Friday, 21 July 2017

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I have to confess that my last two attempts to read works of classic literature have not gone that well. I've gotten bogged down, a little bored, and run out of time to push through and finish. So when the next classic turned up on one of my lists, I was a little worried. Was this going to be another chance to break a tooth on these huge tomes? At least we owned our copy of Moby Dick, I reasoned.

Turns out I needn't have worried. It did take me a while to read, but there really wasn't a time where I was bored, or felt like I needed to put it down and walk away, possibly for a few years. It's hard to say that Moby Dick is engrossing, but it's consistently interesting, and more than that, it felt like it rewarded thought about what Melville was trying to achieve.

We likely all know the story, of course, of Captain Ahab and his chase for the white whale, even if only through Futurama's venture into these pages while under Giant Brain Attack. What's remarkable is how few pages of the book that actually takes. I mean, it's always on Ahab's mind, but the actual whale only showed up on around page 650 of the 685 pages in my edition. The chase itself is packed into the last thirty pages or so, and most of the rest of the book is devoted to the practice of whaling.

I had been told about the intensive detail into whaling and this was, frankly, part of my worry that this book was going to be a slog.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that all that exhaustive detail of the history, taxonomy, and logistics of whales and whaling was never something that felt burdensome. It wasn't a fast moving story, but it was written in such a way that I was never bored. That, my friends, is an accomplishment.

While Futurama may be the most obvious pop culture nod, I came to this book having already read and loved China Mieville's marvelous Railsea, a take on Moby Dick, except on trains, and chasing the great white mole. Mieville's book is even more pointedly about obsession and what the objects of obsession come to symbolize for the various moling train captains.

It may be because of that, in the middle of some discussion of whales or some minute aspect of whaling, that I started to think about all this exhaustive detail, and why it's there. You could say Melville's just obsessed with whaling, but that misses the point - all that detail is not thrown in there without obvious author, it's being related by Ishmael, who cares passionately about whaling, and wants to make specific points about it, and dismiss others. That detail is his obsession, as much as Moby Dick is Captain Ahab's.

That the big, life-altering, sea-shaking, deadly obsession of Ahab's is juxtaposed with the quieter, but not less intense obsession of Ishmael's is what really ended up selling the book to me. When you read those sections and remain aware that they're a character telling you what he thinks is important about the world, and yet when you read it, you become aware that it's such a small segment, and yet all the world to him. It's fascinating.

That pulled me along until Moby Dick finally surfaced in those last 30 pages or so, and led the crew of the Pequod on a merry chase, and certain death. And I was delighted to find that of all the classics I've failed to finish recently (Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov), I found this one delightfully easy to get through.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Jaran by Kate Elliott

When I try to think about what I want to write about in this review, I have to keep coming back to Roger Ebert's famous and useful maxim "it's not what it's about, it's how it is about it." He's talking about movies, of course, but it's just as applicable to books. And that's where my troubles lie. I will defend strongly the idea that science fiction and romance should not be mutually exclusive categories, although I have to admit that I haven't loved the couple of entries into that hybrid genre I've read so far. I do not, however, think that good romance science fiction books can't be written.

I just...I'm not sure this is one of them. In many ways, the romance part is fine, with some major quibbles about tropes it embraces wholeheartedly instead of interrogating. But you bill a book as science fiction, it somehow makes it more difficult to turn my brain off and just float along in romancey goodness. (I'm not that good at floating along in romancey goodness anyway, but for a select few authors, I can manage it.)

If it's science fiction, I want to be engaged with the universe being built, with the underlying ideas, and how they're used, and whether the author is exploring the boundaries of their creation, or is content to build science fiction dressing on older tropes based on race, civilization, and what my husband aptly dubbed "simplicity porn," and ignoring anything problematic in favour of a passionate tale of love across cultural lines.

Uh...yeah. I guess that previous paragraph sets out many of my problems with this book. There are a lot of ways in which I feel like I'm being too critical. It's obviously supposed to be fluffy and fun, and I really wish I could treat it that way. But once I started to notice the similarity in narrative to colonial/race-based tropes of finding freedom from the horrible cities in the simpler, purer culture of the natives...I was sunk. You start to see it, you can't unsee it.

And here is my primary problem with it, and why I dragged Roger Ebert into it. I do strongly believe that there might be a story to be told with science fiction, and maybe even with romance, that tackles these kinds of issues in ways that are engrossing and powerful. A book that takes its "how it is about it" in incisive ways to write something really interesting. But that's not the "how it is about it" that happens here. Here, we pretend that it's okay to play around with the tropes being used without ever considering issues of race and/or discourses of what is "civilized" and what is "savage" because science fiction gives you the freedom to just make everyone white.

This is an answer that is not okay.

(To be fair, everyone in the tribes the main character ends up with is very white and if I remember correctly, blonde. Tess, the main character, coming from off-world, is a brunette. I believe she is also white, but I will admit that I am not entirely sure, because I read this digitally, and in that format, it's a hell of a lot harder to flip back through quickly and look for a description. I will concede that she might not be white, but even so, I'm not sure that would make anything better. Using science fiction to make it so that white people are the tribal people without ever really engaging in any thought about the historical and cultural baggage wrapped up in stories of the freedom of the plains and the tribes who ride there is not clever. It's simplistic, and it tries to use cultural tropes without dealing with the history or weight of those tropes.)

So, what's the story about? Humanity has long spread to the stars, but ran smack into a race, the Chapalii, who already control most of it. After hundreds of years, one human led a rebellion against them. He failed, but was rewarded with a dukedom in the highly hierarchical society of the Chapalii, in which deviance from hierarchical norms is perverted and unthinkable. (I'd have to go into a very deep read to parse out why the way in which they are talked about made me think uncomfortably about late nineteenth-century North American ideas about Chinese culture, so I'm not going to pursue it at the moment.)

His sister and heir, Tess, is coming home after a failed relationship at school, and she hates the responsibility she's going to have to assume as his heir, and doesn't seem too fond of intergalactic "urban" culture. On her trip, she becomes aware of some shadiness on the part of Chapalii on a world that is part of her brother's demesne, and follows them down, finding herself adrift in a vast plain, where she is picked up by a horse-riding nomadic clan.

Does she become accepted into the clan with open arms because they're less suspicious of outsiders and frankly a little naive? Of course.

Does she find lots of freedom in their gender norms, more than she would have found out in the stars? It seems so, even though what the intergalactic gender norms are is more than a little sketchily drawn.

Does she break the gender norms in the tribe she's adopted in ways no woman ever has before, becoming more proficient than any woman before her in horse riding, sabre fighting, and travelling, while still being totally accepted? You bet your sweet bippy.

In other words, does she Dances With Wolves the shit out of this?

Oh, and because this is a romance, does she fall in love with the hotheaded leader of the nomadic tribe and he with her, even though they are both too damned stubborn to admit to it for most of the length of the novel?  Do you even need to ask?

The writing is not bad. The romance is not bad, if you could truly divorce this plot from the stories that we have told over and over again in our culture about the decadence of civilization, and the purity of the uncivilized life. Which you can't. You really, really can't. Or rather, you shouldn't. This draws so heavily on familiar stories from Earth that are so steeped in racial and cultural assumptions that to use them while trying to ignore those assumptions made me so frustrated, again and again.

It's not that a book can't be written about these themes. But how this book is about it, or rather, how it tries to have its cake while ignoring it too, is the problem. You want the cake, you've got to deal with the history of the cake, and how it tastes, and what the cake does to people.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

It is remarkably hard to hunt down some of the earliest books that were nominated for a Hugo at either of the libraries I have access to, but I assumed that one of Heinlein's juveniles would not particularly pose a challenge. Turns out I was wrong. Then again, it popped up at a local used bookstore, and so it was, in the end, not really an issue. I was just surprised that it had been a problem at all, particularly since the one I picked up used was a recent re-issue.

So I carried my new find around in my purse for about a week and a half, and when I was out and about and had a few minutes, read a few pages. It went by remarkably fast, which was pretty much what I expected from a Heinlein juvenile. I generally find Heinlein remarkably readable, even when I have other quibbles with his writing.

This was apparently written to be a serial about Scouting on places other than Earth. Venus and Mars being at least partially occupied in Heinlein's ficton, humans look to settle on Ganymede, eking out farms from the rock, seasoned with bacteria and worms.

The main character was an Eagle Scout on Earth, and due to rising population pressures, rationing, and crowding, decides to go with his father and his father's new wife and stepdaughter to Ganymede to homestead. Of course, with the sensitivity of many policies, many more settlers are sent than the planet is really ready to handle, given the entire dependence on Earth for just about everything but food.

(Spider Robinson makes some nice allusions to this book in Variable Star, the book he wrote from Heinlein's notes. I didn't know there was that particular homage until I read this.)

 (I do not remember the main character's name, which is a pretty good sign that there's not much of a character there other than upstanding Boy Scout with the usual attributes of a juvenile Heinlein hero - that's not a bad thing, necessarily, but it does mean that character is not the story here) On the way, the main character runs into a lot of people who are dipshits. That's not of course the language that is used - these were marketed to kids, after all - but people who are too dumb to research, question, or accept that there might be reasonable boundaries on their behaviour. Main Character Dude, though, is the opposite. For the most part.

He's quite stubborn when it comes to his father, who wants Main Character Dude to go back to Earth for his education, even if he ends up settling on Ganymede in the long run. But he's not dumb, and while his father works in the town to handle the influx of settlers, he's the one who breaks ground on their family farm. He's helped by a nearby family that is one of the most prosperous settlers.

There are disasters of early settlement, including an earthquake knocking out the power source that keeps Ganymede from freezing all the pioneers to death. There is family sickness, there are difficulties in obtaining equipment, and the question runs through it whether hewing our own homestead out of the barren wilderness of another planet is worth it.

Is there really a question there? This is a Heinlein juvenile novel, after all. Do you really expect anyone to decide that roughing it isn't worth it? That living in urban surroundings might be a more pleasant choice?

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Week in Stories: No One Gets Out Alive Episode One - "The Drop Off"

We sat down for the pilot episode of this haunted house campaign last week, and it feels like we hit the ground running. The supernatural manifestations haven't shown up yet, but Bill kept a sheet where he conspicuously marked down at the end of every scene how close each character was to unleashing the supernatural on a PbtA-style countdown clock. Two of us filled up our clocks by the end of the evening, and the third was only one pie-piece away from joining us.

Because it was the first episode, it felt like a lot of the evening was setting up how the characters interacted, and feeling out relationships. Even more than that, and a little surprising-but-gratifyingly, we started pushing on the secrets and deep divisions right away. To be precise, some of the major underlying secrets came out, but each of our characters held on tightly to their personal secrets. There were hints, but there's plenty of stuff to be revealed. And then, of course, tasty, tasty aftermath. And ghosts. And probably death.

It wasn't plot-heavy, so I'm not sure I can tell you what happened chronologically in the session, but if I take it by two-character interactions, I can probably remember most of it.

Oh, and Bill has decided that the name for each episode will be the title of a Tragically Hip song.

The Characters:

Michael, the "good son," head of the family whiskey company (with roots back in Prohibition, when it was legal to make alcohol but not sell it), and the only one who really knows that the family is in deep financial shit. The company's on the verge of going broke, and he's committed fraud to try to hide that for long enough to sell the company and make amends. His brother and sister don't know this, and have continued to go through money like water. More notably, his wife doesn't know this. He has a lot invested in being the good man in the family, and might go to some bad lengths to maintain that image.

Jo, (Me!) Michael's wife, is up to her neck in stress, and isn't really good at recognizing that or taking constructive steps to deal with it. She's a very good surgeon, mother to two teenage kids, and has been helping take care of Michael's mother, who is very ill and living with them (I think living with them?), nursing her through failing health. Jo's driven, not very good at recognizing her emotions, can be aggressive, and while her marriage used to be good, it's gotten very strained. She slept with a colleague recently, and I think that she feels guilty about it, but also that it was such a break from the usual stress in her life that there's a huge temptation to burn everything down and walk away. More about her later, when I get to character thoughts.

Lisette, the unacknowledged granddaughter of Miss Maudie, the recently deceased matriarch of the family. She is the child of Miss Maudie's son-out-of-wedlock, and the woman who became the groundskeeper on the island. As a teenager, she and Michael had a fling, not realizing they were half-cousins. Urged on by Miss Maudie, Jo framed Lisette for stealing, and that was used as an excuse to send Lisette away. Later on, Miss Maudie sent Lisette money regularly, and has written her into a large chunk of the will. In the intervening years, Lisette battled drug addiction, but has been clean for the last few years. She's been working on her career as a singer-songwriter.

"The Drop Off":

We opened with a tense ride across the water to the island, with Michael, Jo, and their kids, Madeline and Tyler, at the stern, and Lisette alone at the bow. As they neared the shore, the kids started whining about the lack of reception out here, and their mother encouraged them to think positive about their time on the island. She brushed past Lisette to get on shore, and Lisette asked Michael caustically if Jo remembered this was a funeral, right? Jo's face was visibly softened by the sight of the island.

Michael and Lisette

Michael and Lisette had a couple of scenes together, both around the reading of the will, and when he sought her out in the gardener's shed before the service scattering Miss Maudie's ashes. Michael was obviously probing to find out why Miss Maudie had written Lisette into the will on an equal footing with his own mother and aunt (she's actually the only child of Miss Maudie's deceased illegitimate son), even though it was the kind of family secret where there were enough hints that he'd more or less pieced it together.

Lisette, for her part, wanted to know how much Michael knew about her disgraced exile from the island back when they were teenagers. He knew that she'd been sent away, even that it was for stealing, but didn't know Jo's part in the whole affair. There was a lovely moment when Michael was asking if Lisette might prefer just being bought out rather than going through a court battle when his siblings challenged the will, and she accused him of going right for the money, not even asking how she was. With perfect timing, he asked "How are you?"

The scene almost ended there, but I wanted to see what happened next, so I used our table shorthand and pleaded that was only the "first pause" and the scene continued and it was so great! It was tense, with obviously some feelings underlying the interaction, even with the new knowledge that they were half-cousins. Lisette pushed Michael hard on whether or not he was really happy in his life, with Jo, with the business, and he couldn't say yes.

Lots wasn't said in these scenes, and much implied! (Also, for the first pause/second pause thing, I can't remember quite where we got that from - possibly Graham Walmsley's wonderful Play Unsafe. The idea is that often, the first pause in a scene is not where the scene should end. A lot of the time, that pause happens because the weight of what really needs to happen in that scene is looming, and people need a second to gird their loins before going after it. It's after the second pause you can break, because then probably what needs to have happened has happened. It's not set in stone, but it's good shorthand for keep pushing/we're done.)

Lisette and Jo

I found the interactions between Lisette and Jo very interesting! They used to be friends, you know, before Jo set Lisette up as a thief when they were teenagers. When we were writing down character goals for the episode, Lisette's player wrote down that she wanted to hear that Jo felt remorse for what she'd done. I wrote down that Jo wanted to provoke Lisette to lose her temper in front of Michael. Neither of us succeeded. (But there's always next session!)

Every time Lisette pushed Jo on the guilt front, Jo pushed back hard, claiming it was something she barely remembered. When Lisette tried to explain what it had done to her life, Jo said she must be lucky if the worst thing to ever happen in her life was being sent away from the island when she was a teenager. (Yeah, I'm not playing a character who is great at being vulnerable or open.)

But even more interesting was that as soon as Michael's siblings arrived on the island, Lisette, who desperately wants to be acknowledged as part of the family, got to see that even though Jo has been married in for 20 years, she isn't treated as part of the family either. Weirdly, this got the two of them relating to each other in friendlier terms, like the patterns of conversation set down when they were teenagers were coming back unconsciously.

In fact, by the end of the evening, they were almost warming to each other - and then something happened with Michael that will have Jo being even frostier to Lisette the next morning.

Jo and Michael

Even though Jo isn't the nicest person in the world (particularly when she feels guilty - not a great trait!), I had to start her off softer than usual, because coming back to the island strikes such a chord with her. And since Michael wants to sell the island and house, and she wants to keep it, I felt like I had to have how intense her attachment to it is, right away. So the first interaction between Jo and Michael had her being much sweeter than usual - reminiscing about the island, the summer they fell in love, and trying to get him to join her in swimming or just enjoying the island like they used to. Without realizing it, she was asking him to rekindle their relationship. He sort of uneasily agreed, and it felt like she got to him a bit. 

In retrospect, that's probably good. The other part of that first scene between these two was Michael pressing Jo to go to her father to invest in his family business. Her father hates his family, and she argued that even her being married to Michael hadn't changed that. She reluctantly agreed to talk to him, but I also feel like she won't try very hard to convince her father.

 Then, of course, she felt excluded around his family, and we closed the evening with the two of them before bed, and what had been a little bit sweet before turned ugly, fast. When talking about Lisette, Jo dodged talking about her involvement in the long ago scandal, but she was more than willing to talk about Lisette being Michael's cousin - she found Lisette's inclusion in the will more amusing than anything else.

There were two phrases I kept using, knowing they would be upsetting for Michael - the first, whenever money came up, was to have Jo keep telling him that she trusted him to handle the money stuff - after all, they're very comfortable. She makes quite a lot of money, and he runs a large distillery business.  (Of course, he hasn't told her the company is in huge financial trouble, so emphasizing the trust was twisting the knife just a little bit.)

The second was, once the details of the will came out, and she figured out that Lisette was related to Michael, was that Jo kept calling Lisette his cousin, and every time, he countered with "half-cousin" - it's important because to her, it's vindication that Michael and Lisette should never have been together. And for Michael, the "half" is important because that way he can hold on to the fantasy of a life as it wasn't.

And then, at the end, talking about Lisette revealed that Michael had been keeping track of her all these years, googling her to see what she'd been up to - he knew about her music career. Jo took that like a blow and got angry that he was googling old girlfriends, which led Michael to counter something that insinuated he knew about the affair she's been having, or at least suspected. She didn't quite twig to that, and they went to bed angry.

So...yeah. The next morning, Jo's going to be frosty beyond belief to Lisette, and Lisette will have no idea why.


Broadly speaking, we're using DramaSystem for interpersonal conflicts, and in theory, a knockoff of PbtA for anything procedural, but nothing procedural happened in the first episode. We had scenes where tokens were slid across the table during play, and some where after the scene was over, Bill identified where he thought the asks were, and tokens exchanged accordingly. Both ways seemed to work.

Bill also asked each of us to write down a goal for the episode - I think most of us wrote one down for each of the other two players. After the session was done, we shared our goals to see how they'd played out. If we'd gone after them, whether or not we succeeded, we got a drama point to go towards seeing who got the benny to keep for next time (and naming rights for the next episode!)

In another homage to some PbtA games, we each had a countdown clock to the first manifestations of the supernatural. Bill told us one of the triggers, but kept others secret, and at the end of every scene, we could see them filling up! At the end of the evening, Jo and Michael's clocks were full, and Lisette's was one-pie-piece from completion. So two of us got handed a small deck of index cards, each with a different manifestation written on them, and Lisette will get to pick hers probably at the start of the next game. I picked "The Mirror" and Michael's player "The Door." Eep!

Character Thoughts 

Jo is not one of my nicer characters. There are ways in which she's not terrible - she cares for her mother-in-law, she's dedicated to her job, she and her husband used to have a good marriage. Strangely, it's becoming apparent to me that the harder she pursues "being a good person," the worse she is. She needs that part of her identity so badly, she pushes back hard when people call her on bad things she's done - how can she have done bad things if she's a good person? It's interesting to play someone who is more interested in the self-identity than the actual acts she commits.

In a way, that makes her an interesting foil to Millie, my TimeWatch character. Millie is a genuinely good person who is doing bad things because she's been entirely taken in by someone who is manipulating her when she's emotionally vulnerable after the suicide of her brother/lover.  Jo, on the other hand, does dicey things because she wants so badly to preserve the image of herself as a good person. To protect that image, rather than the reality, she's capable of being fairly nasty - in a way, not unlike her husband.

Jo and Michael both want to retain their self-images, and because of that, they've hidden so much of themselves from each other, which has taken a huge toll on their marriage. Too great a toll? Things aren't looking great at the moment, but I don't think we know yet. The answer is very possibly yes, but not inevitably so. Of course, now the haunting is coming for us all, and some of that may be moot! Or not. We shall see.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I picked up Sunshine through a Humble Bundle several months ago. This particular bundle had enough books I was interested in reading, and a couple I really wanted. In this particular case, I’d heard the name of the author before, but knew very little about her or her books - I had no particular objection to reading them, but it wasn’t one of the reasons I was buying the bunch.

Having read it, it was a fairly light and enjoyable experience - that is to say, the protagonist goes through harrowing experiences in the books, but I didn’t find that I was harrowed along with her. I always felt enough detachment to figure that things were likely to be okay in the end, even if there were some difficulties along the way.

But the one thing this book feels like, more than anything else, is a response to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books. I can’t check publication dates at the moment, but I apologize if it turns out this one came out first because, damn, does it ever feel like it came out second.

We have a main character who works in a cafe as a baker, not a waitress. She lives in a world where it has recently become apparent that vampires and other supernatural beings are very real - although in this case, McKinley is obviously trying to go a bit darker, having a human world that is just barely recovering from “The Wars,” against primarily but not only vampires, and hanging on by a thread.  Much of the world was destroyed, and vampires as a whole are definitely less interested in integrating than in conquering. But of course, the main character, Rae, is, like Sookie, interested in the idea of vampires. Also of course, even though vampires are supposed to be much more dangerous and evil here, Rae manages to find the one who is really not all that evil after all, and maybe even has sexy feelings towards him.

See what I mean? It’s not out-and-out as much a romance as the Sookie books, but there are some definite and strong similarities. Oh, and did I mention that as the book goes on, Rae starts to discover that she has more than a few supernatural powers of her own, coming from both her father, who was a sorcerer, and possibly some demon blood in her aggressively normal mother?

At any rate, Rae is kidnapped by vampires who think she's just a normal human, and left as lunch for a chained-up vampire, who ends up being the one vampire who can control his hunger and ally with her, at least as long as it takes them to escape, and then as many times afterwards as the plot makes possible.

Rae, as the title and her name suggest, turns out to have a particular affinity for sunlight, which makes her a little deadly to vampires, even as she tries desperately to hang on to normalcy. Her experiences bring her to the attention of the SOF, (I forget the meaning of the acronym), which are special forces trying to bring down otherworldly creatures that threaten what remains of humanity. But she knows that there’s one vampire on her side, even if there’s not supposed to be any such thing.

So, yeah, it’s a wee bit predictable. But for what it is, it’s entertaining. I was never bored, often amused, and it went down smoothly and without making me angry because characters were being stupid, which is a bit unusual for paranormal almost-romances. (This doesn’t go down the full path of romance. Yet. If there are later books, I presume that what in this book is only rubbing up against each other turns into full-on vampire sex.) We don’t by the end know why Con the vampire doesn’t seem as vampirey-evil as the others, but the convention is well worn, and if it’s a little old, at least it’s not bad.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

I've been wanting to read the book of Hyperbole and a Half for a while. I'd read some of what appears between these pages on her blog, and have always enjoyed them. So I knew that eventually I'd get around to a collection of the old favourites and probably some that I've never seen before, but wasn't sure when. Then my sister pulled it off her shelf and told me to borrow it, in the days immediately after our mother's death. She figured it might be a good diversion.

It took me a while to sit down with this book, for no particular reason, but I finally did. It was, of course, a quick read - I tend to buzz through books with pictures, as much as I think that I should slow down and linger over the illustrations - although with Brosh's drawings, there's not a lot of intricate background detail I'm missing.

Indeed, the roughness is part of the appeal - as she herself appears in her drawings, she's more a child's abstract human than a real one, and yet capable of conveying great amounts of emotions. It's fascinating.

My favourite one (other than the iconic "Clean All The Things!") is the Cake series. I laughed myself silly the first time I read it - the look of absolute determination to die of sugar overload. The vindictiveness when she did get the cake. The way she captures in words and images those moment when a child decides an adult is the enemy.  It just kills me. It perhaps didn't make me laugh as hard as the first time I read it, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

There were others I already knew and liked, including the pair of stories about depression that were difficult and powerful explorations of that experience. (Or at least, they seemed that way to me, who has only ever experienced it from the outside.)

And then there were new ones, about the helper dogs, and how both her dogs think (or fail to do so) or letters to herself at various ages, or her mother taking them out for a walk in the woods and trying to hide that they were very, very lost. Brosh as a child misunderstanding what her parents wanted and needed and thus tormenting them more or less accidentally is a common theme.

So is self-judgement, with a couple of stories about how her mind works and resenting the world when it doesn't behave in the manner she unconsciously assumed it should, as well about wanting to be a good person when she has thoughts of doing things that are not so good, and how fear of social judgement is pretty much the only thing that keeps her from doing them. It feels like she's a little hard on herself for having thoughts at all in these sections, but it also feels quite vivid and real, the battle between wanting, thinking, and doing.

As I fully expected, this book was entertaining, and it was not a surprise that I'd probably read between a third and a half of it before on the internet. I certainly don't begrudge her that! Most particularly, it was a welcome break from the general difficulty of the world right now.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi

Companion novels are a tricky business. If you want to write a second book that goes over most of the same terrain as a previous book, you really need something new you're trying to say, some way in which reading the second book will irrevocably change your experience of the first. Otherwise, it's an exercise, it might even be fun, but it's not necessarily going to stand up to the weight being placed upon it.

Unfortunately, that's about how I feel about Zoe's Tale. It was fun to read - I think John Scalzi's pretty much incapable of writing something that isn't enjoyable. It slipped by quite unobjectionably, and there's nothing specifically wrong with it, but that is damning with faint praise. It's not really very different from the first book that covers the same territory, The Last Colony. It covers the same time period, but more importantly, it doesn't really reframe very much from the previous book.

When I read The Last Colony, it was long after it had been published, and I knew that Zoe's Tale was out there as a companion novel. Given the events that happened in the first book, I expected the vast majority of this to take place during that time period where Zoe's off-world and the narrative stays with her parents. So I waited for that to come. And waited. And waited. And sure enough, it's there, but it's really such a thin segment of the book overall that I was let down. Interesting things happen, yes, but I was expecting and hoping the bulk of the book would take place in that time we hadn't seen.

And yes, we get more of an explanation for what the other creatures living on Roanoke are, and why they suddenly disappear from the narrative, but even with more of an explanation as to why, I'm not a lot happier than I was the first time. I get what happened - but wouldn't it be more interesting if we kept exploring that difficult relationship that started in death? Rather than having it fade into the background? Why they go away is not the more interesting answer.

Other than that, the book is entertainingly about life on the colony from the teenage perspective, and there's nothing really wrong here, just not really enough right. It's fun to read. It's not taxing. We see how the teenagers discover that the planet is not the one they thought they were going to, and dealing with the loss of electronics that ensues. Zoe's an entertaining precociously smart teenager, and she falls in love, and she rebels against being just what she is, as the living embodiment of the aspirations of an entire other alien species, who made a treaty with Earth to have representatives with her more or less constantly.

That's all good stuff, and I can't help but think that if it happened around new events that weren't quite so familiar, accompanied by Zoe figuring out both who she is and the limits and possibilities of what she is, this would be stronger. As it is, it's fun, it fills in some blanks, but it doesn't make me reframe how I see the original book, which I think is the greatest weakness. Zoe and her parents are just too close, have too good a relationship, to really allow for vastly different interpretations of what went down.

Monday, 19 June 2017

World of Trouble by Ben Winters

This is an extraordinarily hard review to try to write, as mostly I want to talk about my feelings toward the overall plot and the ending of that plot over the course of reading three books. More specifically, I want to write about what started to worry me when reading this book, and whether or not those worries bore fruit. There are going to be a lot of spoilers, people, and they are definitely the kind that would change your reading experience, so if you don't want to know more than that, read no further. These were really good books, and the third wrapped everything up in a manner than I found intensely satisfying and emotional.

*Spoilers! So many spoilers!*
Still with me? Okay. That means you've either read these books, or you're like me most of the time, not really convinced spoilers ruin the books. And I'm not sure these would be ruined, but it would change how you read the last book. Because all three of these books have been set against a backdrop of an impending end to the world by asteroid strike, and the main character's attempts to solve mysteries while that date approaches.

By the time we get to the third book, though, the story happens over the week before the asteroid is due to arrive. Winters finally tackles the story behind Hank's sister, Nico, who thinks that there's a way to stop the asteroid that the government is just hiding from the populace - out of, presumably, sheer malice, or greed (although I'm not sure how greed works in a decimated world) or shortsightedness.

And she's found others who believe too, and are trying to mount an operation to find the scientist who has the information they need to launch a nuclear strike on the asteroid and shatter it in such a way that it won't be an Earthkiller. They even have a helicopter! That helicopter weighs on Hank, as indeed it started to weigh on me.

I started to really worry that we were going to get a deus ex machina, a way at the end that saved the earth and gave rise to cheers and the rebuilding of society. And it's certainly not that I like bleak books, or have any desire to see the world wiped out. It's just that these books have been so good and thoughtful at taking this concept seriously, at exploring what living in that world would be like, through the lens of a man who can't stop looking for justice, even though there's a limited amount of time in which justice could mean anything. I wanted the last book to have the courage to follow through on an amazing lead-up. I started to worry that it wouldn't.

So, bravo, Ben Winters. You had me suckered there for a bit too, worried that maybe Nico did have the answer after all, and all those who were trying, quite soberly or insanely, to get ready for the last days on the planet, had been doing all that preparation in vain, and then we'd go into a book about how you deal with the removal of such an existential threat. (And yes, that could be interesting too.)

But that's not where we went. The books have promised an asteroid, and there was absolutely no wimping out. And as we get closer and closer, six days, five days, three days, two days, less than a day, Hank takes on a new case - who murdered his sister - with less than a week before individual deaths will come to mean nothing at all. I'm not going to talk about how that case comes out - I'll leave Winters some secrets for those readers who have plunged into this review despite warnings.

But Hank's pursuit of justice, as laudable as it seemed in a world disintegrating in the first book, does come to seem somewhat of a mania this close to the end, although you understand the importance of this particular victim to him. We see the last tatters of a grip on meaning when meaning slips away.

At the end, he has answers, and an underground bunker with more than enough food to get him through the first six months of the ash cloud that will envelop the planet. Some may survive that long, and then starve. Some very few may even survive that, but they are, at the moment of the strike, not individuals. We don't know who will survive to live on - some may, indeed, but it won't be many. It's not those individuals that we're concerned with. It's those who see the end coming, quite literally, and choose to be present.

The last scene just about did me in, with its understated moment, with what feels like hard-won knowledge of these characters and their choices, and the moment when choices come to mean nothing at all.

I liked the first book, and that affection has only grown with each one - and that by the end, there was the conviction to stick the answer and refuse easy ways out - World of Troubles will linger with me for a long time.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross

The first Charles Stross book I ever read was Singularity Sky, the first book in this series. I was in a different city, and I'm not quite sure what made it jump off the shelf of the used bookstore as something to read while I went to one of my first academic conferences. I was, however, baffled by the book itself. I thought I liked it, but I wasn't positive, because I finished the book and still didn't understand the underlying principles underneath that particular science fiction universe.

I proceeded to struggle with his books, through Accelerando, which I found similarly opaque, and The Hidden Family, which was a little weak. Finally, though, I came to some books of his that I really liked a whole hell of a lot - Glasshouse and Neptune's Brood spring to mind, among others. But I was a little hesitant to come back to Iron Sunrise. In general, I've found Stross' later books far more accessible than his early ones, as he gained more control of his craft.

So when I picked this one up, I wasn't sure which Stross I was going to get. Both have great ideas, one tends to be not as great at allowing readers into the inner sanctum. I get letting readers figure out some things for themselves - but if I end the book just as baffled as I was picking it up, then there might be a problem.

This is all to say, I expected this to be a bit of a slog. I was up to try it, don't get me wrong, and even when I'm baffled, I can tell there are ideas that make Stross' books worth reading. I just didn't know how at sea I would be.  Strangely enough, for all that trepidation, I was very surprised to make my way through and feel like I understood everything that had happened! Either the leap of Stross as a writer happened earlier, or I've read enough of his books to make sliding into the older ones easier.

Like, I get a lot better who Rachel is and why she does what she does, and Stross sets that up with an early set piece of her going in to defuse a terrorist with a dirty bomb who is also a performance artist with syphilis and a hate-on for the world. With that made clear, the rest didn't take that long to fall into place, and while there were some aspects that took a while to click, thankfully they all eventually did. Although I do sort of feel that there are strong hints (and at least one point where it was said straight out) that the bad guys were the pawns of a larger power pulling their strings, possibly something to rival the Eschaton, that didn't entirely play out before the end of the book.

But hey, I finally understand what the Eschaton is, which I was never quite sure I entirely grasped more than the basics of in Singularity Sky. This is what the emergent AIs called themselves when they achieved the Singularity, and as a result, decided to scatter humans across the galaxy (beyond the galaxy?) on different planets, with extreme warnings not to monkey with time travel or time travel-related technology, on pain of planets blowing up.

Of course, Iron Sunrise starts with a planet blowing up, taking with it millions of people, and dooming the homes of many others who happen to live in the radius of the shockwave while it's still concentrated enough to be very deadly. One of these space stations is home to a bunch of now abandoned denizens of New Moscow, the planet that blew up, being evacuated from the second home they've lost. Among them is a rebellious young woman named Wednesday who stays behind at near the last minute of the evacuation because she's been nudged to find a body and some diplomatic papers that will turn out to be very important indeed.

And from there, were on a chase, as people are trying to track down Wednesday, even while others (including Rachel) are trying to protect the remaining New Moscow diplomats from death, so that they can send a recall code on their dead-man's switch weapons, even now bearing down on the planet presumed to be the aggressor in the war of planets blowing up.

Also, there are Space Nazis. (AKA the Remastered.)

I'm not going to go more into detail from there, but suffice it to say that I did not find this as perplexing as I did Singularity Sky, and while I wouldn't say this was my favourite Stross book, or even in the top five, it was quite a lot of fun. And fun is what I need right now.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Healer's War by Elizabeth Scarborough

The Healer's War was the last book in the first theme for my in-person SF/F book club (reading the same books as my online version, but a couple of months ahead.) We wrapped up Post-War Science Fiction (and Fantasy) with the only book written by a woman, and were supposed to discuss it last night. Of course, the scheduling demons intervened, and four people cancelled out separately because things came up at the last minute, so it was just my husband and I at the pub talking about it. Which was okay, but I hope the start of the next theme next month shows a bit of a renaissance, because I've been very much enjoying this project, and lord, do I ever need things going on that I enjoy.

Still, we spent most of our beer-drinking time talking about the book, so I'll count it as a win. And one thing that kept coming up for both my husband and I was that this really wasn't a fantasy. Yes, there's an amulet in the book with a few magic powers, but it's in some ways such a minor part of a straight-forward Vietnam novel. The most magical power it seems to have (other than, you know, healing) is as a plot pass to get a white woman in among the Vietnamese people and then the Viet Cong without long-term injury.

The main character is, as Elizabeth Scarborough also was, a combat nurse in Vietnam. Kitty starts out being as insulated from the war as you can be when you have to hide under your bed several times a week during mortar fire - working at a hospital that mostly takes care of injured GIs, but also a few Vietnamese patients.

This part of the book lingers in great detail on her days, in ways that are really very compelling - and unfortunately, tend to mean that when the rushed epilogue happens, it's even more obvious that we're not going to spend time exploring this, not because she can't write those type of scenes, but because she's chosen not to. Maybe the publisher forced her to put the epilogue in, I don't know. But we linger here and we rush there, and a lot of that rushing is through landmined territory that maybe we should pick through and try to understand.

Back to the plot! When a new doctor starts who despises the Vietnamese patients, Kitty decides to try to take one young boy to another hospital in a larger city, run by her former charge nurse. She's toting a magic amulet that she doesn't really understand yet, although she's learning it lets her see auras. (And it will help her heal people, yes.) But the helicopter she is in gets shots down, and she and Ahn are lost in the jungle, where they encounter a fairly deranged American GI, a Vietnamese village that will come to trust her after she kills a giant snake, then heals some of the victims, then captured by the Viet Cong, forced to witness atrocities, found by Americans, forced to almost be subject to atrocities by the Americans, and finally go home to where no one understands what she's been through.

Those aspects that seem closest to Scarborough's own experiences are by far the strongest, and there's a lot there, and she's obviously trying very hard not to pick a "side" in the war. But as I mentioned, it speeds up in an annoying way that shuts her readers out of her main character's difficulties in post-Vietnam America, when it feels like there's so much to explore!

And yeah, not really a fantasy novel. But still worth reading, and sparked some good conversation in comparison to our other books. This was the only one of this set of books I hadn't previously read, so I was always taking a leap of faith on this one, and it certainly gave rise to interesting conversation.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

*Spoilers Below*

I am trying to get back to writing reviews a day or at most two after I finished a book, so I'm sitting down to write with the experience still vivid. With Parable of the Talents, though, I just couldn't. I had to sit with the book for at least three or four days after I was done, and it's only today I feel like I can finally maybe take a crack at summarizing why I felt what I felt. What I felt was strong and immediate, but there's so much here to unpack that I had to let the emotions subside a bit before I could think about it.

So. Let's start with the emotional and then some thoughts about what and why. I loved this book. I mean, just adored it, responded to it so strongly, as I often do to Butler's works. Damn, this woman could write, and more than that, it's always so complex and tricky and often troubling that I feel wrung out and it takes me a while to figure out why.

I was also so, so angry at one of the characters by the end of the book - I wanted to wring her neck, I was so upset. That's the part I had to sit and think about - why I felt that way, why Butler wrote her that way, why that part is included at all - how that discomfort and anger changed and really enriched this experience of reading in delicate and powerful ways.

So, what's the book about? It's a sequel to Parable of the Sower, which was the first book by Octavia Butler I ever read, and also knocked my socks right off. If Lauren Olamina has the idea for Earthseed in the first book, the second is about the early days through to its eventual success. We get into the story in a different way, this time. We're given snippets from a journal Lauren kept during these times, interspersed with a book her husband wrote, one her brother wrote, and a lot of editorial comment from her daughter, Larkin. Or Asha Vere. There's some question about her name, and that's the core of the book.

Reading the more dystopic parts of the book were chilling and far too timely, now perhaps more than ever, with a radical Presidential candidate who promises, I shit you not, to "make American great again." Now, this fictional President is doing it through a radical Christian fundamentalist lens, but in a world where people are hurting and scared and want a strong man to tell them they will be safe, and who makes it okay to lash out at those who appear different and tells them it's justice...well, you see the resonances.

We see the community she founds, Acorn, and how it is destroyed by men who the rest of the "Christian America" movement will disavow, even while including them and fostering them and teaching that what they are doing is rooted in sound theology. Her baby is ripped away from her, and adopted by a Christian American family. She finds and frees her brother from slavery before her community is broken, and he leaves in anger because he can't convert her people to his version of Christianity, and finds a home within Christian America.

And what he does then, over years and years, makes me want to scratch his goddamn eyes out. Worse is when her stolen-away daughter discovers what he has done, and sides with him. It is so frustrating, and so much deeper than just the old saw that a prophet is without honour in his own country.

To tell the truth, I read this book not long after my mother died, and I have a deep response to Earthseed, and to the larger notion of reacting to change and pain with openness and movement, not curling in and lashing out.

So the framing device is the daughter, and we know from the beginning that she holds a grudge against her mother for loving Earthseed more than she loved her, but we don't know why. You start reading the book, waiting to find out what probably very human thing Lauren does that hurts her daughter and turns her against the movement.

Then you realize, bit by bit, that Larkin/Asha condemns Lauren Olamina not for having done anything, but for not having found her. Not not having tried to find her, because there's plenty of evidence that she looked for decades, that she put herself in danger over and over and never stopped looking for her daughter. The attempt doesn't matter to Larkin. The result does.

And interestingly, this is where we get into the very knotty part of the book, the part where I struggled with anger at this daughter who embraces the man who hid her from her mother for decades, lied to her mother's face for decades that he had no idea where she was, and did everything to keep his niece as his family, not hers. It's such an unforgivable act, and Lauren never does forgive her brother, but Larkin never blames him.

And the question becomes, why? Butler's doing something deliberate here, and I had to sit with it and figure it out, and what I've come up with is this: Larkin/Asha, although she doesn't consider herself part of Christian America anymore, is so permeated with their worldview, which includes seeing her mother's vision of extraterrestrial settlement as a cult, that she can't get beyond it. And particularly, when it comes to the one family member she has had a positive relationship with, she can't even begin to let herself think that he did wrong, even when it's fairly fucking obvious that he did.

She'd rather vilify her mother for trying and failing, than her uncle for deliberately hiding the truth from both her and her mother. And in a way, this is a microcosm of the clash of worldviews - there will be people that are so wrapped up in division and need to see themselves as right or righteous, that others will be held up to impossible standards, and differences becomes proofs of inadequacy. That abundance itself can seem threatening, and open-handedness an abomination.

And the thing she seems to have blamed her mother for most of all was not hiding her talents, not having given up her dream of Earthseed in favour of safety that Lauren clearly identifies as not that safe anyway.

Whether what Lauren founds is a cult or a philosophy, it has a specific and achievable goal, and she does achieve it. But she loses her daughter along the way, and there will never stop being a younger woman who blames her for not hiding away and being proper.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Timing is everything. Not long ago, I posted a book review about Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, and was talking about 1970s-era consideration of what human beings are, and here we have Man Plus as a handy juxtaposition. And it comes to quite a different conclusion, thus ending my attempt to put too neat a chronological classification on this debate. Look at the two broad categories would be an interesting topic for discussion, and I may make a note of it in my list of themes for future science fiction/fantasy bookclub meetings.

Still, there is an undeniable timebound element to this book, even if it's not a particular theme on the evolution of humanity. Published in the 1970s, this particular book shares with others the same basic pessimism that the world may eventually, even is hugely likely to, destroy itself in war between capitalist countries and communist ones. (Or, as it virtually always happens, between the U.S., where these books are almost inevitably set, and either Russia or China. Here, it's China.)

Despite any best efforts, the human race may indeed be doomed, except for one way out - computer simulations show that putting humans on Mars would give a chance of not dissolving the world in nuclear fire. Except creating a self-sustaining colony with normal human bodies seems more than a little difficult - so Pohl's characters come up with the idea that they'll create a human being perfectly suited to living on Mars, able to adapt to the gravity, low atmosphere, lack of oxygen and regular supplies of food. They'll create what is honestly a cyborg, except I think the book rejects that term midway through - the man they create is a man, despite his many machine parts.

(And I realize I said human being initially, but it would be as accurate to say "man," as there wasn't any doubt they'd be picking from NASA astronauts, even though there are multiple women who are scientists and doctors peopling the secondary characters. Despite the fact that the guy who gets sent's wife falls very much in the mold of wife who married for the wrong reasons and is fooling around on the side. Although it also seems that monogamy might not have been the norm for most of their marriage, but it becomes a bigger deal when Roger loses his penis in the midst of being turned into a Mars-dwelling part-machine with a backpack computer that mediates all his sensory impressions, because to do otherwise would blow out his brain.)

I am just going to marvel at that sentence for a while.

So, Pohl gets, let's say, a B+ for female characters given the time period, because there are more than three named female characters, and Dorrie the wife aside, they're pretty interesting.

This book is mostly about the lead-up to the mission to Mars, although we do get to see some time there as well. But there's another level that I've not even really hinted it, which Pohl sprinkles lightly through the book - the question of who is really pulling the strings. The obvious answer was the answer it ended up being, but then he throws in a neat little question to complicate it, and that alone probably makes me like this book more than I would otherwise. This is all about the questions, and if it assumes that humans are humans even without most of their meat, that's an interesting answer, and one I'd love to delve into further.

(Yes, I'm a little obsessed with my themed reading in my SF/F book clubs. But it's great fun to take an in-depth look at a topic!)

Man Plus shows its age, but it was entertaining. I can't say I loved it as much as I did Gateway, but I certainly liked it more than that dreadful piece of dreck Pohl wrote with Arthur C. Clarke that I reviewed in the last year.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This was touted as the "new Gone Girl" when it came out a couple of years ago. It seemed to have the same kind of popularity as a thriller that hit the mainstream hard, twisty and yet able to appeal to many readers, not just the hardcore mystery lovers. I read Gone Girl a couple of years ago, and liked it well enough, without ever falling in love with it. So then I sat down to read A Girl on the Train, and the verdict is...yeah. It's very, very much like Gone Girl.

It's a mystery/thriller with unreliable narrators and enough twists and turns to satisfy most readers. That is to say, I didn't like it more than Gone Girl, but neither did I like it any less. It's a very competent thriller. The unstable narrative voices add a nice bit of complexity, and the characters are written well enough to hang this plot on.

It's not a complaint to say that there isn't really anything more to it than that - this is written to be a mainstream best seller, and a mainstream best seller it is. It does not transcend the genre, but it is a good example of it, and I can't imagine anyone who wants to read something like this being disappointed by what they find. (I heard that the movie wasn't that good, but that's neither here nor there.)

If you read this book while it was at its peak, unlike me, a plot synopsis is probably unnecessary, but here goes anyway: Rachel is an alcoholic, despondent after the breakdown of her marriage, fired from her job, who hides this from her roommate by riding the train into London and back every day. As she passes by the house she used to live, where her former husband and his new wife still live, she concocts a fairy tale for another couple a few houses down, giving them the imaginary life she always wanted.

She also at least once gets off at her old stop, in a drunken array of intentions, and gets back on a few hours later with a wound across her forehead and a large blank spot where her memory should be, but it's not the first time she's drunk to blackout and next-day loss of memory. That also ends up being the evening when the woman she's been creating a fantasy good life for disappears.  Rachel is sure there are things she saw that are relevant, but she can't remember them all.

Then a good portion of the book is her trying to do the right thing, but cocking it all up, partially through drink, partially through trying to hide her issues from the police and suspects alike. We get to follow along as she makes assumptions about what has happened and who has done what, and I, for one, winced at a number of them, even as they made perfect sense for that character in that moment.

Of course, it turns out she does know more than she realizes, even if it's not the things she thinks she knows. Did that sentence make any sense? We whirl around this small street, through sordid affairs and bleak pasts and worrisome futures, and at the end, there are twists upon twists and the tale rockets to a conclusion.

The Girl on the Train does what it says on the back of the box. It's a very competent thriller, an easy read, a book that would be excellent for summer reading when you're looking for something you can breeze through quickly. That it does not have any great insights deeper than that is not necessarily a problem, although it will likely not last as a book of great merit.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Week in Stories: Strange Attractors

All Strange Attractors Recaps 

Episode 3: "Nulla Mundo Fides" 

The evening opened with a flashback to Peter playing hooky from school as a 12-year-old on Coney Island. On a beautiful September day, he watched a grifter play three-card monte, then stepped up to try his luck, finding the red queen twice in a row. The conman invited him to play again, but Peter said he could keep the money if he showed his moves. Thus started a wonderful day (from Peter's perspective) of learning to con people, being shown different ways of drawing in a mark, and separating them from their money.

At the end of the day, the grifter told Peter that when the young man got home, he was going to get some bad news. But his dad would be okay for a while - just long enough to rack up hospital bills. And that Peter should remember, when his father died, and his mother had to sell the house to deal with the debt, that that was what happened when you played by the rules. Peter was shocked, and then realized that the man never had paid him the money he'd said he was going to.

Back in 1976, it was the day of the bicentennial, a hot and hazy July 4th. Millie asked Peter to help her find someone in the Bronx, and after some hilarity about phone books, which Peter described as a kind of computer, which led her to asking Jack for help with the phone book, and also having some problem with two-dimensional maps, they came up with an address.

The Count - also the grifter from the flashback
Meanwhile, Gerald, Jack, and Walter were questioning the Comte de St. Germain, whom they found not in a cell but in a hot tub, surrounded by other giggling TimeWatch employees. After dropping some hints that he'd known Jesus, the Comte also said that his enemies in the Black Chamber were after him, and that this meeting would probably ever happen - when you had time travel, you always had to assume the other side had already won, because what had been could always be erased.

Jack scribbled some math on the back of an envelope that had weirded Millie out a bit, and the Comte seemed to get some of it, but did not offer a lot of insight into what it meant about strange attractors, and pieces of history that recurred despite all the changes. (It had weirded Millie out because it suggested her brother/lover Miles that she was trying to find was such a strange attractor - there was no way he should have been born again.)

New York proper was hot and very hazy, and while Peter and Millie caught some side-eye for their extreme whiteness while walking through the Bronx, they made it to the address without incident. Behind the apartment building was a vacant lot, bounded on the far side by empty buildings. One of them had a mural on it that took Millie's breath away - it looked exactly like the world she had come from, the world she had amputated, the world in which Miles had died in an unprecedented murder-suicide. It was signed "Nommo."

They went inside and found the apartment that Miles lived in with his mother and younger siblings. (I sort of feel like Millie should find the idea of siblings with a variety of ages strange.) He wasn't home, but by giving some bafflegab about Miles having won a scholarship, they managed to get a picture. Miles in the picture was just as Millie remembered him from that point in their lives (he'd be 8 years younger than she was now), except with a large Afro. She emotionally said that perhaps they should go.

But as they left the apartment, she came face to face with this timeline's version of her brother. (It seems weird to keep typing brother/lover every time, so can we just take it for granted that when Millie says brother she uses the word in a way that includes sex and romantic love with her non-biologically related crechemates?) He was skeptical about the idea of having won a scholarship, but played along, then took them into his bedroom to ask what the hell was going on. The walls were filled with Afrofuturist posters. Peter left the two of them alone, and Millie asked about the mural, which Miles said had been inspired by an album cover, which it was, but still startlingly and exactly like their former timeline. (Miles showed absolutely no sign of recognizing Millie.) Millie asked what Nommo meant, and Miles told her about an alternate timeline where Black people were in charge, that had been altered by white people with time travel.

Millie asked where he'd travel if he were a time traveller, and he said back to that place where the change had happened. (Internally, this was to some degree her trying to ask without being able to ask what had driven the alternate him to murder.) She couldn't answer his questions about why she was there, but told him to keep the "scholarship" money Peter had given him, and that she hoped that he was happy.

After that, she met Peter's girlfriend Fran, a tall Black punk woman, and rode with them back to Manhattan, before leaving to go back to Montauk. In the meantime, the Comte had almost convinced Gerald to give him a time machine, possibly Gerald's old prototype or maybe an Autochron. Just then, Millie entered the room, saying she wanted to speak to the Comte alone. Gerald, cued by the Comte's insistence that someone would likely try to kill him, immediately accused her of assassination. (Which very likely may have been true, but we don't know when this Millie was from or why she was there.)

She went off to call Commander Heinlein, intent on following if the others took the Comte to his own time machine, or possibly ducking further back in time and assassinating him before they'd met. Heinlein told her to stop the Comte leaving by any means necessary, including killing him if needed. She came back into the room just as Gerald was reaching for his own Autochron, but she pulled a laser, and light-speed wins every time. However, her aim was a little off, and she winged Gerald instead of hitting the Comte, as she'd been intending. The Comte grabbed for the Autochron, and she took another shot. Both Gerald and the Comte disappeared in time.

We cut from then to Millie arriving back at Montauk and meeting Einstein, the female Admonitory who she'd known in her own timeline. The woman warned her that she shouldn't have done what she'd just done. Millie tried to come up with a lie, but failed utterly, saying miserably that she'd just wanted to see him. The Admonitory told her that she'd put Miles in danger, but that there was something she could do.....

And there we ended.

Character Thoughts

Playing all the bits with finding Miles' address was funny, but also gave the opportunity to explore what were the base assumptions she shared with the others, and which she didn't, leading to one moment where someone talked about family, and she jumped on that, but then a few minutes later had to fake that yes, she'd totally had a mother. Of course.

This gave a chance to get some of the chipper on the table, which is her default mode, and that was a lot of fun. And then we went right into the tense character drama that was Millie coming face to face with someone she'd lost - and someone she'd lost even before she made her choice to sacrifice everyone she loved to save them greater pain later. Knowing that there were answers she needed that she couldn't get, but also that love and attraction and connection that was there and not there with this younger version of her brother.

But the biggest thing I discovered is how very shit Millie is at lying. I've played a lot of glib, smooth characters, and I think Millie can lie okay when it's something she doesn't care about, but bring emotion into it, and she just falls to pieces, more likely to stand there with her mouth opening trying to find words than anything else. She can't do it, and really, really can't hide it.

Of course, now she's maybe trying to kill the Comte, but I'm sure she thinks she's doing it for good reason - because she always thinks she's doing things for good reasons. Or more precisely, she's been told very persuasively why what she's doing is going to be the right thing, and she believes that, because she needs to.

That's what I'm finding most interesting about this character - it's fascinating to play someone who I think is a good person, but who is so blinded by belief that she is doing bad things. And doing them believing they are right. It's not a religious ideology, but it's pernicious and dangerous nonetheless. Having her judgment blurred by grief and loss got her into this mess, but she still doesn't realize it. Yet.

Monday, 5 June 2017

The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

I have missed a whole lot of books in the middle of this series. I will have to go back at some point and pick them up. I read The Atrocity Archives, enjoyed it, but hadn't gotten around to reading the book after it. Then I went to my city's library booksale in the fall, and The Apocalypse Codex was there on the table for $2 in hardcover, so what's a woman to do?  Besides, I figured these were probably okay to read out of order?

For the most part, yes. A bunch of things had clearly happened, but none of them seemed to be the sort that would interfere with me going back to read others, knowing what was to come, nor did I feel particularly at sea. We're still in the middle of bureaucracy trying to deal with Lovecraftian evils just beyond the realms we dwell in. Interestingly, this book seems to mark a shift out of the bureaucracy somewhat, and into a different gear. I'll be interested to see where the books go from here.

Bob Howard is still our main character, the computer engineer who accidentally used his tech savvy to summon something and thus attracted the attention of The Laundry, which then employed him to help make sure others didn't do the same thing. His expertise has been growing, and it sounds like he's been at a bunch more evil cultist show-downs in the intervening books.

This one, though, is run by an evil cult with its roots in Christian fundamentalism, including some extra pages in the Bible that lean a lot towards waking something that some might think is Jesus, but Bob is pretty sure is an eldritch horror from beyond waiting to munch on human beings like popcorn. But he's not alone on this trip, and in fact, he's not even the primary operative. He's sent with two deniable outside contractors - Penelope, an exceptionally well-preserved woman who is damned good at magic and espionage, and Johnny, her physically capable partner, who has his own roots in a cult that is a little too similar to the one he's investigating.

Interestingly, both books about the Laundry that I've read have had long swathes happen outside the U.K. - and this one starts in England, but quickly shifts to the U.S., and more specifically, Denver, after a new megachurch and its star pastor were getting uncomfortably close to the British Prime Minister. Hence the Laundry investigating - and the U.S. version of the Laundry, which seems a even more sketchy than the one we've gotten to know, is not impressed.

So, there are monsters that replace your tongue, truly horrific revelations regarding pregnancy, a church that makes true believers in rather unorthodox ways, and Bob, who is trying to be a decent human as well as a good operative, delaying the inevitable doom of the world. And that's an interesting point - Bob's far past the point where he thinks he can save the world. He seems to know it's doomed - but there's no reason to hasten the end, and a lot of reason to try to put it off.

This was an entertaining delve back into this world, and I quite enjoyed it. And I also didn't feel particularly handicapped by not having read the intervening books.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

What is the next step in human evolution? Where will we go from here? How will we fundamentally change, as technology continues to emerge. It feels like this is an obsession of a particular time and place. While science fiction has continued to examine how a changing world will alter humans, at their core they seem to remain fundamentally human.

But I can think of several books from the 1970s and early 1980s that are seriously positing futures in which the very meaning of humanness has changed as the species evolves into something new. (I mean, in one way, this is the core of all the X-Men mutant worries, but in SF books, it’s meant something quite different.) I’m thinking of Alfred Bester, of Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s Stardancer books, and now of Sturgeon’s More Than Human. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me, as I know Sturgeon is one of Spider’s most loved writers. I think that perhaps I’ve read one Sturgeon short story before, but really nothing more, which is strange given how large Spider Robinson looms in my own personal universe of authors I love.

I think the possibly hair-splitting distinction I’m trying to make is that more often these days, humans carry forward all the foibles of being human into technological advance.

More Than Human, though, is about a fundamental shift. It’s about a bunch of characters, each of whom has a certain psionic power. Far from being a super team, this is about the coalescence of five people into a single organism, not literally, but definitely with real and material effects. Five people, all of them outcasts in certain ways, come together and harness their powers to be, fundamentally, different.

These include a young girl who can move things with her mind, two younger Black girls who can teleport, a baby with Down’s syndrome who can’t talk but can solve almost any problem with his mind, instantaneously, and the two people who in turn serve as the “head” of this new gestalt - the first a man typed as an idiot by society, in the way that that word denotes a specific level of mental disability, and later, a young man who was an orphan before he was made part of this whole. I want to type before he became part of this family, but it doesn’t quite capture it.

Where this goes, and specifically, the eventual focus on what morality such a group creature could need or follow, is the heart of the book. It’s a thoughtful book, and while it’s not pulse-pounding or even mostly urgent, I quite enjoyed the journey I took through it.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Week In Stories: No One Gets Out Alive Character Creation

You know that moment when you've got your character created, and you know the basics of how they fit in with the other characters (at least at the beginning of the game), and there's juicy stuff to start playing right out of the gate? I'm there, and now I have to wait another couple of weeks before we can actually sit down and play. I can do it, but I'm very eager to get going.

On Friday, we sat down and finalized our character sheets for Bill's haunted house game, No One Gets Out Alive. By which I mean we finished talking to each other about connections and how to summarize them - the sheet draws heavily on DramaSystem, including what our stories are, our dramatic poles, what we want from each other, and why the other person can't give it.

I'm trying something difficult with this character, I think, and I'll be interested to see if I can pull it off. I'm fairly in touch with my emotions, so making a deliberate choice to play a character with low emotional intelligence, and low level of awareness of what she's feeling and how that might be affecting her actions, is going to be difficult. But I think rewarding.

We're none of us playing really nice characters, but I also don't think any of them are irredeemable. We're all keeping secrets, we're all policing boundaries of who belongs to this family, and who doesn't.

The story will be set on a private island in the 1000 Islands, on which all of our characters spent a lot of summers as teenagers, but haven't been there in years and years. (We're all in our 40s as the game begins.) The family matriarch, Miss Maudie, has recently died, and we have to decide whether or not to sell the island and large house on it, and negotiate the terms of the will, which wrote in someone no one was expecting.

My character, Jo, "played" by Robin Wright
My character is an in-law - married to the oldest son, the "good son," for a long time. A marriage that used to be good, but isn't any longer. It's cracking under too many stressors and not enough connection, not to mention the things we're hiding from each other. For my character, there are two teenage kids, an incredibly busy career as a surgeon, and her husband's mother in failing health to take care of. He's got the kids and the mother to take care of, as well as the knowledge that the family business is in way more trouble than anyone realizes. Plus, Jo has recently started an affair, and is using this time at the cottage to make a decision whether to continue with it, or recommit to her marriage.

This is complicated enough, but then gets even more complicated when you add back in the groundskeeper's daughter, now revealed in the will as the recently deceased matriarch's illegitimate grandchild. The groundskeeper's daughter and the good son almost had something going back as teenagers, when they didn't realize they were first cousins. Until Jo, urged on by Miss Maudie, framed her for theft and got her sent away.

So, how does the character sheet look? If I'm remembering what I wrote, the dramatic poles were: Bulling Through vs. The Easy Way, since I think this is a character who never ever takes the easy way...except maybe just recently, in starting the affair. And I think that was seductive in ways that have nothing to do with the relationship - the lure of just tossing things aside and starting again. Set up against her long history with the family, the fact that she and her husband used to have a good marriage, and her kids. Which will she choose?

What she wants from the others? She wants her husband to keep the house, no matter what. (And without realizing it, she's really asking for him to fight through difficulties to keep something, as a symbol for believing that he'd fight for their marriage.) He can't, because the financial difficulties really are too deep.

She wants the ex-friend to admit that Jo was right in setting her up as a thief. Which is obviously something the other woman isn't going to be able to do, even though now everyone knows that that couple were actually first cousins.

I'm excited. We've consciously committed to a drama-heavy game, and with three players plus GM, intensity should not be far away.