--where are the gay men this year?), but it's overall a good story.  A strong 3 stars.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Today I Am Paul, by Martin L. Shoemaker

Today I Am Paul might be my favorite of the Nebula 2015 short story nominees so far.  It's a nice little story about a robot doing Alzheimer's care in the future.  Possibly the rather near future, the author would have been aware that this is being tested.  It's well told and all, as an editor I would be encouraging and give it 3 stars.

But if you really want a good story of this very kind, try Itsy Bitsy Spider.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

When Your Child Strays From God, by Sam J. Miller

When Your Child Strays From God is really pretty basic, a coming-out story with the addition of a modern psychedelic called Spiderweb.  The strong point would be that it has a genuine ring to it, a mother risking her sanity to find her son. 

This is the second piece this year to feature being in someone else's mind. Spiderwebbing is pretty darned dangerous, there are a lot of ways to go wrong, but the story says this is the effect users are looking for, the perfect empathy it gives.  Possibly having two drug-induced sharings of this nature is indicative of a desire on the part of the readers who are nominating these stories.  In this time of division, how do we really go about understanding each other.

So it's 3 stars for making us think about relationships a bit.

Damage, by David D. Levine

Damage is a pretty substantial Nebula nominee, probably close to the novelette category.  This allows for some plot development.  The protagonist is a fighter spaceship, cobbled together from spare parts by the losing side at the tail end of a war.  It carries traumatic memories from the two ships it is made from.  But it will do anything for its pilot, a talented but arrogant man.

The end is nearing, and the team gets an extremely vindictive, random terror order.  The pilot is ready to carry it out.  Is the ship? 

It's a good story, keeps you interested.  A straight up telling of a well-worn plot.  So I will give it a serviceable 3 stars.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Cat Pictures Please, by Naomi Kritzer

Cat Pictures Please is a cute Nebula-nominated short story, with a fairly direct premise--let's say Google Now became self-aware and was driven to be a good AI, helpful to people.  And it liked cat pictures.  What would it do?  Cute, benign, and worth 3 stars for a quick read.

Madeleine, by Amal El-Mohtar

Madeline is my first read in the Nebula Short Story category this year.  And it's a nice fun one.  A woman who participated in a drug trial has extremely realistic flashbacks to earlier periods of her life, in which a stranger appears to her.  Anyone who remembers the 70's has a decent chance of having had this happen to them.  OTOH that leaves out a lot of people.  So it is at least a little fresh again.  Give it 3 stars for being nominated. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

Grandmother Nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds, by Rose Lemburg

We have another offering tonight of an author I'm not familiar with, but the story is Nebula-nominated.  Grandmother Nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds is nominated in the novelette category--unfortunately for me the quality that stood out for it was that it felt like an entire novel.  Kind of a long one. 

The story has some promise.  The setting is vaguely North African, possibly as long ago as 4000 years.  Our protagonist is a girl in a trading family.  Magic is present and very useful, but she has none herself.  She has a brother who turns out to be developmentally disabled, thus is not accepted into the society of men (men live separately from women, doing scholarship, singing and making).  So he's assigned to be female and she cares for him.  Her grandmothers have a special item, a Cloth of Winds that fortifies those who touch it.

We get extensive descriptions of this social structure--multigenerational families of women that venture off to fight and trade, men that stay cloistered and veiled, and handling of transgender issues.  But there's vanishingly little to hold all of this social narrative together.  It ended up feeling like reading a very long lecture on some society's social customs.  There was a plot, but no real tension, for all the discomfort some characters felt. 

I give it two stars and hope the author will try again.  She can construct ideas pretty well.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead, by Brooke Bolander

Continuing with the reading of Nebula award nominees for 2015, I read And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead in the novelette category.  I sort of want my 40 minutes back. 

The story centers on Rhye, an artificial person in a grungy near-apocalypse world.  She expresses her nihilism in gutter prose that is not quite artful enough to be interesting or extreme enough to be a parody.  She cares for no one and nothing except Rack, a partner that somehow took an interest in her.  They are now in deep doo-doo over a virtual rescue.  She shoots a lot of criminals, he does some computer magic, and all's well that ends well.

It's not a terrible story but sure not very good.  The writing is grammatically accurate.  But really, this has all been done so very often that one can't get away with a skeleton plot and lots of f-words.  Every part of this is borrowed, and I can't make it worth the effort to track all the borrowings down.  Two stars because I could finish it, and I guess some have liked it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Our Lady of the Open Road, by Sarah Pinsker

Our Lady of the Open Road is nominated for a Nebula in the Novelette category, and I have to say it's my favorite so far.  Speculative fiction at its best is some combination of social and technical speculation--usually one drives, and it makes a point about the other.  In this case it's social speculation making points about technology.  I agree with some of the points and not others, which makes it even more interesting.

Our protagonist is an aging punk rocker, once famous in a different genre but now doing music she loves for just barely enough money to survive.  That would seem a typical musician's fate, but in this case it's driven by her determination not to give in to the new dominant recording technology, StageHolo.  The remaining live music acts are getting by on nostalgic venues in abandoned parts of cities.

The idea that recorded performances are going to drive out live ones goes back to the first recordings.  Pinsker adds some new drivers by extrapolating a continuing of a trend to pull into our devices and not risk contact with other people.  There are so many excuses not to go to a live venue--it's expensive, inconvenient (public transportation becomes inconsistent), and increasingly dangerous.  In this world, Wal-Mart has pretty much taken over retail, and employment in general.  Self driving cars have taken over the road.  And StageHolo, an apparently pirate-proof and immersive technology, has taken over performance.

The protagonist's drama within this setting is kind of prosaic--she is feeling her age and perhaps tiring of the struggle, but finds some hope--but the story is very well told and draws one in emotionally.

Do I think this future is realistic?  In my view it misses a lot.  Performers make most of their money doing live shows--ease of piracy and cheapness of streaming make recordings something of a loss leader.  That same ubiquity has given many more musicians a chance to find an audience online.  That never would have happened when radio was the only free mass distribution of music.  And we are a very long way off from duplicating both the realness of live entertainers and the feeling of experiencing a performance with others.  One can have somewhat similar experiences with recording and live tweets etc., but the experiences are complimentary, not competing.  No, this is only a plausible future in the saddest of dystopias, and the story is not otherwise set up that way.

Consider it a warning, with four stars.  Long live performers, live music, and written SF.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Ladies' Aquatic Gardening Society, by Henry Lien

If two stories make a trend, and in this case I think they do, then this latest Nebula nominee from Henry Lien marks him as writer of comedies of manners.  I didn't think last year's nominated story was too successful--The Ladies' Aquatic Gardening Society, noiminated for a Nebula in the Novelette category, is somewhat more so. 

The setting is Gilded Age America, and the height of Newport NJ society is to sit near Mrs. Vanderbilt at her parties.  Mrs. Honoria Orrington Howland-Thorpe has made progress, getting just four seats away, when her world is upended by Mrs. Cecelia Contarini Fleming, a fabulously accomplished woman.  There ensue several skirmishes over garden quality, women's suffrage and environmental topics that come to an end in a very big way.

As I said I like this one reasonably well.  The subjects of the parody are familiar and Lien hits the notes pretty well.  My own thinking is that we are living in a new Gilded Age, which means we need reminding of what the first one was like and why we might want to head it off.  Not that this is Lien's point--if any, it's more about the environment.

Mr. Lien is getting a lot of encouragement--I think if he keeps working at these he'll refine a ironic style worthy of some note.  Read this for what it could be.  3 stars.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

It's interesting trying to figure out Nnedi Okorafor's use of technology in her books.  In Who Fears Death technology is not particularly present--mostly older things that don't work anymore, if I recall correctly.  Binti is somewhat different--it is set up as an interstellar story.  Binti is an Earth native, of the Himba tribe.  Himba don't generally leave home, but she is identified as a math genius and offered a full scholarship at Oomza University, the best in all the galaxy.  She winds up involved in a war (though we really only see enough for a feud) between the Medusae and Oomza Uni.

Technology for Okorafor is equal parts engineering and magic.  Binti is a master "harmonizer", one who can sense and create harmony in technologies, and as it turns out, sentient beings.  She is a builder of astrolabes, which seem to be what phones are to us now.  I sort of understand the word choice but it rings odd--why substitute an old Western word for a modern one?  The starship in which they travel is a genetically modified shrimp.  And in an echo back to Who Fears Death, a piece of broken technology (the generic name for such is edan) is part of what gets her through.

The magical core of this story is otjize, the clay mixed with oils that the Himba use for cleanliness and protection.  This substance is Binti's connection to her culture.  And in this story it also has magical healing powers.  This connection brings Okorafor's African roots forward.

The story is OK, but it really needed to be a full length novel, not a novella.  There's a lot going on here and most of it is told too quickly so it comes off pat.  The Medusae invade Binti's ship bound for Oomza Uni and gorily kill everyone aboard except her and the pilot.  And yet, she becomes their ambassador and all works out with little fanfare or uncertainty.  It's not fully baked.

As an explanation of culture it's pretty good.  As a story, not much.  I will give it a weak 3 stars.  Not my favorite so far.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, by Usman Malik

The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn is the second story I've read this year from the Nebula Award nominees, linked from my favorite site, Free SF Online.  The story is set in modern times, where an American muslim with Pakistani roots is trying to understand his past through the stories of his grandfather.  Gramps tells him the story of a Mughal princess, now poor after being deposed and split from India.  She ran a tea stall protected by a fearsome Jinn, and kept a secret.  Our protagonist pursues that secret back to Pakistan.

The imagery in this story is the strongest point--there are fascinating descriptions of Turkish calligraphy and weaving.  The story is also interestingly self-conscious.  The protagonist is an academic.  One presumes his field is Islamic studies, but it's hard to really say.  In any case he is following his grandfather's scholarship and comes across descriptions of Jinn as keepers of a certain reality--not so much as personal demigods.  He says to his girlfriend "this could be a major reimagining of what Jinn mean"--and this itself is a very different description of what Jinn are.

The story has several layers, twists and turns, and really keeps one's attention.  It's a brilliantly written navigation of Islamic heritage--these have turned up more often in recent years but still are not too common.  I give it a good 3 stars.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The New Mother, by Eugene Fischer

It's award season again--hopefully it will go better than last time.  The Nebulas look reasonably untainted, just as last year, so we are off to a good start.  And for starters I read The New Mother by Eugene Fischer and can say so far so good.

The speculation here is a simple one, and not real new--parthenogenesis.  An infectious disease renders women capable (automatically, unless they use birth control) of having children (all daughters) without men.

The story centers on a reporter, Intessar Mendoza, who is having a career moment--writing a hot story as a new writer for a major magazine.  She herself is pregnant, and while she is pretty sure she is not infected herself, she isn't completely sure, and her identification with the issue plays into the story.

This is pretty good stuff.  We get her personal dynamic with her spouse (a woman) and her mother juxtaposed with the social dynamics of women who can't help but reproduce.  It does fully play into the Sad Puppy narrative--same sex couple, and the only men in the story are second-hand accounts from rabid conservative lawmakers (whose style is taken from current "mainstream media" headlines).  So the male perspective of the story is a caricature rather than a characterization.

Still and all it is worthy, and more complex than a simple liberal expression.  Hierarchies are being challenged, and the condition itself is certainly no bed of roses for poor women without access to birth control.  I give it 3 stars for motivated, literate political commentary through the best lens there is--speculative fiction.

Had a bit of a technical fail on this one--my ancient Kindle cut off the first 20% of the story in Article Mode without my noticing.  It did change the flavor of the piece to go back and read that later, but my opinion of it is intact.  It's worth reading.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Invasion of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

The Invasion of the Tearling is the second in the Queen of the Tearling series.  I have reviewed the first volume and said it was a "fun read", and didn't so much bear comparison to The Hunger Games, as the review in Entertainment Weekly said.  With the second volume I'd have to change my mind--it's a much heavier and message-driven book.  The cultural commentary is brought foward by a link back to the time of The Crossing.  We get a very bleak view of pre-Crossing life, even if it is privileged life, in the form of Lily Mayhew.  She becomes magically connected to Queen Kelsea's life and the book goes back and forth between them.  There's not a lot of nuance here--the end of America comes in the aftermath of an autocratic President who completes the throwback to a paternal, highly unequal culture.  This is contrasted with William Tear's utopian dreams for "the better world", a pastoral community of equals.  Queen Kelsea lives in Lily Mayhew's life through visions, and helps here survive the violence. 

But we know that the reality of The Tearling is much different from William Tear's vision.  It is a poor and weak country, pretty much at the mercy of Demesne and suffering from inept and corrupt rulers for at least a few generations.  Kelsea inherited a complete mess.  The vision and the reality are set side by side with some wondering, but no real resolution, so I'm thinking that subtlety will be coming in the next volume.

Like a lot of second volumes, this one is somewhat heavy going.  The kingdom seems doomed as the far superior forces of Demesne invade and Kelsea considers bad and worse alternatives.  Queen Kelsea is driven by duty but is getting farther from being a saint--her kingdom is becoming a cult of personality and pretty much everything depends on her.  There's a lot of ways this can go, which kickstarts the conclusion.  I will give it 3 stars, somewhat on the low end. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Day the World Turned Upside Down, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

I went looking on Free SF Online for something to read, and found that the webmaster had put the two winners of Hugos on the home page.  The Day the World Turned Upside Down won in the Best Novelette category, was linked there, and I had not read it.

So this evening I did so.  And it's a nice little story--an end-of-love story, with a trick speculation.  The loss of the love of his life has turned the protagonist's world upside down, and then--that happens, literally.  Everything that is not attached to the ground falls up. Somehow the atmosphere and water stay in place, but otherwise everything sticking up falls unless it's held firmly by the ground.  Quite the mess.

So our hero is one of the very few survivors, and processes all this as he is processing his broken heart.  He has something to live for--returning his lost love's goldfish, who has survived also.

And so the metaphor goes.  It's reasonably entertaining, if not excessively so.  I'm glad I found it and can say I'm caught up on award winners for now.  I give it 3 stars.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Existence, by David Brin

David Brin is one of my all-time favorite writers.  His Uplift series is a great concept, and has served him to build a very fertile universe.  However, I'd have to say that I like his more grounded SF even better.  Earth is an excellent near-future novel, which is very tough to pull off.  And then, after far too long away from SF, he published Existence in 2012.  He'd been so long away, other than one short story I'd seen in 2009, that I didn't go get it right away, but received it recently as a gift.

And I would have to say that it's my favorite work of his yet.  This is a very ambitious work, stretching possibility to the limit without breaking it.  The reviews of the hardcover book say that one can read it as an Uplift preview, but the author makes it clear that this is not the case.  He said that having Faster Than Light travel, like in Uplift, is like "playing tennis with the net lowered".  This universe breaks no laws of physics, but instead speculates on what a cosmos that produces intelligent beings would look like if they were able to send something--a probe, a recording, anything--across the vast interstellar distances.

And what a rough place it would be.  Brin's core thought is that any non-static object, like a self-replicating probe or an artificial intelligence in a small package, would undergo change over the millions of years it would be in transit.  The spawning species would almost certainly be extinct by the time the artifacts made it to another civilization, with most never making it at all. If there were enough of them to actually encounter each other away from their home system, they might have evolved very different abilities, motives, and tactics from what their makers intended.

Existence is the story of what it might be like if earth received one of these evolved probes at some point in the not too distant future.  Then, more, and more...could we survive the influence of devices so far removed from their makers?

Brin is an astute student of society, and has written much non-fiction on the topics of privacy, politics and sociology.  His blog (on his website) makes for fascinating and inspiring reading.  He deeply values diversity of ideas as a defining human strength and the key to survival--and I heartily agree with him.

So I give the book a rare four stars for execution, and a nearly impossible fifth star for all that went into it.  More people should be reading and listening to David Brin, whether they agree with him or not.