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Brushwork, by Aliya Whiteley, is a novella set in a dystopic, climate-changed future where real food, grown in biodomes and greenhouses, is a luxury for the rich and a target for agro-terrorism.

Mel - so called because her production area is the melon section - is one of the workers at a BlossomFarms facility. Like many of the workers, she has lived in the domes for years, sleeping in dormitories, eating synthetic food, never tasting the fruits she grows for the conglomerate's wealthy customers. When agro-terrorists break into the biodome, taking the facilities hostage in the name of the people who have never tasted fruit, everything changes - except the fact that workers remain workers, and no matter who is in charge, the hierarchy never changes until the workers themselves decide what is important to them.

One thing in particular that I enjoyed about this was the age of the protagonist and her co-workers, and the acknowledgement of generational issues we see around us in the world today - older people who did everything they were supposed to do, and feel betrayed without knowing who to blame. And the youth, knowing they will not have what they think was the birthright of their parents and grandparents. Both betrayed by the wealthy and powerful, but somehow blaming each other instead.


Note: Brushwork can be found online at Giganotosaurus:
http://giganotosaurus.org/2016/05/01/brushwork/

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"The Great Detective," Delia Sherman; tor.com, February 17, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/02/17/the-great-detective-delia-sherman/

Steampunk and spiritualism, in an alternate literary universe where noted mechanical inventor Sir Arthur Cwmlech and his apprentice Miss Tacy Gof turn to colleague Mycroft Holmes and his masterwork the Reasoning Machine to solve a mysterious theft. A young Doctor Watson, recently returned from Afghanistan, seeks a new life as an inventor. All that is missing from the tale is the Great Detective himself - and if he does not yet exist, then surely someone will have to invent him. A light and witty tale that should appeal to fans of Holmes and the steampunk genre alike.

"Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies," Brooke Bolander; Uncanny magazine, November 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/talons-can-crush-galaxies/

This was a short piece, essentially flash fiction, a stunning gut-punch. Hard to read, hard to breathe afterward. Searing and powerful indictment of male entitlement and rape culture.


"Seasons of Glass and Iron," Amal El-Motar; first published in The Starlit World (2016), reprinted online at Uncanny Magazine
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/seasons-glass-iron/

There are many fairy tales about women. Women who must do impossible things, or accept impossible circumstances, because of men. Men who say they love them, men who want to test them, men who want to woo and win them. Sometimes, though, these women walk out of those tales and live their own lives instead, creating new kinds of tales.


"Lullaby for a Lost World," Aliette de Bodard; Tor.com, June 8, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/06/08/lullaby-for-a-lost-world/

De Bodard has said that of this story that it is "a sort of answer to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (one of my absolute favourite short stories)." It is very much a story about the prices paid for security, stability, and the like - and who makes the decisions on what prices are acceptable, and who pays those prices. A worthy counterpart to the story that inspired it.


"Things with Beards," Sam J. Miller; Clarkesworld, June 2016
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/miller_06_16/

A meditation on monsters and how they walk undetected in the world, both the monsters and evil aliens of speculative fiction (the backstory of the protagonist evokes the classic sf/horror film The Thing), and the monsters that have always been a part of the human race, the callous, the cruel, the killers of those who are labeled less than human.


"You'll Surely Drown Here if You Stay," Alyssa Wong;
Uncanny Magazine, May 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/youll-surely-drown-stay/

A young boy with an uncanny heritage to communicate with, and control, the dead is forced to use his powers for the greed of others. A supernatural Western with a deep friendship that survives dead and retribution at its heart.


"An Ocean the Color of Bruises," Isabel Yap; Uncanny Magazine, July 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/ocean-color-bruises/

Five young people, former college friends, take a vacation together to a second-class resort with a tragic past. When that past awakens, the quality of their own lives is called into question.


"A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflower," Alyssa Wong; Tor.com, March 2, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/03/02/a-fist-of-permutations-in-lightning-and-wildflowers-alyssa-wong/

A story about two sisters with unimaginable power, the depth of grief and guilt, and the futility of trying to change the past. Deep truths about grieving, accepting and moving on - and the tragedy of refusing to do so.


"Red in Tooth and Cog," Cat Rambo; originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2016, republished online February 21, 2017
http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/2017/02/21/story-red-in-tooth-and-cog/

A young woman frequenting a park has her phone stolen by an unlikely culprit, leading her to discover a new ecosystem in development. An interesting perspective on the definitions of life.


“Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”, Jason Sanford; Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 17, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/blood-grains-speak-through-memories/

Sanford's novelette is set in what seems to be a far distant future, long after the ecological disasters of pollution and the exploitation of natural resources have resulted in massive social change and, one infers, biological engineering on a vast scale. The land is infused with "grains" - semi-sentient beings, possibly organic, possibly cybernetic, it's never made clear - that infect people thereafter known as anchors - who are responsible for protecting the land and its ecosystems. Anyone not part of an anchor's family is doomed to a nomadic existence, destroyed by the anchors and other beings created/controlled by the grains if they tarry to long in one place, or injure the land in any way. Frere-Jones is an anchor dissatisfied with the way the grains control the anchors and limit the lives of the nomadic day-fellows. Her husband, who shared her opinions, was killed by the grains, and if they could replace her, Frere-Jones suspects the grains would kill her too.

I was both intrigued and dissatisfied with this novelette. I enjoyed the themes of rebellion and of sacrifice, but I was frustrated at knowing so little about the grains, the biomorphing of the anchors, and how it all came to be that way. Perhaps a longer format might have allowed more worldbuilding.

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In Laurie Penny's novella Everything Belongs to the Future, science - corporate controlled science - has developed a drug that, taken daily, can extend the lifespan for years, perhaps centuries. It is, of course, extremely expensive, available only to the rich and to favoured scientists, entertainers, and others who make themselves of particular value to those in control.

The narrative focuses on a small group of anarchist activists. Joined by Daisy, the scientist who did the original research on the "blue pill' - now a woman in her eighties who looks like a teenager - their attempts to develop a generic life extension drug give way to something profoundly different when Daisy's research leads in an unexpected and potentially explosive direction. Although we know from the beginning that something goes wrong with their plans - part of the narrative consists of letters written from prison by one of the activists - much of the story's tension is driven by the fact that the reader learns early on that there is a covert agent of the establishment among them.

Penny writes about power and corruption, oppression and resistance, loyalty and betrayal, but her focus is so narrow that the reader is left with little understanding of how the existence of life extension drugs has changed society. We learn that, faced with long life, the world's elites have finally taken measures to curb climate change, but little else that's concrete about this future society.

We get a sense that, at least among those to whom the protagonists initially try to distribute stolen life extension pills, life seems grim and faintly desperate, but we are left unsure as to the reasons for this. Is it just the longing that everyone has for the virtually unattainable fountain of youth, or has the creation of an immortal elite altered social conditions in ways that have made a life of normal span less tolerable?

Penny also uses the dichotomous categories of eternal youth and premature aging to explore the ways that apparent age influences the perceived value and status of women.

The novella moves quickly, and Penny's prose is at times both deeply evocative and chillingly powerful. As an allegory of favoured elites, disfavoured masses, and discontented resistance, it offers considerable good for thought, but I found I wanted more.

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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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"The Great Silence," Ted Chiang, May 2015, e-flux journal
http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/texts/the-great-silence/

A meditation on sentience, inter-species communication, language, and the consequences of co-existence with other intelligences. From the perspective of a parrot.


"Forestspirit, Forestspirit," Bogi Takács, June 2015,
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/takacs_06_15/

An AI-driven battle machine, survivor of the last war, becomes the guardian of the forest at the instigation of a young boy.


"Folding Beijing," Hao Jingfang (trans. Ken Liu), January/February 2015
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/folding-beijing-2/

This elegant novelette from Hao Jingfang proposes a future China where overpopulation is so severe that the city of Beijing is redesigned and rebuilt so as to fold up and flip over twice in every 48 hour cycle. In the first 24 hours, the part of the city revealed is First Space - the world of the upper class, five million out of a total of 80 million. When First Space folds up and its inhabitants are tucked safely away in a drugged sleep, the city flips over and the next 12 hours belong to Second Space, the middle class, 25 million. After 12 hours, Second Space folds up and Third Space - the home of the working class and the poor - unfolds for another 12 hours. And the cycle repeats.

The protagonist of the story is Lao Dao, a worker in a refuse sorting plant in Third Space, who wants only one thing - to find enough money to educate his adopted daughter so that she can live in a better space. To do so on his own salary would be impossible, so he takes on an illegal commission to carry messages between people in other Spaces.

Through Lao's experiences, Hao delivers a profound critique of class, capital and the exploitation of the workers, while reminding us that the best parts of life are those that stand outside of the economic sphere - love, generosity, joy, simple pleasures, human interaction.


"Liminal Grid," Jaymee Goh, November 2015, Strange Horizons
http://www.strangehorizons.com/2015/20151109/gohliminalgrid-f.shtml

In a dystopic future Malaysia where government surveillance and control are close to absolute, the rebels of a new generation struggle to escape the confines of a society they hate and fear, and go
"off-grid."


"Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers," Alyssa Wong, October 2015, Nightmare Magazine
http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/hungry-daughters-of-starving-mothers/

A compelling, visceral dark fantasy. Themes of vengeance on misogynist bile-mongers, intergenerational legacies and wounds, and the consequences of not being fully open with those one truly loves. I have to mention the effectiveness of the startlingly perfect use of imagery in this piece.


"Scarecrow," Alyssa Wong, originally published in Black Static, 2014, reprinted January 2015, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/01/27/scarecrow/

A powerful and moving dark fantasy story about love, self-deception, internalised homophobia, guilt and grief. A young man too afraid, or ashamed, to acknowledge his love for another joins his friends in tormenting his lover, with deadly consequences.


"The Fisher Queen," Alyssa Wong, 2014
http://fu-gen.org/crash/fisherqueen-wong.htm

The daughter of a fisherman discovers hidden truths about, not just her own family, but also about the trade she seeks to follow on her first fishing voyage. A dark story about family secrets and sexual violence.


"By Degrees and Dilatory Time," S. L. Huang, May 2015, Strange Horizons
http://strangehorizons.com/2015/20150518/dilatory-f.shtml

A story about bodily integrity, loss and healing. A young man who has already lost a promising career as a competitive figure skater to a sports injury and knee replacement surgery develops a rare cancer in both eyes and must accept replacement surgery - artificial eyes - in order to survive.

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All the short fiction mentioned here was published in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine March/April 2015


"A Residence for Friendless Ladies," Alice Sola Kim - In this atmospheric novelette, a young trans man is forced to live as a woman when he is sent to stay with his grandmother, who runs an eerie and forbidding home for women - part hostel, part finishing school, part prison - who don't quite fit into society's roles. An unflinching look at identity denied and the courage needed to open closed doors.

"The Mantis Tattoo," Paul M. Berger - A trickster story in an African-inspired setting. Mantis the trickster chooses a young man to serve him, and sends him on his first mission - to save his people from the return of their historical enemies.

"Things Worth Knowing," Jay O'Connell - A highly dystopic look at the direction of privatised education and corporate recruitment.

"La Héron," Charlotte Ashley - A mysterious swordswoman registers for the Black Bouts of Caen - a tournament of duellists that draws contestants from as distant a place as the lands of faerie.

"This Is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang," Brian Dolton - An interesting take on the death and rebirth of the universe, with a rather unusual and determined heroine.

"Last Transaction," Nik Constantine - structured as a sequence of computer communications to a future citizen of a highly automated society, you think you know where this will end up... But you'd be wrong.

"Little Girls in Bone Museums," Sadie Bruce - a disturbing piece about the ways that women have distorted and tortured their bodies to adhere to male standards of beauty, accepted objectification in the place of respect, and convinced themselves that this will make them happy.

"A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell," Jonathan L. Howard - Sooner or later, bartenders see everything. This is a delightfully whimsical story about a day in the life of bartender in a place called Helix, and the twisty temporal paradoxes his time-travelling customers have been getting into.

"How to Masquerade As a Human before the Invasion," Jenn Reese - a short short story about passing for human. Its advice will be shockingly familiar to those of us who never quite fit in

"A Users Guide to Increments of Time," Kat Howard - two sorcerers whose magic can steal time become lovers , but cannot help stealing time - first to have more time together, and later, once love has altered, to destroy each other.

"Bilingual," Henry Lien - a young girl sets out to find a way to communicate with dolphins in the wild about threats from human hunters. Told almost entirely via Tweets.

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Gypsy is one of the latest additions to PM Press's remarkable Outspoken Authors series. As with previous volumes in the series, Gypsy contains several collected works a single author. This collection features selections from the works of eclectic writer Carter Sholtz, including the novella Gypsy, two bitingly funny satirical short stories, an essay on the ease with which the US and its corporations violate national and international law, and an interview conducted with Sholtz by Terry Bisson.

The novella Gypsy takes place in an unsettlingly familiar dystopic future - climate change, corporate greed, resource depletion, war and the collapse of civil society. It's gotten bad enough that an underground network of dissidents have managed, in secret, to cobble together a space ship that will be able - if everything goes right - to transport a small number of people to the Alpha Centauri system in the hopes of finding a livable planet. It's a desperate shot in the dark.... but letting the situation on earth continue without some attempt to create another place for humans to survive seems unthinkable.

This is not a happy story. It is unrealistic to expect that that everything would go right in such an endeavour, and this is, given the opening situation, a very realistic, hard sf story. But it is also a powerful story, and a thought-provoking one.

In addition to the novella, the other pieces in the collection are well worth reading. I particularly enjoyed "Bad Pennies," a wicked satire on the American penchant for meddling in other countries' business and for doing business at whatever cost.

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In The Blood of Angels, Johanna Sinisalo has returned to the themes of her previous novel, Birdbrain - the thoughtless use and abuse of the ecosystem by humans intent on their own needs, disharmony among humans and between humans and nature, and the idea of a consciousness in nature that responds to the damage wrought on it.

In The Blood of Angels, Sinisalo focuses on bees, and the mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder, which in this near-future world has become Colony Collapse Catastrophe (CCC) - the sudden disappearance of the worker population of a major proportion of the industrialised world's hives, each abandoned hive leaving behind only a few immature bees and a dead or dying queen. The loss of so many bees, particularly in North America, has resulted in food crisis as plant crops dependent on bees for pollination are dying out, and meat, reliant on plant feeds for its continued production, is becoming a rare and expensive food. Parts of Europe - including Finland where the novel is set - and most of Africa and Asia are not yet as hard hit by CCC, but there are signs that more trouble is coming.

Against this background, the novel is structured around four generations of a family. Pupa the beekeeper, the protagonist's grandfather, is seen only in remembrance, and Ari, his son, the industrialist beef producer, only in a few scenes. The novel belongs to Orvo and his son Eero, both of whom are shaped by their relations to their fathers and grandfathers, and the relations of those men to the natural world.

Orvo is a funeral director by trade, but his heart is in the bee colonies he inherited from his grandfather. Eero is a student and ecological activist, one of the key members in the Animalist Revolutionary Army (ARA), whose main focus is animal rights. He blogs about animal rights, and selection from his blog - many of them dealing with, on the one hand, the role of bees in the ecology and the importance of CCC, and on the other, the corrupt and cruel practices of factory farming of animals.

When CCC strikes in one of Orvo's hives, and tragedy occurs during an ARA action at Ari's Hopevale Meats factory, Orvo discovers what may lie behind the disappearance of the bees, and a multitude of ancient myths linking bees, the gods, and the souls of men.

A stark tale of family tragedy, an ecological activist's primer, a narrative of a slow apocalypse of human making, an indictment of man's inability to think beyond his own needs and desires, an examination of death and and the potentials for rebirth, this novel functions on many levels, and exquisitely so.

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Kallocain, by Karin Boye, noted Swedish poet and author, is a dystopian narrative that fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Orwell's 1984, Zamyatin's We, or Huxley's Brave New World. That it is not part of the core lineage of 20th century political dystopian literature may be because it was not translated into English until 1966, or because it was written by a woman, or both. But it is unfortunate that even now, 50 years after it became accessible to English readers, it is still not better known and acknowledged.

Written eight years before Orwell's 1984, Kallocain place in a future in which the state - to be specific, the totalitarian police state - is all, and the individual nothing. Readers of 1984 will find much that is familiar; sparse living quarters, rationing, constant surveillance, the ever-present atmosphere of suspicion, politically correct expression, conformity of action and an on-going threat of war with other states about which nothing is known but that they are the enemy. There are no minutes of hate in Kallocain, but there are structured festivals that celebrate the state, weekly broadcasts in which people who have misspoken must make their apologies and corrections. The mechanisms of social control in the WorldState (so named even though it is just one of several states) are perhaps a little less dramatic, but no less all-encompassing.

But these are external manifestations of the totalitarian state. Kallocain concerns itself with the inner self under a social and political order that demands universal devotion and loyalty to the state and its ideology. As the novel's protagonist. Chemist Leo Kain, comes to realise, there are always those whose thoughts rebel, lack the singleminded purity required of them. Those who question, those who resent, those who watch and remember, those who imagine another way of being. And because he himself fears the embers of these thoughts in his own mind, he produces a drug, Kallocain, which relaxes inhibition and causes those under its influence to speak their inner truths, a drug which he offers to the state as the answer to identifying those committing these internal forms of sedition.

There is much that is chilling in the descriptions of how everything from family life to human scientific experimentation is handled in this future state, but it all follows quite logically from the basic premise of such systems, that the collective is all and the individual nothing.

I've long been fascinated by dystopian literature, and yet only recently did I learn of the existence of this novel. I'm very glad to have finally been introduced to it.

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Paolo Bacigalupi's near-future dystopian thriller The Water Knife is a fast, hard ride through a drought-ridden Southwestern America where what little water remains is under the control of endlessly warring robber barons who live in sealed arcologies while the thirsty multitudes live in a hell where the strong rule and everyone else scrabbles to survive - but only barely.

Bacigalupi's novel belongs to the relatively new genre of what is called "climate fiction" - speculative novels, almost always dystopias, in which the effects of climate change on human life are a crucial part of the work, and as so, it is inherently a criticism of our lack of will and foresight in allowing such a future to be possible. But it is also, and perhaps more deeply, an examination of how far the concept of civil society can be degraded, how much of their dignity, morality and sense of connection people in desperate times will sacrifice to live one more day, how ruthless those with access to a limited power - in whatever sense - will go to hold onto their status. This is a world in which no one can be trusted, because anyone can be broken, and anyone will betray you for the dream of water.

The narrative focuses on water rights - in particular, documentation concerning senior rights to the Colorado River that will put anyone who owns them in the position of controlling the entire Southwest. Every major player is after them, and the list of mutilated bodies of people who someone thinks might know where they are hidden is growing. Angel is a water knife - a man whose job it is to cut through all the niceties to get whatever his employer needs to keep her control over the water she owns. And when he stumbles across the story of these old water rights, he knows it's up to him to get the rights for his boss. But no one knows who has them, and everyone, even Angel, is suspect. Also caught up on the bloody trail is Lucy, a journalist whose friend is seduced and murdered because of what he knows, and Maria, a destitute water peddler whose best friend is the mistress of another man who knows too much.

Toward the end of the novel, Angel and Lucy share a conversation that goes to the heart of the question Bacigalupi is asking. And the answer this novel gives us is grim indeed.

He shrugged. “Maybe people got choices. But mostly they just do what they’re pushed to do. You push, they stampede.” He nodded down at the screen and restarted the video. “And when shit really starts falling apart? Sure, people work together for a while, but not when it gets really bad. I read this article about one of those countries in Africa—Congo or Uganda or something. I was reading, thinking how shitty people are to each other, and then I got to a part where these soldiers, they…”

He glanced at Lucy, then looked away.

“They did a bunch of shit to a village.” He shrugged. “And it was exactly what some militia I worked with did to a bunch of Merry Perrys who tried to swim across the river to Nevada. And that was exactly like the cartels did when they took Chihuahua for good.

“It’s the same every time. All the rapes. All the chopped-off cocks that get shoved in dudes’ mouths, all the bodies burned with acid or lit on fire with gasoline and tires. Same shit, over and over.”

Lucy felt sick, listening to him. It was a view of the world that anticipated evil from people because people always delivered. And the worst part was that she couldn’t really argue.

“Like there’s something in our DNA,” she murmured, “that makes us into monsters.”

“Yeah. And we’re all the same monsters,” Angel said. “And it’s just accidents that turn us one way or another, but once we turn bad, it takes a long time for us to try to be something different.”


A taut, well-written suspense thriller with thought-provoking undertones.

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Quite a few years ago, a person of my Internet acquaintance, who is known on the Net as The Plaid Adder, started writing one of the best fantasy series I have ever read. It grew to five volumes - a tight trilogy (Taken Child, Another Country and Darkness Bright), a sequel (Redemption) and a prequel (Better to Burn) - and it is in my opinion a great sadness that none of the books were ever published.

I've never really understood why my acquaintance was never able to get these published, unless it was that they were written from a deeply feminist perspective, featured mostly female protagonists, a goodly number of whom were lesbians, and provided, along with compelling stories well-written about interesting and fully realised characters, serious critiques about just about every aspect of Western culture and society, an invitation to really think seriously about things like love, good and evil, materialism and progress, religion, and other core stuff of life, and a meta-narrative about the process of creation. Plus, the core trilogy is somewhat of a genre-bender, encompassing elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, suspense, romance and political satire, and while this kind of blurring of the boundaries has recently come more into vogue, it wasn't as salable back when these books were written.

I was fortunate enough to read these books chapter by chapter as they were written, and then to acquire printed copies of the complete and edited volumes from the author - which I of course reread. Then came my increasing environmental sensitivities, which made my treasured spiro-bound print copies unreadable. But now the author is distributing the novels as ebooks to those who know where to ask for them, and I've had the absolute delight of starting to reread these books again.

The first volume I reread was Taken Child, which introduces the land of Ideire and its low-tech, telepathy and magic-reliant culture, its somewhat eccentric semi-deity Idair and her nemesis the Dark One, the women-only order of magic-using clerics known as shriia who follow Idair and serve the people of Ideire, and their enemies, the female dark users of magic who receive their power from the Dark One.

At the centre of the trilogy is Theamh ni hUlnach, a shriia - albeit a somewhat unconventional one. In Taken Child, we meet as she goes about her duties, including the training of her apprentice Aine. In the course of this, she is sought out by a woman whose child has suffered the supernatural theft of its soul. In the process of trying to save the child, Theamh uncovers a horrifying secret linked to both an old enemy and a long-lost love, and a corrupt plot that threatens the very future of Ideire.

The second volume of the trilogy, Another Country, sees Theamh and Aine following the tracks of Theamh's nemesis, Lythril, into the neighbouring, technology-reliant Cretid Nation, which is in many ways a dystopic distillation of much that is wrong with our own society, as civil war erupts at home. A deft blend of heroic quest, political thriller, biting satire, and poignant love story, Another Country is genre-bending at its best.

The final volume, Darkness Bright, sees Theamh and Aine returned to an Ideire in chaos. They join up with the resistance - both martial and magical - fighting corrupt shriia and their secular allies who have overthrown the legitimate leadership of the country. An unflinching portrayal of the horrors and sacrifices made in war and the tragedy of a country torn apart by lies and greed, Darkness Bright is also a story of courage, commitment to the good, and enduring love.

If anything in what I've written here seems interesting to you, the author can be contacted on tumblr as http://plaidadder.tumblr.com/.

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Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy - consisting of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam - is a dystopic vision of monumental proportions.

I didn't get around to reading the first volume until after the third had been released; this perhaps meant that I was somewhat more fortunate than early readers of Oryx and Crake, who were faced with something very bleak, and did not then know that there would be more to come, that would at least explain and leave the reader with some sense of hope.

My first coherent thought about Oryx and Crake was to relate it to other science fiction works - I thought of it as Doctor Frankenstein meets Doctor Ain in the Garden of Eden (and if you don't know the Tiptree short story I'm referring to, shame on you). My second coherent thought was to reserve further thinking until I had finished the remaining volumes.

I enjoyed reading The Year of the Flood more than I did Oryx and Crake - possibly because I like the protagonists better, and because I liked the story of subversives and neo-hippies more than that of genetic scientists playing god - even though in this volume, the second of the trilogy, those two groups are shown to overlap.

It was most interesting seeing the events and the people of the first volume through different eyes, from different perspectives. So many gaps were filled in, and Snowman's solitary narrative from Oryx and Crake took on depth and complexity. I was quite caught up by the ending, and moved on to the third volume, Maddaddam, immediately.

And was rewarded. All the threads from the previous two novels are caught up and woven together in one final tapestry that shows clearly connections barely seen or hinted at before. So, too, the survivors of the Flood - and not just the humans and the experimental creations of Crake - come together to presage a new and very different future.

Through this layering and re-layering of perspectives, Atwood brings the reader slowly but powerfully to the conclusion you'd least expect (at least, if you were reading anything other than Atwood) and does it so beautifully that by the end I was crying.

For those well aware of Atwood's tendency to make sly references, I will simply add that the name of the final volume is a palindrome, which for some reason called to my mind the phrase from T. S. Elliot's Four Quartets: in my beginning is my end.

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Nomansland is inspired by a casual reference to a female-only society in the classic post-apocalypse novel The Chrysalids by John Wyndham: "To the north-east they say there is a great land where the plants aren’t very deviational, and the animals and people don’t look deviational, but the women are very tall and strong. They rule the country entirely, and do all the work. They keep their men in cages until they are about twenty-four years old, and then eat them. They also eat shipwrecked sailors. But as no one ever seems to have met anyone who has actually been there and escaped, it’s difficult to see how that can be known. Still, there it is—no one has ever come back denying it either." Hauge has taken this reference as the basis for the community of Foundland.

In talking about Nomansland, I think it is important to keep its beginnings in mind because both novels feature extreme examples of societies obsessed with conformity to a rule of behaviour and indeed of ways of being, and young people who secretly challenge the strictly enforced norms and ultimately elect to leave these societies. It's also important to keep in mind that in both societies, memory of what life was really like before the apocalypse has been lost in part, supressed in part, and heavily coloured by the choices made by the founders of these post-Tribulation societies. As well, knowledge about other existing communities of survivors is repressed and mythologised - the women of Foundland are not cannibals, and as the young protagonist of Hauge's novel learns, men as not exactly as she has been told either.

Nomansland presents a society that shares some elements with other women-only dystopias, including Wyndham's Consider Her Ways, and also some elements with the medieval Christian monastic orders, both for men and for women. The women of Foundland live under a rigid caste structure, live highly regimented communal lives, obey rules of conduct that focus on a denial of individuality, sensuality, "vanity" - which includes everything from personal decoration to looking in a mirror, are enjoined to avoid "special friendships" and receive severe punishments including whippings, shunnings, solitary confinement and banishment for breaking the Rule.

However, as the teen-aged protagonist Keller learns, these rules are indeed broken at every level of Foundland's society. Its rulers dress up in fancy clothing and indulge in sensual repasts. Some adults maintain extended "special friendships" and a few maintain clandestine connections with men who visit the island from time to time, trading in tobacco and other luxuries. And some of Keller's peers have stumbled upon a cache of artifacts from the past, including clothing, jewely, cosmetics and fashion magazines. Some reviewers of the novel have fastened on the way in which Keller and her companions throw themselves into frenzies of secret beauty pageants and make-over parties as a rebuke of feminist criticism of "the beauty trap," and even a statement about the "essential" quality of decoration as part of the female psyche, but it serms to me more that these are adolescents embracing new (to them) behaviours and rejecting the severe codes of behaviour they grew up with, and human beings seeking to explore their individuality and sensuality. In any case, the novel provides much food for thought on issues of gender and individual identity.

It's also a good read.

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For three-quarters of the book, it reads like a taut and politically cynical spy thriller that has the reader holding tightly onto the plot lines of key protagonists James Travis and his daughter Roisin, while spies, counter-spies, counter-terrorists, conspiracy bloggers and disinformation experts obscure what is really going on. Then comes the foreshadowed but unexpected science-fictional ending that leaves all the other plots and theories in the dust.

The precipitating moment to all of this is an explosion at a U.S. Base in Scotland, witnessed and photographed by peace camp volunteer Roisin Travis. As Roisin flees the authorities, further incidents, initially assumed to be terrorist attacks, spark anti-moslem frenzy in the british populace and hyperactivity in the world's intelligence circles. As Paul Kincaid notes in a review for Strange Horizons (http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2007/06/the_execution_c.shtml):
But espionage is less about information than it is about disinformation, and deception lies at the heart of this novel. This is not just in the way that James and Roisin are constantly changing their appearance, or indeed the way that James regularly uses his computer skills to create new identities. We see the team of English, Scottish, and American agents chasing Roisin deceiving each other. We see the team of freelancers whose job it is to feed disinformation into the web. We see the differing ways that events are reported in the press. We see the American teenager who runs a top conspiracy website, and who slowly begins to see through the disinformation he is being fed. Yet even when anyone in this novel glimpses the truth it is only ever a glimpse, only ever partial. We live in a world, MacLeod tells us very convincingly, in which it is now impossible to know the whole truth, and in which partial truths are as deadly as outright lies.
This is the second novel I've read by MacLeod, and I've been delighted each time by both the storytelling and the incisive political critique embedded in it.
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It's always a joy to find a new author whose work intrigues, delights, entertains, or amuses. This year, new authors (and the books that called to me) included:

J. M. Frey, Triptych

Frey's debut novel knocked my socks off. Well written, with characters that come alive, a riveting plot told in an original way, and a careful exploration of gender, race and cultural integration. Loved it.


David Anthony Durham, Acacia: The War with the Mein

First volume of a series that I will definitely have to finish, a sweeping epic of empires and prophesies, politics and war.


N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Jemisen's book is another superior entry in the genre of epic fantasy, all the more so because of her highly original style and approach to the matter of moribund empires and supernatural forces that form the basic framework of such novels. Again, a series that I'm looking forward to finishing.


Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

And how could I not read the YA sensation that everyone else and her cat is reading? Enjoyable if somewhat derivative of many books that have gone before it. The author does well at giving Katniss a true and consistent voice.


Malinda Lo, Ash
Malinda Lo, Huntress

Both of Lo's YA fantasies have been long-listed for James Tipree Jr. Awards, which is always in my mind a formidable argument for checking out a new book. In these books, Lo creates a high fantasy world of humans, elves, ghosts and assorted things that go bump in the night, where her characters can find their own destinies, seking adve ture while challenging gender roles and sexual identities. More, please, Ms. Lo.

Nalini Singh, Angel’s Blood
Nalini Singh, Archangel’s Kiss
Nalini Singh, Archangel’s Consort
Nalini Singh, Archangel’s Blade
Nalini Singh, Angel’s Flight

Singh's books are my newest guilty pleasures. There's actually a lot I don't like about these books, including some very questionable gender isues abd waaaay too much not very original sex. I hate the plot about the spunky woman and the arrogant man who hate each other on sight until he beats her up and then they have mind-blowing sex and stay together despite the fact that he never really repects her as an equal. And these novels are full of that kind of shit. But there's also a very interesting world to explore here, with humans being governed and controlled by powerful winged beings called angels, even though they pretty much lack any compassion or other such angelic qualities, and their servants, the vampires, who are humans infused with a special angelic secretion. It's very much a 'red in tooth and fang' kind of world, with naked power plays all over the place, and that's the bit that fascinates me. So I read them and love to hate them.


Nathan Long, Jane Carver of Waar

And this book, which already has a sequel on the way, is just plain fun. A John Carter of Mars scenario turned upside down, Jane Carver is a biker chick on the lam after accidentally killing a guy who was harrassing her. She finds a secret cave, is transported to a distant low-gravity planet, and the typical Barsoomian-style adventures ensue. Burroughs fans who don't mind gender-bending should love this. Goreans will cringe. And that's a good thing.


Kameron Hurley, Brutal Women

This collection of science fictional short stories by the author of the Bel Dame Apocrypha (a series that I now know I must read) is certainly well-named. Not for the faint of heart, these stories explore women (and other beings of other genders) in the midst of violence - physical, emptional, psychological - and their reactions to such environments. Worth reading and thinking about.

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Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

This is a YA novel, but like so many recent YA novels its subject matter is dark and adult. It's really just the age of the protagonist that makes it YA. And the subject matter is timely and important.

A group of high school kids - nerds with 133t skilz - who have off school to complete the next stage of a game that involves geocaching, code breaking, and such, are caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Because they are in the wrong place, and because they are carrying sophisticated technical equipment, they are detained without access to parents or lawyers and brutally interrogated. One of these kids, Marcus, responds to this experience and the growing atmosphere of fascist control disguised as security concerns to organise resistance among other young, computer savvy kids.

Little Brother is simultaneously a dystopian novel of resistance to oppression, a well-argued defence of civil rights and a technical guide to keeping your electronic identity out of the hands of the overseers. The changes in tone required to pull this off are not always as seamless as they could be, but I found it quite engrossing. Pace, plot and characterisation were all strong.

My only complaint is that ultimately, the worst abuses of the post-terrorist regime are attributed to the personal inclinations of a few people instead of being part and parcel of the authoritarian and fear-based mode of response, and the resolution was too easy, too optimistic - but then, it is a YA and perhaps that is appropriate.

If I had my druthers, I'd have everyone, young adult or not, read it. Lots to think about.

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It does not seem as though I am actually going to be able to catch up on the books I've read over the past couple of years.

So here's the new plan. I'm going to post lists of the books I read in 2009, 2010 and, once we hit December 31st, 2011, and my summaries of the best books of those years. Then I start afresh in January and try to keep up with comments on each book I read in the new year.

So, here are the remaining books I read in 2009.

Dystopic fiction

The Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall
Make Room, Make Room, Harry Harrison
Generation 14, Priya Sarukkai Chabria


Science fiction

Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge
The Mount, Carol Emshwiller
Starship & Haiku, Somtow Sucharitkul
Jovah’s Angel, Sharon Shinn
Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
The Gameplayers of Zan, M. A. Foster
The Warriors of Dawn, M. A. Foster
The Day of the Klesh, M. A. Foster


Fantasy

The Silver Lake, Fiona Patton
The Shadowed Isle, Katherine Kerr
The Last Paladin, Kathleen Bryan
Children of the Blood, Michelle Sagara West
The Hidden City, Michelle West
Borne in the Blood, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Victory of Eagles, Naomi Novik

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V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd (illus.)

My partner, who is far more conversant with graphic novels than I am, recommended that, since I had seen and been intrigued by the film V for Vendetta, I might be interested in reading his copy of the source novel.

So I did, and found that while I enjoyed the film, I enjoyed the source even more, because there are more ambiguities and more questions. While both treatments of the material have as their themes (at least in part) an exploration of fascism and the question of what degree of response is justified – the classic ends and means debate – the film treats V more sympathetically, more heroically, removes the explicit anarchism of the original material and fails to remind the viewer that fascism generally takes power with the people’s tacit consent (in the novel, the fascist regime is legally elected, while in the film, they take power following a (deliberately created) crisis.

I’m very glad I read the original. It made me think, even more than the film did.

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The final two volumes of L. Timmel Duchamp’s absolutely enthralling and thought-provoking Marq’ssan Cycle, Blood in the Fruit and Stretto are on my list of the best books I read in 2008.

In this series of novels, Duchamp has written not only an engrossing science fictional saga story about the effects of a global intervention by aliens proves the catalyst for meaningful change, and the women who in various ways give their lives to that change, but also a truly masterful analysis of how oppressive and fascist states and organisations (and personalities, there’s more than a whiff of Reich and Marcuse in some of Duchamp’s characterisations of both states and characters in these books) function and respond to resistance, and of the various ways of resistance to oppression, whether it be at the level of the personal, the social, or the state. It’s also a deeply feminist analysis of power relations and how they can operate constructively or destructively, depending on the means, methods and goals.

Reading the series, following the lives and thoughts of the various viewpoint characters in your head, is a curiously multi-layered experience – each book is at the same time a complex political/psychological thriller and a workshop in identifying, resisting, subverting and ultimately, replacing the fascist architecture built up in one’s own mind from years of living in a society where authority is defined as coming from without and from above, difference is used as a tool of control, not a resource to be shared.

This series really is some of the most important feminist and political writing out there at this time.

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Rising of the Moon, Flynn Connolly

Science fiction has produced a fair number of profoundly feminist works dealing with oppression and resistance, whether individual or en masse – Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s tale, L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan cycle, Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue trilogy, Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them and The Female Man, James Tiptree Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t see,” to name but a few – but I must admit to some puzzlement as to why Connolly’s Rising of the Moon is not as well-known as some of these others. Set in a future reunified Ireland where the entire country has come under the control of a viciously patriarchal Catholic Church, where women cannot own property, work after marriage, or even as unmarried women hold any jobs with status or authority, where they must always be under the guardianship of a man, where birth control and abortion are illegal, Connolly's dystopic vision draws a stark picture of a police state run as a theocracy, where both men and women live under close control but the worst oppressions fall on women.

Connolly’s main protagonist is Nuala Dennehy, who as a young woman was inspired by her father’s stories of the heroic freedom fighters of Ireland’s troubled past, left Ireland so she could study and then teach her motherland’s true history. Returning home to visit after 15 years away, she is appalled by the growing violations of human rights and the worsening status of women, and is drawn into an organized resistance network led by women. With her skills in public speaking and her knowledge of Irish history, and the deeds and words of its martyrs, Nuala becomes the voice of a woman’s revolution.

Connolly has expertly depicted the hypocrisy and brutality of a regime that practices censorship and terror in the name of spiritual truth and God’s love; and just as expertly, she explores the ethical struggles of resistance fighters who chose to act knowing that violence and death will inevitably come before victory can be achieved.

The novel is filled with quotations from and references to historical freedom fighters and figures of resistance around the world, from Stephen Biko and Malchom X to Bernadette Devlin and Rosa Parks; without ever being didactic, it’s an introduction to the history of political resistance and revolution, yet remains at all times the story of a small group of diverse women, each one of them fully realised characters in their own right, who commit themselves to freedom.
They won't break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It is then we'll see the rising of the moon.
-- Bobby Sands


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