Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin

I haven't yet read The Fifth Season, but I was absolutely delighted when N.K. Jemisin was nominated for a Hugo this year, despite the best efforts of certain slates. I've now read four of her books, and been impressed by every single one. And seriously, I think The Shadowed Sun might go to the head of the list as my favourite, which would be a very hard choice indeed. 

Which is strange but not strange, for a specific reason. I've been ranting a lot recently about the inclusion of rape as either a throwaway or as a lazy way of denoting badness. And a lot of it has come down to "I need to fucking read about fewer rapes." Here I am turning around and talking about a book that includes a fair amount of sexual violence, and saying it's really excellent. And it is. I've had to do a lot of thinking about why this book works for me when Proxima threw me into fits of frankly unhealthy rage. 

Here's what I came up with: it's not titillating. It's not throwaway. It isn't just there for flavour. It is, in fact, absolutely central to one of the storylines, and comes out of who the abuser is and everything about him. Which is gross and awful and uncomfortable, but it's rooted in the specific, the real, not the generic or the surface. For this storyline to happen the way it does, an act this horrific must have occurred, and it did. 

It still makes me uncomfortable, but it doesn't make me enraged. It makes me sad, because despite the fact that this is a fantasy book, it feels disturbingly genuine. It's a difficult storyline, but it's not gratuitous, and it doesn't treat the women concerned as props to make the point that men are bad.

So, on to the story! Taking place some years after The Killing Moon, life in Gujaareh has settled uneasily. They're ruled by the Kisuati now, although Sunandi has made efforts to try to make the occupation less burdensome. She's cut off at the knees by the Kisuati elite, and the situation starts to spiral out of control.

Hanani, the first female Healer ever, is sent out of the city on a mission to the desert tribes, because Wanahomen, the son of the last Prince of Gujaareh, is assembling an army there to take his city back. Wanahomen hates the Hetawa because he blames them for what became of his father. (The Hetawa are the magical elite, including the healers.) So much of this book is about clashes of culture, around women's roles, around magic, around power and how it should be wielded. 

It all feels so precise, so beautifully drawn, that, as with the first book, I find it hard to pick sides. There is no side that has all the good attributes vs. one that has all the bad, and that is so disappointingly rare. These are real ethical dilemmas, and there are times that I was made uneasy by turns of events, but then would remind myself that death itself has a different meaning in this fantasy world, and that what makes me uncomfortable stems from my own cultural context. 

The story is largely about Hanani and Wanahomen, and it's really marvellous. (And at times, damn sexy.) The struggle, the slow trust, the betrayals and anger and grief, Jemisin has captured them all within a striking storyline, and then woven it against a much larger canvass. I'm a big fan of this book, and a big fan of hers.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Book Club time again! Later this week, the book club I belong to will be meeting to discuss Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, and I have no idea what anyone else will have to say about it, but I liked it quite a lot. Right from the beginning, I was grabbed by the writing.

The prose manages to be both precise and evocative, with descriptions of the main character, Dellarobia, and her life, that felt so confining I couldn't breathe.

As the book opens, Dellarobia is about to throw her marriage away for a fling (this is all on the inside jacket, so I don't think it counts as a spoiler.) On her way, though, she sees what looks like trees aflame. (It might be worth mentioning that she is not wearing her glasses.) Eventually, it is revealed that monarch butterflies have settled on a huge swath of her in-laws' property, to overwinter somewhere they've never overwintered before.

So here we get a story of climate change, as signified by the changing conditions that made the butterflies try to find a new winter home, and the scientist who is there to watch, record, and maybe witness the death of a species.

That larger picture takes place against Dellarobia's life, who is dissatisfied with her husband and her life. They were married as teenagers because she was pregnant. When she lost the baby, they stayed married, and eventually had two more children. But it's not a marriage of mutual comfort and help. Dellarobia is frankly irritated by Cub, and he is a little baffled by his wife. No one is the bad guy in this story, but it's painful and difficult.

This feels like it could be a book about how the poor rednecks don't understand the importance of changing our carbon consumption, or it could be a snap back that anyone who says that doesn't understand the difficulties of life in poverty. This book is far more nuanced than that. There are no real bad guys, although there are plenty who have never known how to think outside their immediate horizon.

Kingsolver negotiates this delicately, both acknowledging the cultural gap while not exaggerating it. There is common ground even in the midst of science in a sheep barn.

One of the underlying themes, as I said above, is about the changing and erratic nature of weather on our planet in the face of climate change, and the difficulty in getting people to take it seriously. What I like best is how perceptive Kingsolver is about hierarchies of concern, and how those hierarchies come to be constructed and reinforced, as well as how they crumble and shift.

In other words, I like the story and characters a great deal. But what I was blown away by was how deftly Kingsolver made me feel Dellarobia's sense of confinement, delineated the borders of her world as a stay-at home mom in a poor town with no money to spare for virtually anything. It wasn't patronizing, but it is powerful.

In the end, it's about how we create our own worlds, but conversely, it's about how the world we are born into gives us certain boundaries that cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Trial by Fire by Charles Gannon

This book is, you know. okay. And I mean just okay. With some fairly  major problems, but most of it just squeaked by as enjoyable. (Just squeaking by is probably not what you want.)  Some of the problems are specific to me as a reader, some are much broader. Here's problem number one. It feels a little like Gannon's trying to do something like Lois McMaster Bujold, with the multi-faceted hero who is always so many steps ahead of those around him it's not funny.

The thing that's missing is that Miles Vorkosigan is not good at everything. He's good at many things, but there are also deep character flaws that keep him human. He can be manic. He can be depressed. He can ride roughshod over people simply because he's sure he's right all the time. He's terrible at romance.

Caine Riordan, the hero here, feels like he's trying to be Miles without the drawbacks, a journalist/diplomat/soldier/strategist/xenopsychologist who knocks up all the ladies (trust me, we'll be coming back to that) while correctly assessing every situation and never flagging under pressure. It's...just a little boring. There's no meat to the character, other than that he's awesome about everything.

Let's give Gannon a break by going to something that is not a fault in the book, per se, but it's just something that means that this book was inevitably going to be less appealing to me. This is definitely military SF or milSF if you need two less syllables in your life. As such, there is so much description of the ground war in Indonesia where aliens have invaded Earth, or in space battles. 

I've said it before, I'll say it again, I'm not a visual thinker. Words on the page don't transform themselves into pictures or movies in my mind. (Tastes and smells are far more powerful for me.) So when there are pages and pages and pages of military tactics, I'm sure they might be exciting for those who use those words to create strong visuals of what's going on. Unfortunately, I just stare at the descriptions with no idea what they would translate to in 3D space.

Back to things that are larger. Oh, wait. Should I give you an idea of plot?

After a first contact congress with multiple-alien species, the aliens (a couple of species of them) strike first. The book is about humans fighting back on Earth. There. Done.

Number one is that, while it's not a deadly sin, it is a boring one to have two female characters who are entirely Riordan-focused, while Riordan, despite in theory loving both of them, can put them out of his mind to get the job done. 

Less forgivable is the idea that Riordan knocked them both up, one 13 years ago, one now. No birth control in the future? You can go to the stars but you can't stop the sperm? Ridiculous.

The other quibble I have is the part where Gannon uses a very old trope about humans and their interactions with aliens, one I'm more than a little tired of, particularly given how closely it tends to mirror older racist discourses of civilization. 

It's that trope where other civilizations are static, while "we" alone are adaptable. "They"'re either old, decadent, and stagnant, or barbaric and unable to think creatively. And if you can't see how that relates to racial politics, particularly of the 19th century, haven't read a lot about it.

I get so frustrated when I see this tired old trope repeated in SF. We can imagine literally anything, but we always have to imagine that other alien races are monolithic and static, while our own is flexible, adaptable, and ultimately superior? (There are individual aliens who disagree in this book, but they are largely ignored.)

This is tied to far too heavy a reliance on evolutionary psychology. Even when we're talking about earthlings, it is far too often used to bolster a status quo by looking at our bodies and trying to find reasons why something is a "natural" way to be, even though there are almost always incredibly disparate cultures on our own damned planet that contradict it. Society is powerful, people. Social constructs don't mean weakness, but they do sometimes mean we'll use tortured pseudoscientific reasons to give them what feels like a strong base.

Likewise, we're supposed to believe that a quick look at the biology of an alien species tells you all you need to know about their psychology and how they're react, presuming that nothing has changed from their pre-sapient ancestors on whatever world they came from. That's lazy fucking writing.

So...yeah. This book is not really for me. There's some competent writing, some of the time, but the content was either baffling or frustrating.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Hugo Nominees

Another project I have on the go is to read all the Hugo nominees. Just reading the winners seemed too easy, and I'm nothing if not ambitious. I'm far enough into this project to be undeterred by the recent year of Hugo madness. I jump around in time while reading, but here they are, in order, with links to the ones I've read and reviewed. (Those in bold were the winners for their respective years.)

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (read but not yet reviewed)
The Forever Machine by Mark Clifton
Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (read but not yet reviewed)
The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (read but not yet reviewed)

A Case of Conscience by James Blish
The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson
Who? by Algis Budrys
Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (read but not yet reviewed)
Dorsai by Gordon R. Dickson
The Pirates of Ersatz by Murray Leinster
Brain Twister by Randall Garrett
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
The High Crusade by Poul Anderson
Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys
Deathworld by Harry Harrison
Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (read but not yet reviewed)
Dark Universe by Daniel F. Galouye
Planet of the Damned by Harry Harrison
Time is the Simplest Thing by Clifford D. Simak
Second Ending by James White

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
The Sword of Aldones by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke
Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper
Sylva by Jean Vercors

Way Station by Clifford D. Simak
Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein
Witch World by Andre Norton
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber
The Whole Man by John Brunner
Davy by Edgar Panborn
The Planet Buyer by Cordwainer Smith

Dune by Frank Herbert (read but not yet reviewed)
This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
The Squares of the City by John Brunner
Skylark Duquesne by Edward E. Smith

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (read but not yet reviewed)
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (read but not reviewed)
The Witches of Karres by Jason H. Schmitz
Day of the Minotaur by Thomas Burnett Swann

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
Chthon by Piers Anthony
The Butterfly Kid by Chester Anderson
Thorns by Robert Silverberg

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin
Nova by Samuel R. Delany
Past Master by R.A. Lafferty
The Goblin Reservation by Clifford Simak

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Up the Line by Robert Silverberg
Macroscope by Piers Anthony
Slaughter-house Five by Kurt Vonnegut (read but not yet reviewed)
Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad

Ringworld by Larry Niven (read but not yet reviewed)
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg
The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker
Star Light by Hal Clement

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip K. Dick (read but not yet reviewed)
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey (read but not reviewed)
Jack of Shadows - Roger Zelazny
A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
There Will Be Time by Poul Anderson
The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg
Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg
A Choice of Gods by Clifford Simak

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
Time Enough For Love by Robert A. Heinlein
Protector by Larry Niven
The People of the Wind by Poul Anderson
The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
Fire Time by Poul Anderson
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Inverted World by Christopher Priest

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny
Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester 
The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg (read but not reviewed)

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm 
Mindbridge by Joe Haldeman
Children of Dune by Frank Herbert 
Man Plus by Frederik Pohl
Shadrach in the Furnace by Robert Silverberg

Gateway by Frederik Pohl 
The Forbidden Tower by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Time Storm by Gordon Dickson
Dying of the Light by George R.R. Martin 

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre
The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey (read but not reviewed)
The Faded Sun: Kesrith by C.J. Cherryh
Blind Voices by Tom Reamy

The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
Titan by John Varley
Jem by Frederik Pohl
Harpist in the Wind by Patricia A. McKillip
On Wings of Song by Thomas Disch

The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge
Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg
The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven
Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl
Wizard by John Varley

Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh
The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
The Many-Colored Land by Julian May
Project Pope by Clifford Simak
Little, Big by John Crowley

Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov
The Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh
2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke
Friday by Robert A. Heinlein (read but not reviewed)
Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury
The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe 

Startide Rising by David Brin
Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. McAvoy
Millennium by John Varley (read but not reviewed)
Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern by Anne McCaffrey (read but not reviewed)
The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov

Neuromancer by William Gibson 
Emergence by David R. Palmer
Peace War by Vernor Vinge
Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert A. Heinlein (read but not reviewed)
The Integral Trees by Larry Niven

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (read but not reviewed)
Cuckoo's Egg by C.J. Cherryh
The Postman by David Brin (read but not reviewed)
Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (read but not reviewed)
Blood Music by Greg Bear (read but not reviewed)

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (read but not reviewed)
The Ragged Astronauts by Bob Shaw (read but not reviewed)
Count Zero by William Gibson (read but not reviewed)
Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge
Black Genesis by L. Ron Hubbard

The Uplift War by David Brin
When Gravity Fails by George Effinger
Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card (read but not reviewed)
The Forge of God by Greg Bear
The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh
Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card (read but not reviewed)
Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold 
Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling
Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson 

Hyperion by Dan Simmons 
A Fire in the Sun by George Effinger 
Prentice Alvin by Orson Scott Card (read but not reviewed)
The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson (read but not reviewed)
Grass by Sheri S. Tepper 

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
Earth by David Brin
The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmon
The Quiet Pools by Michael P. Kube-McDowell
Queen of Angels by Greg Bear

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
Bone Dance by Emma Bull
All the Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
The Summer Queen by Joan D. Vinge
Xenocide by Orson Scott Card (read but not reviewed)
Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh
Steel Beach by John Varley

Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Moving Mars by Greg Bear
Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress (read but not reviewed)
Glory Season by David Brin
Virtual Light by William Gibson

Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold
Mother of Storms by John Barnes
Beggars and Choosers by Nancy Kress
Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop
Towing Jehovah by James K. MOrrow

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
Brightness Reef by David Brin
The Terminal Experiment by Robert Sawyer
Remake by Connie Willis

Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold
Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon
Starplex by Robert Sawyer
Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling

Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
City on Fire by Walter John Williams
The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons
Frameshift by Robert Sawyer
Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson
Distraction by Bruce Sterling
Factoring Humanity by Robert Sawyer

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear (read but not reviewed)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (read but not reviewed)
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin 
Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod 
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

American Gods by Neil Gaiman (read but not reviewed)
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
Passage by Connie Willis (read but not reviewed)
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson
Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod

Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
Kiln People by David Brin
Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick
The Scar by China Miéville
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
Ilium by Dan Simmons
Singularity Sky by Charles Stross (read but not reviewed)
Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
Humans by Robert J. Sawyer

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
River of Gods by Ian McDonald
The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross
Iron Council by China Miéville

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Learning the World by Ken MacLeod
A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
Old Man's War by John Scalzi
Accelerando by Charles Stross

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
Glasshouse by Charles Stross
His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
Eifelheim by Michael F. Flynn
Blindsight by Peter Watts

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
The Last Colony by John Scalzi
Halting State by Charles Stross
Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer
Brasyl by Ian McDonald

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (read but not reviewed)
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Saturn's Children by Charles Stross
Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
The City & The City by China Miéville
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Wake by Robert J. Sawyer
Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
Feed by Mira Grant
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Among Others by Jo Walton
A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
Deadline by Mira Grant
Embassytown by China Miéville
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Redshirts by John Scalzi
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Blackout by Mira Grant
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross
Parasite by Mira Grant
Warbound by Larry Correia
The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson)

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson
Skin Game by Jim Butcher
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher (read but not reviewed)
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson 

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Death's End by Cixin Liu
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Grail by Elizabeth Bear

I have spoken many times about my habit of starting series wherever books cross my field of vision. This is one where I think I would have benefited from starting at the beginning. I didn't, though, I started at book 2, and was pretty much utterly confused. That is my own damn fault. By this book, though, the third and final one in the trilogy, I think I pretty much had my feet underneath me, and could enjoy it more deeply than my confusion let me sink into the second. This novel is from the earlier part of Bear's career, when I liked her a lot, but found her writing sometimes a bit oblique, which could leave me confused as to what was going on. 

That's not a problem I see any more. And she's one of my favourite authors these days, so I am glad I kept reading. There was always enough there to keep me attentive, and this book is no exception.

The giant generation ship is nearing its destination, only to find that better technology that came about after their expulsion from Earth means that the planet they've been waiting for is already occupied. Not only that, it's occupied by humans quite different from what they remember, who have adopted "right-minding" in order to tame instinctual fears and hatreds, to allow humans to act from a more rational perspective.

The name itself gives me the shivers, but for the first while, the way it's described is somewhat seductive. It's an easier answer, a way to not take more than we need and suck others dry. The downsides are not so strong as to make you immediately step back. Except, you gradually see, who decides what's right? What are the parameters of acceptable? And what if people make a perfectly rational decision to attack those who are different because they threaten their way of life?

And a small question, but an essential one - what happens to art?

This is all the meta stuff, but it's played out through characters, through Perceval, the Captain, still grieving for her lost love and handed at the start a new, terrible death that will shake her, and make her aware of fractures on an already fractured ship, the kind that could tear it apart, instead of being able to live in uneasy truce.

What to do when these two cultures collide - those who eschew genetic manipulation except of the brain, and those who adapt as a matter of ethos. The core of the book is people honestly trying to find ways to make that work, on both sides, beset by other factions that see the only potential path as one of war, or self-destruction. 

What makes a human? What are the boundaries we set? How do we police them? Can we learn to relax and let down those boundaries, even with fear removed from the equation?  This is all set agains a desperate race against time to find who is behind various conspiracies who want to wreck the whole experiment before it can even be undertaken.

Some day, I really should go back and read the first book in the series and then come back to the later two with that knowledge under my belt. Still, having read the second, I was able to come into the third less lost than I thought I might be. It doesn't surprise me that I found it thought-provoking and engaging. 

Monday, 11 April 2016

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny

The Nature of the Beast feels like a return to form for Louise Penny. It's not that the last book was bad - it was still pretty good. I'm just so used to superlatively good that merely good is a bit of a letdown. Last year was the first year in a while that one of her books hasn't made my year-end Top Ten. We'll see how next year shakes out, but this has all of the things I love about Penny's mystery series.

Gamache and his wife are still in Three Pines, although the job offers for Gamache have been pouring in, and it seems likely he'll be back in some kind of active service in the next book or so. (I've seen pictures of the cover of the ARC on Twitter a couple of times this last week, so I know it's coming on schedule.) A young boy who always tells tall tales comes running into Olivier and Gabri's bistro, talking about a gun as big as a house.

The next day, he's found thrown from his bike, dead in a ditch. It's written off as an accident, but Gamache realizes that some things don't add up. His old team shows up, LaCoste and Beauvoir, to investigate, and they find that the gun as big as a house is far from a story - it's hidden out in the woods, a weapon of legend. A missile launcher without electronics, made by a weapons designer who was murdered in Brussels decades previously.

Two CSIS agents show up, file clerks who know about the designer, as a does a university professor. Unsettlingly, the case seems to bring up casual references to the worst serial killer in Quebec history, at whose trial Gamache found out more about depravity than anyone would ever want to. 

It's a race to find the boy's killer before the news of the giant gun gets out, and to negotiate a murder investigation against CSIS agents who think their investigation is more important. 

So why do I say that it's a return to form? It's tighter, I think, than the last book. Gamache is mostly recuperated and almost back in action, although careful not to undermine Isabelle in her new role. The mystery is compelling. We also get some new insight into Ruth Zardo and her history, and as Ruth is one of my favourite characters, that's very welcome. 

There's an undercurrent here, about art, and intention, and of the ways that art can be an expiation, or, more unsettling, a way to avoid dealing with the past while thinking that you are. Getting stuck on what you think you should be doing instead of moving forward to find the next moment in your life. It's very much a side story centered around Clara, but those last moments were very powerful.

The thread about the gun and the threat it poses to the world is also strong. While they're trying to find the murderer of a child, others are trying to get control of the gun, or find its plans or missing firing mechanism. There are those in the world who would be more than glad to get their hands on it, and that has to be a consideration. But smaller stories must not get lost just because there are big ones, and Penny does a good job of juggling both.

I don't know what else to say. It was a thoroughly satisfying mystery, with an ending I didn't see coming, but which made a macabre sort of sense. There's also some set up for, I presume, later books, with the serial killer. I'm not fond of fiction with serial killers, as a rule, but I'd made an exception for Penny, because I believe she'd have a reason for it. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Proxima by Stephen Baxter

*You'd Better Believe There Are Spoilers*

Goddammit, Stephen Baxter, I'm trying! I've been trying to like you since I read an early book and thought the characters were so cardboard I couldn't get through it. (No idea what book that is now.) I enjoyed the first book you and Terry Pratchett wrote together. I mean, we share a last name. Arbitrarily, that feels like it should mean something.

But dude, you're just not meeting me half-way. You include colonization plans that make NO FUCKING SENSE. You use rape all the time to denote "villain." Your characters rarely have any actual connection to any other characters. When they do, they're brutally torn apart. This is a bleak view of human nature. I can deal with short-sightedness. I can deal with a certain level of cynicism. But this is more atomization and alienation than I can deal with.

(Also, you held off on a realization that I think you should have revealed in this book, because by the time a reader gets to your next one, it's likely to fall flat. Don't hold on to your toys. Go for the aftermath.)

I just...I really didn't like this book. I tried. Goddammit, I tried valiantly. There are brief flashes of good things here, but then something else would happen that would throw me into a rage, and spending large swathes of a book being irritated as fuck is not really the state you want me in if you want me to read any more of your books.

So, part one. The ridiculous colonization plans. Look, I have no problem with the idea that governments trying to make colonization plans would be short-sighted. That they'd be cutting corners. That they'd make silly decisions. I just can't believe those decision would be this short-sighted, this ridiculous, and this deliberately cruel. Like, it's not even accidental cruelty. This is deliberate sadism for NO FUCKING REASON.

If you're trying to claim a planet before the Chinese can get there, it's in your interest to have thriving settlements there when the other side arrives. Not to drop your colonists in groups of fourteen people, geographically isolated, and tell them women as baby machines and incest is the way to go! Why? Why would you do that? Why would you tell the women they all have to get pregnant and thus perhaps leaving a workforce of seven people. (If they were all immensely pregnant at the same time.) Why would you leave people with nothing in positions that mean that any time a person dies, the population of their group is almost literally decimated?  Larger groups in three or four spots would make far more fucking sense. 

Just...who came up with this? Not anthropologists. Not policy-makers. Not doctors. Not even bureaucrats who are entirely remote from the world. Dear lord, this kept making me angry. I can see short-sighted. I love, for instance, Spider Robinson's take on how corporations might cut corners on colonization in the book he wrote from Heinlein's notes, Variable Star. This is just beyond my suspension of disbelief.

(Did I mention that all the colonists for this first ever colony were pressganged? Because no one wants to colonize! The fuck? If this were the hundredth colony, I might buy it. Not the first.)

And we haven't even started to talk about the rape.

Hey guys! You'll be glad to know that you're all burgeoning rapists and that if you were dropped on a planet and had to suffer a year or even a few months without sex, you'd go crazy and kill people who you thought would stand in your way of raping a few women!

Because it's not one guy. It's three guys on the spaceship (that we see) when the gravity goes out. (One is killed later by the woman he raped.) It's, in one group of fourteen, two guys after a couple of months of not getting their rocks off, killing four or five people to get to one woman. It's, a couple years after that, in the SAME GROUP, one other guy killing two to try to get to rape one other woman. It's, a few years after that, when the only two people to survive from this group travel with their daughter and find other people, that they run into one group run by women, and one run by, I shit you not, cannibal rapists. 

These are bad guys. There's no ambiguity here. But rape is used as a shorthand to denote "villain," and frankly, Stephen Baxter, fuck right off. Science fiction is a diverse place these days. You may have female readers who don't need that much sexual violence in their reading. You may have guys who don't enjoy the assumption that under every guy's skin is a slavering rapist who will murder on a whim.

And that points to a larger problem with the book - the almost complete lack of genuine human connection between any of the characters. None of them care about each other. They'll work together, but connection? Nope. Well, that's wrong. There are three strong human connections between family members, and in every case, they're irreparably ripped apart. That's a little bleak, isn't it? 

Just keep isolating people, over and over. On the planet, and apparently just because the greater authorial voice decides. Oh, and make sure to add in some rapists.

That's pretty much where I want to leave it, except for one thing - we're repeatedly told that the main character's name is not his name, and it's never revealed during the book. It becomes pretty apparent by the end that the name of the person who was made into the AI Earthshine is probably Yuri's real name, but instead of ever giving us that payoff in this book, when it would mean something, it's put off. Presumably that revelation will happen later, but you can't tell me that a delay of months or years between when people might read these two books would make it a better payoff later. You got dramatic reveals? Get to them. This one is interesting, but there's no real reason to withhold it.

So, yeah. I didn't like this book, and I was more irritated because there were flashes of good storytelling in there, in between the bouts of rage it provoked. I'm out. I'm done. I might read The Time Ships just so I can finish my read of the Hugo winners and nominees, but I'm not on board for Ultima.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Revenant by Kat Richardson

Okay, let's start this with a confession. I had never read anything by this author before, and starting with the last book in this series was probably not the wisest thing to do. And that may be perhaps why I didn't feel as engaged as I might have liked to. I didn't have any emotional baggage to bring to this book, and as the culmination of a series, I suspect it may depend on that. 

So yeah. This is going to be an unfair review, to anyone who has been reading this series from the beginning. I just have not, so from my perspective, I found it hard to connect with many of the characters, and even to really figure out what a greywalker was. (Yes, I get it that the main character, Harper, connected in some way with the supernatural, that she can see past traumas, that she's died. But is it something beyond that?)

That was my first quibble. While I truly do appreciate Richardson's choice to make this battle hard fought, and leading to many many injuries, at times, I was reading skeptically wondering what a Greywalker actually could do? It seemed to be more debilitating than offering any power or resources. I don't remember her doing very much that was helpful that was specifically related to greywalking, except for escaping a few times. And there were far more when her abilities caused her injury or mental trauma.

I am all for superpowers with drawbacks. But not having read the other books, or possibly missing something, it didn't seem like there were many superpowers here. The Houdini stuff, sure. And talking to ghosts is great. But when you run into combat as often as Harper does in this book, is there really absolutely nothing she can do there? 

Right, plot. This takes place in Portugal, where Harper's boyfriend has been tracking his crazy father who is trying to plunge the world into a morass of something, for some nefarious purpose. I know there were hints he thought it was a grand one, but it wasn't very clearly explained. (This might be because I was reading electronically, so lost the ability to flip back and reread bits when I was confused.)

Harper and Quentin and vampire Carlos have to stop them, and the book is a lot of times where they get beaten up badly on the way to doing so. I phrase it like that, because it didn't feel like a build. It felt like an event, a recuperation, a lull, another event. That gradual increase of tension was never really there. Possibly because Richardson was trying to make the tension just as high at the start of the book, but that isn't a great way to go for overall structure. (Also, if you want to do that, be Mira Grant and write about zombies and do it incredibly well.)

My other main quibble was actually borne out by the afterword. When reading the sections when Harper arrived in Portugal, my exact reaction was that it read like someone went into a town using Google Streetview, and was describing it from that perspective. Then, in the afterword, the author mentions how much she used Google Streetview in her Portugal bits, and that's a problem. Not that she used it, but that she then reported it in the story, instead of integrating it. It's devoid of other sensory cues - all visual, and all visual at a remove, in that they're often reported like Harper is moving the camera around as the author must have. No sounds. No smells. None of those things that move beyond the visual into the tactile. 

Doing your research is so good and so necessary. But it's a hard skill to then use all that information at the service of the story and not just try to get it all on the page to prove you did the work. 

I'm being so critical, but this book wasn't terrible. It was just...disappointing. It feels like this is so close to being something really good, but better plotting and development and tension, and mastering how to use research to enrich your story instead of replace it, would make it so much better. 

Friday, 1 April 2016

The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle

I am just so sick of reading books that include rape. So many, just in the last couple of weeks, and on top of current events, it's too fucking much. I'm tired of being barraged by it, of having it be a sidenote thrown into a book that is otherwise hilarious. Of having it treated lightly, off-handedly, mostly in connection to how it affects the male main characters. There are very few books that I've read recently where I think it's been handled well.

When I say very few, I mean one. Once. In the last year. And I had to do a lot of thinking after the book was over about what I thought about it. I ended up believing that it was included well and for a powerful reason, and not used gratuitously. And that's fine. As long as it's fucking rare.

If it happens all the time it becomes distressing. That's what's been happening to me - thanks, Leonard Cohen. I needed to know that your main character's reaction to the gang rape of his Native American wife when she was 13 was to cause a reverie about the sexiness of 13-year-olds. Thanks, William Kotzwinkle, in the midst of this absurdism, I needed to have an insert where a Puerto Rican man came through the window and raped the girl the main character was sleeping with, and the character's reaction is to be upset he won't get to sleep with her. Thanks, Stephen Baxter, I needed to watch multiple homicides by men in order that they could rape. (Seriously, we're at a majority of men who are rapists in Proxima, and cannibal rapists have just been introduced.)

By luck, I've never been the victim of sexual assault. But I sure do enjoy being reminded every time I open a fucking book that it's a possibility! 

I would like to connect everyone to John Scalzi's blogpost on the issue. Think about it. Think about what the author's doing with it. Particularly read this sentence, which is from the first paragraph of his first comment on the blog post: "Again, narrative and plotting are authorial choices, not naturally occurring phenomena over which the writer has no control." Rape isn't inevitable in fiction. The author made a choice to put it in there. Perhaps not a well-thought out choice. Maybe they didn't even think about it. But it was a choice to bring it in and do something with it.

Or, even more infuriatingly, not doing anything with it. When it's thrown into what is honestly, otherwise, a fairly hilarious book about an entirely ineffectual hippie who spends his time selling organic carrots he doesn't have, trying to pick up young chicks, organizing a choir and just trying to leave his apartment, what possible purpose is served by throwing in a two page scene in which the girl you want to sleep with tells you she was raped?

What does it add? Why is it there? 

It is so aggravating, because I would have thoroughly enjoyed this book otherwise. There were parts of it that were quite hilarious. And it's such a small part of the book. But coming on the heels of what feels like a barrage of fictional rape scenes, it spoiled the book for me. 

And I can't think of a damned thing it added.