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Voting for the Hugos means reading graphic novels, something I'm trying to do more of, but.... So many, many books, so very little time.

I continue to enjoy the Ms. Marvel series by G. Willow Wilson. In Vol. 5, Super Famous, the adventure plot has sone things to say about gentrification and the effects of urban redevelopment on communities, but it's the interpersonal material that's pure gold. As usual, the best parts are about Kamala trying to negotiate her day-to-day life while balancing that with being a suoerhero and member of the Avengers. Naturally, this goes terribly wrong as she tries to do what she thinks is expected from her on all sides, but everything ends well with Kamala learning some important lessons about priorities and staying sane and level-headed in the midst of chaos.

I had never really been aware of a superhero named Vision before reading the Hugo-nominated The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man, written by Tom King, and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta. The IMDB says he was in the recent Avengers films, but I guess my attention slid right over him in favour of the superheroes I did know.

In any case, this is an excellently written and deeply frightening graphic story - I want to know how it ends, but I'm not sure I want to read any more of it. Vision, apparently, is an artificial life form created with the use of the brainwaves of a real human being. At one point he had a human wife and children, but they died, so he has made himself a synthetic family to replace them, and moved them into a nice middle-class suburban neighbourhood. And just as sure as if this were a Steven King novel about death and hubris, things go horribly, horribly wrong. Small mistakes and misunderstandings, misjudgements, errors and then attempts to cover up the errors to make everything seem perfect on the surface, it all piles up.

The story is told in a very objective, almost mechanical fashion, almost in the style of a casebook or police report, a contrast to the increasingly violent and horror-filled events of the narrative. Not going to forget this soon.

Unfortunately, I was not nearly as enthused by Volume 1 of Brian K. Vaughan's Paper Girls. It's the story of four young teens - all girls who have early morning paper routes in the same typical American town in the '80s - who get caught up in something called The Ablution involving horribly disfigured teens from the future battling armoured warriors riding mutated pterodactyls and the disappearance of most of the people in their town. When one of the girls is shot by accident, the future teens offer help, and the girls team up with them temporarily and reluctantly. Various twists and turns later - all of which happen very suddenly and serve only to further confuse the reader (or at least, this reader) - the paper girls find themselves thrown forward in time, only to meet with the future self of one of them on a dark and lonely road. End Volume 1.

Alas, despite my confusion, I am not tempted to find out what's going on. The somewhat frantic pace, and the deliberate 'let's confuse everyone' tone of the work, left me cold, and not even the prospect of a story about four girls was enough to warm me up.

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Recently, I've been thinking I was probably the only person in sff fandom who hadn't read The Expanse novels by James S. A. Corey (the pen name of writing duo Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) - particularly following the success of the TV series based on them, which I have been watching and enjoying. But then the series showed up on the Hugo nominee list, and the second season of the series ended with some of my favourite characters in really hard-to-wait-for cliffhanger situations, so, I have two very good reasons to read the series.

The first novel in the series, Leviathan Wakes, is an interesting mix of classic space opera, hard-boiled detective noir, and political thriller. Given its beginnings as an MMORPG, it's not surprising that the worldbuilding is complex and detailed. The politics - from the unified Earth government to the rebellious Belter-based OPA - are well developed and realistic, and the places - Earth, a partly terraformed Mars, Lunar settlements, communities of anywhere from thousands to millions of inhabitants wormed into asteroids, and facilities on several of the outer planet moons - are fully realised, distinct entities, with their own characters, cultures, backgrounds and goals.

Navigating all of this is the hardest-luck group of misfit spacers I've seen in a long time. Before we're more than a few chapters in, James Holden, former XO of a belt-based ice-hauler and his faithful companions Naomi, Amos and Alex have had two ships blown to bits around them, inherited a state of the art battleship that's going to make them magnets for risky ventures, and stumbled into a mysterious secret that will tear apart the fragile balance of power of the entire solar system. Later on, they are joined - for a while - by Miller, a cynical cop on the way down obsessed with a missing woman named Julie Mao who just happens to be a key part of the mystery that's haunted - or cursed - Holden and his crew.

That mystery is an alien organic substance capable of manipulating biomass according to its internal programming - whatever that might have been. Seeded inside an icy rock two billion years ago by an unknown civilisation and sent to land on earth for reasons unknown, it ended up instead in orbit around Saturn when its vehicle was captured by gravity and became the satellite that humans would call Phoebe. It is eventually found and exploited by by Protogen Corporation - who named it the protomolecule - who hope to develop it into a salable weapon. Their 'research' ultimately leads to the deaths - or something perhaps worse - of millions of Belter 'test subjects' - among them, Julie Mao - in an attempt to understand and change the protomolecule's programming.

As Holden, his crew, and Miller follow the trail and learn more about the protomolecule and the actions of Protogen, the mission becomes not just keeping all-out war from erupting across the solar system, but protecting humanity from the the alien protomolecule and those who want to use it fir their own purposes.

The plot is tight and full of twists and excitement, the authors take care to seem scientifically plausible, and the action set-pieces are varied and imaginative. Where the book falls down is in characterisation and writing. There are some moments where the essence of the characters shines through, but it's infrequent and inconsistent. And the writing is for the most part pedestrian, at times even a touch clunky.

The story is so far more than enough to keep me reading, and wanting to know where it's all going, but the getting there sometimes feels a bit like slogging. I'm hoping that the later novels will be a bit improved in terms of technique, because I'm hooked on the plot.

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"After We Walked Away," Erica L. Satifka; Apex Magazine, November 21, 2016
http://www.apex-magazine.com/after-we-walked-away/

A literalised response to Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," this story follows two young people, man and woman, who left "The Solved City" - clearly based on Omelas - because they could not accept the violent magic on which the city is founded, that the deliberately caused unending suffering of just one child could produce a utopia for everyone else. They find our society, where almost everyone suffers, from systematic oppression and cruelty, and in different ways regret their decision. It's a strongly written and emotionally disturbing story, but it misses one very important thing. Le Guin's story is not about rejecting a utopia based on horror for some other existing world; Omelas is our society, or at least an an allegorical reference to it. Those who walk away are the rebels who reject our acquiescence in the very real cruelty and oppression in our world, the comforting lie that the poor will always be with us, with its corollary that therefore we need do nothing for them. They are the ones who would change the paradigm, who would give up their privilege to end the horror others experience.

It's a well-crafted and moving story, but at its heart it is dishonest in setting up a straw man to refute, and disingenuous in using that straw man to argue that the suffering of one is easier to accept than the suffering of many. I would rather remain with the vision given form by Le Guin, that there are those among us who realise that as long as one of us is chained, none of us is free.


"Crocodile Tears," Jaymee Goh; Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/crocodile-tears/

Goh here reworks a traditional folk tale of revenge. In Goh's version, a crocodile brings brings news to a successful man who has abandoned his family, telling him of the fates of his mother, his lover and the unborn child he left behind.


"That Game We Played During the War," Carrie Vaughn; tor.com, March 16, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/03/16/that-game-we-played-during-the-war/

A sparsely written but deeply moving story about war and what happens when war is over and two sides try to make a peace, summed up in the interactions between two veterans, one from each side. Calla is a military nurse; during the was it was her duty to keep Valk - a member of a telepathic race - and other prisoners of war under sedation to dull their abilities. Later in the war, fortunes have shifted and Calla is the prisoner, Valk her keeper. Remembering the games of chess he watched her play with he other staff, he asks her to teach him, and together they find a way to enjoy playing a game of strategy between one who reads minds and one who does not. When a peace finally comes, Valk, recovering from wounds in hospital, asks Cala to visit him and bring 'the game they played during the war.'

Working together on the game creates a bond that can become a bridge, a way of understanding and building a trust that may support the fragile peace. A story of hope, a microcosm of good will between people tired of war.


"Bargain," Sarah Gailey; Mothership Zeta, December 27, 2015
http://mothershipzeta.org/2015/12/27/bargain-by-sarah-gailey/#more-289

"Bargain" is 2017 Campbell Award finalist Sarah Gailey's first professional sale, and it is a fine story indeed, in which old woman offers her soul and her life to a demon in return for health and youth for her dying wife - with such will and love that even the demon looks for a way to subvert the nature of the deal. Told with a surprisingly appropriate light, even humorous touch, it left me with tears brimming in my eyes, and a goofy smile on my face.


"Of Blood and Bronze," Sarah Gailey; Devilfish Review, Issue 17
https://devilfishreview.com/issues/issue-seventeen/of-blood-and-bronze-by-sarah-gailey/

Framed as a steampunk fairy tale, this is haunting and horrifying story of the mechanisms of corruption, and the truth that the ends cannot justify the means because they are changed and tainted by them. An alchemist works a terrible magic to save the life of the innocent and good young bride of a mad old king, so that she may rule the kingdom until the heir comes of age, with the best of intentions, and the unhappiest of consequences.


"The Art of Space Travel," Nina Allen; Tor.com, July 27, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/07/27/the-art-of-space-travel/

Thirty years ago, the first mission to Mars ended in tragedy. The second mission is about to be launched, and two of the astronauts are scheduled to spend a night at the Edison Star hotel, where Emily Starr is head of housekeeping. Emily's mother Moolie, formerly a physicist, is mentally impaired and slowly dying as the result of forensic work she did on a plane downed by a dirty bomb. Sometimes she hints that Emily's father had some connection with space, perhaps even with the doomed Mars mission. The only physical link Emily has to her unknown father is a book, The Art of Space Travel, that Moolie says once belonged to him.

While this novelette has a sciencefictional setting, the real story is about daughters watching mothers age and become infirm, about children seeking, finding, and losing parents, about family and secrets and love, and about aspirations followed and aspirations left fallow. The Mars mission stands as a symbol of hope and persistence, but truly there are a hundred things that could have taken its place. Still, the implications of venturing into the unknown add to the poignancy of Moolie's terminal condition. A strong story about families and finding one's place and purpose, well written, but somewhat lacking in the 'what if' one looks for in science fiction.


"Jackalope Wives," Ursula Vernon; Apex Magazine, January 7, 2014
http://www.apex-magazine.com/jackalope-wives/

I read this because I knew I was going to read Vernon's "The Tomato Thief," which takes place in the same setting and shares a key character, and I wanted to know the backstory for that character.

Vernon's writing in this story is poetic and realistic by turns, which is appropriate considering it is a story about those who cross the boundaries of the magical and the mundane. There's wonderful sense of place - the southwestern American desert becomes a fairytale landscape where all sorts of magic are possible, and creatures out of myth are as real as the sun and the dry earth and the animals and plants that make a home there.

One one level, this is a story about making choices, and accepting consequences and shouldering responsibilities, and setting things right. But it's also a commentary on the way that men see women and assume that what they want, they can take - and how the consequences of that fall only on the women.

The key character, Grandma Harken, is a woman who has suffered a great loss at the hands and through the choices of a man, but has learned to accept what came from it, and make the best of her circumstances, and to come to terms with a changed life, making it her own. When given the choice between regaining what was lost, or saving another from the fate she accepted - a loss caused by another man, one she is kin to - she takes on the responsibility for setting right her grandson's wrongs. She is willing to make whatever sacrifice must be made - but though this is presented as a kind of pragmatic heroism, at the root of it, what she is doing is choosing once more to accept the consequences of a man and his unchecked desires.

The story bothers me. Its beautifully crafted, and the characters live and breathe just as the desert cones alive in the mind. It's a really good story. But It leaves me wondering how to respond to what it's saying. In a sense, it's about women who choose to live with the things men do, to clean up their messes and live with the consequences of them, because someone has to do the right thing, and the men in their lives certainly aren't going to do it. Are we to admire Grandma Harken, or pity her, or just to hope that someday men will stop taking from women - and the world around them - without thought for the consequences?


"The Tomato Thief," Ursula Vernon; Apex Magazine, January 5, 2016
http://www.apex-magazine.com/the-tomato-thief/

This novelette is a return to the magical fairytale desert Vernon created in "Jackalope Wives" and to its central character, the shapeshifter-become-human Grandma Harken, with her sense of responsibility and duty. There's a certain similarity of theme here as well, in that Grandma Harken finds herself - grumbling about her age and mortality but still shouldering responsibility for making things right - setting out to save a woman caught in a powerful spell by a man of power.

There are some marvelous touches to the story that show the desert magic as a growing, evolving thing, adapting to the changes forced on it by the encroachment of man. The building of trains to cross and divide the desert has brought about the existence of the train-gods, and fittingly, their priests are found among the descendants of those forced to work on the railroads for the benefit of men of power living in the industrial east, the children of Asian labourers and indentured European workers.

Grandma Harken needs the intervention of the train-gods to find the hiding place of the sorcerer, who has folded the land around himself - and when she enters his domain, she will need all her wisdom and cunning, and the allies she makes along the way, to set things right again, defeat the sorcerer, and undo the damage done to people, animals and land.

Again, I find myself loving the story, the words, the imagery, the worldbuilding, the characters, the skill that went into its creation, while being unsettled by the story's implications. The underlying politics - in the sense of power relations - are clear, as they were in Vernon's earlier story. It's a reflection of the politics of our own world. Men of power, rich men, white men, men who think they can take and use and make everything they want their own, do as they will, which mostly causes distortion and harm to the land, to the creatures of nature and to the people without power. And because someone has to do it, it's the ones who have suffered who do what they can to ameliorate the damage. It's accurate, but I think what bothers me is that as Vernon writes these tales, it's just the way it is. There's no sense that it's not just the actions of the powerful, but the basic underlying dynamic that makes the powerless responsible for the work of mitigating the wrongs of other, is in itself wrong. There's just Grandma Harken, and the train-god priests, and the little girl who will be Grandma Harken's apprentice, who heroically shoulder the burdens that belong to others.

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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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Heiresses of Russ 2015, edited by Jean Roberta and Steve Berman, collects some of the best "lesbian-flavoured" speculative short fiction from 2014. I've been reading these anthologies for several years now, and enjoying them for their woman-centred stories and queer imaginings.

While it's often true that there is some unevenness in a collection of short fiction, I found the stories in this year's anthology to be pretty much all of notable quality. But even in such a collection, there were some truly stand-out pieces for me, among them Ruthanna Emrys' "Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land," Ken Liu's "Knotting Grass, Holding Ring," and Susan Jane Bigelow's "Sarah's Child."



*This anthology contains 14 short stories, 10 written by women, 3 written by men and one written by a genderqueer person.

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Becky Chambers' new novel, A Closed and Common Orbit, is set in the same universe and time period as her break-out first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and shares some of its characters. The main protagonist is Lovelace, now called Sidra, the former AI of the tunnelling ship Wayfarer. In the previous novel, Lovelace decided to download herself into a humanoid artificial body, despite the legal penalty of termination of consciousness, and now, with the assistance of rogue tech Pepper, Lovelace is becoming Sidra.

As part of the acclimatisation process to her new human-shaped bodykit, Sidra has come to stay with Pepper and her partner/lover Blue, and to work as Pepper's shop assistant. As Pepper and Blue introduce Sidra to humaniform living, we feel every moment of Sidra's physical and psychological transition from ship-based AI to body-based consciousness - her discomfort, her feelings of sensory disorientation, her sense of being cut off from the information flow she lived in, her inability to control the sensory perceptions of a mobile body, all the details (as Chambers presents them) of how a ship-based AI perceives and how that maps onto the ways in which a body-based AI must learn to function.

A Closed and Common Orbit is not just the story of Sidra's adaptation to a humanoid body and a human way of being, however. Parallelling Sidra's present experiences as an AI becoming human, is Pepper's childhood as a child raised by AIs. Designated Jane 23, her ealiest memories are those of a cloned child labourer, living in a factory/workhouse under the supervision of robot taskmasters called Mothers, learning to process scrap technology. Jane knows only the Mothers and her fellow workers - her agemates, all named Jane, and those of the other cadres, each agegroup sharing one name, living regimented lives of work, exercise and sleep, never setting foot outside the rooms of the workhouse. When a freak explosion shows Jane the incomprehensible outside of ground and sky and endless piles of scrap tech waiting to be processed, her curiosity draws her out of the factory and into a desolate junkyard world of feral animals. She escapes thanks to Owl, the still-functional AI of a junked spaceship who takes her in and manages to teach her just enough about being a free human to survive off-world.

The concepts here - sentient AIs, artificial consciousness downloaded into bodies, ideas of personhood and family that don't distinguish between fleshed and coded beings - are nothing new in the world of science fiction. What delights is the interlinked stories of two women who don't fit in, don't belong, finding out who they are and making a place where both can be at home.

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Death's End, the conclusion to Liu Cixin's celebrated Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, is a multi-layered and complex tale that moves through both time and space to tell an epic story with a breathtaking scope in a translation by Ken Liu that handles both the nuances of fairy tales and the specifics of mathematical speculation with transparent skill

The core narrative is centred on the brilliantly innovative scientist Cheng Xin, and its beginning unfolds concurrently with the early years of the Wallfacer project, which was the focus of the second novel of the trilogy. While Luo Ji develops his understanding of the sociology of interstellar relations - the Dark Forest theory, that advanced civilisations will both hide their own existence, and destroy any developing civilisations that may become a threat - and its defensive corollory, dark forest deterrence, the threat of revealing to the universe the wherabouts of the Trisolaris system - Cheng Xin's early work is in the outward-looking Staircase Program, an attempt to accelerate a probe to a sufficient fraction of lightspeed that it will meet the Trisolaris Fleet, carrying a unique cargo, the brain of a human volunteer.

Cheng enters hibernation after the probe is launched, and wakes in the era of dark forest deterrence, an uneasy truce period between Earth and Trisolaris brought about by Luo Ji's discovery of the dark forest principle. Luo Ji has become the Swordholder, the person who will bear responsibility of releasing the signal that will transmit to the universe both the Trisolarian location, and Earth's, should the Trisolarians attempt to conquer Earth.

In a way, Cheng Xin's life from this point becomes the story of Earth's struggle with the idea of the dark forest, a contest of love and compassion against fear and destruction. She becomes the Swordholder, but when the Trisolarians act, she proves unable to do what will ultimately destroy both worlds.

As Cheng moves through the centuries, and eventually the millenia, through both hibernation and a series of relativistic incidents, the human race struggles for survival, for a path through and out of the dark forest - and in the process, the reader is presented with a cornucopia of ideas, theories, and concepts about everything from stellar mechanics to relativistic travel to multi-dimensional geometry, and all of it in the service of story.

Ultimately, the utter sterility and inevitable destructiveness of the dark forest is revealed, but Cheng, present even at the end of all things, manages to personify love and hope, sending a 'message in a bottle' that may alter the very nature of the universe to follow.

A stunning conclusion to a work of vast scope and intricate design, a sciencefictional masterpiece.

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Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, the first volume of the Machineries of Empire trilogy, is a mindfuckingly brilliant piece of work.

It is a story told many times before, of rebellion and war and political intrigue and the battle for hearts and minds, but never told in such a casually alien way. Lee drops us into a universe that does not work the way ours does, a universe built not on physics and facts, but mathematics and belief, into a political environment where a rebellion in which a heretical calendar that has been adopted in one captured fortress changes the way that technology works in the space around it, where the essential skills needed to fight the rebels are not just leadership, tactics, and battle skills, but intuitive mathematics and the ability to think flexibly while maintaining total loyalty to the ruling hexarchate and the consensus reality enforced by the orthodox calendar and the rituals that derive from it and structure every aspect of life.

Kel Cheris - Kel being her designation as one of six personality types recognised by the hexarchy - is that rare person, a battle commander who can function with originality within the rigidity of her society, who can recalculate the equations that shape reality within a hair's breadth of heresy without crossing the line.

But Cheris is young, and has never commanded a large scale operation. To face the calendrical rot spreading out from the rebel base in the Fortress of Scattered Needles, Cheris will need the strategic skills and experience of a long dead mad general whose consciousness has been preserved, whose advice can only be accessed by grafting his personality to her own - and whose secret agenda may result in her destruction.

I can not begin to give the alienness of the hexarchate's universe a fair description. The book must be read, the universe entered wholeheartedly, to experience what Lee has done in his worldbuilding in this novel. Yet at the same time, the humanity and depth of the characters makes the strangeness real, even if it is never quite understood.

A truly astounding first novel.

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Sarah Tolmie's latest book, Two Travelers, is a collection, just barely - it contains two separate works, a novelette, "The Dancer on the Stairs," and a novella, "The Burning Furrow." Both are stories of travellers, people caught between worlds, coming to terms with being out of place in the the place they find themselves.

"The Dancer on the Stairs" is about a woman, possibly from a world much like ours, who finds herself transported to a palace so vast and complex it is a world in itself. Confined at first by her lack of knowledge and status to the vast staircase that connects the various levels of the palace - where she finds many others, all exiles without the status or means to influence the doorkeeper stationed at each level to let them return - she slowly learns enough about the intricate and protocol-driven society beyond the stairs to gain entrance and place, though she is never truly one of them.

In "The Burning Furrow", a man called Eyo't finds himself moving between worlds - our own, modern world, and the world of his birth, where his people are oppressed and he is part of a resistance movement. He can bring other people with him, and so he has taken his family - wife, son and daughter - from his world to ours, where they own a restaurant and have access to education and medical care. Yet he continues to cross back and forth, bringing his family home with him at regular intervals for the rite that binds his people together. Events and new relationships formed in both worlds eventually force him, and the members of his family, to make choices about which world is theirs. At the same time, through her connection with Eyo't, the countess Ienne, a member of the ruling class on Eyo't's world, crosses the lines between class and culture.

Both stories are excellent, thoughtful pieces about making the best of changes one cannot control, adapting to new realities, learning to be at home despite being always the outsider.

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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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Lately, I've been reading with an eye to making Hugo nominations, so this batch of short fiction reads is mostly selected from various lists of recommendations.


"The City Born Great," N. K. Jemisin; Tor.com, September 9, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/09/28/the-city-born-great/

An urban fantasy - though not the kind we're used to - about the gritty birth and life of the great cities, set in New York. Evocative and filled with a sense of urgency that pulls the reader toward its conclusion.


"This Is Not a Wardobe Door," A. Merc Rustad; Fireside Magazine Issue #29, January 2016
http://www.firesidefiction.com/issue29/chapter/this-is-not-a-wardrobe-door/

A story about imagination and hope and holding on to the magic of childhood when you believed you could change the world. At the end, I was crying.


"Checkerboard Planet," Eleanor Arnason; ClarkesWorld, December 2016
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/arnason_12_16/

A new Lydia DuLuth talr from Arnason is always a treat. In this novelette, the AIs who control the interstellar stargates have asked Lydia to investigate conditions on a planet with a most peculiar ecology - the entire land mass and parts of the oceans are organised into giant squares, all of similar size, with all the life forms in each square the same colour. The planet has been colonised by a biogenetics corporation which, the AIs fear, is not acting in the best interests of the planet or humanity. An anti-imperialist first contact story with a gentle and at times even whimsical touch.


"Fifty Shades of Grays," Steven Barnes; Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/fifty-shades-grays/

Carver Kofax is a master at marketing and sales. But when he and his colleague (and romantic interest) Rhonda, land the corporation they work for a lucrative and highly secretive contract, the nature of the campaign demands all their skills - and leads to unexpected and dire consequences for all of humanity. Barnes handles the revelations in the narrative and the protagonist's growing unease with a sure hand. Content warning: this novelette contains sexually explicit kink.


"A Dead Djinn in Cairo," P. Djeli Clark; tor.com, May 18, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/05/18/a-dead-djinn-in-cairo/

In an alternate pre-WWI Cairo, where djinn and angels from other dimensions mingle with humans, Special Inspector Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities investigates the apparent suicide of a djinn, only to discover a mad plot to destroy humanity. Will the dapper young inspector solve the mystery in time? Clark's novelette is a delighful genre-bending fantasy thriller with a touch of steampunk. Cairo comes to life in complex and sensual detail, and Fatma is a character I'd love to see again.


"The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight," E. Lily Yu, Uncanny Magazine, Sept-Oct 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/witch-orion-waste-boy-knight/

A relatively young and inexperienced witch decides to accompany a young knight errant seeking dragons to kill, and learns a few bitter lessons about honor, trust and pride.


"The Green Knight’s Wife," Kat Howard; Uncanny Magazine, November 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/green-knights-wife/

A compelling riff on the Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, told from the perspective of the Green Knight's wife, in which one of those women who is always on the sidelines in such hero tales, treated as merely part of the mythic machinery, takes up agency and acts for herself.


"Foxfire, Foxfire," Yoon Ha Lee; Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 3, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/foxfire-foxfire/

A novelette blending fantasy and sf, set in a Asian- derived alternate universe where loyalists and rebels do battle with giant powered mechas. A young spirit fox with a great desire to become human - which he can only achieve by killing and eating 100 humans - is faced with difficult choices when captured by a mecha pilot. A story about transformations, and finding one's self.


"Unauthorized Access," An Owomoyela; Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/unauthorized-access/

You would think a high profile hacker who's already spent time in prison for releasing government information that there was no reason to hide would be seriously radicalised - but for Aedo Leung, getting out of jail is only the beginning. A cautionary tale about the sequestration of public information that has suddenly become even more timely and appropriate.

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In her novel All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders defies conventions and overthrows dichotomies with a joyous aplomb. A story that is both science fiction and fantasy, about a boy who dreams of rockets and time machines and a girl who can talk to the birds and the trees, about the war between those who value technology over nature and those who value nature over technology, about those who think man can be outside of, control and manipulate the natural world and those who think man is a part of and must live within and be guided by it.

As children, Patricia and Laurence are both outcasts - misunderstood, bullied, gaslighted, rejected by parents, schoolmates and the educational system itself. They form a fragile alliance, which even as it grows is being undermined by Theodolphus Rose, an assassin turned guidance counselor who has had a mystical vision that they will grow up to start an apocalyptic war between science and magic. Together they create a true AI, using Laurence's code and Patricia's non-linear conversations with the nascent intelligence - an AI that Laurence names Peregrine and sets free to evolve. Eventually their friendship, frayed by Rose's manipulations and lies, shatters when Patricia allows Laurence to see her doing magic.

Seven years later, Laurence is working with a semi-underground group of scientific geniuses trying to find a way to save at least part of the human race from the coming global upheaval being triggered by climate change. Their plan is to find a way to move large numbers of people to another planet, leaving the earth behind to face its destruction. Meanwhile, Patricia has been taken into the fellowship of witches, and trained in the two branches of magic, Healing and Trickery. The witches are devoting their energies to an attempt to balance the energies of the planet, serving nature through small acts of healing or prevention, developing their own solution, one that will preserve the earth at the cost of humanity.

When Laurence and Patricia meet each other once more, the path is set for a dramatic and violent confrontation, but beyond that, a chance for reconciliation of man and nature, science and magic, and for a future where empathy and understanding can open the door to the survival of all.

I've never been fond of Cartesian divides, and the skill with which Anders exposes the humanity vs. nature, intuition vs logic axes as barren and ultimately destructive was quite gratifying. I also appreciated the focus on ethical decisions - everyone in the novel is trying to do the ethical thing, based on their partial understanding - and the ease with which ethical reasoning can be subverted to questionable ends when it is not tempered with empathy and compassion.

But this is much more than a novel of ideas. The characters are appealing despite their flaws, the writing is crisp, and the style engaging. The story flows smoothly, and it isn't until you get to the end that you realise just how much there is to think about. Well worth the critical praise it has received.

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Katya Gould, the protagonist of Mary Robinette Kowal's novella Forest of Memory, is a dealer in Authenticities - artefacts from the past that have a provenance and a history of real use, a patina of use and wear that she and her clients call wabi-sabi. The world she lives in is one of constant connectedness - most people are hooked into a system that informs, records, communicates and tracks their every word and action.

Katya is returning from a buying trip when she accidentally encounters a mysterious man who is drugging and tagging deer. He blocks her connection to her AI, drugs and kidnaps her, holding her in a forest area while he tags several more groups of deer. Apparently wounded by a buck, he lets her go. When she gets far enough away to reconnect, she calls for help, but when a medical team arrives, and she leads them back to the site where she was held, there is nothing to be found but deer tracks.

At least, that's what she remembers. Because nothing of her experience was recorded, it's hard for others to believe her story. And when an unknown client hires her to write her story - a one-of-a-kind account on a typewriter the client has also bought - her hesitations and disclaimers show that she is not even sure herself of the authenticity of her memories.

The account she types out - typographic errors, false starts and all - forms the text of the story. It is her first person narrative of what she remembers. And what she doubts, and mistrusts, and the lacunae when she is drugged or asleep. It is the authentic human experience - which cannot, unlike the artefacts she appraises, ever be authenticated.

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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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Nisi Shawl's novel Everfair is a steampunk alternative history set largely in Central Africa, in the lands known in our history as the Belgian Congo. Its point of divergence from history lies in the decision of the British Fabian Society to purchase land in the Congo from Belgium's King Leopold and, in partnership with African-American missionaries, attempt to establish a sanctuary country - Everfair.

Everfair the novel has a dual purpose (aside from entertainment, of course, which it fulfill quite well). First, to present the attitudes and actions associated with colonialism and imperialism in Africa (including cultural colonisation, shown most clearly in the efforts of the black missionaries, themselves both victims and perpetrators of the colonisation of the mind), and second, to interrogate the ways in which
steampunk as a genre fails to recognise the ways in which it creates nostalgia for the colonial project. Inmy opinion, it manages both of these quite well.

The inhabitants of Everfair the nascent country - and its enemies, the violent armies and rubber harvesters of King Leopold - together form a microcosm of the conditions of colonialism. White and privileged freethinkers from the Fabian Society, Europeans seeking riches or adventure, African-American Christians seeking a home in the land of their lost roots, labourers from Macao and the Indian subcontinent, escaped black slaves from Leopold's rubber plantations, and the indigenous Afrucan peoples to whom the lands making up Everfair actually belong - it falls to these peoples to defeat the Belgians, survive the first world war, and surmount the supremacist assumptions of the white "founders" of Everfair and the African-American Christian colonists (themselves internally colonised by the experiences of abduction and slavery) they partner with.

And there are all the lovely steampunk things - aircanoes, and motorised bicycles and boats, and mechanical prosthetic limbs for all those mutilated by the Belgians, or in the battles of resistance.

I am not, generally speaking, enthralled by steampunk, but the genre worked for me here, possibly because of the context in which it is situated - not privileged Europeans or North Americans off on adventures, but oppressed peoples fighting for their freedom, their culture and their lives.

The novel covers a rather large span of time,and has quite a large cast of significant characters, which necessarily limits some detail in characterisation and plot, but I did not find that the story suffered from this in any way. An engaging read.

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Bao Shu's novella Everybody Loves Charles, translated by Ken Liu, is an exploration of identity, celebrity and corporate greed and power. Bao uses the by-now familiar trope of being "wired" into the feeling and sensations of a celebrity to present a world in which millions of people would rather spend hours of every day being someone else - someone glamorous, who does exciting things and has sex with the 'beautiful people' - rather that live their own lives.

Charles Mann is the world's most chosen 'livecaster' - a daring race pilot who has love affairs with the world's most famous women and who, unlike many other celebrities, is online for his subscribers 24 hour a day. He thrives on the knowledge that millions love him so much they want to know his every feeling and sensation, to see the world through his eyes. Takume Naoto is one of his subscribers, a programmer who works just enough to support a spartan life, and spends all of his remaining time vicariously experiencing Charles' life.

When Charles meets a woman who is outside of his world of fame and constant livecasting, he is persuaded by her to limit his livecasting - she refuses to allow his time with her to be a part of the experiences of anyone who cares to subscribe to Charles' livecasts. But when he contemplates stopping his casts altogether, he discovers the world of corporate brandmaking that lies behind the livecasts.

An ultimately pessimistic, even dystopic view of a culture where personal identity and experience are felt to be inadequate beside the hyped-up lives of the rich and famous, and where even the cults of celebrity are ultimately nothing more than ways to make profits, Everyone Loves Charles delivers a serious critique of the virtual and vicarious lives we are increasing drawn to.

Bao Shu's novella can be found online at Clarkesworld. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/bao_01_16/

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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Lois McMaster Bujold's latest entry in her long-running Vorkosigan series, is a domestic romance, with nary a hint of military action or undercover missions, and only the barest of political subplots. But that's just fine, because the romance is both sweet and mature, and it allows for many reminiscences that harken back to the earliest volumes of the series and remind us of a lifetime of events.

It also asks us to accept a revisioning of one of the central relationships of the series, that of Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. We learn, with very little warning, that for the latter decades of Aral's life, their relationship had been not one between two persons, but one between three - Aral, Cordelia, and Aral's one-time military secretary Oliver Jole. From conversations and recollections, we learn that Aral had been the one to bring Jole into the relationship, and with his death, Cordelia and Jole had not continued the relationship, although they remained friends.

The book opens three years after Aral's death, as Cordelia, Vicereine of the Barrayaran colony of Sergyar - the planet where Aral and Cordelia first met - returns after a voyage to Barrayar. She is met, as befits her rank, by Jole in his capacity as Admiral and commander of the Barrayaran troops in Sergyar space.

Slowly, they discover that time has sufficiently healed the wounds made by Aral's loss that they are both ready to contemplate relationships again - and that they are drawn to each other even without Aral to be the bond between them.

Romance between mature adults is rare in fiction, and thus a delightful thing to read. One aspect of their growing relationship and how they handle multiple issues that could derail it is that being mature and intelligent people, they don't keep secrets or hide things, they talk to each other. They know that communication, not sex, is what keeps a a relationship of the level of intimacy they desire alive year after year. I was so delighted to read a romance that is not riddled with the standard foolishness of lovers who can't be honest with each other.

Family and continuance is also at the core of this gentle romance. Miles, Ekaterin and their children make a significant entrance, and Miles' clone/brother Mark and his partner are clearly part of the family even if not present. Even more, the developing relationship between Cordelia and Jole is woven around Cordelia's plans to use preserved genetic material from Aral and herself and extrauterine reproductive technology to have the daughters that she and Aral never had the time to bring into the world. And she offers Jole the use of some of Aral's genetic material, and several of her own ennucleated ova, so that he can, if he wishes, have sons who will be both his and Aral's.

In this novel, all the action, all the suspense, is driven by decisions surrounding relationship, and yet it captivated me as much as any high-octane thriller.

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"A Trump Christmas Carol," by Roz Kaveney, Laurie Penny, John Scalzi and Jo Walton; Uncanny, December 25, 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/trump-christmas-carol/

A brilliant piece of political fiction, a solid reworking of the ideas of Dickens' classic as the ghosts of 2016 teach the President-elect the true meaning and proper use of political power.



"The Orangery," Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam; Beneath Ceasless Skies, Issue #214, December 8, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/the-orangery/

Using the myths of Apollo and Daphne and Apollo and Dryope as central images, Stufflebeam gives us a powerful look at the responses evoked in women when confronted with men's desire and sense of entitlement to women's labour, bodies and love. When confronted with all the women, including Daphne and Dryope, who have chosen transformation into trees, Apollo asks “Why do you women fear men so much that you would rather be tree than give a kiss?” It's a question answered by this novelette, though perhaps not in any way that one who must ask can understand.



"The Evaluators: To Trade with Aliens, You Must Adapt," N. K. Jemisin; Wired, December 13, 2016
https://www.wired.com/2016/12/nk-jemisin-the-evaluators/

A brilliant and truly terrifying cautionary tale told in modern epistolary style (excerpts from emails, reports and other documents) about the dangers of making assumptions and rushing first contact.



"Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0," Caroline M. Yoachim; Lightspeed, March 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/welcome-to-the-medical-clinic-at-the-interplanetary-relay-station/

Having spent way too much time dealing with medical personnel and institutions lately, this grim little story about the futility of getting any real healthcare from a bureaucratic and underfunded system hit close to home.



"My Grandmother's Bones," S. L. Huang; Daily Science Fiction, August 22, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/s-l-huang/my-grandmothers-bones

A short and moving story about generational relationships and cultural changes, seen through a series of funerary behaviours.


"17 Amazing Plot Elements... When You See #11, You'll Be Astounded!," James Beamon; Daily Science Fiction, May 3, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/james-beamon/17-amazing-plot-elements-when-you-see-11-youll-be-astounded

An interesting approach to the retelling of a very old tale. Short, but worth reading for the way it's told.



"The Right Sort of Monsters," Kelly Sandoval; Strange Horizons, April 4, 2016
http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-right-sort-of-monsters/
Powerful story about need, sacrifice and how humans deal with difference. A strange and alien grove - the Godswalk - appears mysteriously beside a village, leaving most of the inhabitants unable to have children of their own. In the forest are the blood trees, whose flowers produce children in return for human blood, children that are not quite human, but human enough. But when Viette enters the forest to seek a child to fill the void left by a series of miscarriages, she learns that the Godswalk hides deeper secrets than she realised.

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Finally, there is a collection of Eleanor Arnason's short fiction set among the alien Hwarhath, appropriately titled Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens. What makes the collection even more delightful to read is that Arnason has framed it as an anthropological investigation of Hwarhath culture and the response of the Hwarhath to contact with humans through their stories, and has fleshed out the volume with scholarly analyses of what these tales tell us about the Hwarhath.

As the Introduction, supposedly written by Rosa Haj of the Independent Scholars Union, explains:

"As far as can be determined, the stories in this collection were all written after the hwarhath learned enough about humanity to realize how similar (and different) we are. Our existence has called into question many ideas about life and morality that most hwarhath would have called certain a century ago. With two exceptions, the stories don’t deal with humanity directly. Instead, the authors are looking at their own culture through lenses created by their knowledge of us. Reading this fiction, we can begin to learn about our neighbors in known space. We may even learn something about ourselves."

I had read most of the stories collected here at one tine or another, but it was most enjoyable to read them again, and to savour the ones I had missed until now. And to ponder the ways in which transgressions both change and preserve societies.

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I've been quite under the weather for some time, and not reading much. I have been watching a lot of mindless disaster movies, including all four Jurassic Park/World flicks, and they have been entertaining in a suitably mindless way. Nonetheless, holes in the plots so big you could herd an Indomitius Rex through In the films led me to read the two novels from which the series was derived, and it pleases me to report that the holes in the books are much smaller.

I found it interesting how elements from the two books were tossed willy-nilly into the movies. The opening scene from the first book is moved from Costa Rica to Isla Sorna, and opens the second film. The computer hacker girl from the second book becomes the computer hacker girl in the first film. And so on.

Nonetheless, the books were, like other Michael Crichton science thrillers I've read, fast-paced and enjoyable light reading, and they helped pass the time for this increasingly invalid reader.

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