Friday, 23 October 2015

Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach

*Spoilers Ahead*

It's hard to sum up how I feel about this book. The author says she was looking to write a adventure-packed space romance, and that's definitely what she achieved. It was fun while I was reading it, once I got past the first chapter, but now that I'm done, I have absolutely no urge to run out and find the second book.

That's a problem, because the first book ends with multiple cliffhangers, threads that are left enticingly dangling. But none of them hit me hard enough that I need to know what happens next. Glowing spiders that only the main character can see? Shrug. The existence of violent space shapechangers? Interesting, but not.... Not enough. I just feel no urgency about it. That's a peculiar things.

So, I enjoyed the book. If the second book threw itself into my path, I'd read it. But Rachael Bach is not going on my list of authors I need to read more of. If I do, that's fine. I just won't be seeking it out.

Main character Devi is from Paradox, a feudal world with a Saint King. She's a mercenary who wants to be part of the Sainted King's Devastators, so she signs up for a year on a cursed spaceship, because people who survive that ship go places. On the ship, we run into several other species, including one, the xithcal, that she thinks devours humans as soon as look at them (and most of the do), but one of which is the ship's doctor.

Others on the ship are equally interesting. The captain's daughter is practically catatonic. Devi's roommate is a space hippie with psychokinetic powers. The navigator is a bird-like alien. And the cook is devastatingly handsome. (Also seems to be much stronger and better at combat than he should be, but that's another mystery, one I won't spoil.)

Devi helps fend of a xithcal attack, finds an area of a planet where clocks stop working, is attacked by an invisible huge creature, saved by something black and mysterious and dangerous, finds a dying space whale ship that was attacked by more xithcal. These xithcal appear to be something like zombies, and although Devi is assured by the doctor that nothing can be transmitted between species, something's going on there too.

Plus, she falls in love with the cook, and he with her, and there are sexytimes, followed up by a threat to fire her if she continues. She pines for him, he pines for her, and we end up with a cliffhanger on that as well.

All these cliffhangers, and yet I still have no desire to jump off the cliff. Sad. It's fast-paced, and the prose is mostly unobjectionable, although I found the dialogue in the first chapter very clunky. (Either it got better or I got used to it.) It's fun. I'm not saying it's not. But the fun is not the kind that grabs me tight and doesn't let me go. It's more easygoing fun, the kind that it feels okay to opt out of.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

"Faithfully Yours" by Lou Tabakow

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, December 1955

I sort of love the above illustration, because it so perfectly encapsulates the sole role of the woman in this story. She's there to take care of him (okay, she's a doctor, but a doctor that falls for her patient), and then, the haunted man has to leave her behind because he can't settle down with anyone. She gets to look longingly after him as he continues on his trek. (She might not be a doctor, just a woman on a frontier world who knows as much medicine as anyone does. But I'll give Tabakow the benefit of the doubt, and upgrade it to doctor.)

There's even a hint of cleavage, to make sure we know what he's walking away from.

At any rate, the man above with the haunted eyes is an escaped prisoner from some futuristic space jail. We are never told what his crime is, just that the vastly different laws on different worlds make extradition impossible. So, when he escapes and can't be easily brought back, the administrators on Hades make a decision that haunts them - to unleash some sort of something that will track him down across the galaxy.

If there's a problem with this story, it's that not enough is given to the reader. It's the case where knowing more would create more tension. We know there is something after him, but not what. We see no trace of it until the very last paragraph of the book. We don't know what it's planning on doing to him, again, not until the very last paragraph. We see him evade it for ten years and it really starts to look not that threatening. It's not particularly understandable why he's so scared, always on the run, because we don't know what he knows. And if we did, it would mean more.

Since it's not a twist, why is this information withheld? It would be a much stronger story if we were inside the main character's head. Instead, we merely watch from quite a distance as he lands on frontier world after frontier world, always shaky and trying to find a way to get off and go somewhere else. He smuggles, flies test planes, and disappoints a beautiful woman. At the end, he shows up back at the prison and begs them to take him back, but they say that once the whatever they unleashed is unleashed, it can't be called back. (I really hope that it's never been unleashed accidentally, because some poor guy mashed the wrong button!)

And at the end, it shows up, and apparently it's not going to kill him, just rewrite his brain. Which in many ways is more terrifying, and it would have been nice to know that, and what that meant earlier. It might have helped pass some of the tension he was feeling along to me, the reader. As it was, though, I never really was invested in this guy's trek. Nor did I know how it was tracking him, nor why it was an inexorable fact it would catch up.

I've said my piece about the women, and as far as it is overtly mentioned, a wide-ranging galaxy seems to be entirely white. And all heterosexual. Neither are topics brought up at all in this story, and I wouldn't expect them to be. Just commenting on how it fits fairly precisely into the time period. (Seems a pity at times that all the suppressed homoeroticism seems to have disappeared after the 1930s. It tended to be over the top, but interesting.)

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

The things I do to complete you, BBC Big Read list. Like read this book. This was totally not up my alley, another one that's on the list because people can agree most on books they liked as children and young adults. As we get older, our tastes get stronger, and we diversify. It means we can virtually all love Harry Potter, but when you read The Princess Diaries as a 38-year old married academic, there is all the eyerolling.

It's not the subject matter. Girl finds out she's a princess when her father's testicular cancer means he'll never have another shot at fathering a child, and so his bastard daughter is the only possible heir to the throne. (I'm not kidding, but that explanation kind of worked for me.) I mean, it's total fairy tale, but I like fluff sometimes.

When it's done well. What I don't like is lazy fluff. Like having an inconsistent main character. She hates fashion. She wears Doc Martens and overalls and doesn't want to dress up or care about fashion - and yet, when she's making a list for her grandmother of her top ten most admired women, the first two are on the list because they're fashionable. Could you make up your mind, Meg Cabot?

And the slang! It's straight out of Clueless, and I mean straight out of Clueless. I'd never seen anyone else refer to pretty women as Betties before, and there was another related piece of slang that's left my mind. The problem here is that Clueless is charming, and stylized and so, so Valley Girl. I am not sure that rich kids in New York are using the same slang. It was jarring, and left me wondering seriously about Meg Cabot's sources. Clueless for what the kids are saying these days? Really?

At any rate, we also have the main romantic plotline from Clueless where the girl realizes that instead of the pretty boy she's been pining over, what she really needs to do is notice the guy she's known best all along, and find love there. It can be done, and it can be done well. But here it's so obvious and creaky.

Mia is fine as a main character, for someone who is totally inconsistent and never for a moment thinks "hey, cool, I'm a princess." I have no problem with it becoming painfully and quickly obvious all the things that would suck about being royalty, but there's not one moment? Not even one?

It's about how she gets along at school once she knows and keeps it hidden, and how that changes when suddenly everyone knows and all the cool kids want to be her friend and take her to dances and get on the cover of the newspaper. And yeah, I'm probably being too nitpicky. But I didn't come to this book when I was a teenager. (It is not the sort of thing I would have been reading then anyway.) I came to it far too late in life, and now I have slogged through it and am three books from finishing the BBC Big Read. Phew!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Week in Stories - October 20

Gaming has been sporadic recently, which is too bad. Hopefully as my life settles down a little, so will the lives of everyone else. I guess we'll see.

Apocalypse World

We got back to our Drowned World post-apocalypse, and it's much changed. Two of the Mothers are dead, and an army is approaching from the North, complete with soldiers who have lost their selves to the speaking sickness. My character's ex-lover, Marsh is at the head of that army, and she is seriously wigged out by that.

Gremlin brought the Thrush (freaky-looking teenagers who are infecting people with greensong) to Mother Darling, only to find out that the "Man from the City" had killed her and taken over. She demanded to see him, only to find it was Fox (Bill's character), the lover she'd recently screwed over when leaving town.

He'd just had the crap stabbed out of him, so he was less combative than Gremlin, who slapped him for killing her one connection to finding more road. Fox tried to convince Gremlin that there is no more road, and that she needs to trust him and stay and fight this time. That made Gremlin feel pretty panicky, even though Fox reassured her that he didn't want to own her. Eventually, she decided to stay, although she's not entirely convinced about the road yet. She also started to see that Fox really loves her, which creates a bit of a dilemma.

She's very freaked about getting close to people, and that's built into the Driver sex move. I don't want to get away from it, so a few options present themselves to me. First, if she fails a roll entirely again, react the way she did before, and try to get away. It's interesting, but I've done it. The other two options are a little more interesting.

One that strikes me right away is that she shies away from sleeping with him again - getting emotionally closer pushes her physically further away, a reversal of the sex move. So that's a possibility, and will probably what I experiment with for a little bit. The other is that if she does sleep with him again, and it does go badly, that she takes the -1 ongoing and lives with it. It would be a very real and mechanical penalty for trusting someone that would make her life very difficult.

They're all options, and interesting ones, and I'm glad to see where it will go.

One other moment to talk about, because I think it half came across the way I wanted it to, but that I didn't commit to it enough. As the first scene between Gremlin and Fox was coming to a head, I wanted to end it with a gesture that at first looks like it might lead to another slap, but ends with her hand on his cheek. That felt right. But Bill was across the table and I couldn't reach him, and describing it wasn't enough. So I got up, walked slowly around the table, and laid my hand on his cheek.

I'm not sure I committed enough to the first part of it, as I'm not sure it looked like it was going to be a slap. But it felt pretty good, and even more so how tightly I was holding my body as I walked back to my seat, that physical reminder of how hard any kind of opening up is for Gremlin. Body movements reinforcing emotions, emotions reinforcing movement. I love that stuff.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

I picked this book up at long last as part of my read of all the Hugo nominees. Kate Wilhelm's book won the year I was born, so I tend to figure it was a very good year. And on the whole, this is a very good book. It's chock full of ideas, and raises interesting questions about what subtle things might be lost if we fundamentally changed our ways of interacting with each other.

At the start of the book, the world is collapsing. Ecological collapse is imminent, new pandemics on the doorstop. People and animals have stopped having babies. One family out in the hills has the money to recognize the problem and set up a research lab, aimed at figuring out cloning. The problem is that cloning seems to work for a few generations, but then rapidly deteriorates.

The first generation solves the problem - clone for a few generations with new techniques, then go back to livebreeding. But the next generation is the first one of clones, and their social structures are utterly different. Six of each clone is created, exact replicas of the original family, and they are bonded in ways that go beyond sibling closeness and verge on telepathy. They can sense when others of their cohort are injured. They have their best sex with each other, as who knows your body better than another you? (Most are infertile, so sex for procreation is mostly out - and when cross-cohort sex does occur, and babies are very rarely started, the mothers are taken care of so the babies can provide the basis for new clones.)

Within this, they start to have machinery break down, and six unrelated clones go out to do a first reconnaissance. They are haunted by being away from their cohorts, and some are able to reintegrate on coming back, but at least one is put down. And here the book starts to get a little horrifying. Injury they will tend to, but mental illness upsets the minds of the others in the cohort as well, so this nascent society believes that the best solution to that route is simply to terminate the offending member.

Then we start to find out more about the breeding mothers, and it gets more horrifying - conditioned with fear so they can't leave their quarters, permanently separated from their cohorts, artificially inseminated once a month until they have as many babies as they can have, then euthanized. (Through most of the book, the main characters were male. This disappointed me slightly, given that this is written by a woman. Then we got to this section, and it was terrifying in a way that I think only a woman could have written.)

We go on to the third generation, the natural-born child of two of the clones who had been affected by the reconnaissance trip. Problems arise, not only because he doesn't fit into the society, but because the clones have been losing something without realizing it. The older generations, now being pushed out themselves, start to see that the newer clones are indeed degrading, but doing so in a subtle way - losing their capacity for abstract thought. They can do what they are taught, and well, but they can't put things together themselves. Creativity is beyond them.

This insular society is doomed to fail, and Mark, the natural-born child, needs to figure out what he can do (or wants to do) to keep the last remnants of society from disappearing.

It's a fascinating book, about the strengths and weaknesses of community over the individual, and some of it is truly chilling. It feels like science fiction from the 70s, and I mean that in a good way. This is a provocative look at unintended consequences, and where they might lead a fragile society.


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

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White

When I went to get this book out of the library, I noticed that one of the subject headings was Stonewall. The timing seemed apt, as the Stonewall movie had just come out, with all the criticism of both white-washing and making the main character cisgendered. Neat, I thought! Maybe this book (fictional) will be a corrective to that.

And then I started reading it, and that was fine. It's about a young white man's journey to recognizing and accepting his gayness. There's a lot of self-loathing, which is hard to take at times, but the book was interesting. But I got further and further in, and started to wonder...where's Stonewall? I mean, that was one of the subject headings on the campus library catalogue!

I get further in. We start to get to the part where I'm running out of pages, and we have our first mention of Stonewall, the place! But just a mention. Then, a few pages later, once more. Still....nothing about the big events.

In the end, it took up about three pages. The last three pages of the book, the main character observing and participating in the reaction to the Stonewall riot and the arrests. I was bemused. This is not the fault of the book or the author. It's the fault of the library catalogue.

So what about what was actually in the book? It's hard to read sometimes, but not because it's bad. The main character negotiates a gay identity, the politics of how he represents himself, where he can find sex with other men, his long-term belief that his sexual attraction to men dooms him to a life of furtive anonymous relationships rather than anything substantial. It just feels...achy. Like you want to reassure him that it's all okay.

The prose is mostly not exceptional, but every once in a while, there was a sentence that is just so perfectly phrased and placed that it made my jaw drop open. It's almost more remarkable because most of the book, the prose is mostly unobtrusive. Those flashes of brilliance, though.... They're exceptional.

It is not a plot heavy book. The main character is at college, struggling with his identity, engages in a lot of casual bathroom sex, moves to New York with a lover/friend, has his first genuine love affair, tries to figure out where he fits in in a world that tells him there is is something drastically, fundamentally wrong with him.

It's about the characters, really. The main character specifically. It's a vivid look, to the point of discomfort, at growing into an identity in the years before there was any strong backlash to pervasive homophobia. Which is I guess why Stonewall is mentioned in the subject headings. Seriously, though. Three pages.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

"I Was A Teen-Age Secret Weapon" by Richard Sabia

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 1959

Interestingly enough, this story is not written from the first person perspective, as much as the title makes it sound like we're in for a True Confessions-type of thing. Nope, it's really a fairly straightforward third person story. And as a story, it's not bad. The prose isn't purple, and it's vaguely amusing.

Weirdly, though, I kept thinking that I'd read this story before. And then I remembered that there's an Alfred Bester short story, collected in Star Light, Star Bright, called "Oddy and Id." In that one, a bunch of college professors are trying to harness a student's unconscious luck powers, which is really very similar. A quick google search tells me that the Bester story is the older, published in 1950.

In this story, it's a bit of a reversal - it's not that Wims, the main character, has good luck powers. It's that his defense mechanism is to cause bad luck for anyone thinking even the slightest amount of harm towards him. We first meet him in a research facility, where he never does anything wrong, but catastrophe follows him around. The scientists are nearly apopleptic, and close to murderous.

The main scientist, however, protects him, and even arranges for him to be enlisted. Guess what happens in the army? Of course, lots of mistakes and mishaps, and no one understands when he is given a field promotion and dropped behind enemy lines in China. He's captured by both the Russians and the Chinese, and they try to interrogate him - and in this case, when things start to go wrong, it's a very American perspective on the dangers of the Soviet system - everyone starts to think that everyone else is planning against them, and their military command falls apart into infighting and disarray.

Laughing, the Chinese make off with the prisoner - only to have their own system start to collapse.  Back in the United States, the scientist says smugly that he was the one who figured out what was going on with this bumbling young man, and has single-handedly caused the fall of Communism. The brass don't quite believe him, but there Moscow is in the middle of tearing itself apart.

It's a slight story, amusing, and gives us more insight into Cold War thought about the Soviet Union - in particular, the fault lines that could tear it apart given half a chance. It's a madcap adventure, and entertaining.

The only part that really bothered me is, you guessed it, the female character(s.) It isn't that they're absent - that isn't normally something that bothers me, although I do like to point it out, just to keep thinking about what stories could and couldn't be imagined in earlier ages of science fiction. No, it's more troubling. We don't even get to meet the one female character - she's a secretary at the research lab in the first section of the story.

What's bothersome is that she's literally there as a punchline to a sexual assault joke - the joke being that they thought the orangutan who escaped was female and found out he was male - when he attacked her and chased her around. At this point, absence would be better than having a woman mentioned in the story as part of a funny about an amorous orangutan.

As for the other visibilities I like to keep an eye on - no characters of colour, as far as are mentioned. No one who isn't straight.

Someone was commenting on one of these posts recently, saying that it wasn't fair that I was pointing such absences out, and that that was somehow censorship. I disagree, respectfully. My reviews are, and always have been, very subjective. I think pointing out which stories are told and which ones are not even thought of is perfectly legitimate as a discussion topic. I fail to see how that equals censorship. (But telling me I can't write reviews with that stuff included would be, wouldn't it? I mean, I'm commenting on the stories that are told. You were telling me I couldn't write reviews that pointed out the lack of women.)

At any rate, it's going to continue to be a part of these Throwback Thursday posts.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Machine Man by Max Barry

Machine Man is okay. It's entertaining, moves along sharply, and definitely leans more towards the action than the ideas. That's a pity, in some ways, because the ideas it raises are provocative, and I would have enjoyed more thought about them. Ah well. That is not this book. 

There were two things that struck me about this book, both of which weren't things I hold against it, exactly, but were jarring enough that they did pull me out of it. First is the names. They're cutesy, the kind of names that approach Johnny Goodboy as a level of anviliciousness. The main character, who is more than delighted to replace his body with artificial limbs, has the last name Neuman. His love interest is a prosthetist obsessed with his legs - Lola Shanks. The evil corporate bitch is Cassandra Cautery.

They're cute, sure, but I found it more the kind of cute that disrupts the narrative rather than adding to it. One of those moments where it feels like the author wants to be patted on the head because they've been so clever.

The other thing was the voice of the main character, who is obsessed with his scientific work, doesn't get human relationships, and it's never said but perhaps implied he might be somewhere on the autism spectrum. That was not the problem. The problem was that his voice was EXACTLY like that of the main character in The Rosie Project. Is there really only one way to write detail-obsessed men who don't get these icky things called emotions?

So, this book is about a scientist who accidentally cuts his leg off in a lab accident. He starts to build himself a newer, better prosthetic to replace the terrible ones commercially available, but then realizes that this would really work better if he could replace both legs. And fingers? I mean, aren't there better ways to do those?

His company is delighted - think all the money you could make if you sold these things as upgrades for healthy people, as opposed to that niche market of those who have had things amputated? They give him all the research assistants he could want, who quickly start going into things like enhanced contacts, and ways to turn off nasty emotions like guilt.

There's this obvious pdystopian undertone, but the main character is so utilitarian that he usually only has one second of "is that really what we should be doing?" and then is able to convince himself that you should. With no character to stand in opposition and register actual developed thoughts, we lose what could be a fascinating debate. Instead, thought is truncated.

Also, there are way too many people in this book far too happy to get rid of the nasty parts of their bodies and replace them with cleaner machine ones, and without someone there who feels actually attached to their physicality and able to argue it coherently, it remains a background to the action.

Which is fine. This is not a book with deep moral thoughts about bodily integrity and at what point humanity is invested in the physical, and would it be possible to imagine a humanity outside the body. It's a pity, because those ideas are sort of there, floating around the edges. They're just never really allowed to take centre stage.

So, it's entertaining. But I'm not in love with it.