Friday, 28 December 2018

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker

At the moment, I've changed the thrust of my old SF reading to full novels, rather than short stories. As much fun as short stories are to dissect, they're time consuming, and I haven't really had time recently.. So with this, we go to a novel nominated for a Hugo in 1971, which isn't all that old, but still well before our current generation of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I've had people question, every once in a while, why I read old science fiction. Why I sometimes put myself through things that make me cringe when it comes to how they portray women, or hamhandedly try to do something with race. I guess my answer is that because I still enjoy it. I don't think anyone should necessarily do this if they aren't getting any enjoyment out of it, but I still like reading old SF, seeing what was done well, seeing what wasn't, perhaps why, and enriching my overall concept of the field.

Besides, if someone isn't doing this, people are going to keep thinking they've just reinvented the wheel, much as how every generation seems to think they were the ones who invented sex. In other words, I'm a historian at heart, with a Ph.D. to show for it. (Not, you know, a Ph.D. in the history of science fiction, but a solid doctorate in historical research.)  Reading old and sometimes uncomfortable things, in search of why particular ideas took form at particular times, why people seized on this and not that, and what they did with it, that's all my bread and butter. I understand the present better by knowing the past, but more importantly, I understand the past better too, on its own terms and through my own.

Now that I've (somewhat defensively) gotten that out of the way, let's turn our attention to Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun. The first thing I have to say is that Tucker is not done any favours by whoever wrote the blurb on the back of the copy I picked up in my friendly local used bookshop. You know how blurbs are supposed to whet your appetite, and generally give you an idea of where the book starts and what the major thrust is going to be? 

Well, in this case, we reached the end of the blurb just as we reached the last page of the novel. I shit you not. The whole damn book took place before the blurb. When the blurb told me that this was about a main character jumping forward in time and finding the nuclear-wasted post-apocalyptic world of the U.S. in the early 20th-century, and that the main character decided to stay and see what the actions of his time had wrought in the world to come, I figured that that would be most of the book.

It was not. The last pages are him making that decision to stay. We never get to really see much of what his world had wrought. I guess that would be for a future book? (As far as I know, this is a stand-alone.)

Instead, we get a few jumps successively forward through the early 1980s, 2000, 2001, culminating in that last jump some time beyond that, where calendars may not be measuring anything anymore, and certainly not using the Gregorian Calendar.

This is, however, a pretty good book. Some things (*cough*handling of women*cough) are pretty bad, and I imagine a Black person might be able to tell me what Tucker got wrong about race, but there are also some interesting ideas - and perhaps most interesting to me, ideas that I've seen echoed in other science fiction of the 1970s and early 1980s, including a core concept I haven't seen much since.

I'm being oblique, so let me try not to be. At the core of this book is the idea that once the main character jumps forward a few different times, he ends up in a time period where a literal race war is just beginning, a second Civil War in the United States, along racial lines. In other words, Black men (sorry, there's no mention of Black women, which makes me sigh) are fighting back and with the help of the Chinese (!), they've got nuclear weapons to back up their guerilla tactics.

It's not this idea on its own that drew my attention, it's that it isn't the first time I've seen this posited. One of Spider Robinson's very early (and very hard to find) books, also is set against the potential start of a war between Black Americans (although there's at least one Black woman in that book) and whites. And another short story of Spider's that talks obliquely about the recent end of the second Civil War that insinuates heavily it was a war about race and racism.

Interestingly, it took me a very, very long time to figure out that the main character in The Year of the Quiet Sun was Black. I may have missed an early descriptor, but I don't think so. I think it's just not mentioned until quite far into the book, when he jumps forward into a world in which this civil war has started but not taken hold, and is regarded with suspicion in the primarily white Midwest city he jumps to. This is particularly interesting because it means that he integrates into a primarily military facility without encountering the slightest bit of racism, which...huh. And he competes for the affections of a white woman, and loses, but the book never ever brings his race into this. Which I suppose is refreshing, but also sort of smacks of the assumption that we could just decide not to see race, and that would make racism not happen, not have had an impact. In a world where you're positing things get so bad they lead to a civil war, does that seem likely?

Brian does experience some prejudice when he gets to the military installation, but it's because he's a historian who translated some explosive Middle Eastern pre-New Testament or early New Testament scrolls that call into question the ways in which myth and legend may have been incorporated into the eventual biblical canon.

It does make me sigh, however, that he's the brand of science fiction historian in which he's not only a biblical scholar and translator, but he's also a futurist, and also knows all about the history of the United States, and probably any other history you could possibly name. You know, because we're all generalists, instead of remarkably compartmentalized specialists. I just laughed when the book jumps from his translating scripture to writing remarkably accurate predictions of the future, wrong only because of a few unforeseen events. I wish I could do that!

The prediction that made me chuckle hardest was the idea of licensed nudists. It's hard to explain why, it's just the idea that a) nudity would be so common that nudists could roam the streets but b) they'd still have to have papers to prove it and c)...would have somewhere to carry those papers? (This prediction doesn't come true because of nuclear winter, but you know, best laid plans gang aft aglae.)

This was a solid, entertaining read, although the main female character was there to never travel in time other than at the usual one-minute-per-minute speed. She was really there to be wooed by two separate members of the time team, and doesn't so much choose one of them, as that one of them tries harder and that makes the difference - so while she's not a terrible female character, she's not one with any real kind of agency. And is frequently described in terms of how she looks in a swimsuit, which happens remarkably often for a book about a military installation devoted to going forward through time. You know how it is.

I would love to go through and talk about this book in more depth, and to trace some of the idea backwards and forwards. If I ever do start a science fiction podcast, I suspect I'd want to cover this book at some point.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

The Dark Between The Stars by Kevin J. Anderson

I will, some day, read all of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel. I'm slightly over 50% done, and now that I'm voting each year, that means that I'm not losing ground to new nominees. I pick from here and there in the history of the award, and eventually I'll get there. So of course, that meant I came to one of the years where the nominations were gamed by certain groups that shall go unnamed. And this was one of the books that definitely made it on to the nomination lists because of that.

So I read it, with not a small amount of cynicism. And my verdict is, like with the Jim Butcher that got nominated the year after (or before?), that they're both fine, they're just not, in any way, great. There's nothing about them that makes me jump up and down and say "now this needs to be nominated."  Nothing that is "this is new and innovative," or even "I couldn't put this damn book down." It's just...fine. If you want a really really long space-bound story, this would be fine. (I like to reserve "space opera" to mean something more than just "story that takes place in space.") If you want vast casts of not-particularly-well-developed characters, this would be fine. If you have very little attention span and want chapters that rarely break five pages, this would be fine.

That's one thing that does bug me. Here, Anderson is falling prey to the James Patterson School of Writing, which is the idea that chapters need to be extremely short. All the time, not just to break up a flow. With so many characters, and not much to differentiate them outside of short descriptors (concerned father, ambitious overbearing mother, wife of the emperor, loyal son of king, cranky son of king, etc., etc.), it took me a long time to get a handle on the story. Of course, it does sound like I'm not exactly coming in at the beginning, but the book, for all its emphasis on short chapters, did not give me much time to catch up.

It's a story of, well, corporate malfeasance, loners in space, space plagues, killer robots, a blackness in space that wants to kill all sentient life (I was having major Babylon 5 flashbacks), compy resettlement programs, children at school, heirs dying of mysterious diseases, other royal children going off into the wilderness to find themselves, a disease-obsessed rich woman, the withholding of miracle cures, and...I mean, I could go on and on. Every time I paused in writing that last sentence, I remembered another plotline.

This really is less sprawling and more unfocused. But I'm sounding more critical than I want to. I mean, this is fine. It's a solid three stars. For all its length, I didn't mind reading it, but goodness, there was nothing that made me want to read it again! Neither am I eager to find the next in the series...but I enjoyed it enough that if it crossed my path, I would pick it up. I wasn't angry at it.

(Well, okay, sometimes some of the female characters got under my skin, not to mention the son who wanted to demand of his mother that she agree that when she was systematically raped during wartime to create babies, it was a good thing, which, WHAT THE FUCK? What is this even doing here? Trying to make all your women readers uncomfortable? Or just the author not realizing how intense that is to be a brief conversation that is never mentioned again? It's...not good. You want to have that shit as a plotline, it better fucking not be a throw-away, and you'd better have something new and empathetic to fucking say.)

So, yeah. If you like a certain kind of space-centred story, and you want big and sprawling and interconnected, this is fine. Except for all the things that bugged me. But it only rarely made me angry, and so...read it if you want? A Hugo nominee, though? Really?

Monday, 24 December 2018

I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

Oh dear. This is one of these books that I keep putting off writing about. The problem is that it was a perfectly pleasant and easy read, but it didn't really spark anything in my head, didn't connect any two ideas I want to pull out, didn't piss me off so I want to rant. I just...it was fine? Better than fine, even, although I also never felt as emotionally connected to the book as I felt like I was supposed to. I felt like this was supposed to be a tearjerker, but nary a tear was jerked.

Maybe I'm just too old for this kind of YA. It's better written that some I've read! The conflicts are real conflicts, and could not be solved by two people just talking to each other. I mean, some of them could be alleviated by that, but not solved, and the reasons for withholding information were better than "because the plot demands you be kept in the dark." I hate that so much, and I've seen too much of it recently. (I'm looking at YOU, Queen of the Tearling.)

And I remember enough of being a teenager to get it that everything is  hard, and you don't know who you are and it's all the angst, and hurt, and hurting each other because you don't have enough social skills to get out of situations otherwise. I get feeling that if you don't get this opportunity right here, the world is over.

While I remember that, oof, I don't really want to spend any more time there. I did my years of teenagehood, and I'm much happier as an adult. And yet, Nelson does a good job of capturing something about adolescence, and her characters are really solid.

We have here a pair of twins, Noah and Jude. They are very close, but are growing apart, and Noah deals with self-loathing around his sexuality, while Jude explores hers in ways that make her mother unhappy. They're both artistic, Noah drawing and Jude sculpting, and there's also a contest there for capturing their mother's attention and approval. Their mother is a flawed character, whimsical, loving, but capricious and somewhat self-centered. And she's missing for half the book - stylistically, the book is broken up into chapters Noah narrates in the past, and chapters Jude narrates, in the future, three years after the death of their mother in a car crash.

Both have information they haven't told each other, but it's less "let's slow down the plot and create false tension" and more "I don't know how to say this so I don't," and I was much happier with that. Both twins have ended up doing hurtful things to each other, some on purpose, some through misunderstanding. Their father is present but hurting as well after the loss of his wife, and confused over what was going on before that.

There's a streak of magical realism in here - Jude follows her grandmother's "Bible," a collection of spells and folklore to the letter, and thinks her mother's ghost is breaking all her pottery sculptures. Noah seems to be able to delay his leaps over a cliff in mid-air. But it's there more as flavour than any real point to the book.

Of course, since it's about the loss of a parent, I find myself doing what I always do these days - assess it against my own experiences. This one wasn't terrible. It didn't make me angry. It didn't touch me deeply either. There's something about this book that never let me forget it was a book, whereas something like Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows gutted me with how real it felt. It's not bad. I didn't mind reading it. I just am left feeling a little empty at the end.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Top Ten Books of 2018

It is once again time to compile a list of the top ten books I read this year! As always, very few books on this list came out this year, as I am not that abreast of what's going on. This was the first year in which I voted for the Hugos, so I'm closer to being with it than usual. The one thing that most delighted me about the voting process was how good so many of the nominees were, and you'll see them pop up here several times. As a result, the whole list is even more weighted towards genre fiction, but I feel pretty good about it.

10. Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

This was just so utterly delightful. Only my second venture into Ursula Vernon's oeuvre, and I'll be going back often. We have here a portal fantasy, but with such invention and enthusiasm that every bit of it made me happy. With a werewolf who turns into a house by night, a high society Ton of birds, and the fact that you can't trust antelope women, there's so much to love here.






9. Radiance by Catherynne Valente

Radiance is strange and wonderful, and I'm still not sure I entirely understand it. That doesn't mean it hasn't stayed with me though, and so it enters this list at #9. We dance between planets and genres through a golden age of silver screen moviemaking, with space whales and the mystery of the death of a promising young filmmaker. Absence is presence, and no one can decide what genre this story should be.





8. Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

This is a weird and awesome mix of conventional family drama and sort-of science fiction, as we're drawn into the family life of a group of formerly famous psychics - or were they always just con artists? And does it really matter, if the CIA wants to continue to do experiments on you?







7. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I loved this twist on a literal Underground Railroad, with stops in all sorts of forms of historical (and present) racism. Like a lot of books this year, difficult at times, but so worth it. A lot of my top books this year are interesting twists that use some aspect of genre fiction to great and unusual effect, and that helps brings the ring of truth to something entirely metaphorical in this case.






6. The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

I was utterly astounded by this book when I reaad it as part of my Hugo voting this year. Just blown away. Silkpunk, power struggles, revolution, twins, and a whole lot more. If you want good fantasy that is a little bit unlike anything you've read, start here. And then go on to the other books. (I haven't taken my own advice yet, but I will!)






5. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin 

I am not sure how my heart made it through the last two-thirds of this trilogy this year, but I am grateful that it did. (You'll be seeing more of Jemisin a few books from now.) The Obelisk Gate occupies that middle spot in a trilogy with such power that it knocked me off my feet with its depiction of community forming even under the worst of pressures.






4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

It made me so happy that the big book from last year was one that I thoroughly and unreservedly enjoyed. As soon as the book clicked for me, I was in no matter where it went from there. And where it went was a lot of enjoyable places meditating on the core of identity, the power of grief, and the fallacies of memory.






3. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

It might be impossible to craft a book that hits more of my personal buttons and to do it with such grace and aplomb that I started crying in the first few chapters? I'm blown away. This was a page turner and something more thoughtful, all at the same time.







2. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Will it sound weird if I say that I hope I never read another book this devastating again? This book broke me, over and over. Some of what she wrote I hadn't experienced and appreciated, and some of it I had, or versions of grief close enough to feel the truth underlying every word, phrased directly and without obfuscation. This is wondrous and traumatizing. 






1. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin 

The choice for the best book I read this year was not easy, but it should come as no surprise. I do not think you can overstate how important, and even more, how good these books are. The Stone Sky brings it all home in such a way that it hurt to read, but wrapped everything up in a way that did service to all the history that had brought these characters to that place. Astounding.






Honourable Mentions: (AKA Books It Hurt Me To Cut From The Top Ten:

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Two Books That Got Screwed Over by Chance and the Tournament Format:

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

The Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

I virtually always love Lois McMaster Bujold's books, and I'm happy to report that Paladin of Souls was no exception. It's a follow-up to her Curse of Chalion, set in a fantasy kingdom that is ruled by five gods (although some say only four), in which a curse has come down through the generations and may doom a couple of young people in line to the throne.

In this book, we turn to their mother, Ista. She's in her mid-forties, free of the madness the gods inflicted on her for decades, and finally out from underneath the stifling will of her mother. For the first time in her life, she can actually choose her own path - which naturally cause great consternation in everyone around her - she's the queen's mother, for goodness sake! She should sit meekly in a castle and be unobtrusive!

Ista, fortunately, has other ideas, and embarks on a desperate forgery of a pilgrimage to the holy sites of the Five Gods, mostly in order to get the hell away from people who think they know either who she is or what she should be doing with her time. She enlists a cleric of the Bastard, the most disreputable of the gods, to be her guide, a young female courier to be her handmaid, and a small cohort of soldiers are sent to keep her out of danger.

In this world, demon possessions used to be extremely few and far between, but they're on the rise. As Ista finds out about this, she also starts having prophetic dreams that suggest that the gods aren't done with her yet, which is is very much less than happy about. Then she starts dreaming of a handsome man bleeding in a bed, and after some misadventures, is brought to a castle where he resides, in a sleep that is not natural, but which I will not explain.

The master of this castle is the son of the man who was rumoured to have been her lover, back in her very much younger days, although he was actually her husband's lover. Stories of the triangle between the three have been circulating for decades, and in true Bujold fashion, they are worked through in more thoughtful and interesting ways than you might expect.

The castle's master has a wife as young as Ista was when she was first married, and young Catilara loves her older husband with a fervour that has led her into some very tricky territory, theologically. This, of course, relates to why the other man lies sleeping.

There's an enemy on the doorstep as well, a foreign power who would kill them all merely for acknowledging the Bastard as a god, and the feints they are making look very much like the start of a larger invasion of her daughter's kingdom. So there's a lot at stake as Ista has to try to figure out how to untangle the depths of the snarl that has been created within the castle, while still protecting them all from the dangers without.

It's not done by making her a warrior all of a sudden - she isn't. But she's stronger than she knows, carrying all the experience of her years of madness and choices she made that have haunted her through all the years. It was delightful to have someone like Ista be a hero in her own right, in her own way, without trying to make her fit any usual archetypes. Since I've entered my forties myself, I appreciate the nod that adventures do not end with your twenties. And you don't always know who you are by then, either.

Friday, 7 December 2018

De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage

Unfortunately, this was another book from the CBC list of the "100 Novels That Make You Proud To Be Canadian" that I really didn't like. At this point, the tally is a few books I've liked a lot, several that were meh, and almost as many that I strongly disliked. Unfortunately, De Niro's Game was one of the latter, and I can say that whoever compiled this collection has vastly different taste from mine. I'd drop the list, but I'd like to keep some Canadian content in my reading cycle. If you know of a better list of Canadian books, send it my way!

This was a book that I pushed through to the end based on spite, wanting to write this review. And also because it was relatively short.

My problems with the book are pretty much twofold. One, there are an absolutely inordinate number of references to women's tits, for no particular reason. Also legs. Also some sexual coercion and possibly rape. And none of that was the point of the book, taken seriously by the book, it was just background noise in the lives of these young men. I get that they're young men. I get that they're horny. Just trust me that even by those standards, it was excessive, like the author worried we'd forget that they were horny, even in the middle of a war zone, if he didn't mention women's breasts or thighs every other page.

The second problem was just the writing. This was so overwritten, folks. So, so, so overwritten. Sentences that had so much unrelated imagery, it practically gave me a headache. Here's an example:

"White and red meat fell from above, pieces were cut, crushed, banged, cut again, ground, put in paper bags and handed to the women in line, women in black, with melodramatic oil-painted faces, in churchgoer submissive positions, in Halloween horrors, in cannibal hunger for crucifix flesh, in menstrual cramps of virgin saints, in castrated hermetic positions, on their knees and at the mercy of knives and illiterate butchers."

I mean...I don't even know what to do with this. I just don't.

The topic of this book is interesting, but unfortunately how it is about it is all tits, thighs, and prose that made me wince. It's unfortunate. I've been told that a friend really liked a later book by this author, so maybe Hage got it all out of his system with this one?

It's the story of two young men in wartorn Beirut. Many members of their families have been killed by shelling. The city itself has its own dangers, with the militia willing to enforce itself with guns and violence, and the young men doing no less. One, George, joins the semi-military group, the other, the narrator does not, and dreams of leaving Lebanon for France. He doesn't really do a lot to do that, though, just talks about it a lot. The two try to defraud the casino controlled by the military, that doesn't go well. Other things don't go well.

There are ways in which this could have been really compelling. There are ways that this could have engaged with paralysis in the middle of overwhelming odds. There are ways this could have talked about breasts less and still left us in no doubt that this was a young heterosexual man. But no.

This book was not for me. Many books on this particular list of Canadian novels have not been for me. Someday, I'll do my own, although I certainly don't specialize in Canadian fiction.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

The Rift by Nina Allan

If your entire teenage years were lived in the shadow of your sister's disappearance, who would you be? What would you do? And what would you do if she came back twenty years later, telling tales about having been on another planet all that time?

This is more or less the premise of The Rift, and Nina Allan does a competent job with these ideas, although, for some reason, the book never really soared for me. It's so close, but it doesn't quite get there. I think that's because there are aspects of the story that aren't as fully explored as I'd need them to be to feel emotionally connected. There's a distance here, from the past, and from the characters, and I felt similarly held at arm's length.

So, it's good, and I think worth checking out if the premise intrigues you, but unfortunately, the comparison that kept popping unbidden into my head, was with Slaughterhouse Five and Tralfamadore, and that's not a comparison that is going to do The Rift any favours. But that a person who went to another planet (or possibly is fantasizing their way through trauma), comes back and no one believes them feels quite similar.

I guess the question is what is done with it. This is definitely a book that does not want to give you a complete answer, and I applaud the ambiguity at the end. It's something in the lead-up that didn't quite make that final ambiguity pack as large a punch as it might have otherwise. I think it may be that, in a story that should have a lot of emotional punch, it's so cerebral that this all feels like an interesting mental exercise.

But let's talk about the book a little bit more. Selena is in her thirties, working at a jewelry store, resistant to making any firm plans for her life, drifting away from a boyfriend, and avoiding doing any further training in gemology, which she would enjoy and be good at. This might be because her sister Julie disappeared when she was sixteen, and was never found again. Her father drove himself to death trying to find her. Her mother is a bit of a cipher, although we do actually spend some time with her in a couple of pivotal scenes. But again, it's at a bit of a distance. Her decisions, which should feel more intense, occupy a place that is interesting, but not emotional.

Then Julie gets in touch with Selena, and they meet, a few times, and gradually Julie tells her story to Selena, which is that she was picked up by the serial killer everyone feared killed her, but managed to escape, and slipped through a rift to another planet, Tristane. There she lived for a while, with Cally and Noel, two characters we don't get to know very well. This entire life is also at a remove - we do not get any intense scenes of her time there, just some rather mundane ones where Cally tells Julie Julie has always lived there, while Julie remembers her time on earth. There isn't any real drama between those three characters (if there was, that section might have been more vivid and allowed readers an in, but no).

The only real drama on Tristane, which otherwise seems like a perfectly pleasant planet that we don't find out that much about other than the geography, is that there was a sister planet that cut off communication some time ago. A novel was floating around claiming to be a first person account of a man who was on the sister planet with an expeditionary force that came into contact with parasites that live inside a human for quite a long time, animating their bodies, and then subsuming them. There is no recovery.

This is probably the best part of the book! It's interesting and emotional, and unfortunately, it only occupies a relatively small number of pages. So there's the fear on Tristane, or at least Julie fears, that the worms that animate your body will eventually take over Tristane again. But, uh...it doesn't happen, that we see.

(Then there's a side story about a teacher Julie flirted with who is hauled in for questioning after Julie disappears, and it is not that it isn't interesting, it's just that it's shoehorned in, and nothing much is done with it.)

So, back on Earth, there are questions about Julie's identity, about whether or not she's someone insane who has latched on to Julie's story, and about whether or not Tristane is real, or a post-traumatic reaction. And then, whether or not there are brain-eating worms on Tristane and might make their way to Earth at some point.

This is a very far away place to put the danger. It's an interesting danger, it's just not anywhere near what should be the emotional core. It's just a lot of weirdly placed attention. I like the genre switching, the integration of newspaper stories and movies with the text, but the story itself needs some serious tightening up.


Monday, 3 December 2018

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

InSight landed on Mars this week. It had been so long since I submitted my name (as 1.6 million people submitted theirs) to be put on a microchip that would make its way to Mars that it took me a bit, as I was watching the landing, to remember that this was why. It's not a person, it's not me, but my name is on a freaking other planet.

Because I'd just read The Calculating Stars the week before, I kept an eye on Mary Robinette Kowal's twitter feed while the landing was underway, because after reading the book, I knew that she'd be watching as avidly as I was.

What I think I'm trying to say with this is that I don't know if you could have pulled out a list of ingredients more likely to make me excited about and engaged in a book if you'd tried. Earlier race to put settlers on the Moon and Mars in the 1950s, revolving around the efforts of women to be considered as astronauts? Careful consideration of the ways in which the selection process was not only gendered but racialized? Anxiety as a fact of life for the main character, not a disability? All of this in one of the best written, most exciting and enthralling books I've read all year? In a book I really hope is on the Hugo ballot next year because it so fucking deserves to be?

Yeah, that's The Calculating Stars. And I feel like I've only scratched the surface. The book starts with a catastrophe - a meteorite hitting the water just off the East Coast of the U.S., obliterating millions and starting a chain reaction that will lead to global warming on a scale that may well make human existence on the planet untenable. The main character, Elma, was a World War II Women's Air Service Pilot (WASP). When the meteorite strikes, she and her husband are just barely in a survivable range, and only because light travels so much faster than the force blast and they have time to get to a reasonably safe location.

These chapters start the book, and they are heart-wrenching, terrifying. Kowal has done such an amazing job of bringing this to life, and Elma's grief at losing her family was so real.
The moment where Elma finally gets her brother in California on the phone, when he had thought his entire family had perished, had me in tears.

Elma is also a calculator for this version of NASA, and she and her husband get involved with trying to convince the new president (the only member of the cabinet left alive), that resources need to be put towards getting humanity off-planet, now. Because she suffers from anxiety, this is difficult, but she does it. The moment when she realizes that medication is a treatment that doesn't make her a failure was profoundly moving. I also like how perceptive Kowal is about both anxiety disorders, and the ways that specific anxieties can be created by circumstances - in Elma's case, being young and female and used as a prop by a math prof to shame the young men in college classes.

Elma is in the running to become a lady astronaut, although that's as much as a publicity stunt by NASA as anything. She and the other women take it seriously. But the book does not shy away from how this intersects with race in the 1950s. There are pointed and devastating comments on how refugee missions to the meteorite-affected zones are carried out to white areas, without perhaps conscious bias, but Black people end up just as dead as if it were done maliciously. Elma messes up herself as she meets the members of a Black Women's Flying Club, but is at least able to apologize and mend fences with some of the members - but some never forgive her, and that's their right too. White lady apologies are not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

When the requirements for the women's astronaut program go out, Elma's friends are quick to point out how they are covertly racialized, excluding women who don't have experiences that were only open to white women.

Oh, I could rave on and on. I love this book, folks. I just loved it. It made me cry, it made me happy, it made me angry, and it felt so true to this alternate version of a time and a place. There are some books that are not convincing. This one is, every moment, and I can't wait to read the next book in the series. I'd never read Mary Robinette Kowal before, but now she's on my list of authors to follow.