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.