Monday, 26 March 2018

Euphoria by Lily King

*Spoilers Below*

I get that this is a fictional account of Margaret Mead and her time doing anthropological work with her second, and the man who would become her third, husbands. Her name has been changed, as have theirs, as has the title of her book that so excited attention and brought her both fame and notoriety. I get that you take liberties to tell the story you want, as a novelist. I get that.

I just can't help being a little bit angry that the book decided to truncate her life, making her the memory of a lost love by the guy who would never get to be the third husband, because she dies. It does this instead of dealing with the messiness of the rest of her life, the ways in which she continued to be an interesting person. Taking her story away and making it someone's memories of her by killing her off decades earlier than she died in real life does not sit well with me. She was not just men's memories of her, obviously, and so the choice is irksome.

I didn't know much about Mead before reading this book, and only did a token bit of research afterwards, but still, it's a weird choice. In this book, her stand-in is Nell Stone, who is in Australia with her second husband doing anthropological research when they give up researching one indigenous tribe, and move on. They meet the narrator of the book, who in real life, married Mead later on, and we get a tempestuous stream of desire as he sets her and her second husband up with a new tribe, made to order for the type of research she wants to do - and of course, treating groups of people like they're trading cards is irksome as well, but the book does to some degree recognize that.

There, her husband is fixated on a relic from the last tribe they were with, which he sees as his own property, arguing that an elder in that tribe gave it to him, and never seeming to realize that maybe just reaching out and taking whatever you want is not really the best idea. Nell immerses herself in the life of their new tribe, coming up with a framework of divisions of gendered power and labour that offend her husband greatly, because they differ from what he expects to find - men in charge, women not. The new anthropologist on the scene sees the same things she does.

Of course, the history of anthropology is beset with problematic ideas, and Euphoria does not a terrible job of acknowledging this, but it is far more concerned with the European love triangle (which includes queer sexuality) than it is with the objects of Nell and Fen's interest. The indigenous tribe they stay with are mostly set dressing, and there to set the anthropologists in opposition, rather than this being anything like a story of those people.

As a whole, I just felt uncomfortable with the focus of the book, and that only grew after I did some research. I was troubled by the ways in which Nell's story is not her own, given that this is a book of mourning her, and of course, by the larger issues of how the story still uses indigenous Australian culture as a prop and backdrop rather than fully engaging with the difficulties and colonialism of anthropology as a field in the early 20th century.

The problem is, I think, that it felt like this kind of story, with these characters, could be told anywhere, or about completely fictional characters. When the author tried to intersect with historical actors, I felt the strain.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Company Town by Madeline Ashby

I have had trouble starting this review. I think it's because, in the main, I want to recommend this book. And I do! However, there is one chapter where I think the book falls apart a little bit, and although it picks itself up again quite nicely, it confused me so much that it does stand out as the low point, at a section of the plot that should really have been an apex.

Let's explore what I mean in more details - which means there will be some spoilers. If you don't want spoilers, let me say that this is very good Canadian cyberpunk, set on a rig off the coast of Newfoundland, where many of the characters are unionized sex workers, and many of the others new corporate lackeys.

This does, however, mean that we fall into difficult territory of a string of murders of dead prostitutes, which is dangerous and tricky territory. It is, though, as Ebert always said, not what it is about, but how it is about it. So, I want to think about that. These are not faceless women - they are the friends of the main character, who at the start of the book, worked as security for the sex worker's union, protecting the women who are being killed. In what might be splitting hairs, while these deaths are bad ones, they are not sexualized.  It's closer to the main character in the Maltese Falcon trying to avenge his partner than anything else.

I'm still a little on the fence about this, but nothing felt egregiously wrong, if that makes sense. It's just hard territory to get right, and I'm not really sure what right would look like.

What is the plot, do you ask? Hwa is a young woman with a genetic condition that covers her face with a red blotch - incidentally, this messes up facial recognition software, and makes her particularly useful in doing security, which she does for the sex workers union, after having dropped out of school. She lives and works (and never leaves, few people ever leave) on an oil rig/city out on the ocean off the coast of Newfoundland, and you can hear the Newfoundland slang in the characters' voices.

Near the start of the book, though, she gets hired by the new company in town, the one that has bought the whole place, lock, stock, and all the property in between. The youngest son of this family business has been receiving death threats, and she is hired to go back to high school with him and keep him safe. Her handler is Daniel Siofra, a man whose past is a mystery - even to himself. Her charge, Joel, is an earnest and likeable young man - far too likeable to be the next likely successor to a multi-national.

Attacks do come, some by someone invisible. Meanwhile, some of the women Hwa used to guard, her friends, are killed. She keeps the corporate job because it gives her computer access to investigate what happened to the women who died. Oh, and there might be interference in what's going on from the future. There's a lot going on.

I generally really liked this book. However, there is one chapter where the pacing broke down. I seriously thought that section was a dream - the character thinks that idly, and in a short number of pages, we were jumping locations and events in what felt like a dream-like fashion, and so I wasn't bothered that too many huge plot twists were happening in a single chapter. I was sure that they were Hwa putting pieces together unconsciously and that the events hadn't actually happened.

I was wrong. They did all happen. And although Hwa had a seizure at the end of the chapter, and the previous pages could be her altered state of mind leading up to the seizure, we never got to be with her as she sorted out what happened and what didn't and why. So then I was playing catch-up, trying to move events out of the spot where my brain had sorted them as dream-stuff, not real-stuff.

It's just the one chapter. Either the pacing is bad, or it's a good effort to try to capture her state of mind in the middle of an insanely stressful situation, but lacks the follow-up to bring that home. It's unfortunate. Outside of that, though, this is very sold cyberpunk, rooted solidly in class and gender disparities.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Starplex by Robert J. Sawyer

I will read all the Hugo nominees. I really will. At this point, I'm just under half-way done, and for the very first time, I've bought a membership so I can vote on the awards. Hopefully that'll mean I'll read last year's books this year, and not two or three years hence, which has pretty much been the way it's gone for the last little while. When you mostly get books out from the library, you're either on a ton of wait lists, or you're content being a little bit behind.

So as I continued my trek through the Hugo Best Novel nominees, I came to that run of Robert J. Sawyer nominations. He had a very fervent fanbase there for a while, and so, rarely a year went by without a nomination. I am not the biggest Sawyer fan, although I don't mind his stuff. It's straight-forward commercial fiction, and the twists are often fairly good, although his women are mostly identified by the largeness of their boobs.

(That's not really better in this book - at one point, the main character thinks about the woman he wants to cheat on his wife with with the massively unflattering description that she was so attractive he often didn't notice how intelligent she was. Dudes, if you didn't already know, this is not a compliment any woman wants to hear.  I do not, and I keep saying this, mind romances or attractions that are also physical. It's when they're nothing BUT physical, and the brain attached is an extreme afterthought, that I get annoyed.)

There is a lot going on in this book, and then there's the subplot where the main character reaches middle age, and, according to the bullshit evolutionary psychology in this book, inevitably wants to have an affair, to prove his manhood. I mean, how else will you deal with hair falling out? He loves his wife and their marriage is good, but you know, he's attracted to this other woman, and what are you going to do?

You know what I like about being an adult? (I talked this one over extensively with my husband, and he was less forgiving of Sawyer than I was prepared to be.) I like that eventually you learn that while you may know people to whom you are attracted when you're an adult and in a happy, monogamous relationship (as the characters in the book are), attraction does not equal action. Eventually, you learn that you can experience attraction and do absolutely freaking nothing about it. It's totally a possibility. I assume my husband will not only be attracted to me for his entire life. I know damn well I'll sometimes find other people attractive. But you know what? I always find him attractive too, and he does me. What I have is far too awesome to ditch any time I experience pantsfeelings. (Thank you Captain Awkward for the terminology!)

I mean, people can do whatever they want with their lives, as long as everyone's aware and on board. If multiple partners are important to you, sort out your life so that's part of it, with everyone's willing consent. But this notion that that if you want to boink someone half your age, you just have to, because you're middle-aged is nonsense.

So I didn't like that subplot very much.

The rest of the book was fine. Humanity is one of four races on Starplex, a giant ship exploring the wormholes riddling the galaxy, and looking for first contact. They find more than they expected when suns, literal, huge, active suns, start coming through the wormholes, followed by dark matter creatures with whom humans, dolphins, and two alien species have very little in common.

Throw in a little time travel, some intergalactic wormholes, and a sudden attack from an ally, and there's a lot going on. I can't say any of it rocked my socks off, but it was solid SF. If only we could get to a point where not only can we imagine dark matter beings, time travel, and wormholes, we could also make the ultimate leap to seeing women as more than their boobs.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

*Spoilers Below*

I wanted to be charmed by this book. At times I was, mostly by the clockwork octopus, Katsu. But then every once in a while the author would make a choice and I would sit and shake my head. Or something would be revealed and I would be irritated that it had waited until now. I know this all sounds very vague, but that's pretty much because I have a sense of light dissatisfaction that is not really dislike, more like disappointment. It feels like this is two-thirds of the way to being a very good book indeed, but some of the authorial choices were not for me.

Mostly this is around the queer content. I am very happy there is queer content. I'm not as happy that it's so subtle that I didn't notice it until we were at about the 3/4 mark of the book. This is perhaps more irksome because that makes this the second book I've read that is supposed to be about gay male desire in Victorian London (the other was a vampire novel) and really dropped the ball because the author made it so little of the story. I mean, it's fine if characters are gay, and that's who they are and it's not a huge part of the story, but when the story ends up hinging on one man's feelings for another, and I didn't even notice they were brewing, well, either I was being terminally dense while reading this book, or it wasn't given enough weight before it all came out in the open.

I suppose I should go back to the plot, to put this in context. Thaniel (short for Nathaniel, and I've never heard that short-form before, and I've transcribed god-only-knows how many names on membership lists of clubs in the late 19th century) works for the government in England, eventually for the Foreign Office. A bomb set off by Fenians nearly kills him, except that he was warned by an alarm on a pocketwatch that turned up in his home previously. This leads him to the watch's maker, Mori, a Japanese man who can see all the possibilities of the future, and chooses to sometimes nudge them to more palatable ends.

And even though Thaniel moves in with him, it took me forever to figure out that they had feelings for each other. I don't need swooning, but it's okay if gay desire has a physical component, you know? It doesn't need to be all refined all the time - the Victorians, trust me, had sex. They felt desire. The prose here does not need to be overwrought, but it would be nice if it were present.

Thaniel decides to get married to a science-minded woman who needs a husband in order to claim an inheritance. They like each other well enough, but they certainly aren't in love. And while Grace is an interesting character, I didn't love the decision to make her into the villain. She decides that if Thaniel is with or near Mori, he'll become nothing more than Mori's puppet, and so she decides to cause an explosion to discredit Mori. This is after previously destroying the gift Mori sent for a housewarming, for no particular reason other than to be petty and to want to own Thaniel.

This would make more sense if she was more intensely in love with him, or maybe if she'd been developed more strongly as seeing people as little more than objects to acquire. It's not that anything here is wrong, exactly, but she's really the only developed female character, and so to make her the embodiment of female jealousy over a man she doesn't love, hurting and potentially killing people to get what she wants...I don't love it as a choice. If there were more female characters, I'd have less of an issue.

So...this is okay. There were bits I liked quite a lot, but the book seemed afraid of its subject matter, and instead of character traits being skilfully laid in, they were more jammed in when it became dramatically necessary. It's unfortunate, because there is a lot here to like.