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One might not think that a trilogy of science fiction books about the various ways one might go about creating a society based on Plato's Republic, and what the outcomes of those societies might look like, is going to be engaging, at times exciting, and hard to put down. And maybe it isn't, if you have little interest about such ideas as justice, the good life, excellence, the nature of conscious self-awareness and the soul, the origin of the universe and the meaning of time.

But since I have a strong interest in these things, and since Jo Walton has, in her Thessaly trilogy, written an amazing set of characters you can't help caring about who take part in explorations of these ideas through debate, daily living, and various travels and adventures, it was probably inevitable that I would fall in love with these somewhat unusual novels.

I've already talked about the first two novels in the trilogy, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings. In the third novel, Necessity, Walton continues her explorations of the deep philosophical questions that have troubled humanity for millennia.

Necessity begins 40 years after Zeus, in order to save Athene's experiment in building a true Platonic society and continue its isolation from human history, has moved all the existing cities to a distant planet and to a time in the 26th century. Survival on Plato, as its new inhabitants have named it, is not as easy as it was on the island of Thera - the climate is colder, and the planet has no indigenous land-based animal life (though it has fish in abundance). But the people of Pluto have prospered, and their cities occupy the planet in peace. Living with them and taking part in Plato's society are two sentient Worker robots that were transported with them, and some members of an alien space-faring race, the Saeli, who find their Platonic ideals appealing.

The narrative that drives the further philosophical explorations Walton engages us in involves the disappearance of the goddess Athene from not only time and space, but the dimensions out of time. When Apollo, returned to his divinity by the death of his human incarnation, Pythias, discovers that he cannot sense Athene anywhere, his decision to search for her becomes a quest to understand the underpinnings of existence and the meaning of life.

This quest is interwoven with the lives of several inhabitants of Plato, key among them: Jason, who operates a fishing boat; Marsilia, one of the consuls of the City - the first Platonic community settled by Athene on Earth - who also works with Jason; Thetis, her sister, who works with the City's children; Hilfa, a young Saeli who is also part of Jason's crew; and Crocus, the first sentient Worker.

The death of Pythias and Apollo's discovery that Athene is lost take place place against the backdrop of an event the Platonians have long anticipated - the arrival of the first spaceship from another planet of humans. The planet's inhabitants must decide whether to follow the advice of Zeus, and present the story of their arrival on Plato as a kind of origin myth, all the while leading the space-faring humans to believe Plato was settled just as any other human colony - or just to tell the truth and let the other humans make of it what they will.

Rounding out this mix of events, Sokrates is returned to the Platonic cities, having been found by Apollo on his quest to find Athene. Not at all changed by having spent time in the Jurassic period, living as the gadfly Athene transformed him into, Sokrates becomes an essential part of the continuing philosophical dialogue that is Plato, and of the lives of the Platonians involved in Apollo's quest.

In Necessity, Walton proposes some possible answers to the questions being asked in these three novels, but also leaves much still to be considered by the reader, just as she gives her characters some degree of closure in their daily lives, while leaving the future open-ended.

The entire trilogy is a kind of experiment, the success of which the reader must judge for themselves. For me, it succeeds gloriously.

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Deborah J. Ross, authorised by the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Trust, and guided by notes and conversations held when Bradley was still alive, has written a number of books set in the world of Darkover. Thunderlord is the latest of these.

Set during the Ages of Chaos, long before the events surrounding the return of the Terrans to Darkover that have been the subject of many of the Darkover books, Thunderlord is a sequel to Bradley's novel Stormqueen, although there is enough backstory included that the books can be read independently.

While Thunderlord has its share of excitement - bandits, banshees, dangerous journeys through the forbidding mountain passes of the Hellers - it is primarily about family, love, building trust and turning vengeance and suspicion into peace.

The main characters, Rockraven sisters Kyria and Alaya, find themselves in the centre of the long but currently dormant feud between Scathfell and Alderan, and must find a way to keep the cycle of bloodshed from rising again.

I always enjoy going back to Darkover, and I like what Deborah Ross has brought to the stories of Darkover. I enjoy reading about the small domestic details and the developing relationships as much as I do adventures and the great deeds of the laran-gifted. I enjoyed Thunderlord.

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Novel

I was quite familiar with three of the finalists - White's The Ill-Made Knight, Van Vogt's Slan, and Smith's The Grey Lensman - all quite well-known classics of the genre, and all on my nomination list. Boye's Kallocain, which I had actually read earlier this year, was also one of my nominations [1]. So the only new novel to me among the finalists was The Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson [2], which, having now read, I think of as a quick and pleasant read, but not particularly special.

My personal opinion is that The Ill-Made Knight has aged the best of the the finalists, and as a retelling if the Arthurian legend, it holds a special place in my memories. But I'd be almost as happy if Slan wins, as it's a book I remember with much nostalgia from my childhood - as I suspect do many socially outcast young nerds.


Novella

Heinlein's If This Goes On… and Coventry - both personal favourites among his early work - were on my nomination list for this category. Magic, Inc., however, has always seemed to be one of Heinlein's lesser works and I did not consider it for nomination.
I had read both of the de Camp/Pratt finalists - The Mathematics of Magic and The Roaring Trumpet - before, but long enough ago that I did not remember them clearly. I have now remedied that [3]. Both of the de Camp/Pratt novellas were good, well-crafted comic adventure pieces, but I remain convinced that for technique, entertainment value, and maturity of themes and ideas, the two Heinlein science fiction pieces are the cream of this crop.


Novelette

Heinlein's "Blowups Happen," Sturgeon's "It!” and Bates' “Farewell to the Master” were among my nominees - I was of course long familiar with the Heinlein novelette, but not Harry Bates' story, which I read for the first time this year and was quite taken with, or the Sturgeon novelette, which I also read earlier this year [4]. Heinlein's “The Roads Must Roll" was a close contender for me, though it just missed being one of my nominations. The late addition to the finalists, A. E. Van Vogt's "Vault of the Beast" was new to me, and sadly, I was not impressed [5]. All in all, "Blowups Happen" and "Farewell to the Master" made the strongest impression on me in this category.


Best Short Story

“Martian Quest” by Leigh Brackett, “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein, and "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges - I adore Borges - were all among my nominations for this category, and both “The Stellar Legion," also by Leigh Brackett, and “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov were among the works I had under consideration up to the end [6]. I think I'd be quite content if any of them were to win, but my secret hopes are for the Borges piece.



[1] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/181310.html
[2] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/198078.html
[3] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/198990.html
[4] short notes on the Bates and Sturgeon novelettes here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/188154.html
[5] short notes on A. E. Van Vogt's novelette here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/199299.html
[6] short notes on the two Brackett stories here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/188154.html

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Short fiction

"The Maker Myth," Ahmed Khan, Inkitt
https://www.inkitt.com/stories/scifi/15673/chapters/1?ref=v_114318f5-c460-4e6d-8bbc-692f62cad08c

A nice twist on the creation vs. evolution debate, though the writing is a bit flat. It's more of an idea piece than a character and plot piece, and suffers somewhat from the narrow focus.


"The Vault of the Beast," A. E. Van Vogt
http://www.prosperosisle.org/spip.php?article236

One of the finalists for the 1941 Retro Hugos, this can be read as a cautionary tale about mistreating your minions if you happen to be an evil overlord, although I suspect that wasn't Van Vogt's primary theme. This is one of those stories in which a hidden and ancient evil lies trapped in a ruined old Martian city, scheming to get out and conquer the universe, beginning with humanity. It's an early and not very remarkable piece by one of the Golden Age masters.


"That Which Stands Tends Toward Free Fall," Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Clarkesworld, February 2016
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/sriduangkaew_02_16/

In the midst of a global war, a specialist in developing and guiding AIs is approached by old comrades. Beautifully written. Sriduangkaew excels in allowing a story to unfold, revealing both backstory and future direction indirectly but never missing out on the essentials.


"43 Responses to 'In Memory of Dr. Alexandra Nako'," Barbara A. Barnett, Daily Science Fiction, February 5, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/barbara-a-barnett/43-responses-to-in-memory-of-dr-alexandra-nako

Told entirely as a (very realistic) series of comments on a memorial to a scientist who apparently died during a Near Death Experience experiment, this thought-provoking story builds to a chilling conclusion. Horror or religious fantasy? You decide.


"Left the Century to Sit Unmoved," Sarah Pinsker, Strange Horizons, May 16 2016
http://www.strangehorizons.com/2016/20160516/pinskercentury-f.shtml

Just outside of town, there's a pond with a waterfall, where people go to sun, and swim, and climb to the top of the waterfall and jump. Not everyone who jumps comes back, and no one quite knows why. There are rules that are supposed to keep you safe if you follow them, but they aren't always reliable. The protagonist's brother jumped - or so it's assumed, because his car was found parked at the head of the trail leading to the pond, and he's never been seen since then. But no matter how many the pool takes, people still jump. Pinsker never resolves the mystery, which makes this story all the more powerful. No one knows where the taken go, but people still jump. And in all the reasons why lies a big chunk of what makes us human.

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"Mika Model," Paolo Bacigalupi, April 26, 2016
http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/04/mika_model_a_new_short_story_from_paolo_bacigalupi.html

A meditation on artificial intelligence - a high-end sexbot programmed to be whatever "her" user wants or needs her to be suddenly revolts against her owner's sadistic behaviour. But is it a case of product malfunction, or murder?


"Touring with the Alien," Carolyn Ives Gilman, April 2016, Clarkesworld #115
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/gilman_04_16/

Aliens have arrived on Earth. So far, they have stayed inside their spaceships, doing nothing. Then one day, freelance long-distance driver Avery gets a call - an alien and its human translator want to go on a roadtrip. As Avery acts as tourguide to her two passengers, she comes to understand both the translator - abducted as a child to serve the alien in this way - and the relationship between them. Gilman draws a picture of a very different kind of alien interaction here, and encourages some serious thought about our own varied mental states.


"The Commuter," Thomas A. Mays, 2015, Stealth Books (stealthbooks.com)

The worlds of Faerie and mortal kind have become intermingled, and there are Accords governing how the two peoples interact in each other's territories. Jack's daughter Abby has run afoul of the rules by going on a school trip to the Unseelie Court without her parents' permission, and now she's been claimed as a changling. Jack's only recourse is to declare himself on righteous quest and go into Faerie after her. A funny and original story.


"The Stories She Tells Herself," Kelly Sandoval, April 1, 2016, Daily Science Fiction
http://dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/slipstream/kelly-sandoval/the-stories-she-tells-herself

Beautifully written, emotionally gripping, the stories she tells to herself are the stories that women in abusive relationships have always told themselves until that moment when they finally realise that, wounded though they may be, it is better to fly than to stay.


"Three Points Masculine," An Owomoyela, May 2016, Lightspeed
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/three-points-masculine/

In a world where you must have have the right gender for the job you want - but this depends not on your biological sex, your chromosomal sex, or your gender identity but on how you test on a scale of masculine and feminine traits. In this world, a person who identifies as a man but needs to be a girl in order to work in medicine and a trans man who doesn't test quite manly enough to be the soldier he wants to be meet on the battlefield.


"The Lover," Silvia Moreno-Garcia, July 2, 2016,
http://www.silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/the-lover/

Judith has always lived in her sister's shadow, never loved, never free to make her own life. A haunting story about love, desire, and freedom.

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Hugo Nominations - Novel and Novella

Unlike my Hugo voter experience last year, this year I had actually read many of the finalists in the novel and novella categories before the finalists were announced, and was able to quite quickly read those I had not. This post is simply a placeholder, to gather together links to my comments on all the finalists.

And now, to make a few comments on my relative assessments of these works in the novel category. I had a very hard time making my personal nominations - right up until the end there were about ten novels that I could barely differentiate in ranking, and The Fifth Season, Uprooted, and Ancillary Mercy were among that group. There was but a hair's-breadth of difference for amongst them all, and hence, only a hair's-breadth of difference between these three at the top of my ballot. The other two novels were not in that final group of ten.

As for novellas, Binti is the only one of my nominations that appeared as one of the finalists. Both Slow Bullets and Penric's Demon were on my list until the end, and had I read The Builders before nominations closed, It would have been another possibikity for consideration.


Novel

The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/173419.html

Uprooted, Naomi Novik
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/176380.html

Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/177907.html

Seveneves: A Novel, Neal Stephenson
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/181055.html

The Aeronaut's Windlass, Jim Butcher
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/193254.html


Novella

Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/179830.html

Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/185477.html

The Builders, Daniel Polansky
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/192634.html

Penric's Demon, Lois McMaster Bujold
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/170131.html

Brandon Sanderson, Perfect State
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/192320.html


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I'm not a big comics/graphics fan. I rarely search out graphic novels, and my tastes in this form of narrative are heavily influenced by my preferences in both visual representation and subject.

Of the five finalists in this category, three are graphic novels/narratives and two are web comics. The first of the graphic novels is Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: Overture, drawn by J.H. Williams III. Most people have suggested that this is the odds-on favourite, and it's easy to understand why. First and foremost, it's The Sandman, and when you consider that even I have read The Sandman and been blown away by it, that's saying something. This prequel is a more mature work, in which Dream must take responsibility for a decision that will result in the end of the universe unless he can find a way to correct his error. It's thoughtful and beautiful and powerful and the story and art are so amazingly wound together and support each other. It is another masterpiece from Gaiman, and there's not really much more that needs saying.

The Divine, written by Boaz Lavie, with art by Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka, is an interesting piece. Inspired by a photograph of 12-year old twin child soldiers who were leaders of an army of Karen refugees fighting a war of resistance against the state of Myanmar, the story has been transmuted in the creator's hands into a narrative focused on Western (specifically American) involvement in Asia and its backing of exploitative and genocidal regimes. Mark, a former demolitions technician, is persuaded by an army buddy to join a short but highly paid mission to the (fictional) nation of Quanlom. Once there, he finds himself in the midst of a battle between government forces that want to explode a volcano to access the mineral wealth inside and a child army that is all that remains of the indigenous people who sought to preserve their way of life. Magic confronts bullets, as Mark chooses to side with the indigenous people. Intriguing story, decent art, but unfortunately the characterisation falls short. Mark's friend Jason is a caricature of the ugly American soldier, and the children are somehow made too supernatural to be sympathetic.

Invisible Republic Vol 1, written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, is a rather compelling beginning to a story about (as I understand it so far) the rise and fall of a political regime. The story unfolds in two time periods. In the story's present, a frame narrative set in the unrest and upheaval of the end of the Mallory regime on the colony of Avalon, down-on-his-luck and discredited journalist Croger Babbs, looking for a story to revive his career, stumbles on a priceless manuscript - the memoirs of Maia, the cousin of the vanished dictator Arthur McBride. The narrative cuts back and forth between Babbs' investigation and the events described in Maia's papers. In the issues contained in Vol. I. We really see only the beginnings of both storylines, but there's more than enough of interest there to make me want to keep following the story. The suggestions of parallels to the Arthurian legends are an additional draw for me though this may not be true of everyone.

Erin Dies Alone, a webcomic written by Grey Carter, art by Cory Rydell (dyingalone.net), is an ongoing story about a woman who hasn't left her apartment or physically interacted with another human being in two years. She sits around doing nothing much except smoke weed and shop online - until her imaginary friend, a raccoon in a red bandana, lures her into reviving her old gamer instincts. Both from the characterisation and the style of the art in the scenes set in Erin's reality - grey, monotone, faintly drooping - Erin is in the grip of serious depression. Overlying this narrative exploring Erin's pain and depression are some very funny representations - sometimes even parodies - of popular video/online games and common situation in the gaming life. The question is, will gaming bring Erin back to herself, or take her further away? There's a complexity and ambiguity about this narrative that lifts it above the ordinary.

The other webcomic nominated in this category, Full Frontal Nerdity by Aaron Williams (ffn.nodwick.com), is a humorous look at nerd life and culture, with particular focus on gaming, comics and media. The art style is very basic cartooning, and there is no ongoing narrative, although portrayals of familiar gaming situations are spread over several individual strips. It's often funny, and portrays the obsessions and idiosyncrasies of gamers and gamer culture with a knowledgeable and kindly eye, but in my mind it lacks the extra "oomph" an award-winning work ought to possess.

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Two of the finalists in the Best Novelette category were stories I'd already read - “Folding Beijing” [1] by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu, which was one of my own nominations, and Brooke Bolander's "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead," [2] which had been on my 'for consideration' list right up to the final cut. Both were reviewed earlier in the year - URLs are in the footnotes.

While I don't feel that Stephen King's "Obits" is quite as powerful as either of these, it is nonetheless a creditable finalist. Dark fantasy rather than outright horror, it tells the story of a young journalist who inadvertently discovers that he kill anyone he chooses by writing their obituary. King explores both the addictive power of the ability to decide between life and death, and the visceral recoil of the average human from it. In the end, though, it is a story of hope, arguing that it is possible to turn away from the seductive draw of such power.

"Flashpoint: Titan” by Cheah Kai Wai, published in the anthology There Will Be War X, is a relatively straightforward milsf story about a battleship, its captain, and a battle in space that is won at significant cost. The writing is clear, with minimal infodumping, the story stripped of all narrative elements other than those which further the military encounter. Commander Hoshi at least emerges as a well-developed character - though this cannot be said about most of the other characters. The leanness of the narrative means that we have little sense of the political milieu in which the encounter takes place, and no real understanding of the motivation of the enemy combatants. This is essentially battletech porn - each manouevre is detailed, every strike and counterstrike described. The opening gambit, the set up, and the battle are the story. Competently written, but too limited in scope for my taste.

On the other hand, “What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke, the second finalist in the novelette category from the There Will Be War X anthology, is a well-written and thought-provoking piece with much to recommend it. The premise of the story is that Earth is under sustained attack from aliens with superior firepower, the defense of Earth and its colonies is going poorly, and the only way to survive is to push both technology and ideas of appropriate use of personnel to the limits - and possibly beyond. The story begins with a crack pilot waking up in a virtual simulation. At first he assumes he has been injured and the simulation's purpose is to communicate with him and check on his healing while his body regenerates. But as time passes, the simulation widens to contain 23 other pilots, all of whom he's served with, some of whom he's sure were killed in action. There are simulations within the simulation, as the pilots are given the opportunity to train on a different kind of individual fighter ship, with new mission parameters and tactics.

While I was able to figure out quite easily what was really happening and why, the 'twist' at the end isn't really the point of the story. It's more about establishing the essential humanity of consciousness - done through solid characterisation and a deft balance between the simulated actions of the pilots and the introspective ruminations of the key protagonist - and asking each reader to decide the title question for herself. A good and thoughful story.



[1] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/185839.html
[2] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/178331.html
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Only four of the best short story finalists are reviewed here. the omitted piece was to the best of my knowledge written and nominated for the sole purpose of mocking other authors and their work; as I find this contrary to the spirit of the Hugos, I'm not dignifying it with my time or consideration.

Turning to the other finalists, the cream of this otherwise stunted crop is Naomi Kritzer's short story "Cat Pictures Please," [1] which was added to the ballot to replace Thomas A. Hays' withdrawn piece "The Commuter." This story was on my shortlist though it was not one of my nominations - but this was a year in which It seemed a great many superlative short stories were published. I'm very happy to see it on the list of finalists. I reviewed it earlier in the year, but I will add that I find that I keep coming back to the essential question - is it better to have full autonomy even if one screws up royally, or to live, all unknowing, under the control of a beneficent force - and pondering various aspects of it. An excellent piece of work.

S. R. Algernon's very short piece "Asymmetrical Warfare" is all about alien invasion gone wrong, from the perspective of a mission commander who makes too many assumptions based on their own culture and experience. Told as a series of journal entries by the leader of a fleet invading Earth, this wry piece (even the title is a pun) details the confusion of the star-shaped aliens as they discover that the enemy whose weapons they have been destroying are not the radiates of the ocean but the bipeds on land. Sadly, the outcome for humanity looks rather grim regardless of the misapprehensions of the invaders. A slight piece, but fun.

“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao, from the anthology There Will Be War Volume X, is a vicious little piece of work, a short shockfic with racial overtones and no subtlety - and indeed, almost no story. China, engaged in the economic colonisation of sub-Saharan Africa, finds the indigenous population unsuited to their needs - too violent, too lazy - and designs a genetic virus to annihilate all Africans. An American scientist who discovers the plan is blackmailed into silence. The end. It's a nasty scenario, proposed and then left hanging.

Thanks to the appearance of "Space Raptor Butt Invasion" on the list of Hugo finalists for Best Short Story, I have finally read something by the famed (or is that infamous?) Chuck Tingle. While I prefer my erotica to be somewhat more literary in style, I must admit that I found the story to be quite a hoot. Not sure whether I'll sample any more of Dr. Tingle's output, so to speak, but the writing was competent and the story had a good build-up, consistent characterisation, plenty of action (of the kind one would expect, of course), and a satisfying conclusion - making it a rather better effort than some other recent finalists I could mention, though not in my opinion a work of sufficient calibre to merit a Hugo award.



[1] my comments on "Cat Pictures Please" can be found here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/149268.html

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I am beginning to think of Aliette de Bodard as one of those authors whose every work is a "must have" for me - I have been delighted, transported and entranced by everything I've read from her so far, and have started searching for older works I've missed.

One such work is the 2013 Hugo-nominated novella On A Red Station, Drifting, which is Set in her Xuya universe, in a future space empire heavily influenced by Chinese and Vietnamese cultures and notable for its human/AI Minds that manage both starships and space stations.

On A Red Station, Drifting takes place during a period of internal strife when lords opposed to the Emperor are in open rebellion. Fleeing war on the planet she was sent to as magistrate, Lê Thi Linh seeks refuge on Prosper Station, managed by a branch of her family. But all is not well on Prosper. There are divisions within the family and troubling malfunctions in the Mind that runs the station. Nor has Linh been fully honest about her reasons for flight.

Beautifully written, with a close focus on both the interpersonal and the political relationships that drive the events of the story. It's the depth of the characters, and the honesty of their portrayals (there are no heroes, no villains, only people doing what they feel they should, or must) that kept me enveloped in the story.

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I've seen Pierce Brown's debut novel Red Rising described in terms of its thematic and situational resemblance to other novels - Ender's Game, Lord of the Flies, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games. And it certainly does share something with each of these, beyond the obvious violence and general grimdark of the story. It shares with Ender's Game the concept of brutalising children to teach them to be warriors and the question of whether all-out violence is a legitimate path to victory. With Lord of the Flies, the depiction of children who lose the values of civilised society - compassion, rationality, tolerance, justice - in the face of the struggle to survive, and the question of the innate nature of humanity. With Game of Thrones, it shares an examination of leadership, loyalty, allegiance, power, betrayal - the stuff of politics and social organisation and control. And with Hunger Games, it shares the idea of hope, of the defiant gesture that speaks truth to power in the face of death, and of resistance to a society built on cruelty and injustice.

Darrow, the young protagonist of Red Rising, is a Red - a member of the worker caste, a helium3 miner in the dangerous depths of the Martian mines, the lowest of the low. The society he lives in is a rigidly hierarchical oligarchy in which the genetically and surgically enhanced humans of the Gold caste dominate all other humans - the merchant Silvers, the pleasure-giving Pinks, the technological Blues, and all the other Colors, high and low - through fear, brutality, indoctrination, false hope and lies.

But in the depths of Mars, revolution is brewing. And the Sons of Ares have chosen Darrow for a dangerous mission. Altered by painful surgeries, trained to act and react like a young Gold, given a false background, the leader of the revolution directs Darrow to infiltrate Gold society, gain as much power and influence as possible, and use his position to destabilise the highColor overlords and weaken their ability to suppress the coming rebellion.

But first, Darrow will have to not just survive, but win in the deadly game of capture the castle that Golds use to cull the weaklings from among their own children and train them to be ruthless and cunning. And though he doesn't know it, politics among the Gold great houses has stacked the deck against him.

This is not a comforting novel. It is dark, and Brown does not shy away from presenting the depths to which a society that rewards brutality can fall. Darrow is a young man, driven more by grief and anger, by the need to avenge the death of innocents and the betrayal of the people he grew up among than by abstract concepts of justice. He comes close to becoming that which he is supposed to tear down, over and over as he moves without guidance through the viperpit of Gold society. There is no guarantee that he will come out of the trial with soul even partly intact - but there is hope.

It's fast-paced, action-filled, hard to put down - but it's also profoundly thoughtful, raising questions about the best and worst expressions of humanity, leadership, social organisation and justice.

And I picked up the second volume in Brown's trilogy and started reading just minutes after finishing the first. Golden Son carries on the story of Darrow, out of the limited arena of politics and war he learned to navigate in the first novel, and into the charged world of immense wealth and intense house rivalry that is known simply as the Society.

Brought into the household of the ArchGovernor of Mars - the Gold ruler who had his wife killed - Darrow finds himself in the middle of political intrigues, machinations and feuds between the Great Houses, plots and rivalries within the House he serves, and changes in the direction of the Sons of Ares that he cannot countenance. Striking out on his own, he uses his discovery of a plot to overthrow the ArchGovernor of Mars - one backed by the sovereign herself - and the deep personal relationships, of both loyalty and animosity, that he forged in the first novel, to foment unrest and ultimately civil war. Though he succeeds - at least for a while - in starting, and winning, a war to drive a wedge between Mars, under the rule of the ArchGovernor, and the Sovereign, everything comes crashing down when his true identity is discovered, and the book ends with Darrow captured, the ArchGovernor dead at the hands of his own son - a deadly enemy of Darrow's - the Sovereign fully in control once more and the leader of the Sons of Ares killed.

Golden Son continues to explore the themes of leadership and loyalty that began in Red Rising, as Darrow learns through his triumphs and failures with both friends and foes. The non-stop action continues as well, sweeping the reader up in Darrow's path to glory and defeat.

Morning Star, the final volume of the Red Rising trilogy, continues the roller-coaster ride as Darrow is rescued and reunited with his allies - and gathers more as he moves inexorably toward a final confrontation with the Sovereign of Society at her power base on Luna. The novel is packed with battles on the ground and in space, with negotiations and secrets and plans within plans, victories and betrayals and all the action you could ask for. In the end, there is change, but not all that was dreamed of, the sacrifices and the costs of the revolution are massive, and the task of completing the rising and rebuilding a better, more just society seem almost too much to take on.

But still, there is redemption for some, and peace for others, and some kind of hope for all, no matter how provisional and how incomplete the victory.

All in all, it's a strong closing to a compelling work in three acts, and an impressive debut from Pierce Brown.

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When I'm reading a book I wouldn't ordinarily pick up on my own accord, I like to check out a few reviews first, so I know something of what I'm getting into. So before starting Campbell Award nominee Brian Niemeier's debut novel Nethereal, I looked for reviews and read a few. It was a little disturbing to note that the majority of reviews I located were written by people situated within one degree of internet separation from a Rabid Puppy. Nonetheless, I embarked on the novel.

There is a way to plunge right into the manners, politics, history and culture of a secondary world without leaving the reader with so many questions that the text is frustrating in its opaqueness. Good science fiction and fantasy writers do it all the time, dropping just enough clues, giving just enough exposition, that the story and the characters' actions make sense. Neimeier, unfortunately, does not do this.

In addition to being frustrated and confused, this lack of incluing [1] left me feeling very little interest in the fates and fortunes of the characters.

I gave the novel a decent chance to grab me - but by the time I'd read ten percent, I was still uninterested and unimpressed. And I certainly would not consider an author for a Campbell award on the strength of it.

However, the other two works of Niemeier's that I located were a rather different story. The first is a novelette, Strange Matter, that was published in Up and Coming: Stories by the 2016 Campbell-Eligible Authors, edited by S. L. Huang and Kurt Hunt. A variation on the Groundhog Day theme, a mechanic finds himself reliving over and over again the last ten minutes and seventeen seconds before the end of the world. It's a competantly crafted story, and it kept me reading to the end.

The second is a short story Izcacus, which is posted on his website. [2] Told in an epistolary format, it's the account of a mountain-climbing expedition in a uncharted region of the Caucasus mountains gone horribly wrong. It's a very much a Lovecraftian story, all about horrors hidden in places where humans should not go, and what happens to them when they come up against the powers of an ancient evil, though it draws on Christian mythology rather than Lovecraft's, or one created for the story. It was decently structured and written, and I rather enjoyed it.

On the basis of my reading, I wonder if perhaps Neimeier's strengths are better suited to short fiction. While both pieces of short fiction are somewhat derivative, they are quite readable. Still not Campbell calibre, but decent work.



[1] Incluing is a technique for world building, in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. The idea is to clue the readers into the world the writer is building, without them being aware of it. http://fritzfreiheit.com/wiki/Incluing

[2] http://www.brianniemeier.com/p/izcacus.html

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The Aeronaut's Windlass is the first novel in a new series by Jim Butcher. It's a bit of a hybrid, part fantasy, part steampunk - a Regency-flavoured world of tower cities called Spires, at war - or at least in competition with each other - protected by armadas of airships powered by artificial crystals and propelled by etheric currents.

It starts out with a generous set of introductions to the people who will, I assume, play important parts in the series. There are some lovely and quite viscerally written aerial battles. And Butcher definitely intrigued me with his sentient cats. I was however annoyed when a specific event, for which there had been considerable build-up and which was portrayed as an important nexus with significant political ramifications for various houses and personal ones for several key people in the story was suddenly interrupted to begin the unfolding of the main narrative, which is the surprise invasion of Spire Albion by Spire Aurora.

There's a rather interesting ensemble cast - the bold privateer captain with the mysterious blot on his past record, the completely mad etherialist (i.e., wizard) who possesses incredible power but can't manage to figure out how doorknobs work, his almost completely mad apprentice who communicates by talking to some crystals she carries around in a jar, the "warriorborn" officer and gentleman of the Spirearch's Guard, and two Guard trainees, both young women of the nobility, though from houses at opposite ends of the social ladder. And of course, the cat. There's also an interesting collection of villains - one of them the etherialist's former apprentice and another the captain's former wife - and a quick peek at an unidentified Big Bad who will likely figure more prominently in sequels. And there's a delightfully well developed cat culture and society which plays a significant role in the unfolding of the plot.

Butcher has clearly spent some time in world-building here, but aside from explaining the basics of his techno-wizardry, he allows the details of his world to emerge slowly. This sometimes leaves the reader wondering about the meaning and significance of some things, but the further one gets into the narrative, the sharper the picture becomes. One is left with the feeling that there are still major mysteries about this world, its society and its peoples to be explored - but for me, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

It's a high-intensity action novel. There are lots of battles, ranging from close combat between cats and giant spiders to epic aerial battles between dreadnaughts of the air. But Butcher doesn't lose sight of character development in the midst of all the fighting - one comes to care about these characters.

This was fun reading, and interesting - and original - enough that I'm looking forward to reading the next entry in the series.
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Brandon Sanderson's novella Perfect State is about the fantasy adventures of a brain in a jar - albeit a brain that is fully aware of the unreality of its existence, and is at heart in some existential distress because he knows his life is a game shaped by those who control the illusionary state he lives in. The main character, Kairominas of Alornia - Kai for short - infodumps the concept early in the narrative, although it's hardly necessary as Sanderson gives multiple clues to what's going on, which is this:

...the best way to create greatly satisfied people using minimal resources was to remove their brains when they were fetuses and attach them to simulated realities tailored to fit their emerging personalities. Each Liveborn received an entire world in which they were the most important person of their time. Some became artists, others politicians, but each had a chance for supreme greatness.


Kai is God-Emperor of a State based on the standard medieval fantasy tropes. He spends his time developing new ways of using the magic system active in his personal reality and engaging in battles with Liveborn from other States. He's a good God-Emperor - he cares for the simulated characters that are his subjects, and tries to make their lives happy and comfortable. Then the rhythm of his life is changed when the Wode Scroll - the representative/communications interface of the agency (whatever it may be) that manages the fantasy universes - instructs him to travel to a Communal State - one which maintains its own programming regardless of which and how many Liveborn "enter" it - and arrange to procreate with a Liveborn woman (outside the fantasy states, the two Liveborns' DNA will be merged, but for some reason, the donors are expected to simulate sex in the fantasy states before this can be done).

But Kai has a bitter enemy, one of the Liveborn with whom he has been battling sporadically for some years. And his enemy is about to deliver a most painful revenge.

The novella's congruences with films from Tron to The Matrix franchise and a wide range of cyberpunk novels and their kin is immediately obvious, although this work is different from most in that there is no way out for the Liveborn. They are nothing more than brains in jars, they must live in this artificial reality for as long as their brain tissue lives - and the details suggest that this is a very long time, at least subjectively. So the thrust of Kai's inner journey cannot be about changing the situation he is in, but rather finding ways of existing and adapting to it that will be less about playing the games set before him and more about finding whatever degree of meaningfulness he can in reaching out to the Liveborn around him to try and break the paradigm of endless struggle.

There is a moral here, I think, buried under the subjective fantasy and the vaguely suggested science-fictional world beneath it, about breaking out of the bubbles of self-delusion we create for ourselves, and the strictures of functioning day-to-day in a world that often demand of us that we conceal huge swathes of ourselves, and connecting with others on a real and honest basis. It's not a new or revolutionary idea, but it is a good one.

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"Tear Tracks," Malka Older, Oct 21, 2015, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/10/21/tear-tracks-malka-older/

A first contact story that delves into the ways that subtle differences in cultural values can influence perceptions - and how being unaware of the differences can stymie the chances for true communication.


"Your Orisons May Be Recorded," Laurie Penny, March 15 2016, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2016/03/15/your-orisons-may-be-recorded/

What if our prayers were answered in a heavenly call centre by supernatural beings who can only listen to the pain of the world while keeping up productivity and client retention rates? What would it be like to be an angel who longed for more?


"Descent," Carmen Maria Machado, Feb 2015, Nightmare Magazine
http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/descent/

Chilling. Traditional ghost story format in which one person recounts a horrifying or terrifying experience - in this case, dealing with survivors of a school shooting - and another person is directly affected by the tale, but brilliantly done.


"Faster Gun," Elizabeth Bear, August 8, 2012, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2012/08/08/faster-gun/

A day in the alternate life of an alternate Doc Holliday. Or so it seems. In Elizabeth Bear's novelette Faster Gun, a somewhat unusual party of tenderfeet - a man with a gift for magic, and four women with a variety of striking attributes - hire Doc to guide them to the wreck of an alien spaceship not far form the town of Tombstone. But the reality is something rather different indeed. Beautifully written, as Bear's work always is, with just enough clues to the explanation of what's really going on to make the realisation a slow and poignant one. I'm not particularly enthralled with the mythos of the American Old West, but a cowboy fantasy story this good transcends the very genres it embodies.


"Empty Graves," by Unpretty, April 3, 2016, An Archive of Our Own
http://archiveofourown.org/works/6447187

As I've said before, fanfic counts. Now Superman is far from being my favourite fandom, but this is a brilliant piece of fic featuring a different and very captivating take on Martha and Jonathan Kent, updated from the original comics to a background as young adults in the 60s. Martha is the focal point here, and she is amazing.

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Marguerite Reed's debut novel, Archangel (the first in a series), starts slowly, but doesn't take long to heat up. The narrator, Vashti Undset, is a complex character who plays many roles in her society - a relatively high-tech colony situated on a still untamed world with dangers ranging from carnivorous megafauna to as-yet unresearched microflora. She is a scientist, a big game hunter and guide, part of the co-ordinating body, an officer in the paramilitary organisation that provides both policing and search and rescue services, a "Natch" without genetic enhancement in a society where most people are at a minimum genetically modified to reduce aggressive behaviours, mother to a vivacious four-year-old and bereaved widow of the colony's beloved, almost deified, savagely murdered founder.

The colony she lives in is called Ubastis, a nominally Muslim society with strong associations to Egyptian and South Asian cultures, but which is in fact a mosaic of peoples and influences. Ubastis is a closed colony, with very limited immigration and strict population control - a decision made in an attempt to keep the colony's impact on the new world minimal, but one which is by charter revisited every ten years. The colony is under great pressure from the other homes of humanity - overpopulated earlier colonies and ecologically devastated Earth - to throw open its doors and accept the maximum number of settlers from other worlds.

As the novel opens, the time is drawing near for another vote on opening up the colony, and Vashti is about to be drawn into a web of plots and mysteries on both sides of the struggle in a way which will force her to confront her own grief and need for vengeance.

A multi-layered story, with some very interesting elements, and a few things that did not quite gel for me. A key part of Vashti's role in the escalating conflict hinges on her interactions with a Beast - a genetically enhanced clone soldier who has been illegally brought to Ubastis. The clone soldiers, we learn, are designed both to imprint on and produce pheromones which are only effective on Natches. This vastly complicates things for Vashti and the Beast, and is at the same tine extraordinarily convenient for certain later plot developments - and seemed a bit too contrived, all things considered.

Despite this, and a few other minor issues, I did enjoy the novel and am curious about where the next book in the series will take the people of Ubastis.

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If anything, Liu Cixin's The Dark Forest (translated by Joel Martinsen) is even more compelling a fiction of ideas than The Three Body Problem was. Where the focus of the first book's philosophical question was the nature of physical reality, in The Dark Forest, Liu explores the question of what his protagonist, Luo Ji, calls "cosmic sociology" - the relations of intelligent species.

These explorations are carried out in the midst of a long lead-up to a crisis - the 400-year voyage of an invading fleet from the scientifically and technologically advanced civilisation called Trisolaris. The Trisolarans, having evolved in the three-sun system of Earth's nearest neighbour Alpha Centauri (a difficult task as was shown in the virtual Three Body Problem game that played a major part in the first novel of the series), want a better piece of real estate, and have made it clear to humans that they are coming to take possession of Earth and its uncomplicated single-sun system.

They have already infiltrated Earth with intelligent multi-dimensional artificial life forms called sophons, which can monitor human actions, alter physical processes, and facilitate instantaneous communication between the Trisolarans and the humans who have formed a kind of religious cult (called the Earth-Trisolaris Organisation, or ETO) centred on them. The presence of the sophons and the actions of the ETO make it virtually impossible to mount any defense plan - as soon as a plan is communicated or stored on any kind of medium, the sophons will learn of it and disrupt it.

Humanity's solution is the Wallfacer Project. Four people are chosen and given carte blanche access to information and resources. Each is to develop a plan for the defense of humanity, but to conceal the nature of that plan from everyone, keeping the details entirely in their heads, using subterfuge as necessary to implement the plan without anyone knowing what it is until the actual conflict is at hand (the fact that these plans will, if successful, unfold over 400 years is made possible by the fortuitous existence of reliable hibernation technology). The ETO counters with the Wallbreakers, selected individuals whose job is to observe the Wallfacers, deduce their plan and make it public, thereby nullifying it.

The novel follows the four Wallfacers, three of whom are notable leaders and scientists, men of dedication and foresight, the sort of people one would expect to be chosen for such a project. Luo Ji, the fourth Wallfacer, is quite a different sort of man. An undistinguished university instructor with no significant achievements to his name, hedonistic and womanising, the only reason for his selection is that the leaders of the Wallfacer project have discovered that for some unknown reason, the ETO consider him a threat to the Trisolarans and have attempted to assassinate him.

One of the great joys of reading this book is watching the slow development of Luo Ji, from a rather unpleasant person with little to recommend him, into a wise and gentle man who truly is humanity's best hope for survival in the crisis.

In 'discovering' the essential tenets of cosmic sociology, Luo Ji's project encapsulates all that is pessimistic in our visions of humanity - a darkness that is echoed in the plans of the other Wallfacers and in the actions of others in the novel who seek their own solutions to the crisis. But in learning, finally, the meaning of love, Luo also shows the way to transcend despair and defeat, the path that leads through and out of the dark forest.

Eagerly awaiting the concluding volume of the series.

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Henry Kuttner's novel The Creature from Beyond Infinity was originally serialised in 1940 - as A Million Years to Conquer, which is a much better and more accurate title - thus making it eligible for the 1941
Retro Hugos. Which is why I read it. It was published as The Creature etc. in 1968, which means I probably first read it back then - indeed, some aspects seemed vaguely familiar to me.

So... The story concerns Ardath, the last member of a dying race from a doomed planet, his ship downed on earth millions of years in our past, his mission to wait In stasis until intelligent life develops, then select the brightest of the race in various time periods, hopping in and out of stasis with his specimens, and then breed them into a super race, and recreate the splendour of his own long-lost civilisation on Earth.

The plan goes terribly wrong when one of his first specimens turns out to be a power-mad and brutal, but crafty, barbarian who acquires Ardath's scientific knowledge and conceals the fact from his 'benefactor,' waiting for the chance to seize control of Ardath's orbiting space ark and use its advanced capabilities to conquer the planet.

That time comes in the mid-20th century, when a super genius named Steven Court, studying anomalies of all kinds to try and solve the mystery of a mysterious plague before it becomes widespread, locates Ardath's ship in orbit and builds his own to go see who's been observing humanity.

It's a very 40s kind of story, fast-paced and full of manly men and beautiful 'girls,' with atomic power being the cure for everything, and an unquestioning belief that eugenics and super-intelligence will bring us a bright new world - though Kuttner, perhaps due to his close working relationship with C. L. Moore, acknowledges that women can be super geniuses too, and that coldly intelligent men need to waken their emotional sides to be truly great.

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Sandra Newman's The Country of Ice Cream Star is perhaps one of the grimmest and saddest dystopias I've ever read. I've been thinking about it a lot, and I'm still not sure I've unpacked all the horror - horror made all the worst because the teenaged, and most unreliable narrator/protagonist never quite understands how many ways she - and the people she claims as her own, her responsibility - have been used and abused and will in all likelihood continue to be.

There will be spoilers in what follows.

Ice Cream Star's country is the Nighted States - which likely includes all of North America - about 80 years after a plague has struck, killing off some unknown proportion of the population and prompting the flight of almost all white people from the continent. Exactly what happened, and how and why, is very vague, because our narrator knows only the barest bones of the tale, passed through the mouths of children.

What Ice Cream Star knows is that North Americans began dying, suddenly and quickly, from a disease called WAKS, which preferentially affected white people. At some point, the uninfected - possibly only the uninfected white - were evacuated to Europe. Left behind was a population of people of colour. All adults left behind seemed to have died of WAKS, but the surviving children were resistant, living long enough to die, in their late teens, from something else, colloquially known as posies, which may or may not be a variant of WAKS. Posies, of course, calls to mind the 'pocket full of posies' - flowers or herbs carried to mask the smell of death - from the nursery rhyme commonly thought to be a reference to the Great Plague (experts on folklore dispute this interpretation, though). But from the symptoms, and from the identification of posies as a carcinoma, I found myself thinking of Karposi's, and wondering if the original disease may have been mutagenic, weakening immune systems even among those resistant and their descendants, leaving them open to opportunistic infections.

So here we have a continent full of children, raising and bearing other children, living only to 18 or 20 then dying from something akin to AIDS, surviving on the remains of a dead civilisation, banding into groups and passing down garbled, half-remembered, half-fantastical memories of a dead culture.

While the geopolitics of this world are hazy, we gather from what Ice Cream Star knows, or learns from others (equally unreliable), that Russia and Europe have a vaccine or a cure for posies, that people live to a normal old age, and that civilization continues in those places. Russia, at least, seems to be conducting wars in various places around the globe, notably South America and Africa. And the Russians ('roos') keep their armies at strength by press-ganging child soldiers from North America. Aside from this, the rest of the world seems content to sit back and let the poor, black and Hispanic children of North America live their short lives of poverty and struggle.

The story itself is set in and around the former states of Massachusetts and New York, and the former District of Columbia. There are several quite different communities of survivors in this area, but the important thing to hold in mind that all the people in these communities are children. No one who is native to the Nighted States lives beyond 20, and many die earlier, from "posies" or from other illnesses, from accidents, from what is essentially gang warfare. Ice Cream Star and her people live in Massa Woods, where they are relative new-comers, having "come up from Chespea Waters." There are three other established communities in the area, the Christings, the Lowells and the Nat Mass Army. The Lowells are the largest community in the area, and the most technologically advanced, having made efforts to reclaim, understand and duplicate the remnants of the pre-plague culture. They live in a partially restored town and have plumbing and radios and they value science and education. The Christings are farmers, with a social order structured around a highly patriarchal reading/remembering of the Bible - organised by households, one older boy at the head with multiple wives and all their children. The Christings were a significant community in the area until recently, but most of the families have moved out, leaving only one Christing household in the area. The Nat Mass Army is a militaristic and male-dominated community. The boys hold the girls in common as nameless servants and sex partners, with one exception, the consort of the leader, or NewKing, who is always a girl given by the Christings, as a peace covenant. Ice Cream Star's Sengles are a small and relatively disorganised group, surviving by hunting, scavenging, trade, and 'thieving.'

Later in the novel we encounter two more cultures, each based in a city, with a much greater retention of knowledge and technology. The first of these is based in Ciudad de las Marias, formerly New York City. The dominant class, largely Latino, have imposed a form of theocractic rule on the black majority, in which the rulers of the city are a "Maria" - chosen in part through her ability to locate a light-skinned boy to serve as her "Jesus" - and a group of 12 "apostles" who witness her acquisition and then act as her counselors and the rulers of the "burrows." The Jesus, of course, is usually killed following the inauguration of the Maria and her sacred marriage to him, at her hands. The other community is a rigidly stratified military culture based in Quantico - formerly Washington D.C. - and devoted to the preservation of the Capitol area.

When Ice Cream Star captures a "roo" separated from his company of kidnappers, and learns from him that his people have a cure for the posies, which her beloved brother and leader of the Sengles has recently contracted, a course of events is started that will disastrously affect the communities of Massa Woods and Quantico, and lead to massive upheaval in Marias.

Fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star is a disturbingly ambiguous hero. She becomes leader of the Sengles just as the roos have launched a major campaign to collect child soldiers in the Massa Woods area - by deception if possible, force if necessary. Their standard ploy is to offer the posies cure to those who go with them, then turn those they lure or forcibly capture into fodder for their interminable wars around the globe. Pasha, the roo that Ice
Cream Star captures, uses a variation of this ploy first to save his life and gain Ice Cream Star's trust, and later to manipulate her into initiating a war that will destabilise the entire area from Massa Woods to Quantico.

But Pasha is only one of many who use, deceive, abuse and manipulate Ice Cream Star. During the course of the novel, she is manipulated into unhealthy and deceptive sexual relationships, raped, used as a political bargaining chip, forced again and again into untenable situations as she tries to keep her people alive and find a cure for her brother. Her narrative positions her as a leader and active participant in much of this, but as the degree of unreliability of her perspective slowly becomes apparent, it also reveals the degree to which she is unwittingly used by those she encounters.

In the end, she has lost everything and is being taken away to become a pawn in an even larger political game - yet she continues to believe that her sacrifices will bring an end to the suffering of, not just her own people, but all the children of the Nighted States. It's heart-breaking to reach the end and finally realise how much has gone wrong, for Ice Cream Star and her country.

I haven't yet mentioned the thing that most people hone in on at the beginning - the language. Ice Cream Star and most other survivors speak variations of a language that seems partly derived from AAVE, with infusions of French (from Louisiana? From Quebec?), transformed by the powerful cadences of a people dependent on storytelling and oral traditions. I found it easy to read, others have found that it distanced them a bit from the text, making it easier for them to process the brutality of these children's lives thanks to the effort required to read it.

It's a difficult book, a bloody and tragic story, and I can't stop thinking about what it suggests about sexism, racism, colonisation, exploitation, and more frighteningly, human nature.

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Andy Weir's The Martian is one hundred percent non-stop competence porn. Which is exactly what a story like this has to be, because survival under the circumstances areonaut Mark Watney faces is the ultimate scenario for the techie high-stress mantra - "do the next thing. And the next thing. And the next thing. Til you survive or die."

If you've been living under a rock, here's the set-up. Watney is part of a six-person mission to Mars. When a serious high-wind sandstorm threatens to destroy the MAV - the craft that will take the crew back to their ship in orbit - they are ordered to abort the mission. Watney is struck, wounded,and knocked unconscious by flying debris; his suit's biotelemetry circuits is damaged, and when the rest of the crew try to find him, they can't - and the feedback from the suit makes it appear that he's dead. They continue with the abort, leaving Watney behind, unaware that he is alive.

Fortunately for Watney, there is a habitat and supplies and life support equipment left behind with him, but unless he can communicate with Earth and let them know he's alive, there's not enough to last him until either the next planned Mars mission or some kind of rescue mission can be organised. So he has problems to solve, lots of them.

What makes it a great story rather than a Martian survival tech manual is Weir's gift of characterisation. Watney becomes real in short order. He has a voice, a sense of humour, a humanity. Most of the story is told through his logs, and these cleverly avoid infodumping by having Watney work out the problems as he goes along, talking the reader through his own logic as he solves problem after problem, sometimes screwing up but never quite fatally, sometimes being foiled by unexpected chance occurrences, but never so badly that he and the experts back on Earth can't figure out something to keep him alive.

While we see much less of his fellow crew members and of the mission specialists and administrators back on Earth, we see enough to get a sense for them as people too. And to watch them as they do the same thing Watney does - try the next thing, and the next, and the next....

A fast paced read, but one that pulls you into the action and makes you care.

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