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Thursday, 31 December 2020

Top Ten Books Read in 2020

Coming out of book reviewing retirement to post my Top Ten of 2020! Like many people, 2020 hit my reading numbers hard, as I lacked brain power much of the time. Still, I finished 108 books. I felt like there were few books that really set me on fire, but I'm very happy with the Top Ten.


10. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

 I wasn't entirely in line with Hugo voting this year, as this came about half-way down my ranking for best novel, but that's really a reflection of how strong the category was. This interstellar look at colonialism, peripheries, and belonging (and identity and a bunch of other things) was very intriguing and had great political tension. The main character is sent from her unannexed home to the seat of Empire and finds herself pulled into immediate jockeying for the future in a culture she loves and doesn't quite belong in. 


9. The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

 In a corporate-controlled future that relies on colonized and segregated planets for essential crops, having ships move at light speed to collect the goods at the cost of the years of the lives the crew could have had with their loved ones, the creator of the system tries to remember why she's so dissatisfied with why it's the way it is, a young child has the ability to jump instantaneously between worlds, and a ship captain takes him in and wants to protect him like family. The Vanished Birds is beautifully written and engrossing.

 

 

8. Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

The alchemical tale of separated twins/principles Roger and Dodger and their attempts to find their way back to each other are thwarted by parents, friends, and the master alchemist who created them and wants to sacrifice them on the altar of his power. Seanan McGuire's writing is always entertaining, and this tale is satisfyingly twisty and emotional both. 

 

 


 7. Before Mars by Emma Newman

I read several books from this series this year, and there were almost two on this list. Before Mars was the one that made it through, an examination of memory, amnesia, dissatisfaction with being a parent, art, and corporations that are perfectly willing to sacrifice many to save the members of their boards. The main character is sent to Mars to paint landscapes (and do science), but finds eerie relics that suggest she has been here before. But it could be suspended animation psychosis. Or?

 

6. In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire 

Seanan McGuire was the one author who did manage to appear twice on this list. I've enjoyed all the Wayward Children books, but this is one of my favourites. We follow Lundy, who we met previously as an adult, through her childhood in and out of the Goblin Market, where everything is about giving fair value, and the Market takes any imbalance out of those who try to cheat the system, one way or another. Somehow, this made me feel like curling up in a cozy library and never coming out. 

 

5. The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

 Oh fuck, this was good, a glorious angry rampage through a timeline that is under attack, where women and non-binary people fight off time traveller excursions from the worst bros you could imagine, who want to twist the world to a point where women have been robbed of virtually everything you can imagine. (The details are truly terrifying.)  Centered around Comstockery and the Chicago World's Fair, as well as the riot grrls of the 1990s, it's also about the main character seeing how her life became what it is, in the midst of a war where everything is on the line.

 

4. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

What the hell even was this book? Lesbian necromancers in space, in the rotting remains of recognizable technology, holding themselves together by the skin of their...bones. Narrated by an opinionated, profanity-prone narrator. It shouldn't work. It's such a mishmash. And yet somehow it does, held together by sheer force of the author's will. Follow Gideon as she goes with the head of her house and arch-nemesis Harrow to answer the call of the Emperor and try to become one of his Lyctors. Oh yeah, it's part murder mystery as well. I mean, what genre isn't it?

 

3. Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer

It's no secret that I'm not that fond of a lot of YA fiction. Well, this year I found one that I wanted everyone to read, no matter their age. It's just plain good science fiction, the teenagers at the centre are believable and face real problems about sexuality, family, and being pursued by a non-custodial parent. Oh, and there's a cat-picture-loving AI who has been keeping tabs on the people who frequent their website. It's just delightful and satisfying, and one of the most interesting examinations of digital sentience I've read, full stop. 

 

2. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

A young woman takes a road trip with the Lord of the Underworld through Jazz Age Mexico, in search of a way to save herself and him both. Look, if that description doesn't get you on board, I don't know what will. The characters are great, the mythology compelling, and Moreno-Garcia interweaves mythological concerns with real-world ones just beautifully. I want everyone to read this one.

 

 

1. This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

If you know me in real life, this should cause negative amounts of surprise. I loved this book, I fell in love with this book, I've read it twice this year and both times found the precise point past which I could not put the book down until it was done and could not stop crying. It's beautifully written, it's just everything I want a book to be. Two opponents in a time war, Red and Blue, correspond over multiple strands of the potential timeline, finding more in common than they expected. I want everyone to read it.
 
 
 


Saturday, 4 July 2020

Best of June

I finished eleven books in June, which means I'm keeping more or less on track for where I want to be at this time of year. I've read slightly more than half of my goal, and have been feeling mild itches to start writing book reviews again, although remembering how much time I devoted to it, and how bad I felt when I fell behind, I'm not sure I quite want to pick it up quite the same way.

However, I thought that perhaps a monthly post with my top three books finished in the previous month might be a nice way to dip my toes back in the book-blogging water, so to speak. Most of the books I finished in June were Hugo nominees of one stripe or another, as I pushed to get everything read by the voting deadline. (Except for trying to cram a couple more series books in, I'm pretty much done for the categories I want to vote in.)

These books were also all queer as heck, which was a wonderful synchronicity with Pride month. It's delightful to see this much diversity in sexuality and gender being portrayed pretty matter-of-factly in Hugo-nominated science fiction and fantasy.

Catfishing on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer


First up is a young adult book, which surprises the hell out of me. I am not that fond of young adult fiction - I find it too repetitive a lot of the time, with none of the challenge or surprise I'm really looking for in my science fiction and fantasy. So imagine my surprise when I found out that Catfishing on Catnet is really solid science fiction, as well as tense and all-around excellent. There's so much here - first and foremost, an examination of the emergence of AI (if the AI really liked cat pictures, but was also trying to grope its way towards ethics).

We've also got a young woman negotiating the umpteenth new place she and her mother have lived in in her life, and starting to suspect that the story her mother has been telling her about why they were constantly on the move might not hold up. (I was completely delighted by the reveal of the reasons behind, which tied in both emotional and science fiction elements beautifully.) We have a clowder on Catnet, a group of young adults who learn to be there for each other, and also figure out how to subvert a terrible high school Sex Education Robot.

It's one of those books where I'm almost reduced to making earnest hand gestures at the screen, which you cannot see, in hopes of expressing physically just exactly how much I think you should read this book. Catfishing on Catnet. Definitely my favourite book of the month.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

This novella was just a delight. It has the warm humanism I've come to expect from Becky Chambers, including a crew of an intersteller ship who genuinely like each other. Which is not to say there is never conflict, but it isn't artificial, and mostly comes from interaction with the environment. In this book, we're with one of the first crews Earth has sent out to explore the stars, on a very long return trip using suspended animation, knowing no one they know will still be alive when they get back. They're kept up to date by broadcasts from Earth, but those start to slowly peter out, and the explorers do not know why.

This is a scientific expedition, focused on documenting and exploring, while disturbing new ecosystems as little as possible. It lets Chambers come up with some really interesting planets with fascinating life forms, and then examine some of the difficulties that might arise when you have no back-up, and no information.

This wasn't the most challenging book I read this month, although the way the book ends offers some food for thought. It was, however, one of the most purely delightful. I looked forward to spending time in this universe, and was sad when it was over in a scant hundred or so pages.

The Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

I don't love the title of this book, because I keep forgetting if it's the Silver Wood or the Silver of the Wood, or the Silver in the Wood. I do love the cover, and I ended up liking what was inside a lot. I'm a sucker for fairy stories, if they're well done, and not just humans wearing pointy ears.

The main character, Tobias, has been living in these woods for at least 400 years, guarding the dryads and making sure the more malevolent incursions do no harm to the humans who cluster on its edges. (The book feels like it happens in the late 19th century, but I can't remember if it actually ever says.)

Tobias rescues a young man who has just bought a near-by estate, and the young man will just not let him alone, looking into folklore that Tobias has been guarding for centuries. (The young man's mother makes a rather delightful appearance later, being rather more into the practical side of investigating folklore, rather than the academic inquiries of her son.)

It's not a long book, but Tesh does a great job of creating the atmosphere and the magic. This one sold me on the basis of the prose and the feel.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

I feel like I'm getting closer and closer to being able to do a theme on Catholicism and science fiction. I guess I'd have to recycle A Prayer for Leibowitz, which we read in my book club already, but then add Hyperion and The Sparrow, and now, to that list, I could add A Case of Conscience. One more book and I'd be all set!  (I come up with way more themes than we'll ever have time to do, but I enjoy thinking about them.)

Finishing this book also means I'm one book closer in my quest to read all the Hugo nominations for Best Novel. I'm over halfway there!

A Case of Conscience is an interesting book. In an afterword, Blish writes that he does not himself believe in Catholicism, but was trying to write a book that took that theology seriously, and I think, in the end, that he does a fairly good job of it. Near the beginning, I was irritated by some of the arguments, but then I figured out that they were actually more subtle than I was thinking, and, if taken at face value, did mean something was amiss.

The book starts out on another planet, Lithia, where, it seems, the first sentient alien race humans have ever discovered lives. A four-man team ("man" is chosen deliberately - there's a woman who is a scientist later, but not on the planet, and her role is mostly to be a nurturer, and to marry another character) is sent to assess the biology, geology, sociology, etc., etc., to decide how the planet should be categorized for further contact and/or exploitation. (They'd probably say the exploitation part under their breath, although if you read the book, you'll find that one character rapidly makes that subtext text.)

One of the members of the team, the biologist, I think, is also a Jesuit priest. As the book opens, the team is readying their report, and Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez has grown concerned. Lithia seems too perfect - everyone lives in perfect, Edenic harmony, and, what concerns him most, there never seems to have been a period of conflict in their past. They have no religion, and the biology of the dominant species is a literal representation of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny (AKA embryos reenact the entirety of human evolution before they're born). The Lithians have offspring that grow up outside the body, but go through various phases before they are reborn as fully functional Lithians, complete with the harmony, etc.

As a result, Ruiz-Sanchez believes this is an entire planet created by the Devil to tempt humans into irreligion, by giving them an example of an idyllic life without Christianity. I had issues with this at first, even within the logic of the book. Then I realized it did make internal sense. I was initially thinking that Ruiz-Sanches was saying that a world without religion that was idyllic must be demonic, which is circular reasoning if I've ever seen it. Then I realized that this character was saying something different - it wasn't that the world was idyllic (although that would have shaken his worldview too), it was that the Lithians had always had harmony, that there had been no period of development before they arrived at this perfectly balanced, perfectly harmonious, endpoint.

This leads him to fall into Manichaeanism, the belief that evil can create instead of just distort, and that heresy is of concern as he returns to Earth with a Lithian in an egg and then hatched. Egtverchi, as the baby Lithian is called, has no knowledge of Lithian society, but looks at that of Earth as he grows, and finds it grotesque. (Or is always just there as an instigator of evil.) On Earth, people live mostly underground, in huge complexes that were built through fear of nuclear war. Now people live in dense tight urban-like spaces, and unrest is growing. Egtverchi helps egg it on.

This is a fascinating experiment, writing science fiction that takes Catholic theology as a given, and then writes around it to take the story in interesting directions. Once I got the nuances of the argument, I didn't have to buy the worldview to appreciate what Blish is doing here.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

I have not read any of Ian McDonald's works before, although he's certainly been writing for quite a while. It was a name I was vaguely aware of, but hadn't heard anything at all specific about. I'm always up to try new authors, though, and when Tor.com distributed free copies of Luna: New Moon for their book club, I snatched it up. What I found was solid science fiction. It doesn't feel like it's revolutionary (one intriguing plot thread aside), but it was character-based in a way I enjoy, and had a strong sense of the world, communicated well to readers.

That is to say, I don't think he's suddenly my favourite author, but I certainly won't mind reading more of his work. Specifically, I'd really like to see where this series goes from here, so I'll likely look for the next book. Your plan has succeeded, Tor.com!

I can't get it out in my head that this book feels like a nod to Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Not so much in the overarching themes - as opposed to oppressed masses on the moon fighting for their independence from Earth, we have a moon that is already more or less politically independent, run by five families/companies. It's more in the fine details of the economy and social mores of the world that it felt like McDonald was, to some degree, building on Heinlein's ideas. Coming up with different answers, but asking many of the same questions of his universe to see what would make sense.

Specifically, on allocation of resources - atmosphere does not occur naturally, so if you don't pay, you don't breathe. In this world, that becomes very specific - there seems to exist technology to cut off breathable air right around someone's head who has run out of credit. Or who runs afoul of one of the powerful families who have some pull. And then again, on marriage. Where everything is contractual (also very Heinleinian), and laws are minimal, lifetime monogamous marriage does not make sense. We have shorter term marriages, worked out through long detailed contracts. It looks like you can have more than one marriage contract running simultaneously, each with different terms. Some turn into love. Some do not.

It feels weird to talk about this in terms of which authors the book reminds me, but the other that pops to mind is Kim Stanley Robinson. The machinations between factions and the politics felt like KSR, if not any of the details. (And McDonald is much, much better at writing women.) We move in and around one of the Five Dragon families, the Cortas. The matriarch of the Cortas came to the moon from Brazil, as an engineer, and saw an opportunity to become the dominant force in helium-3 extraction, moving from being a wage-slave dependent on the other Dragon families to founding her own dynasty.

As the matriarch tries to come to terms with her waning life, doing a life review with the help of a Brazilian priestess, her sons (and daughter) assert themselves, either within the company or outside it. Daughter is in parentheses, because she has separated herself most from the family, becoming a very prominent lawyer, and starting to involve herself in politics, unlike the rest of her family.  A birthday party of second son Lucas' son, Lucasinho, is marred by an assassination attempt. This precipitates rising tension between the Cortas and the Mackenzies, the oldest of the Five Dragon clans.

Trying to write a synopsis does not do this book any favours, because so much happens, and we have so many viewpoint characters. Let's just say that it's all interesting, and the ways in which people are entangled are intriguing, and the characters are really very good. Within the framework of a transition of power in a family company, a ton goes on, economically, politically, emotionally, and sexually.

Let's talk about the one idea that intrigued me right from the beginning instead of trying to sum things up. The youngest son of the Corta family is strongly affected by the presence of the moon in the sky. I kept circling these chapters, going "moon werewolves?"  Huh. (This does not seem to go over into actual turning-into-a-wolf physical transformation, but he feels different at different Earth phases, and he's not the only one. It has made him a bit feral, and there are others who feel the same way.)

Given that the next book is apparently called Luna: Wolf Moon, I'm guessing that plays a larger part than here, where it's a bit of an afterthought, but an intriguing one. I'll be interested to see what McDonald does with it.

All in all, this is solid science fiction. It feels very grounded in a kind of realism, but pays a lot of attention to people, too. The writing is nothing to write home about, but it's unobtrusive, and the tangled emotions that surround every decision drew me in.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Elizabeth and After by Matt Cohen

Back, many many years ago, when I worked at Indigo in Kingston, I remember this book coming in, and selling a butt-ton of them. I never got around to reading it at the time, even though it was a local author and all the things I heard about it were good. Now, in my early forties, I finally settled down to read Elizabeth and After, and I have to say that I enjoyed this just as much as I thought I might. It doesn't hurt that it's set in the near environs of Kingston - it's always nice to see your places reflected on the page.

In a weird coincidence, I was reading Elizabeth and After, in which one of the main characters ends up working at a local video store for a while, at the same time I was reading Universal Harvester, in which the main character works at a local video store. It meant I had to remind myself every once in a while that this was the book that was not horror, and probably added a strange frisson to my reading.

Instead of horror, we have straight Canadian literature, and it's just really, really well done. Elizabeth and After is set in West Gull, north of Kingston just far enough that the people who live there tend to only drive into the city on occasion. (And Kingston is not itself a big city, but it's the closest one to these people.)  It's a community where most have known each other for most of their lives, with occasional new arrivals, but just as many people leaving.

The book starts with a man in the old age home stealing a brand new Cadillac from the local Big Man's car lot, and joyriding it into the lake. It's a really wonderful introduction to the area, the people, and the eccentricities we're going to meet. He's not just a charming old man who likes joyriding, though. He's an alcoholic. He's a widower (Elizabeth's husband, and we get introduced to the car crash that killed her years ago.)  He's semi-estranged from his son. Nobody in this story is a flat characterization, and I think that's what I enjoyed most.

This book slips back and forward in time, bringing new aspects of the characters to light, and it's always done so well. The old man's son returns to town when his agreement with the police (probation?) finishes - he beat up the man his wife was cheating on him with. The wife asks him to come back to the small town where he is known far too well, to be in his daughter's life. He does. This has more levels though, than the trope about everyone in a small town knowing everyone's business. People are more likely to come to conclusions about their neighbours, perhaps, but it is not as simple as that.

There's a man in town, old now, who everyone quietly assumes is gay, as he's never had a relationship any of them have ever known about. As we go back and forth to the past, though, a quite different reason for never displaying a partner comes to light, as do more details about Elizabeth's accident, and the holes it left in many people's lives. We also learn about Elizabeth and how and why she came to live in this small eastern Ontario town, since she was definitely not born there.

We also get the childhood histories of Elizabeth, of her husband, of the other older man in the town. We do not get so close to the men who are the antagonists to various characters - those who want power in this small town, to be seen with power, and who react to losing it badly. There are some nice subtle things on the limits and abuses of power in this small town.

Most of the story comes back to Elizabeth as a touchstone - what she was, what she promised, what was lost, who is to blame. (Everyone thinks they are to blame.)  This isn't the story of people yearning to leave their small town. It's about people trying to be who they are where they are.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg

Elephants are interesting creatures. They're intelligent, inventive, and so, so much bigger than we are. I guess I'm not totally surprised that when science fiction writers go looking for ways to conceptualize alien species, they might come up with something that is remarkably elephant-like. I'm just surprised that I can point to several different examples of elephant-like aliens. Maybe my SF/F book club will do a theme on that at some point.

What does having an elephant-like alien species do? It puts humans in a physically fragile spot, and challenges our ability to empathize with them, I guess. In one of the books I've read, the elephant-like species is an invading and technologically superior force coming to earth, while Silverberg's take on this seems very much patterned on India immediately after the withdrawal of the British colonial forces, except without the division of India and Pakistan.

Silverberg also seems to be trying to do a Heart of Darkness thing here, as the main character travels deep into native territory to find a man named Kurtz, who is rumoured to have become a dark and terrible reflection of himself.  (It's been a long time since I've read Heart of Darkness, so I don't have a lot more to say than that. I wish I remembered more, so I could do a deeper dive.)

Using alien species as ways to examine race is, of course, not new in science fiction, but it is problematic. Who we call alien, and what features we project on to aliens has a logic all its own, and not a subtle one. The other is always the racialized other, and "humans" tend to speak from a white American or European standpoint. It flattens out races among humanity, making the default human characters almost universally white, and where they are not white, experience of race is rarely mentioned. It tends to get almost entirely projected outward. It's a nice fantasy to imagine a  universe where humans had utterly moved beyond internal racism and only retained external aspects...well, that's not really that pretty, and also pretty damned unlikely. As above, so below.

So, with all that being said, how does it work, in this particular book? The book is self-consciously hearkening back to certain aspects of British colonialism, although the humans are not necessarily British. There feel like strong parallels to India. (Interestingly, the only female human in the book has a name that suggests she might possibly be of Indian descent, but if there's a specific description that makes it clear, I missed it. The perils of not thinking visually.)

Wait, do the not-elephants have any women? Do they have any genders? There's a reference to two of the nildoror having sex, but when we meet individual nildoror, I feel like they're all given male pronouns, whether or not they would be applicable. Huh. I will have to check this.

The main character is a former colonial administrator returning to a planet, contrite that he was so racist before. Now he is seeing the nildoror as sentient beings for the first time, and not just beasts of burden, which is how he used to treat them. Most humans have left the planet as it is turned back over to the nildoror, but he has come, thinking to travel to the Valley of Mists to undertake the nildoror rebirthing ceremony. No human has reported on this ceremony, and while a few humans are rumoured to have undergone it, the stories say they come back as monsters. (Guess what might have happened to Kurtz!)

There is another intelligent race on the planet, the sulidoror, which are much like humans, and the main character now sees them everywhere, when they were mostly hidden before. He assumes the nildoror have subjugated the sulidoror in turn, but the answer is more interesting than that. And then the end of the book, oh what to make of the end? We get a turn to enlightenment in a Buddhist sense, or to incarnation in a Christian one.

If you like older science fiction, and this peaks your interest, it might be worth a read. It's not a perfect book, and some of the blind spots are rather glaring, but I found what Silverberg was trying to do here quite interesting.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

"Life is beautiful, and life is stupid."

This is either the first or second of the universal laws that are laid down by a philosopher from one species in this book, and it certainly struck a chord. This is a book that argues for more joy, more sparkles, more glam, not in order to pretend that the universe doesn't suck sometimes, but because when things are awful, we can still create some magic. It can't necessarily fix everything, but it's not pointless, either.

I have never seen Eurovision live. Last year, encouraged by Catherynne Valente's enthusiastic tweeting of the proceedings, I did track down some performances on Youtube, and...oh my. That is crazy and fun, and not really about good, necessarily. I'd be interested in seeing more, although perhaps not to the extent that I've bothered to bestir myself to find out when it happens next. (Okay, I just googled, it's in May.)

This book is, of course, spawned by a tweeted question to Valente about what Eurovision would look like in space. Obviously, that bore fruit, and now we have a deliciously messy look at exactly that. The tone is very similar to Douglas Adams, but the subject matter is all Valente's own. We have alien races that look like roadrunners, or sort-of teddy bears, or zombies or just about anything at all you could possibly think of. What do they all have in common? An invincible belief that their own race is sentient and a suspicion of anyone making the same claim.

This led to galaxies-spanning Sentience Wars, and when that was all over, the surviving races sat down and tried to figure out how to make that never happen again. And they came up with their own version of Eurovision. Any newly discovered planet would compete in the next one, and as long as they didn't come in last, they wouldn't be utterly obliterated for being not even sentient enough to know a good tune when they heard one. Of course, the other planets had gotten pretty sophisticated by then, and a simple tune wasn't going to cut it. You needed some showmanship.

When first contact is made, though, the list the alien brought with theirself as suggestions for who Earth send, it turns out most of them are dead. Well, all of them, actually. Except for Decibel Jones, who is something like a failed version of David Bowie and Prince put together. Glam as hell, he and his band, the Absolute Zeroes, had a smash album before falling apart musically and emotionally.

(There's a very good and disturbing sidebar about how upset the British and American governments might get if the representative of the human race were frivolous, bisexual, multiracial, and glam as hell. They'd rather supply their own, thank you very much, someone they can control. The aliens know that's a fast track to disintegration city, so they opt for Decibel Jones and the one remaining Absolute Zero.)

On the trip to the competition, Decibel Jones has to deal with the ghosts that brought him here, and the resentment/fondness of Oort, his bandmate, as well as the loss of the other Absolute Zero that brought them all low. They also have to contend with other aliens when they arrive at the venue, since winning or even placing in the competition has come to include some kidnapping and assassination attempts. Will the human race survive, when Decibel and Oort don't even have a song ready?

How does it read? Well, I start giggling on the very first page, and very frequently thereafter. In this one, Valente has a totally different tone, light and amusing, while bringing up issues of surprising depth. There's a knack of observation mixed in that reminds me of some of the best British comedic science fiction and fantasy, although it is only the main character who is British, not Valente herself. She's got the knack down pat.