Saturday, 30 May 2015

Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming

I have been putting off reviewing this book for so long! There's nothing wrong with it. (that would have made it easy to review.) I just kept passing it by and passing it by, and now we're at the point where I usually write blog posts a week before I post them, and we're now several days past when I was planning on publishing this.

In my defense, my sister got married a couple of days ago and I've been a little busy. And I'm about to head off to an academic conference, so more busy. Still, Megan, sit down and write a bloody review!

Maybe I should talk about the book. That would be a good start, right?

Barrow's Boys. It's nonfiction. It's about explorers funded by the Royal Navy (mostly under the urging of Barrow), including the most famously ill-fated Franklin Expedition. Fleming does a really excellent job of writing about these often disastrous trips engagingly, with some snark and well-deserved English sarcasm directly from some of the correspondents involved.

I knew little about this era of exploration, and it was entertaining to read about it. It was also a happy coincidence that I read this while I was going through my long slog of Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, and jaunt through Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, and both make references to people who popped up in this book, and that helped a lot with context.

What's most striking is how much class status was valued over experience in early exploring efforts, with the assumption being that experience was no match for being born to the right family. With predictable results, often resulting in death. You just want to shake your head at many of these people, although they perhaps had to be a little mad to want to strike off in uncertain conditions with inadequate preparation and supplies.

I knew little about the Franklin expeditions that merely ended in malnutrition, madness, possible cannibalism and shoe-eating, but gave up some survivors. Nor did I know about the ill-fated and wrong-headed expeditions to find the source of the Niger in entirely the wrong spot.

Nor about the better-fated Antarctic expeditions, or the infighting between the various Rosses and the Rosses and everyone else.

Really, it's a fairly entertaining book. It's not going to rock my world, but it did give some great context to some other things I was reading. The lessons here shouldn't be "silly people not knowing where the Niger was," although I do think "idiots for thinking a whaler with decades of experience knew less about Arctic ice than a gentleman who'd never been there" is justifiable.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Hammered by Kevin Hearne

Third book in, I'm still enjoying this series as light fluffy fun. Fairly violent light fluffy fun, in this particular book, but still, this is definitely popular fiction as opposed to literary. But more to the point, it's good popular fiction. I need my brain candy. This is becoming one of my favourite series for that.

On the other hand, there was much less Oberon the Wolfhound, and since he's pretty much my favourite character, that was not quite as fun.

In this one, Atticus ventures out on an ill-conceived mission to help a vampire and a werewolf kill Thor. (Why does that sound like the first line of a joke?) He's warned off of doing so by no less than Jesus and the Morrigan, but he swore an oath, and so, has to follow through. A couple of trips to Asgard, some nasty shit, and the start of what looks like the end of the world, if not exactly Ragnarok.

Jesus' appearance was amusing, but what I did like in particular about this book was the vast middle section that was mostly other gods with grudges against Thor telling why, as they all prepared to go into battle. It wasn't tension-filled, there wasn't any moving of the plot forward, but something in me always responds to tales told 'round the fire.

We find out why the vampire, the werewolf, a Chinese legend, a Russian thundergod and a Finnish god (or champion?) all want Thor dead, and they make some compelling cases. These are mostly new characters, as those we've known through the last few books are left back on Earth, where Atticus hopes they'll be safe when the Asgardians come looking.

I don't know how much else I have to say about this book. I enjoyed it. Perhaps not quite as much as the others, but still enough to want to keep reading further in the series. I shook my head, figuring Atticus should have figured out some loophole - when Jesus and the Morrigan both tell you the same thing, you maybe need to listen a little better. No man can escape his weird, I guess.

But yeah. The melding of all the different pantheons I like, the snark I like, and the easy distraction from heavier tomes (I'm looking at you, Mason & Dixon) very welcome. Two-thousand year old druids still feel pretty fresh, if not quite as an enjoyable new surprise as they were two books ago. (First books often get me extra excited, when I discover something entirely new. It's not that I enjoy later books less, it's just that it doesn't have that additional bump of a new and shiny discovery.)

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

This is the first David Sedaris book I've read, and I'm left with a mild grin. It was entertaining enough, there were a few lines that made me laugh, but overall, I certainly wasn't blown away. It's the sort of thing you can read in short gulps and not really end up remembering much at all. Remember when I've talked about not always enjoying written humour? This would be another good example of that.

Also, I have a strong feeling that any future writing about taxidermied animals should really be left to Jenny Lawson, as she has pretty much cornered the market in hilarity on that subject. This was brought home more by how hard I laughed at her blog post about Vincent Van Goat this past week, so in comparison, Sedaris' relatively mild strange encounter trying to buy a stuffed owl for his partner just doesn't quite add up.

I think a lot of it is that there there doesn't seem to be any strong emotion behind this humour, and I'm a big believer that neither comedy nor drama just happens. Both emerge out of someone wanting something very badly, and whether it's comedy or drama depends on how it is done and what happens on the way. Comedy based on just kind of drifting through life...I don't know. I don't get it.

Still, there's nothing off-putting about this collection. Sedaris' misadventures are amusing enough, but I finished this only a day or two ago, and it's already feeling like they're drifting away.

On the other hand, a couple of the stories did tickle me - the one about his father mistaking one child for another one who had bullied one of his children, and then making him eat terrible freezerburned ice cream to make up for it, that was amusing.

And most of the little vignettes that were fictional people writing essays, those were often more pointed and funny. Taking aim at some of the worst aspects of people, in this case Americans, was done well, and those often had a drive to them that Sedaris' own life seemingly did not.

And the essay about the French dismissing the possibility that Obama could actually get elected. There were some truly great moments in that one, including a bit about being resentful that American conservatives were acting like they were the ones who'd invented truly hating a President.

Overall, I wasn't sorry I read it, but it didn't leave me feeling eager for more. Another one of those authors that I don't think I'll avoid if one of his books pops up on my lists, but not one that I'll seek out. It's humour, but it's not quite my kind of humour.

Monday, 25 May 2015

A Fire in the Sun by George Effinger

I remember thinking that the first book in the series was interesting, but never quite entirely satisfying. Apparently either the second book is a lot better, or I was really cranky when I read the first volume. That's certainly possible. At any rate, I quite enjoyed this second venture into Marid Audran's world.

Life has certainly not gotten any easier for Marid - now on Papa Friedlander Bey's payroll and living in his house, liaison to the police for Bey, and regarded with deep suspicion from those who haven't escaped the Budayeen.  A strange woman has moved in as well, claiming to be Bey's daughter and her son his grandson and heir. Bey gives Marid the job of disposing of them, but Marid hesitates to take drastic action.

Then he gets assigned to look into a rival crime boss/power broker, on an actual police case, which ends up with tragic results. And as in all good noir, when someone kills your partner, you have to do something about it. And Marid does, using his new equipment and some specialized moddies (troubling specialized moddies in a few cases) to do so.

Moddies seem a bit different in this book, more of an overlay of a personality on top of your own that a replacement one that you watch from a distance inside your skull. I think that's actually more interesting.

But where this book really gets interesting is how it's about Marid's fall into power, as much as he tries to resist it, how subtly it occurs, how unfortunately pleasurable it is. Bey is sneaky in how he brings Marid further into his organization, starting with buying Chiriga's bar from her against her will, and giving it to Marid, thus further alienating him from everyone in the Budayeen.

In the meantime, Marid has to figure out the secrets of the Phoenix File, which may have caused the death of his partner. And figure out what the other power broker is really up to.

The troubling moddies that pop up are worth mentioning - one is a whole subset of people who were taped in immense pain or anguish, to sell on the black market. The other is the same thing, only involuntarily made. Makes the whole moddy market much scarier, all of a sudden.

In a web of deceit, the flux of power, and the slow diminishment of personal integrity, Marid flounders, without even seeing that he's doing so. This is pretty much the book of a fall from grace, which makes me very interested to read the third book, to see if that's permanent, or if he can rediscover a sense of personal honour. At the moment, I don't even think he knows he's lost it.

In other words, the second book drew me in in ways the first one didn't. I'm now fully on board heading into the third. I am a sucker for noir, and this is pushing those buttons. But it's Marid's personal journey that's really grabbing me at the moment.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Thursday, 21 May 2015

"The Alternate Plan" by Gerry Maddren

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Amazing Science Fiction Stories, September 1958

This is a strange little story, only barely science fiction. You could change one tiny aspect of it, and it wouldn't be science fiction at all, just a morality tale about suicide. Seriously, with very few changes, I could see this in a religious magazine, preaching about the evils of thinking you can or should take your own life.

So, the main character is a psychologist, but it seems one who has mastered a science fiction version of astral projection. (This is why I say it's barely science fiction at all.) He is undergoing surgery to find out if he has cancer of the larynx. He detaches himself from his body during surgery, with the theory that if he discovers he does has cancer, he's not even going to wake up to get the diagnosis, as obviously having cancer would steal his voice, his wife, and all his joy in life.

Apparently, "In my field I've seen a lot of crazy reactions to loss of basic ability," but he's seen absolutely no good adaptations to traumatic news. So, when he thinks he sees the surgeons frown, he decides (probably correctly) that he does have cancer, and tries to break the line connecting him to his body. From there, he travels to an Entirely-Not-Heaven-But-Totally-Heaven, a lush green place that he can't enter because of a forcefield.

A figure approaches him to more or less tell him that this was an act of weakness, and that alone has disqualified him from entering Totally-Not-Heaven. The psychologist says "oh yeah?" The resulting argument ends with Totally-Not-St.-Peter daring the psychologist to go back to his body to prove his mastery of whatever the science fiction version of astral projection is. Actually, it's reverse psychology. He dares the psychologist to try to reenter his body while Totally-Not-St.-Peter tries to stop him

The psychologist does it, even though he knows that it's a trick to make him accept life, and he succeeds and comes back to life, the end.

No seriously, the end. His heart starts beating, we're done.

So...that's it. There's little science, no real science fiction, and a "suicide is weakness" moral. I suppose it filled a few pages, but there's a part of me that wonders why it got accepted in the first place. Maybe the editor wanted to hammer home that message. I don't know.

Minority Report: The only female character is the wife, there to be stoic and stand by her husband. No people of colour that are referenced. Heterosexuals as far as the eye can see.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

When Margaret Atwood is firing on all cylinders, there are few who can touch her. Her sense of language, of character, of prose so sharp it could bite you, it's all astounding. At the same time, when she misses, it's disappointing. So I approach every book of hers in a state of apprehension - is this going to be as amazing as The Robber Bride, or as disappointing as The Blind Assassin?

Alias Grace, as it turns out, is somewhere in the middle. The prose is understandably flattened, given that she's writing from the perspective of two people, neither of whom are gifted with poetic gifts. The characters, though, are extremely interesting. The story is great. The ending disappoints. So really, it's somewhere in the middle.

I'll work through that, piece by piece. The book itself is based on the real-life story from 19th century Ontario of Grace Marks, a young maid who was accused of helping or masterminding the killing of the man she worked for and his housekeeper, with whom her employer was allegedly having an affair. Was she an innocent swept along by an evil man? The devious voice behind the whole thing? Somewhere in the middle? Her sentence was commuted and she spent most of her life in prison.

This book is about a young man trying to make a name for himself in the field of treating madness, hoping to develop new techniques on which to build an asylum which he will then run. Credentials are a much looser thing at this time period. He comes to Kingston. (I'm from Kingston, so I always get a little excited when my city appears in a book.) At the penitentiary, he gets permission to interview Grace Marks, and he hopes to be able to help her recover memories she is alleged to have lost.

The strength of the book is that you're never quite sure how honest Grace is being. She parcels out her story in small chunks, trying to please him and keep him coming back, while carefully guarding herself. This tension is well done, with her thoughts forming much of the book, while the doctor's point of view comes through in letters, and some first-person narrative. I think it was first person - it's been a couple of weeks since I read this.

As I said, having Grace be the narrator for much of the book flattens out Atwood's prose, but it works well for the story that is being told. Of course, she's fascinating, and that sense of not quite knowing how much you can trust her is subtle and well done.

Which is why the end of the book is disappointing. We're given a definitive answer, and it's a medical diagnosis. It's not a medical diagnosis the doctor in the book would have recognized, but it is one that in the late twentieth century, people would be familiar with. That was so frustrating. It takes this character and squishes her into a two-dimensional medicalization. I would have been happier with never getting a definitive answer, leaving her a question mark. And because it's a diagnosis that we would recognize and the doctors then would not, it leaves the book distancing the 19th century as those people who wouldn't recognize something perfectly evident if it jumped up and bit them.

It's a gotcha moment in a book that is not crying out for one.

So, yeah. It's not her best, but it's not her worst. I think there'll be a lot to talk about when this comes up in my book club in a few months!

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Week in Stories - May 19

So, I less have stories of gaming to tell this week than stories of getting ready to game. Over the weekend, we put together character for ApocalypseWorld, yesterday, did our last PC generation session for our Superhero University game.


I am looking forward to this! I've elected to play a Driver named Gremlin. If you know me, you are perhaps not surprised that I looked first at the special moves (aka sex moves) to see which was the most interesting and implied the most provocative things about the character.

So what you get with the Driver is not just someone who has an awesome car, but someone who has serious trust issues. As I interpret it, that sex move is that you roll after sex, and on a 10, everything's cool, on a 7-9, they gain knowledge about you, but you actually trust them even less, and on a 6 or lower, you do whatever it takes to prove that that person doesn't own you, just in case they were starting to think they did.

Add to that the -1 to History you take to every single player at the table, and you have someone isolated, probably with something unpleasant in their past, and every reason to want to keep on the road and out from under anyone's thumb.

I have to flesh that out a bit for our GM. I don't know if I'm going as dark as that initially suggested to me, but it does imply an ex-lover who screwed Gremlin over pretty darn well. Given the phrasing of proving they don't own you, I'm thinking maybe an NPC equivalent of a hardholder. Someone you thought you could trust, could maybe even settle down with, then whammo! Betrayal.

But paired with a desire to connect, otherwise this isn't any fun. Someone who keeps venturing closer to the fire, but then pulls away just as it gets hot, long before she even gets singed. Complete withdrawal, not fun. Desperate need for connection paired with a just as desperate need for isolation, now we've got drama.

I'm excited. We have also in our group an Operator, played by my husband, a Hocus, played by John, and a Brainer, played by Colin. There's a lot of Weird on our group.

Superhero University

It was Melissa's turn to come up with a character, and for Colin and I to develop her NPCs, and she's playing an upperclassmen to what will become the frosh class when we begin. She's also the leader of the superhero club on campus. Of course, she was dating a supervillain, and they're still hung up on each other, so that should be difficult. (I'm playing the supervillain, a broody philosophy major.)

She also has a couple of friends/former roommates who are fun and supportive, and push her to do stupider things than she would otherwise do. And a prof who is trying to be a mentor.

The character here, Bethany, is interesting, in that she augments other people's powers, which makes her very useful, but also gradually duplicates them over time, making her potentially very powerful. Some people might be suspicious of that.

Then we planned out the dorm rooms, and next time, we'll actually start playing!

It may be a couple of weeks before I have one of these posts again, though. Weddings and academic conferences will be cancelling gaming for a bit.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Let Me Explain You by Annie Liontas

For a first novel, this is a darned good one. And yet, we almost got off on the wrong foot. The first chapter, the email that the father sends to his three daughters and ex-wife, it almost put me off. It seemed a little too much like the introduction to Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, in which it's one long joke about how the narrator doesn't speak English very well. But where Foer's was something like 40 damned pages long and caused me to abandon the book, this was only a couple of pages, and so I stuck with it.

I'm very glad I did.

The rest of the book makes that first email make sense, and you're supposed to find it a bit irritating, a bit presumptuous and controlling. The rest of the story gives it meat, makes you not necessarily agree with the father, but understand the complex web of relationships that led to it.

Two things grabbed me about this book. One was the characters and how badly they wanted things. Liontas does a really excellent job of giving us vivid people who bull through the world with more or less success. Pretty much everyone here wants things so very badly that they're willing to push through just about anything in their way. Of course, that's not always the way to get anything, but the straight-line thinking in trying to get from here to there was strong and compelling.

The other was a theme that fell into place with me when I was reading an entirely unrelated online blog post about how people understand their own stories, and got frustrated when other people didn't want to slot themselves into the supporting roles. It was about the context of breakups specifically, but it really resonated, and then when I got back to this book, it made everything make so very much sense.

Two characters in this book, in particular, are so angry at the world and their family members because they just damned well won't fit the stories they have in their heads. And they don't understand why, and get frustrated and lash out because they are the centers of their own stories and don't understand why other people refuse to accommodate that. The self-centered absorption and pain that comes from wanting something other people can't ever give you I found really intriguing. Hence, the title becomes more poignant - ostensibly referring to an idiom, it ends up being about wanting to be able to explain other people, to have them fall into line with your desires.

So, the plot? A Greek immigrant to the United States, and restaurant owner, Stavros Stavros Mavrakis, sends an email to his three daughters and ex-wife, telling them that he's going to die in 10 days, and here are all the things they're doing wrong with their lives. His eldest daughter, Stavroula, is a chef in love with her boss' daughter. Second is Litza, who blazes through life angry at everyone - she and Stavros himself are the ones who are angriest when others won't follow their scripts.

There is also his daughter Ruby and ex-wife Carol. I think those are the names, and therein lies my main quibble with the book. I don't actually remember their names. While the three characters mentioned in the previous paragraph are vivid and strong, two of the four women addressed in the email make much less of an impact. They're present a bit, but while the email addresses them all equally, they're not all equal characters, and it feels odd to have the focus tilted in exactly that way.

It makes me wonder if there were sections that ended up under the editor's pen, that were more balanced. It just feels like a spot where the structure of the novel got away from Liontas a little bit. Again, first novel. Forgivable offence, but definitely something I noticed.

As a whole, though this was very enjoyable, if a little unevenly focused. The strong characters and that theme of wanting control of other people's stories, that's what really got me. I hope Liontas' next book is as strong.

(An ARC of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review from Simon & Schuster Canada)

Friday, 15 May 2015

Blameless by Gail Carriger

Third book in the series, and after the second, I believe I said that if the third book had any hint of forgiveness without extreme grovelling, I was out. I'm not sure I got quite the level of grovelling I wanted, but enough so that I'm not entirely kicking this series to the curb.

In this book, Alexia is pregnant and cast out by her husband, causing quite the scandal in London. Her sisters continue their running for queen high bitch by having her mother cast her out as well, lest it hurt their prospects. Then vampires start attacking, and mechanical bugs trying to stick her with unpleasant needles. With her father's manservant and her crossdressing inventor friend, they leave for Italy, in search of finding the answer to what Alexia's child is.

There, there are more vampire attacks, and taking refuge with the Templars, who aren't above using Alexia as a weapon, but certainly wouldn't share their eating utensils with her. (Literally. They have to be destroyed after she uses them.) Some of us might take this as a clue, but Alexia feels she needs to stick it out.

There is more flirting on the side of the inventor, which Alexia continues to stubbornly not get. Honestly, at this point, if you're not going to pay it off, why is it there?

Back in London, the vampires are stealing each others drones, which leads to unexpected consequences for Buffy.

Lord Maccon gets high on formaldehyde a lot, leaving his second to fight off challengers and the questions of Queen Victoria.

Like the others, this is fun, with glaring plot gaps and the still unanswered question of how Alexia is actually different from anyone else, given that they have souls and she does not. Is this ever going to be resolved? I mean, she has powers, but all the "Alexia not having a soul makes her so different" without ever giving us proof of that is quite old by this point. And this book doesn't even really bring it up, which, given that it's been a looming question, maybe at some point that would be good?

At any rate, I'm being too nitpicky for books that are just plain fluffy fun. It's not quite the level I want my fluffy fun to be at, but I still enjoy them enough to not avoid them when they cross my path.

Still, even with grovelling, and still loving him, having the man I love mistrust me that much? Getting past that would take more than an apology and heroic rescue. I do get wanting to forgive him, but if he reacts that way once, what's to stop him from doing it again?

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

In many ways, this book reminds me of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, except that I liked it a hell of a lot more. It's got the same crazy scavenger hunt pop culture vibe, but I felt that the tension was lacking in Mr. Penumbra's, the characters weak, the puzzles not really that difficult, and the so-called love of books more notable for its absence than its presence. In contrast, Ernest Cline's book has strong plot drive, interesting characters, good puzzles, and truly, truly, truly loves its source material.

It's just plain fun. You don't come to this looking for weighty philosophy, other than "giant corporations wanting to control every aspect of our lives are bad," and as far as philosophy goes, I have no trouble getting on board with that one. Although it's not philosophical, the stakes are high, and they stay high.

The creator of the biggest game ever, The Oasis, the world-wide immersive experience that spans pretty much everything from games to education to shopping to socializing, has died. His fortune is left to the person who can find the three Easter eggs and get them through the three gates. So not only does every video game nut on the planet start egghunting, so does his main competitor, a corporation that would like to take over and thoroughly monetize the whole deal.

It's 30 years in the future, and bleak. Food supplies are failing, oceans are rising, causing waves of refugees inland. Children are growing up with no hope - but inside the Oasis, they can forget their troubles for a little while, even if they're limited by their lack of money, for even the Oasis is a money-making enterprise. Just not a thoroughly evil one.

The game designer was a child of the 1980s, and so his puzzles have spawned a resurgence of interest in 80s culture, allowing this to be jampacked with just about as many references as you can possibly imagine.

Now, I grew up without a TV, so I tend to say that I skipped the 80s. I get most of the references, I just don't have the deep emotional attachment to them. But I've watched my husband swear at Joust quite a lot, I've seen War Games and Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (okay, that last one I do have a deep emotional attachment to), and I know of the band Rush, although I don't know if I've ever heard their music.

The great thing for me was that it didn't matter. I knew enough to enjoy this book, although I'm sure I would have liked it even more if I'd spent hours mashing buttons in an arcade. The main character, Wade, is a stereotypical overweight acne ridden teen, who latches on to the egghunt as a lifeline in a terrible life. As he progresses through the puzzles, he makes friends with other gunters (short for egghunter), although they're wary of helping each other too much. He has a crush on one of them.

At least one bit about who these people were when Wade meets them in real life surprised and delighted me. The reasons make perfect sense, and it's a nice twist on a tired trope.

Ready Player One asserts that you can make real friends online, even while saying that perhaps ultimate immersion is not the healthiest. It walks that middle line very well at the end, and given that I've made some amazing friends online (one of whom sent me that Lois McMaster Bujold care package earlier in the year), I'm glad this book acknowledged how possible that can be.

The evil corporation exists to be ruthless and evil, and I have no problems with that. Evil corporations are allowed to be caricatures, because they pretty much are already. The twists are perhaps sometimes predictable, but they're the sort that are enjoyable even if you saw them coming, because you're invested in the story. At least, I was.

And I skipped the 80s, so that says something.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Hawksbill Station by Robert Silverberg

Bear with me a moment. I'm going to throw up a couple of covers for this book, in addition to the one that graced the copy that I read:

All right. Take a look. I read an article on the whole Sad Puppies affair that included a complaint by the guy behind it that was pretty much precisely "you can't judge a book by its cover anymore." The idea being that when you look at strong men on the cover, you might actually be getting suckered into reading a book about gender, or sexuality, or politics, with the insinuation that this would never have happened in the past.

As almost always happens, this type of claim is accompanied by a vast historical myopia. The Golden Age that you remember is almost always more complex. Well, more complex than anyone tends to think. I'm a historian, I get to say things like that, because they're true.

While science fiction is not something I'm a particular historian of (my own expertise lies in masculinity in the 19th century), I read a lot of old science fiction. So when I read this book around the same time I read that article, I knew I had to connect the two.

Look at the covers above. They may not tell you everything about the book, but if the Sad Puppies narrative is to be believed, they'll be a straightforward adventure yarn, instead of harbouring something more subversive. You hear that, Silverberg? You guys didn't write anything more complex than that, right?

Wait, what? These books are about the criminalization of left-wing dissent, and the exiling of left-wing would-be revolutionaries to the Pleistocene, on a one-way time travel trip? They're jam-packed full of references to Marxism, Trotskyism, debates over non-violence versus violent revolution, and the tactics and long-term strategies of the revolution?


Well, I'm shocked, shocked to hear that old SF might have been a teensy bit more complex than we thought.

Wait, no I'm not.

This book focuses around Barrett, one of the former prime organizers of the resistance against the syndicalist government in a post-democratic America. (Not anarcho-syndicalism, just syndicalism. With a strong touch of dictatorship.) He's spent decades now in the Pleistocene, trying to keep the men who have been exiled with him sane and functional in a world without hope, where they are forever divorced from the world they left.

And entirely without women, which is explained by the ruling government being afraid of any breeding in the past, and the potential creation of a second strain of human that might mess up the timeline. There's supposed to be a women's prison for revolutionaries too, but it's several thousand years away.

Because there are no women, there is a fair amount of homosexuality in the Pleistocene, as that's all the option there is for sexual partners. This is brought up early, although men are warned to keep it out of sight to avoid upsetting others.

The book jumps back and forth from the prison at Hawksbill Station (named after the physicist who made time travel possible), and Barrett's entry into the underground, and subsequent journey through it. The only female character that turns up is his revolutionary girlfriend, and there's some digression into how revolutionary women would be more attractive if they washed more (I sigh, but I do believe that even revolutionaries will continue to think that's the most important thing, given what I know of various protest movements of the 1960s and 70s). It turns into a tragic love story, as she is taken in one of the earliest waves of arrests, and Barrett's inability to find out what has happened to her haunts him.

There are also interesting thoughts about why people join revolutions, what experiences might have brought them to it, and the kinds of ego that might turn someone into an enemy as quickly as they became a friend.

On Hawksbill Station, a new man comes through, but he doesn't act like all the others - no obvious revolutionary dogmas, for one. So, why is he there? What does the future have in store for the past? What happens when you can literally ship dissent off to a pre-human Earth?

Try to get that from the covers.

Friday, 8 May 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

This was our book club pick for April, and I am very glad it was. (There is no theme to our book club, except a general consensus that we want to avoid most traditional book club fare. Anybody who shows up to meetings can pick a book for some future read. Also, we meet at a pub, because beer and books and good food = a lovely evening out.)

So, what can I say about The Martian? I could spout something about how it was like this book was written just for me, but that would be ignoring how huge this book has been, one of the few self-published books online to be worth reading, then published to huge response and an upcoming movie. So, there's that.

But then there are also all the reasons why I enjoyed this book so thoroughly. For one, I'm a space nut. I may not understand all the science, but I've read what I can get my hands on, nonfiction to go with my steady science fiction diet. I cried like a baby at...well, actually, many things about manned spaceflight make me cry like a baby. It's a thing.

So, from a technical standpoint, of course I was going to like this, provided it wasn't too dry. And it's really not. Weir does an excellent job of both being very procedural, while making those procedures urgent and interesting.

I'm also deeply moved by stories where people work together to solve something. That's kind of NASA's stock-in-trade, so of course all the bits where they're trying to figure out how to talk to him, let alone help him, really got to me. Plus the crew that had left him behind. That reaction tickled me pink, and no, I'm not going  to tell you what it is.

What really makes this book, though, is the humour. Without it, this would be too dry, and too dark to enjoy. Watching a man on the ragged edge of sanity wonder about why Aquaman can control whales strikes just the right note.

I'm sure you probably know what this book is about. A man, trapped alone on Mars, trying to survive for as long as possible. That's the bare bones of the story. This one is all about the execution, and it's not a dense book. It's a quick read, it's funny, and man, is it ever tense. I read a review where someone complained about it being just one damned thing going wrong after another, and my reaction was, isn't that pretty much the classic man v. nature plotline? That's sort of the way things happen in stories of survival under adverse circumstances. You wanted an alien trying to kill him somewhere in there?

Whatever. I enjoyed this one thoroughly, and would highly recommend it. It's not deep, but it's very good.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

"Slingshot" by Irving W. Lande

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Astounding Science Fiction, November 1955

I read this story almost a week ago, and what is perhaps most remarkable is how little of it I remember. Dogfights in space, but that's really about it. One unfortunate turn of phrase. Cold war assumptions. Women only present as pictures in cockpits and voices on the telephone.

Let me try to rack my brain (short pause while I check whether it's rack or wrack), to tell you more. Starting with dog fights in space. In a presumed continuation of the Cold War where both sides want the moon, but neither has the firepower to take and hold it, both sides keep the other from doing so by having dogfights between ships in space. Why this doesn't spark WWIII on Earth is not really gotten into.

Most of the story centers around one dogfight, and the difficulties of effectively fighting ship to ship in space, the extreme unlikelihood that you're going to hit anything. While, by the 1950s, most of the stories had gotten away from the 1930s conviction that scientists are out to doom us all, there's a small tinge of it here. Not that scientists are by definition mad scientists, but the idea that those eggheads never come up with anything useful, it's the men manning the ships who really know best. Because, of course, someone comes up with an idea that just might turn the tide of the war. (Or, you know, work once and then the enemy will adopt it too and nothing will change, but you know. Let's not let that get in the way of military tactics.)

This idea to turn the course of the war is to use nuclear bombs in slingshot-like devices.

The unfortunate phrasing that made me giggle was this line: "thinking the turgid thoughts that always came when action was near." And then the battle starts. Or pretty near. There's nothing turgid about what's described, so using that word in this context made me smirk.

Once the dogfight is over and the Reds have been blown up, the pilots return to earth for some R&R. One guy gets on the blower to his gal right away and gets her to round up a girl for his pilot buddy too. That's pretty much all the screentime the women get.

And that's pretty much it. It's a very simple story, and doesn't add a whole lot in terms of ideas or characters. Disappointing.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

In this cover, they've chosen to illustrate, well, it kind of looks like a weird hybrid of the two cities in this book. The city part looks like Diaspar, which is hidden solely underground, and although it has parks, would have no open spaces like you see here. That would be Lys, which would not have the skyscrapers.

This is actually a tale of two cities, but I guess that title might not have been available, for some reason. (No French Revolution, though.) They are the last human cities in existence, founded in the wake of a withdrawal from the stars caused by the Invaders, a now almost-legendary alien force that took the stars away from humanity.

At first, all we know is Diaspar. It has existed as a city in almost stasis for thousands and thousands of years. It is self-repairing. It is populated by people who have incredibly long lives, and are born again and again, editing their memories down to a manageable size every thousand years or so, existing only in the memory banks for more time, then born again as young adults. It is a city without children, without substantial change.

Superficial change, yes, in art, in reexperiencing life. But without anyone to kick over the traces. Even the Fool is there to shake things up just enough but never too much. Then Alvin is born. Like 8 (or 12?) others before him, he is entirely new. There has never been an Alvin before. He is able to break the conditioning that the city is all there is, and believe that the sky is something other than fearsome and terrifying. He travels to Lys, the only other human city, which survives with short-lived humans, lots of children and a focus on mental powers instead of technological ones.

In Lys, Alvin learns of the cultural differences, and ends up deciding, of course, that what the cities need is each other. But more than that, and the parts that I'm not going to get into in the review, is that he discovers what really happened out there when the remnants of humanity retreated from the stars.

For all this, The City and the Stars is a fairly slow-paced book. There is a digression into religious mania, and the leftover converts of a long-dead messiah. There is a trip out into space that has little tension, but lots of atmosphere.

Alvin is largely a cipher, and none of the characters really stand out, but that's not often the strong point of Clarke's books. The ideas on the different ways human civilization could endure are interesting, but I am disappointed, yet again, in the idea that longevity could never be a good thing. I'm willing to admit that it would have unintended consequences, and yet, other than Heinlein in his Howard families stories, most science fiction writers jump right to immortality as the worst thing ever. Some more complexity around the issue, please?

At any rate, The City and the Stars is not arresting, but it is entertaining enough. I don't think I'd bother to read it again, though.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Week in Stories - May 5

The weekend was taken up by working, so only one game to report on this week.

Superhero U

We still need to come up with an actual name for the game, but that's the short form we're going with for now. Last night, we did my night of character creation for my PC and some NPCs for her. It was another short session, as we got to a certain point, had laid down some interesting conflicts, and now want to take them forward into the actual game.

One theme that is emerging is the idea of powers that hurt someone else unintentionally. Last time, we had our happy couple NPCs who are going to develop incompatible powers, most notably, the guy's power, which will drain energy from her the longer they're touching. It's going to be interesting to figure out a couple who are crazy in love but may never be able to be together physically again, and whether or not that can work.

Last night, we came up with a different variation on the theme. My character's powers are linked with her twin sister, but in such a way that really messes up the twin sister's life, and gives her almost no benefits at all. Riffing on an obscure Marvel character, Lila Cheney, my character, Ruth, can teleport, but she can't teleport directly someplace. First, she teleports to wherever her twin sister Ruby is, and then can teleport away anywhere she wants.

That's disruptive enough - Ruth will be popping in and out of Ruby's life at every inopportune moment. But then in play, as her power started to manifest, and Ruth started to feel all odd just before she teleported for the first time, it seemed reasonable that it started with her becoming aware of some kind of sensation from where her sister was before she teleported. It started with sounds. Melissa, playing Ruby, built on that, telling me what sense of touch Ruby was having that Ruth then experienced as well. (Making out with a football player named Chad, in this case.)

We continued to develop this throughout the evening, and now it kind of looks like Ruth can't turn it off, which will be disruptive for her life, getting random sensations from her sister, and disruptive for Ruby's life, as Ruth will keep randomly appearing and Ruby will know she never has real privacy again.

The dynamic between the two of them is good - exasperated, but they still love each other. Poor Ruby really gets the short end of the stick, but it's not that fun for Ruth either, who really doesn't want to be dealing with two sets of sensory impressions (except sight, it appears) all the time.

The other complication is the friend, academic rival, and study buddy of Ruth's, Miriam, who Ruth has a huge crush on, while Miriam is more interested in the other twin. That will be difficult as we go forward!

So, we have some good stuff in play. A large number of characters, and we still have Melissa's week of character and NPC creation to go, but we're expecting some will fall by the wayside and others become unexpectedly important. It also gives us more leeway to have serious repercussions for some of the NPCs. This university may end up having unexpectedly high mortality rates.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

People will lie to you about this book. They don't realize that they're lying, but they are. I said I was reading this as part of my almost-finished effort to read the BBC Big Read list, and everyone I came across said "Wow, is there ever a lot of sex in that book!"

What they mean is, apparently, there is a lot of sex in the series. There is not a lot of sex in this book. Every hundred pages, I would announce to someone that there had been no Neanderthal sex yet, and feel a little more disappointed. I didn't know if it would be well-written Neanderthal sex, but I was interested to find out. Then the one sex scene in this entire book came, around page 400, and it was ugly and nonconsensual. Thanks, everyone. Way to make that as awkward and upsetting as possible.

So, if you're reading this book? There is no consensual sex in it. People then backtracked to tell me that oh, it's the later books that have all the good sex in them, but that was not in time to make this book anymore fun. You have been warned where I was not.

Outside of the sex? Well, this is okay. There are a lot of assumptions about Neanderthal culture, but I'm sure that would be the case in any book, as we know so very little. I am not entirely convinced by the notion that the Neanderthals were incapable of changing even a little, particularly when it's presented as these dark hairy people who are bettered at every turn by the blonde blue-eyed Ayla.

Ayla is a bit of a Mary Sue. I know that's an overused term, and there are lots of reasons to hate it. But she's good at everything. She's the best medicine woman they've ever seen. She's the best sling hunter they've ever seen. She's one of the best toolmakers they've ever seen. She's the only one to ever survive a month-long death curse. She's the only one to hide with her baby and survive, weak from childbirth. She's practically a shaman herself. She puts together the connection between sex and pregnancy all by herself, the first person in human history to do so. They have to declare her an honorary man in order to integrate her into their society. Her arms are better set in her body, her hair is prettier, her brain is bigger, she can talk more easily, she's a freaking Aryan portent of doom for the Neanderthals.

Why is she blonde, anyway? The earliest human the Neanderthals meet, the literal herald of their doom (as the shaman discovers), and she's as blonde and white as blonde and white can be.

I'm perhaps being a bit unfair - The Clan of the Cave Bear is entertaining, and it wasn't a difficult read, although some of the descriptions of the primordial caves and forests could be a bit much. I'm sure the sex gets more fun, at least I hope it does. I'm just getting sick of reading these books that people rave to me about as fun books for women, rife with sex, and then sitting down and getting rape instead. I'm looking at you too, Outlander.

It's not bad. It's just maddening, particularly since most of the book is watching Ayla getting beaten down, over and over, by the one Neanderthal who hates her. I have my own ideas of fun popular fiction. That's not really it.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Friday, 1 May 2015

Farthing by Jo Walton

I got off to a rocky start with Jo Walton. Among Others didn't wow me - I liked it, but the pacing felt off, and keen tension lacking. Since then, however, I've read two of her other books that have simply blown my mind. Tooth and Claw - Victorian society with dragons - made it on to my Top 10 list of last year. And I will not be at all surprised if Farthing joins it there next year.

So far in 2015, this is one of the books that has hit me the hardest, and one of the few that has made me evangelical. It's so, so, so freaking good. It's also terrifying. Walton pulls no punches, and our own knowledge of what happened in our world colours what could happen in ways that are unsettling, stark, and, necessary.


I went to see Children of Men in the theatre when it first came out, and it also blew my mind. But what struck me the most, other than how good that movie is and how much I carried it around with me for weeks afterwards, was the reaction of one of the people I'd seen it with. Their reaction was "thank goodness that could never happen here." I was agog - what I took from the movie was that that could happen anywhere, under the right circumstances.

That's a little bit like what Jo Walton has done here. In a world where Britain made peace with Germany in 1941, German atrocities continue unabated. What never happened was the wide media coverage of the liberation of the camps, the wholesale outrage of the world as the horrors of the concentration camps were made public as part of the end of the war. And so, they continue. People know, but don't want to know - similar to the lead-up to the war. They're a little uncomfortable with Jews too, and maybe it's all being exaggerated. Homosexuals aren't really any more legal than they are in Germany, the response is just of a different magnitude.

In a world where the Third Reich continues, how long before Britain unleashes its own antisemitism and homophobia?

This book gives a terrifying answer, where a weekend at a country house of the political elite turns into a murder investigation, as one of the most prominent of the "Farthing Set," the conservative politicians who ousted Winston Churchill in this version of history, turns up dead with a Jewish star pinned to his chest.

A little obvious, you might think, and indeed so does Inspector Carmichael. He suspects that this is a frame-up of Daniel Kahn, who married the daughter of those who own the country house, to their dismay and semi-disinheritance. The book flips back and forth in chapters between Carmichael, who is himself gay, and Lucy, the daughter who married Daniel. The trap closes tightly around all of them, as what is at stake is more than just one Jewish man, but indeed, the political fate of the country, and the inexorable slide towards camps of their own. Personalizing that is the question of the integrity of one man, whether or not he can stand by quietly, knowing full well what has happened and what will happen, but all he holds dear is threatened if he speaks up.

This is tense and terrifying, and rejects soundly the belief that it couldn't have happened here, that somehow this was due to a particular fault of the German people. Having spent some time on exchange in Germany, people there have spent decades grappling with the knowledge of what they and their grandparents were capable of. And we have learned very little from the Holocaust if we use it as a way to think of what those people over there were capable of, and distance ourselves.