Monday, 4 June 2018

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

I still have two of the novels nominated for the Best Novel Hugo this year to read, but at the moment, with four under my belt, this one is in the lead. I'm using as my general marker for sorting out my order "books I told other people about the most" - providing, of course, that I wasn't swearing about them. Six Wakes by far tops that list, and as much as I enjoyed all the books in this category I've read so far, it is my frontrunner. Subject, of course, to my impressions of the last two books I haven't read.

I am kind of a sucker for a good murder mystery set in a science fiction or fantasy setting, and if you pair that with a new twist on cloning and the reactions of humans to this kind of cloning, and characters with lots of depth and secrets to hide? Sister, I am IN.  It does not hurt that I thoroughly enjoyed the writing, the story, the people on the pages...I'd be hard-pressed to say something I didn't like about this book.

So, let's talk about it!  Six Wakes starts off with a hell of a bang. Clones are supposed to wake up with all of the memories of their former bodies (this is cloning as a form of longevity, even immortality), and will never see the old and discarded versions of themselves. So, on a long-haul spaceship, the first-ever colony ship, crewed by six clones, it is a shock to wake up with no memories of the past twenty years, and the murdered bodies of their former versions lying on the floor (mostly) of the cloning bay.

One of them is a murderer, but no one remembers the past twenty years, so they have little idea of what might have transpired to bring someone to the point of mass murder. To make things more complicated, one clone died of suicide (apparently a non-reclonable offense, usually), several from trauma from sharp objects and blunt force, and one from...hemlock?

Also, the ship's AI, Ian, has been largely disabled and the ship seems to be turning around to go back to Earth - somewhere none of the clones wants to go, since they were all (or were all supposed to be) criminals who commuted their sentences by going on this one-way trip to a new planet.

Phew! We dive right in! From there, we dance around and through the mystery, with diversions back to the past to show how each character ended up where they were, and what that might tell us about the overall murder mystery. At the same time, and this is truly impressive, we get a larger sense of the uses and abuses of clones back on Earth, the ways in which the cloned and uncloned regard cloning, and the political machinations that led to certain limitations on cloning, as well as the blackmarket that has sprung into being to break those laws.

The backstories seem quite separate at first, but begin to intersect in ways that the characters weren't expecting any more than the readers were. This is delightfully twisty, and when connections are revealed, they are satisfying and tie the whole story together more strongly, rather than trying to throw an out-of-left-field reveal in to change everything at the end. I know which kind of surprise I prefer more, and it's the kind Mur Lafferty is pulling off here, the one that makes me go "Oh, of course" because it fits so perfectly.

It is what she's doing with the underlying ideas, and how she's acting them out through the bodies of the characters that really elevates this book above and beyond. As a murder mystery, it's really strong. But it's added more to that, and that makes this a strong contender for the top of my ballot this year.

Friday, 1 June 2018

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

*Mild Spoilers Below*

I have not had the easiest relationship with Kim Stanley Robinson. There are things I like about his books, quite a lot - his embracing of complexity and willingness to delve into political machinations, for one. There are things that get under my skin - the overall pessimism and the way many of his female characters are intensely focused on just one thing and shrill as fuck about it, for another. This means that when I finish his books, I generally am all in a muddle about what I want to say about them. Unless it's the book just before this, Aurora, which I just plainly hated and included in one of my periodic "Terrible SF/F Sex Writing" posts I make for friends.

So, when I started my Hugo reading this year, I was not thoroughly pleased that that meant that I had to plow my way through another long book of his. After Aurora, I thought I'd probably wash my hands of him for good. This is a long way around to get to saying...I actually liked this without any of my usual reservations. It's not going to be high on my list for the award, necessarily, but it's more than I expected to be able to say that I enjoyed this, with no caveats.

He's got a wide canvas again, although all centered in a single city - New York of,  you guessed it, 2140 (and the two years afterwards), after the seas rose dramatically twice, with half the city trying to be the new Venice, while the rich stay uptown, still safely above the rising waters. There are skyway bridges between buildings if you want to walk, or boats if you want to go by water.

The story is about the inhabitants of one building that sits below the waterline, although most of it is still above. It takes a while for their stories to intersect, but they eventually do, in interesting ways. We have a daytrader who starts out amoral, or at least, inattentive to ethics, but whose sex drive prompts him to start thinking about the long-term. We have a local attorney for refugees who are flocking to New York City, which has not enough room for them. We have a middle-aged cop who used to be one of the fiercest water sumo wrestlers the demimonde had ever seen. (The previous two characters are both women.) We have the superintendent of the building in which we live, taking care of the building like it was his own child, with a fairly obvious trauma of losing a child in the background. (It's effective, but doesn't need to be teased out. The first oblique reference, I got it.)

We have a pair of water-rat children more or less adopted by the building, with a penchant for danger and digging for gold underwater in an oversized diving bell. We have a "cloud star" who works to save endangered animals, often without any clothes on to attract more viewers. We have a pair of programmers who see the problems with the system they work in and the wider economic system that buttresses it, and are kidnapped when they make an attack on both.

And, in the theme of Kim Stanley Robinson including non-human character POVs, we have The Citizen, who is eventually and unsurprisingly revealed to be the city.

The rich have fled to Denver, but still keep empty condos in the city. Rents are high on the poor, and there are attempted takeovers of the mid-range buildings in the intertidal (partly flooded) zone. The stock market fucks everyone, and the system teeters precariously. The day trader can see the time coming when the bubble pops and works to be ready to make a bundle when it does.  But then the lawyer, Charlotte, in conjunction with many of the other characters, has an idea to change the system more fundamentally, wresting power back from the machine of the stock market and the banks, and handing it back to the government and the people it represents.

It was a really enjoyable ride to see how we get there, with the city and our characters enduring a devastating hurricane along the way which sparks things into happening much sooner than one might have expected. And while there are disagreements, it doesn't have the air that little good can ever be accomplished that I associate with KSR books.

So, yeah, I enjoyed this. It was a big brick of a book, but instead of slogging, it was generally a lot of fun to read. I enjoy sprawling stories, with many characters and intersecting storylines. When the story lacks that one type of women he wrote far too often, and in the end, something gets accomplished, I'm much happier. Even if there will then be a fight to retain it, and so forth, into the future. I don't need the future to be easy. I just need it to be less bleak.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Provenance by Ann Leckie

Provenance was the second book that I read all in one go, over the course of one weekend with long days of doing something else, but with plenty of time to read. I grabbed the opportunity to knock another Hugo-nominated book off my list, and bombed right through it. I was not surprised that I enjoyed it quite a lot - I loved the Ancillary series set in the same universe, and had eagerly awaited this one.

When I read it, I had no access to the internet, and so I spent longer than I usually would wondering when this took place, in comparison to the Ancillary timeline. The answer came, eventually, but it did colour how I read the first part of the book, like a detective sniffing for time-specific cues. Since the book takes place outside the Radch, that was not easy, and when we were with the Radch in the other books, they were so obsessed with themselves, we got little mention of people outside their Empire.

Yet again, Leckie is doing interesting things with gender in this book, although they are not the main focus of what's going on. I am so glad she does this - if we're positing future worlds, why would we be content to let gender stay "the same," as though it has ever done so? (In this particular case, I speak as a historian of masculinity. Gendered meanings change.)

What is in the background seems to be a world where children are given the pronoun "they" until they decide they are ready to be adults, at which point, they seem to also pick whether they are a man, a woman, or a neman. If the third, the pronouns become e, em, eir. None of this is worthy of particular comment in the book, and the other systems the people of this planet (I've forgotten the name, but I'm terrible with names in books) deal with do not blink an eye.

The only time this really plays into the story is when the main character, Ingray, meets someone she had known for a long time who delayed choosing to move to adulthood, but finally did so in order to take on a job as a police officer, in the process becoming female. And, as part of that, regarded as sexually mature and ready for a relationship.  (Again, I think. This is all background detail.) Pronouns are present, but not the story.

But what this book is really about (sorry, I meander) is family expectations, and it's about that in strange and rather wonderful ways. Ingray, you see, is one of two children (both adopted, I think, although it's possible she was adopted and her brother was not) of her mother, Something Aughskold, and on Ingray's planet, when a prominent politician chooses their official heir, the two become, it seems, legally the same person. It appears to be a way of shepherding power.

I'm going to digress. I'm very sorry, but I've just been reminded of something Ann Leckie is fucking good at and I want to draw attention to it. It is this: she is very, very good at thinking through a society and then how that society which is not ours would manifest in material culture, and how the physical objects around them, clothes, etc., all would reflect, subtly, aspects of that society. And shape society in their turn. It's so very well done that I would be surprised if a lot of people noticed it, but I did, and huge huge props for her flair for that particular aspect of science fiction world-building.

Okay, back to the story, I promise. Ingray's mother has brought her up valuing huge expansive gestures of proving your love and a place in the family. Ingray just knows her brother's going to be chosen as heir, so she makes a last-ditch crazy plan. (She's actually very good at planning and at keeping her cool in front of the press. Just not so much at adventuring, although she grows into it.)  She is going to spring a neman named Pahlad from what is euphemistically called Compassionate Removal.

(I think. Oh goodness, I read this two weeks ago and all the specific terms are gone from my head. Whatever it's called, it's a delicately named Not Jail, to which criminals are sent and no one ever returns, but everyone chooses to think it's probably a verdant place where everyone stays out of each other's ways.)

E was accused of stealing eir's father's relics. Shit, there's another name for those too, but this society is obsessed with relics, including those of recent events, but old ones, pieces of anything that were present at an event are highly, highly valued.  So she springs em, and e ends up not being quite the neman she was looking for - or is e?

Back on the planet, Ingray ends up both trying to maneuver her original scheme, and then negotiate a murder of a foreign dignitary - which some people would be more than willing to hang on Pahlad. There's also an ambassador from an entirely alien race around, trying to find the captain who ferried them to Ingray's homeworld.

Who's going to win the election, whether the neighbouring humans are going to invade, why the alien race wants that captain so badly, all were revealed, and were very satisfying, neatly threading the needle between too much and too little. I really love this world, and I really love everything I've read of Ann Leckie's so far.

Monday, 28 May 2018

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It has taken me quite a while to figure out what I wanted to say in a review of this book, and I'm not sure I'm entirely there yet. It's time to take a stab at it, though. I read almost the entire book in one sitting, which is very much out of my normal pattern, over the course of a day spent in unusual quiet and devoid of any electronic devices to distract me. I'm grateful for that. This was a book that deserved my full attention, and I'm glad it worked out in such a way that I could give it.

I had read only one Colson Whitehead book before, his take on zombies and societal trauma, Zone One. I liked that book quite a lot, without ever feeling really emotionally affected by it. In contrast, The Underground Railroad provoked strong emotion, as it should. Every time someone asked me what I was reading, I'd say it was very good, but very difficult to read.

Which, of course, it should be. This is a book about slavery, using the device of a literal railroad and a slightly (but only very slightly) fantastical journey to send the protagonist through different manifestations of racism in the United States, both during, concurrent with, and after, slavery. Much of it was gut-wrenching because it allowed no place to hide from the evils of slavery, and with a double whammy of seeing how much of the hatred, racism and pain has ripples that you can still so clearly see, although Whitehead does not make those connections overt. It was hard to escape the fact that they were there.

The novel starts on a plantation, in a location that disposes handily of the fiction that there were "good" slaveholders, and because they were not as brutal, life could be pretty okay there. No, no fucking way. Whitehead does not flinch from the violences slavery inflicts even when it's the "softer" side that some people like to imagine was the truth. This book isn't exploitative of the pain, but it is also not shy about showing it in ways that make it impossible to find bullshit excuses.

Cora lives on this plantation, relegated to a lower-status cabin, defending a small patch of land that she had planted, and her mother before her. Her mother escaped years ago, and Cora has never let go of the bitterness that she could go and leave her daughter to whatever horrors might come. Despite the owner of the plantation being the sort who'd like to avoid looking at or dealing with the violence upon which his wealth is predicated, it is still there. And when he dies and his harsher brother takes over, Cora takes a chance in escaping with another slave, Caesar, to the Underground Railroad, which, as has been said, is a real underground train system

Cora and Caesar end up first in South Carolina, then later Cora goes on to North Carolina (I think I have the order there right), and in each place, racism is not less prevalent, but takes different forms. We see the people surrounding them, vitriol and condescension, as well as those who work on the Railroad, risking lives willingly or reluctantly, to be conductors. Through all of this, there is a slave catcher on their trail, and he's known for being implacable - no matter how long a former slave has been gone, how safe they think themselves to be, they are not, and could come under his power at any time.

It was these parts in particular, that had the keenest resonance with today - different context, of course, but the way in which racism can lash out unexpectedly, the sense of danger and watchfulness, the ways in which a Black person can never count on being entirely free of it, were chilling.

I want to talk in more detail about the stops on Cora's journey, but I also don't want to spoil those bits for people who read this. The last section is heartbreaking, much as everything else, and the ending left me, at least, with questions and things to think about. This was a powerful book, encapsulating moments and kinds of racial prejudice in ways that are not precisely historical, but bring forward truths without needing them to be exactly realistic. That is, they feel real, but the settings are often a more impressionistic view of something in particular than they are a representation of a time and place. This holds an interesting ground between reality and larger themes, and the railroad holds that together in a way that works.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

I'm trying not to make every review all about the Hugos this year, but I am at least going to mention that this is the second nominated novella I've read so far, and in general, for all my reading, I am really struck by how difficult many of these categories are going to be to rank. Which is a delightful problem! I'm trying to rank as I go along, partly judging by how much I want to (and do) tell people around me about what I've read.

I don't think All Systems Red gets my top spot, but I wanted to say the above to make it clear that that in no way says anything about the quality of the book!  I really enjoyed this, although I sometimes felt like it wasn't breaking new ground in what it was about and how it was about it, but it was a great run at the rich question of the humanity of a cyborg.

Of course, in this case, the cyborg is self-named Murderbot which gives you a good idea of how they see themselves. (I don't think gender is ever indicated, and the cyborg is generally given the pronoun "it," but the crew around the cyborg, to the cyborg's dismay, has trouble using "it" as a descriptor. Pronouns are not discussed in the book, but the cyborg seems to be okay with "it" because it creates and reinforces distance from the crew, but the crew is determined to see Murderbot as more, and I think me wanting to use the "them" pronoun comes from the same place. I'm not sure what to do in this case, except maybe try to take the advice of a professor of sociology whose gender diversity workshop I attended recently, and figure out how to write in such a way that doesn't use pronouns at all. It's hard and I haven't mastered it, and preferred pronouns are easier, but in that case, preferred was no pronouns, so I will keep working away.)

Which is all to say, damn, I may have trouble with it, but Martha Wells does not, and it was absolutely seamless and unobtrusive that there are no gendered or nonbinary pronouns used for the Murderbot, except in the aggregate, when I had a moment to stop and think. I am a little in awe right now.

So! This novella is about Murderbot, a part-human, part-machine...uh, killing machine. I mean, in theory, security provided by a company for a crew exploring a planet, but since this particular security robot had had a previous programming glitch that led to a lot of dead humans, the self-given title of Murderbot tells you a bit about how those events were regarded. Also the part where Murderbot has now hacked their own "governor" module so that glitchy programming can't cause that sort of malfunction again. This would make most humans feel scared, when in this case, it's probably more reassuring.

When things on the planet suddenly start trying to kill the human crew, and some of those things seem to be the very security robots sent to protect them, Murderbot's self-hacking may be all that saves them.  But really, what much of this book is about is how the crew tries to humanize their part-machine compatriot, even though Murderbot might be more comfortable being seen as an appliance. That Murderbot is obsessed with soap operas and hidden autonomy suggests that there is more going on, but does more going on necessarily translate to humanity?

And when is sharing humanity an imposition? What they want for Murderbot is to allow a self-actualized human to develop despite machine parts, but they have a clear idea of what that would be, and what the path and result would be, and that too is a limitation, in many ways. All of these themes were layered in subtly, but well, and I found them very interesting. I'm looking forward to reading the other novellas in this series.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

*Spoilers Below*

This was my book club book last month, but I am very far behind on writing reviews, so it took me a while to get to it. It didn't help that I had a profoundly ambivalent reaction to the book - there were things about it I liked a lot, but there were also things that got on my nerves. So I don't know how to rate it - it's an interesting first novel, but boy, did some of it feel clunky.

I think a large part of my issues with the book came with expectations. When you have two very isolated people and you keep talking about the damn radios, then it is not unreasonable to expect that a good portion of the book will be said two isolated people talking to each other, finding connection through radio waves.

That is not what happened. Although Augustine, above the Arctic circle and all alone at a deserted polar base, keeps tabs on the ham radio air waves, and although Sully, with five others on their way back from a mission to Jupiter, keeps scanning the airwaves to find any sign of life on earth, it is not until around page 230 out of a 260-odd page book that the two actually connect. The author keeps teasing connection between drastically isolated people, but it doesn't come until the end, and when it does, the conversations are about mundane things. At least one of the two or three conversations they have is just summarized in a paragraph. That seemed like a lot of build-up for not a lot of payoff.

And then there was the part where one of my book habits made me more cross with this book than perhaps it deserved. I do often skip forward and skim the last couple of pages, and I did so in this case. In so doing, I found something that seemed like it was supposed to be a big "aha!" reveal, and it was not a good one, and it made me very angry. I carried that anger through most of the rest of the book, even though I realized that it was not so much of a sprung surprise as I had expected. What it revealed is made clear before that, although the last couple of pages try to put a topper on it that I still don't like, and the overall slow burn reveal is still not one I'm particularly fond of.  Out of seven billion people in the world, seven can talk on the radio, and two of them are related? Really? There's straining credulity, then there's deus ex machina.

Of the two stories, I vastly preferred the astronauts, who lose contact with Earth as they return from a survey mission to Jupiter. (I'll get into the wider canvas in a minute.) Cut off from everyone, we have an interesting study of isolation in a small group, as they pull apart and pull together. We are mostly with Sully through this, a woman who became an astronaut by being detached from her family, in particular her daughter. We learn about her past that helped create her, although some of it is definitely choice as well.

And now we come to the part where this tries to be a post-apocalyptic book without ever committing one, or as my husband dubbed it, "Chekhov's Apocalypse."  I don't need great detail, but I do need to feel like the author knows what's going on, has through this through thoroughly, and I was unconvinced.  We know that there is no radio chatter coming from earth, not even anything automated. Except for where Augustine is. We know that it happened so fast NASA had no time to tell its astronauts anything, yet long enough that they came to evacuate everyone but Augustine from the polar base in airplanes. Maybe it was war. Maybe it was an electromagnetic pulse. Probably not a virus - there is nothing that would spread that fast that the astronauts weren't notified. And with the pulse, there was nothing shielded, anywhere on earth? No one who found a radio or constructed one that they could still use?

It comes down to this - to make Earth fall ENTIRELY silent, suddenly but not suddenly - if you set that up as your backdrop, you can't then ignore it as part of the story. There are lots of ways to tell stories of isolation that don't depend on the high concept, but if you have the high concept, you can't then spend the rest of the book retreating from it as fast as possible.

I get that this author wanted to write something literary (even if some of it is done ham-handedly). But Station Eleven is likewise literary post-apocalyptic fiction, and at every moment, I knew Emily St. John Mantel knew her apocalypse, had thought it through, and the implications. I don't get the same form Lily Brooks-Dalton.

And everyone knows, if you put an apocalypse on the mantel in the first act, it had better go off in the third. And it didn't.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

*Spoilers Below*

I have, in general, really quite enjoyed Haruki Murakami's novels. I prefer the weirder ones - he's got a knack for surreality, a world that feels just a jump or two over from normal, in fascinating ways. I like the discombobulation and estrangement from the world I get from those novels.

This book is less surreal, more, I think, realistic. I kept expecting weirdness to break out - it feels like it should. But it never quite does, and so I think I was always waiting for the shoe to drop and was a bit disappointed that it never did. I know that's judging a book for what you think it should be, rather than what it was, and Murakami can certainly write whatever he wants. But because of all of the above, this particular book felt a bit flat.

It's not terrible, by any means. It captures melancholy very well, the feeling of someone drifting. Less a pilgrimage, as the title suggests, but more the passage of years while feeling fundamentally unmoored. Depression and isolation, both are strongly present.

I sit here, trying to write this on the day after the first anniversary of my Mom's death. I grapple with how I'm feeling all the time, knowing that I'm doing as well as I am because of the people around me, because I'm not isolated, because I have many wonderful friends and family who check in and get it when I need to pull back for a while to just be sad. In a lot of ways, I'm in an opposite space than Tsukuru. Feelings are strong, and I feel more connected, not less. (I'm also fortunate in that my personal biochemistry seems to have no ability to linger in depression. A day, at most, then I tend to find my footing again.)

Then again, Tsukuru's depression stems from the fact that he was severed unexpectedly from the group of friends he made in high school that were so absorbed in each other there was no room for anyone else, or room for a self apart from the group.  As an adult, he is still marked by the way they severed ties while he was away in university.

His new girlfriend sends him on a mission to meet each of his old friends who cut him off to find out why. When we, the audience, find out why, I was disappointed. Given where we are right now, in this particular moment, having the book hinge on a false accusation of rape made me want to pull myself back from engaging. It's unfortunate this coincided so closely with the #MeToo moment - at a moment when we still don't trust any women when they say they've been raped, reading a book where a main character is railroaded without a chance to defend himself from a frivolous rape charge, but whom everyone assumes or knows was false, was difficult.

And then going into the violent and sexual nature of the death of the character who made the rape charge, from the depths, it seems, of mental illness, without ever having her present as a character, just a memory and a body, it's just...it made me deeply uncomfortable.

Then, at the end, Tsukuru still pins his happiness, his very life, on having others who put him first, who commit to him utterly. It doesn't feel like he's changed. We are left in that melancholy space. I might have forgiven a lot more if this incorporated some magical realism, but what we have is just realism, and it was disappointing.