Feb. 10th, 2016

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Becky Chambers' debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, is a delicious read. It focuses on the experiences of the multi-species crew of Wayfarer, a tunnelling ship specifically designed to create the equivalent of stable wormholes between planets that facilitate intergalactic travel. Captain Ashby Santoso and his crew are a motley bunch, the ship mostly held together by the eccentric brilliance of her two human techs, Kizzy and Jenks, and the ship's AI Lovey. The most indispensable crew member is their Navigator Ohan, a Sianat pair - one body, two entities, one a symbiotic infection that enables the Pair to perceive the otherspace they tunnel through. The actual flying of the ship is done by pilot Sissex, a cold-blooded but extremely affectionate Aandrisk. The ship's doctor, a six-legged Grum who answers to the name of Dr. Chef, doubles as the cook and gardener. Rounding out the crew is Corbin, another human, who is responsible for maintaining the production of the algae used to fuel the ship. Into this mix comes Rosemary, the ship's new clerk, whose ability to navigate the bureaucracies of multiple worlds will make the Wayfarer more likely to win and effectively complete higher-end contracts.

The first of these is a very valuable contract - requiring them to travel in normal space for a full year to the home planet of a species newly welcomed into the Galactic Commons, and then "punch" the tunnel back to GC space.

The story unfolds slowly, giving us time to enjoy discovering the depths and mysteries of the characters, and their cultures. It's in some ways a different kind of space story, one that's more about the people undertaking a tricky mission and how that affects their relationships over time than it is about action and adventure - although there's a fair bit of that, too.

I'm looking forward to more from Chambers - maybe even more tales of the good ship Wayfarer and her crew.

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I've been eagerly awaiting the publication of Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel Delany, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell, since I first heard it was in the pipeline, for a very personal reason. Delany was one of the first authors - not just of science fiction, but of any genre - who wrote books that crawled inside my brain and stayed there. There are others - Suzette Haden Elgin and Naomi Mitchison among them - but I can honestly say that simply reading Babel-17 was such a world-altering event for me that, had I never encountered it, I might be a very different person today.

In short, Samuel Delany and his work are very important to me.

Contributions to this volume include fiction and non-fiction, and they are tributes, reflections of how Delany has influenced other writers rather than attempts to recreate Delany's aesthetic. As Kim Stanley Robinson says in his Introduction:

These tributes mostly don’t try to imitate Delany’s style, which is good, as it is a very personal style, one that has morphed through the years in complex ways. Imitation could only result in pastiche or parody, forms of limited interest, although a good parody can be fun, and I’ve seen some pretty good ones of Delany’s work elsewhere. A “Bad Delany” contest would be at least as funny as the famous “Bad Hemingway” and “Bad Faulkner” contests. But a better tribute, as the writers gathered here seem to agree, results from considering not style but substance. Delany’s subject matter, his mode or method, involves a characteristic mix of the analytical and the emotional, the realistic and the utopian. By exploring this delanyesque space (and I think delanyesque has become an adjective, like ballardian or orwellian or kafkaesque), the stories and essays here make the best kind of tribute. They perhaps help to make the Delanyspace a new genre or subgenre. However that works, it’s certain that Delany’s work has effected a radical reorientation of every genre he has written in. Time and other writers will tell the sequel as to what that means for science fiction, fantasy, sword and sorcery, pornography, memoir, and criticism. Here we get hints of what that will be like.

There are no weak contributions in this collection, only strong, and stronger. Among those that hit hardest for me:

- Chesya Burke's powerful, heart-breaking short story "For Sale: Fantasy Coffins (Abobua Need Not Apply)"

- Walidah Imarisha's essay on the importance of imagining black futures, "Walking Science Fiction: Samuel Delany and Visionary Futures"

- "Be Three" by Jewelle Gomez, a parable about forbidden relationships and the desperate need to find some way for love to survive

- Junot Diaz' "Nilda," a bleak story about the existential despair of the marginalised, the unvoiced pain of personal loss and the self-destructive roles we are pushed into by social forces beyond our control

- "River Clap Your Hands" by Sheree Renée Thomas is a powerful story about loss - loss of heritage and lineage, loss of home and comfort, loss of future hopes - and about going forward to find a new life in spite of it.

- "Jamaica Ginger" by Nalo Hopkinson and Nisi Shawl, a steampunk tale of a young woman who finds her way out of a seemingly dead-end situation.

*This anthology contains 14 contributions by women out of 34 pieces (including the Introduction).

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S. L. Huang's "urban SF" novel Zero Sum Game is one hell of an adrenaline rush, with one of the most unusual anti-hero protagonists I've ever encountered in superpowered math genius mercenary Cas Russell. Seriously, this is great stuff. I had to finish it in one sitting and now I feel compelled to read the next two books in the series.

So... Cas Russell is a mercenary. She works well outside the law, she is ultra deadly with hands, feet, guns, and just about everything else. Her specialty is retrievals - people hire her to bring their stuff back.

But when Cas accepts a job to retrieve Courtney Polk from a drug cartel, her entire life goes to hell in a handbasket. Because nothing about this job is what she thinks it is, not even her own thoughts.

The body count is extreme, and the violence is often graphic. But at the same time, this is a very thoughtful book that addresses questions of agency, free will, morality, and the age-old question of whether the ends ever justify the means. You just don't notice the thinky bits in the middle of all that adrenaline until they smack you in the face.


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