Mini-Reviews: 2017 Books in August

For one reason or another, I’ve read quite a few books published this year over the past couple of weeks, and have also completely stalled on writing about them, mainly because my review of Borne has been languishing part-written for so long.

Borne_(book_cover).jpgBorne, by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne is a gritty but heartwarming tale of a dysfunctional family struggling to hold themselves together in the face of a capricious and uncaring world. It’s also post-apocalyptic New Weird creepiness from Jeff VanderMeer. It turns out these things are perfect together.

The title “Borne” refers to one of the book’s main characters, a mysterious bioengineered creature which narrator Rachel finds nestled in the fur of a giant, malicious, flying bear (Mord!). Beginning its life as a small piece of inanimate goo, Borne quickly acquires all the traits of an inevitably-disastrous monster companion: exponential growth, sentience, pseudopods, unnecessary male pronouns, precociousness, lack of respect for personal boundaries, and (of course) an insatiable hunger. Unlike VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which leaves a lot of biological horror elements open to interpretation, Borne’s various forms and transformations are quite realistically and even whimsically described, and it’s quite easy for a reader to follow along with Rachel as she develops a strong maternal instinct for the many-eyed, many-tentacled thing she has taken under her wing.

Borne, Mord, and the other bits of weird biological innovation (alcohol minnows!) are all fascinating in their own right, but I found Rachel’s voice, and her relationships with Borne and Wick and with her own past, the most compelling part of this book. Rachel is a climate refugee, who has spent most of her life moving through camps with her parents after her island nation flooded; she now views the ruined, decaying city with heartbreaking resignation. The book implies through Wick that the maternal relationship between Borne and Rachel is unnatural, but I don’t think the narrative itself comes down strongly on that side, and certainly Rachel isn’t punished for developing affection, even as the difficulties and misunderstandings pile up. It’s refreshing to have a survivalist character who is allowed to care, within sensible limits, and who is given a narrative which doesn’t make that out to be ridiculous or dangerous. Wick, too, develops from a character trope we are expecting to be antagonistic and uncaring into someone quite complex, and while conflict between him and Borne is a key plot strand, it never devolves into a forced choice for Rachel. The effect is a book which is unflinching about the kind of horror which humanity is able to inflict on itself when it’s not thinking (and sometimes when it is), but which also quietly celebrates our ability to love and to connect with each other, and with many-tentacled things, no matter how imperfectly that might play out in real life.

Definitely worth picking up – 9 desiccated alcohol minnows out of 10

 

raven stratagem.jpgRaven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

The sequel to last year’s Ninefox Gambit is a book which I literally cannot stop referring to as “The Raven Stratagem” (seriously, it’s going to slip back through in the next couple of paragraphs, just you wait). It picks up right where Book One left off: the Hexarchate, a galaxy-spanning totalitarian government which relies on controlling the thoughts and behaviour of its citizens through a calendar in order to literally shape the laws of reality, has let a 400-year-old disembodied mass-murdering general out of his magic box in order to conduct an assault on a heretical fortress. In order to do so, he has possessed Kel Cheris, a rather unusual member of the Hexarchate’s soldier faction. Inevitably, the nice tidy wrap-up of the fortress campaign where General Shuos Jedao would go back into his magic box has gone wrong, and in Raven Stratagem he’s commandeered a rogue fleet for some military manoeuvres of his own, while elsewhere the leaders of the Hexarchate’s factions wage their own political battles.

This series is fascinating space fantasy, and I enjoyed the fact that there are more glimpses at how the Hexarchate manages to suppress and control its populations in the way it does – I generally enjoy science fiction and fantasy which explores colonialism and assimilation, and the way the Hexarchate functions is an extreme example which Lee takes in interesting directions through different characters. There is a plot strand in Raven Stratagem which deals directly with ethnic cleansing, which I didn’t think added a great deal to the book, aside from providing additional evidence on the gaps between different factions and the brutality of the group sent out to commit these murders (apparently 1/6 of galactic humanity have the power to kill dissidents by touching them? OK). While I loved the setting and characters in Raven Stratagem, however, the political machinations and the overall plot left me cold – there is a game-changing reveal towards the end which was welcome but not nearly as surprising as Lee seemed to intend, and otherwise the “six dimensional chess” aspects of who was fighting who and why simply didn’t grab me. I suspect part of this is simply “middle book” syndrome, and payoff will come in later instalments, but as a standalone experience it was still a little disappointing.

Raven Stratagem is in the unfortunate situation of being less memorable the further I get away from it. However, there’s still a ton of interesting stuff here, and exciting set-up for Book 3, which I hope is going to bring more action back to this unique and interesting world – 7 cindermoth manoeuvres out of 10

 

the stone sky.jpgThe Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The third book in the Broken Earth trilogy ends this series with all the grace and fury of a Fulcrum-trained orogene’s torus. In the Stone Sky, we reach the end of the story of Essun, a woman born with the power to control earthquakes (i.e. an orogene), in a world where having that power means being treated as subhuman and discriminated against at every turn. Ironically, the Broken Earth’s world is the Stillness, an enormous mega-continent which is constantly being afflicted with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and where humans must periodically endure “Fifth Seasons”, which are long periods after major seismic events where normal weather patterns end and communities need to go into regimented survival mode to have any hope of continuation. Even in normal times, the Stillness’ entire society is built around this survivalist mindset; people don’t have family names, they have “usecastes” which define the work they will do in a fifth season, as well as a comm name which indicates where they belong. The Stillness has racial prejudice as well as discrimination against magic users, but this is expressed through features which don’t exist on earth, like “ashblow hair” which is fine and woolly enough to act as a filter when volcanic dust is in the air. The whole series is a worldbuilding masterclass, where nothing is just lazily imported from our earth – the humans of the Stillness are who they are because of their world, not ours.

From a storytelling standpoint, neither the Stone Sky or its predecessor, the Obelisk Gate quite reaches the technical brilliance of Book 1, the Fifth Season, which I highly recommend you read without any sort of spoiler. However, the story, and its exploration of anger and trauma and of trying to belong in a world where the entire of humanity is prejudiced against you and the earth itself is literally trying to kill you, is just as brilliant here as ever. The Stone Sky also spends some time building on hints of the past which have come up over the past two books – I was somewhat torn over these sections, as on one hand their appearance in the last third of the narrative is well-timed, but it also means that we only get glimpses of a long-dead society which feels like it needs another book series dedicated to exploring it. Maybe we’ll get that series one day, or maybe this is a good time for me to explore Broken Earth fanfiction.

Love it, love it, love it – 9.5 ominous floating onyx monuments out of 10.

 

And some even shorter reviews:

massacre of mankind.jpgThe Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter: A sequel to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, set 13 years after the original at the opening of a second Martian invasion. I won an ARC of this from the Strange Horizons fund drive lucky draw so long ago, and even though it didn’t explicitly come with a requirement to review it I feel really bad for not doing so (although technically it’s not out until tomorrow in the USA, so I’m still a tiny bit early!) My main interaction with War of the Worlds is the Jeff Wayne musical, although I read the book earlier this year and it was pretty much what I expected it to be. The Massacre of Mankind delivers more of the same in some ways, but expands to a genuinely global scale and features a more proactive hero (the sister-in-law of the original book’s narrator) and a plot where characters continue to persevere even in the face of invasion, rather than giving up early and going for a hopeless descriptive walk. The plot itself is a bit left field, but works with the tone. It also directly addresses the limitations of the first book and incorporates the reaction to that text (which canonically exists as a widely-read non-fiction work in Massacre of Mankind), indirectly raising questions about who gets remembered by history in such cases. Overall, I found this an enjoyable read despite feeling like it’s Not My Thing – which is actually a very impressive thing for a book to achieve. 7.5/10

Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray: Noemi is a human from Genesis, an idyllic planet trying to escape from earth control. Abel is a prototype android from Earth, built with superhuman skills and, it transpires, the Capacity to Love. They meet and turn out to be conveniently heterosexual and into each other, while also trying to save Genesis from Earth in a way which doesn’t involve a mass suicide assault. As a rule, it takes quite a lot to get me to read YA romance-like things these days, but I loved both of Claudia Gray’s Star Wars tie-ins, and one of those is a YA romance-like thing (Lost Stars), so I thought I’d give this a go. It was fun, with some likeable characters (including the central pairing) and a plot that wasn’t super straightforward. I struggle to say there was anything spectacular about any of the worldbuilding or the issues raised, however, and I’m not sure I care enough about the future of Earth and/or Genesis enough to pick up a sequel. 6/10

Inferno Squad by Christie Golden: OK, so this one is pure Star Wars tie-in (to a forthcoming Battlefront video game). Crack team of Empire kids infiltrates a hardcore Rebel cell. Inferno Squad had promise, but because it presumably needs its surviving characters to be at a certain developmental point for the beginning of the video game, nobody actually seemed to grow or learn anything in the book itself. My expectations were probably too high, to be fair, but this was highly mediocre. 5/10

 

 

 

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Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

 

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Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (Bantam Press 1989)

The Short Version: There are creepy horse-like animals and rainbow grass on the planet everyone conveniently needs to be on to try and stop a devastating interstellar plague. Marjorie Westriding-Yraier and her family are sent from Terra, along with their actual horses, to try and uncover its secrets, which involve a bewildering array of sci-fi tropes that don’t completely obscure the central mystery of the Hippae and deeper questions about relating to alien life.


Grass is a book about creepy horses.

On some level, of course, all horses are creepy. This is not to suggest they are not also beautiful, worthy animals, without whom the development of global civilisation would be very different, but come on. Horses are giant creatures with giant, alien eyes, walking around on giant single fingers. They appear to sleep standing up, and die of inexplicable things like “not being able to burp” or “tripping over”. They have a bizarre combination of fragility and power, and long, weird eyelashes. There is a reason the first suggested filter when you Google “horse masks” is “creepy”. There is a reason they consistently lag behind wolves and cats in fursona popularity, despite the cultural obsessions with horse-related children’s literature and My Little Pony. There is a reason why Horse Master exists.

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So, the planet Grass has a lot of grass, in various colours, and it also has creepy horses – who, we quickly ascertain, are actually aliens that look somewhat like horses, except bigger and covered in lethal bone knives. Completing the picture, we have a society of aristocratic families living on the grassy plains, who spend half of the 2000-day year going out on hunts tailored to the natural wildlife. Grass opens with one such hunt, with the youngest daughter of the bon Damfel family going on her first Creepy Alien Horse ride, to the concern of some members of her family. The alien horses, or Hippae, collect her and her family for a ride, along with equally creepy alien Hounds, in order to catch a “Foxen” which, you guessed it, probably isn’t a red fuzzy mammal (but like British foxes has done equally little to deserve their fate). Dimity bon Damfel survives her hunt, but has mysteriously disappeared by the time our main story opens.

For all its flaws, Grass the Creepy Hippae planet has two things going for it. First, it is apparently one of the few human planets not under the control of Sanctity, an oppressive and vaguely Catholic religious order with a stranglehold on the now-ravaged Terra and the rest of human spacefaring. Second, it is apparently the only planet on the galaxy not being affected by a mysterious plague with a 100% fatality rate which causes humans to literally decay in their own skins. Sanctity is almost as desperate to cure the plague as they are to stop its existence from becoming common knowledge, so to treat with the Grassians they send the Yraier family, whose collective love of horses supposedly make them ideal diplomatic material despite the abusive tendencies of father Rigo and the liability of two teenage children, Tony and Stella, who aren’t told the true purpose of their visit to Grass. Only wife Marjorie comes across as an interesting and sympathetic character from the outset, and we spend most of our time with her point of view as she unravels the secrets behind the Hippae, the plague and why entire families have dedicated themselves to riding what appear to be intelligent and sadistic knife-horses through a plain for fun.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and some of the many tropes deployed fit better than others. There’s a long-dead alien civilisation whose demise on Grass appears to have been different to their deaths everywhere else, whose history and interaction with the Hippae makes an interesting counterpoint to the humans’ own interactions with them, and with other apparently alien intelligences. There are tensions between the aristocratic Bons and the “commoners” of Grass, who are actually much better educated and closer to the galactic norm. There is a Sanctity presence on the planet, whose story is told mostly though the eyes of Rillibee Song, an acolyte who was packed off to the order after his family died of plague. Here, Sanctity appears to operate more as a weird cult than a political force; the younger members have a bizarre hierarchy of their own related to climbing towers and violence, which both their seniors and the narrative seem quite happy to explain away with a “boys will be boys!” shrug. There is also a mercifully brief introduction of an intergenerational love triangle, which combined with the other sexualised elements of the book (particularly the young women going missing on the hippae hunts and one other spoilerific thing) does not endear Sheri S. Tepper’s sexual politics to me.

Ultimately I felt that Grass would benefit from being either half as long or twice as long. A pithy exploration of the bits of the narrative that really go somewhere – the plague, the contact with the Hippae, the discoveries about their life cycle and the relationship between humans and the alien planet they have settled on – would have made a fantastic and thought provoking read, without the religious baggage or teen antics getting in the way. As it stands, the “humanity oppressed and directed by extreme Catholicism” element does find some synergy in the book’s later mysteries, but its a fairly tortuous connection and the treatment of religion in general holds up very poorly compared to something like The Sparrow, so I don’t think that element would be missed. Cutting this out would also focus the book better on the suspense and atmosphere of the main narrative, as the presence of the Hippae in their search becomes more unavoidable to the Yraier family and the nature of their relationship with the Bons becomes clearer.

 

On the other hand, I could see Grass going the other way successfully – fleshing out the interesting aspects of the worldbuilding related to the Sanctity and their Grassian order, giving more space to Rigo and Marjorie’s relationship and to their children (though please not to the intergenerational love triangle), giving the women of the Bon Damfels family and the commoners a greater voice. As it stands, the political intrigue and family drama in this novel are far outclassed by the horror and alien contact elements, but there are enough interesting elements in the former that could be woven more effectively into the narrative if given space to do so. Rillibee, in particular, is an enjoyable character to spend time with right up until weird spoilery sexual politics rear their head at the end, and I enjoyed his building a relationship with Brother Mainoa, the man who has been tasked with exploring the ancient alien ruins, and coping with his grief at his family’s deaths and his unwanted new status as a celibate religious acolyte. While I hesitate to suggest that Science Fiction needs more intricately plotted political doorstops, I can’t help but feel that Grass would be better as one of those, rather than the marginally lighter book it actually is.

In theory, Grass is the first book in the Arbai trilogy, but I get the impression from write-ups of Book 2 that it has little in common with the first, and in particular that the creepy horses and rainbow grass are out (but the ancient gods of a long-dead people are in). Based on what I’ve read, Raising the Stones is on my “someday” reading list, but given the length of that list I doubt I’ll be getting to it very soon. As a standalone, Grass has elements which are up there with some of the best science fiction I’ve read, but Tepper makes the reader work for them by throwing in a whole lot more that ultimately doesn’t come together as a fully realised whole in a way that does the central idea justice.

Two thumbs up for the creepy horses though.

Rating: Seven “Stop Making This A Thing, Adri”s out of Ten

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Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (First published January 2017)

The Short Version: Six clones wake up on a generation ship with twenty-five years of memory missing and their own dead bodies floating around, and things only get more interesting from there. Six Wakes is extremely readable, using its premise to great effect to build a great story as well as exploring the moral implications of technology and the ways we choose to control it.

Rating: 9 illicit personality modifications out of 10

I’m staying at my parents’ house in the UK for a month, which means my access to physical books and the internet services that can deliver them has suddenly taken a significant turn for the better. This year, a backfiring experiment with Kinokuniya Thailand’s book collection services meant I got to start the haul earlier, and add a kilogram of unnecessary extra weight to what was already a fairly ridiculous amount of luggage.

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(This happens every time I go to Thailand. Every. Time.)

As I don’t want to carry any of these across more continents than strictly necessary, these are all top of my priority list – starting near the bottom of the pile with the lovely shiny* Six Wakes.

According to the author interview at the end of the book, Six Wakes was conceived while the author was playing FTL (Faster than Light), which is the science fictional equivalent of having two cool people who you met in totally unrelated circumstances turn out to be mutual friends. FTL is a game where the player takes a spaceship through multiple sectors of a hostile galaxy, upgrading weapons and defence and picking up crew members and other systems as you go. The advanced edition of the game lets you swap out your medical bay (for fixing up the inevitable missiles-to-face and accidental asphyxiations and boarding altercations which your crew suffer through), with a clone bay, which pops out a new version of the dead crewmate every time they expire; it’s this concept of cloning as a longevity method which Mur Lafferty uses to excellent effect in this book.

The book is set in a future hundreds of years after the invention of the technology on Earth. Society has readjusted with some violence and difficulty to the technology, with humans essentially now split between the classic single-lifespan variety and the clones, who are effectively immortal but subject to a strict set of legal restrictions, the Codicils, which prevent them having more than one copy of themselves active at a time and specify that the most recent version of a clone is the one with the legal right to exist, as well as banning all genetic manipulation between iterations of a clone — so no gender modifications or editing out genetic diseases from a person, unless you are going to an illegal hacker who can program anything they want into your mindmap. Clones regularly back up all of their psychological data and when performed under the right circumstances, they can time their death and reupload into a new body to leave no continuity gaps. However, if something goes wrong and a clone dies unexpectedly, they can lose days or weeks of memories that aren’t stored in the backup.

Things have obviously gone wrong by page one of the main story, when our nominal protagonist Maria wakes up in the clone bay of generation ship Dormire. She and the five other clone crew members all find themselves in new clone forms, looking at the murdered bodies of their past iterations. Moreover, as far as their memories are concerned, they have only just started their voyage; the ship’s date, on the other hand, makes it clear they are already twenty-five years into the voyage. The gravity is off, the AI is malfunctioning, the ship is significantly off course and the 3D printer which synthesises the crew’s meals refuses to print anything but hemlock. It’s up to the crew to get themselves back on track for the sake of the hundreds of humans and clones frozen in cargo, as well as piecing together what went wrong and who is responsible for the carnage they all woke up to.

As in any good mystery, it soon becomes clear that there are shady things lurking in the past of each and every crew member, as well as the traditional untrustworthy AI. Six Wakes builds its narrative through an omniscient third person narrator which switches between character viewpoints, as well as flashbacks to the crews’ lives in the lead up to being selected for the ship. Each crew member knows the others have volunteered for the mission because they are convicted criminals who will be pardoned upon arrival, but they have been told their crimes must remain confidential. From the ship’s doctor who was one of the original people cloned when the technology began, to the AI tech who has been on the verge of a breakdown since waking, to the shady machinations of the captain and the security officer, Six Wakes uses a small cast to great effect, with the world of the clones coming across as claustrophobic and restrictive even in background chapters set on Earth, thanks to both the Codicls as well as the inequalities and power struggles that arise from a society of functionally immortal beings. Six Wakes’ characters aren’t likeable in a traditional sense but I found them generally sympathetic, and the backgrounds go a long way towards making that balance work.

The Codicls set up around cloning also lend themselves to a lot of moral ambiguities, and several of these are explored at some length. It quickly becomes clear that the laws have been developed in response to crisis, rather than being thought out for the benefits of humanity; characters’ lives are full of unavoidable moral dilemmas which the laws seem to complicate even further. For example, early in the book we find out that the complete death of the previous crew wasn’t quite complete, as the captain is in a medical coma; legally, her new clone takes precedence and the crew are required to “recycle” the woman, but are reluctant to do so not only because she might have information on the murders if she wakes up, but also because she’s an actual person whose clone was woken up through no fault of her own. Because of their extended lifespans, several characters have direct links back to the beginning of cloning and the events leading up to the creation of the Codicls: it is no spoiler to say these totally suck for all involved.

The central mystery of the book builds up very well, and while the head-hopping does lend itself to a bit of contrived information withholding (where we are following a characters’ thoughts but they are worded in a vague enough way that we don’t find out what’s going on until later), it’s done in a way where the eventual reveals are too exciting for us to wonder why the audience weren’t let in on secrets earlier. As connections and information pile up, everything builds to a very satisfying conclusion which, again, I won’t in any way spoil here.

In conclusion, this book is really good and well worth a read if you can get hold of a copy without excessive transcontinental carrying and subsequent shoulder strain. Go forth, seek it out and you too can be solving clone mysteries in space!


*Shiny because Kinokuniya wrapped all of my pre-orders in protective plastic for free. Which I… like? Maybe?

Mini reviews: dragons, aliens, robots.

Have kept up a solid reading schedule over the last couple of weeks but haven’t been inspired to a full length review of most things, for one reason or another. Here’s a quickfire round of some of the stuff I got to.

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Blood of Tyrants and League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

7 plucky midwingmen out of 10

The last two books in the Temeraire series, which charts an alternative history of the Napoleonic Wars and surrounding events by introducing dragons into human history. We follow the adventures of Captain William Laurence, upstanding vanilla navy captain-turned dragon man, who in the first book is forced (because of HONOUR) to take on custody of the dragon Temeraire, who hatches in the middle of a sea voyage and promptly becomes an enormous troublemaker throughout Europe and the rest of the world — they manage to visit five continents over the series. Along the way, they pick up a generally colourful and diverse cast of both the mammal and reptile variety (including badass women), and end up playing a major role in diverting the course of world history from the path our own took. This is mostly in ways which undermine colonialism and European technological dominance, which is exciting even if one wishes it wouldn’t take dragons to bring that alternative world about. (For anyone who wants to follow up on that wish: Everfair).

Novik’s dragons have a human level range of intelligence but applied in very non-human ways, and their coexistence with humans is made possible by applying what’s basically a hoarding mentality to people. For the British dragons, this means they are harnessed by a captain at birth who then becomes the platonic love of their life, with dragons willing to fight and die for a single human who is then able to control their “beast” for military purposes. As Laurence discovers what an intelligent, thoughtful being Temeraire is, the cracks in this arrangement start to show very quickly, and successive books demonstrate that the lot of dragons in many other countries, notably China, is very different and objectively better than what the British dragons are going through. Domestic reform and international shenanigans ensue!

It’s hard to talk about the plot of specific books at the end of a long series without spoiling the beginning, hence why I’m not doing a longer review. The series as a whole covers a lot of ground and has its ups and downs — some pacing decisions are rather weird and if you don’t equally enjoy the Napoleon bits and the globetrotting bits you are going to spend a lot of time wishing the story would go and do the other thing. Blood of Tyrants is a little unfortunate in that it has both Napoleon bits and globetrotting bits and I spent each half of the book wishing it was the other; League of Dragons has particularly bizarre pacing but also a lot of great moments which make that forgivable. Overall, I think this series is well worth your time if the basic premise sounds intriguing and you’re into Regency style prose, and if you don’t mind stories where the main character is the least interesting person in every scene. Poor vanilla Laurence.

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Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (audiobook)

4 excruciatingly detailed infodumps out of 10

I went for this on audiobook because until very recently the only English translation was from the French rather than the original Polish and apparently not well loved by the author himself; the audiobook is the “Definitive Edition”, a new direct translation by Bill Johnston. Not that I’d ever have known I was reading a bad translation, to be fair, but it seemed right to do it properly, whatever that means.

This is a well-known story, due in no small part to the various movie adaptations (the most recent being 2003). A scientist called Kris is visiting the planet Solaris, a world almost entirely covered in an “ocean” which actually appears to be a single, weird living organism. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a bad time for Kris’ Solarian fieldwork; due to some intrusive science shenanigans, the crew of the research station are now being visited by weird visions of traumatic figures in their past. In true Tragedy Bro fashion, Kris has a conveniently refrigerated girlfriend called Harey, who committed suicide after he left her ten years previously. She promptly shows up, cries a lot, gets fridged again, returns, tries really hard to return to the fridge while growing like 10% of a spine, uses that spine to succeed in returning to the fridge, the end. Meanwhile, all the Clever Men of the station are trying and failing to make any progress figuring out the ocean. Is it trying to communicate, or is it just being a giant neutrino-based douchebag?

There’s one chillingly intriguing hour of this when Harey first shows up and the idea of the “visitors” gets elaborated on – a super-strong alien being taking the form of a clingy version of a traumatic person in your past, who literally turns up anew every time you try to dispose of them? There’s so much you can do with that idea that could maybe not involve women in refrigerators! Aside from that unexplored potential, however, its safe to say that this book hasn’t aged well, nor did the audiobook format do it any favours: this is effectively hours of a dry narrator ploughing through long chapters explaining generations of fictional research by dudes. Because I was so indifferent and switched off, I think I missed whether there actually was any conclusion to that research-y stuff or the Plans of the Clever Men, but it’s safe to say I will never care enough to find out.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

9 dodgy soap opera seasons out of 10

I saw there was a reading challenge in May to read the alphabet in book titles! That sounds like a really neat idea and is something I am going to do very late and in my own time, at least until the mood strikes me to do something different instead. So here’s A!

This novella is the story of a self-defined “Murderbot”: a security-programmed android owned by an ominous corporate government whose contract is to accompany a survey group to a planet. What nobody else on the ship knows is that Murderbot has a cracked governor, and the constraints usually placed on cyborgs to stop them from disobeying orders and killing everyone therefore don’t apply. We very quickly learn, however, that this is really not what Murderbot wants to do. What Murderbot would like to do is watch the hundreds of thousands of hours of entertainment content they have downloaded from the SecHub satellite, and it would be wonderful if the humans could leave them in peace for long enough to do this — and certainly to stop treating them like they want to be friends or some nonsense.

This is a quick, well-paced read told in a fantastic voice. The actual plot is more serviceable than exciting, but the characterisation of Murderbot, their interactions with the humans and the way they justify their actions all more than make up for that aspect. Completely recommended to anyone with a quick plane journey or a long waiting room wait in their near future.

 

A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

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A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (First published February 1986)

My copy: Kindle edition published November 2016 by Phoenix Pick

The Short Version: On a personal level, A Door Into Ocean was pure comfort for my feminist soul. Objectively, it’s an intelligent and interesting look at one fantastical world in which patriarchy can be fully resisted, with some fascinating speculation around bioengineering and a nuanced look at “feminine” society which doesn’t rely on gender essentialism to make its case.

Rating: 8 successfully harvested shockworm arms out of 10

You know those times when you are having a terrible afternoon/day/week for no apparent reason, everything is getting you frustrated and down, the world is inexplicably awful… and then it turns out you were actually hungry, or you needed to exercise, or leave the house more regularly, and your body just didn’t have the right signals to explain this to you? Well, I think I have this relationship with feminist SFF novels. In theory I can probably live a full and physically healthy life without fabulous narratives challenging patriarchal domination, but after several increasingly frustrating dude-heavy books in a row (shout out to Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, the book I finished before starting this blog and which I never want to talk about again…!) the world of reading was starting to lose its glow, and only feminist SF was going to make things right again.

In this regard, A Door Into Ocean was the right book for the right moment. This is the story of a planet of women, the Sharers of Shora, and what appens when they come back into contact with a patriarchal society (the ruler of the galaxy is literally called the Patriarch, let’s establish right away that it’s that kind of book) after thousands of years of isolation. Shora, a completely ocean-covered planet, is in a binary system with Valedon, a “normal” world; the latter is one of the ninety-odd members of a galactic order decimated by a long-ago calamity, which has led the remnants of humanity to adopt strict prohibitions on certain types of technology, notably nuclear power. The million inhabitants of Shora have only recently been “rediscovered” by Valedon, and have escaped notice of this remnant government, but the situation is not going to last: the representative of the patriarch is due to visit, and thanks to increasing trade between the two planets, he’s finally putting Shora on his agenda.

We get a couple of interesting snapshots of Valedon’s caste-based society, and its internal conflicts and interactions with the galactic patriarchy. However, most of the book’s narrative and effort is expended on fleshing out Shora itself. The Sharers’ entire existence relies on extreme knowledge of and adaptation to the ocean world around them, but the “men = technology, women = nature” stereotype is undermined heavily by the extent to which they rely on advanced biological engineering to maintain their existence. The Sharers themselves are a product of this engineering: they are hairless, with webbed hands and large feet, and they develop a symbiotic relationship with a dermatological microbe that helps store oxygen and prolong the time they can spend underwater, while also turning their entire skin purple. They are also all female, and rely on their technology for reproduction. Sharer women are considered adults when they take a “selfname”, which is supposed to represent their own worst trait – “the impatient”, “the inconsiderate”, “the lazy”, and they are then encouraged to spend their adult lives disowning that name.

Reinforcing their alien-ness, to the Valans if not to the audience, is a completely different outlook on life and society, based fundamentally on the concept of (you guessed it) Sharing. This approach borders on silly at times, and I was unconvinced by the linguistic representation in particular; we are told, in the language, that there is no distinction between subject and object for verbs, so “dog eats bone” and “bone eats dog” are literally the same sentence, represented on the page by “the dog shares eating with the bone”. Slonczewski illustrates this by having Merwen, one of the major Sharer characters, mysteriously say “oh, but does not the bone eat the dog?” a few times with examples picked to be a bit more convincing, but this by the far the most prominent weak link in the otherwise excellent worldbuilding.

(Big spoilers!)

Plotwise, this is a book of two halves. The first half is a slow build introducing the characters, their worlds, and the conflicts between them, through the eyes of Merwen the Impatient One and her daughter Lystra; a Valan called Berenice who is part of the first family to re-establish contact with Shora and tries to straddle the diplomatic line between the two societies; and a Valan boy called Spinel, who undertakes an “apprenticeship” with Merwen when she visits his town and who becomes the eyes through which we learn about the more alien aspects of Sharer culture. Inevitably, despite Berenice’s best efforts, Valedon ends up sending a military force to subdue Shora, headed by her fiance Realgar, and the second book deals with the fallout from and resistance to this occupation and its ultimate effects on both societies.

There’s ultimately no surprises in how the plot unfolds – despite trials and losses (of which the greatest may be… their innocence… *shocked emoji*) the Sharers manage to overcome the Valan invasion through a combination of non-violent resistance, quiet reasoning and good old fashioned winding people up. The galactic patriarch hanging in the background adds useful short-term constraints on Valan behaviour (they can’t commit genocide against the Sharers, because genocidal technology is a power which can only be employed by the patriarch, and he won’t hesitate to use it against them next time he is in town – such is the balance of power when masculinity is on the line) but it also leaves a cloud over proceedings at the end, with Sharer society safe from Valedon but perhaps not from the return of an overwhelming and unreasonable masculine force.

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(Big spoilers end, small spoilers continue…!)

I think what I found most satisfying about Door Into Ocean, particularly compared to similar books in this genre (looking at you, The Shore of Women) is that it provides reasonable justification for all of its more essentialist, tropey choices. Yes, the Sharers are an idealised version of a feminine society, but the explanation is not necessarily because they’re all female – rather, that they have adapted to an extreme living environment in the best way they can, which requires utter adherence to a cooperative, communistic way of life. Sharers still make difficult choices, fall in love, fall out of love, deal with criminals within their societies using a dismal understanding of mental healthcare, and fail to live in close proximity to their annoying mothers, but they don’t have more than the most isolated incidents of murder or violence and or stratification within society, because their society is simply too precarious to allow those things, and their grasp of technology allows them to make their lives both precarious and comfortable and well-connected in a way which doesn’t map onto any human society that I’m aware of. The conflict with Valedon pushes them into more difficult internal debate, particularly regarding the development and use of biological weapons which would be well within their capacity, but the justifications for using these are very different to the usual rationale for inflicting violence on an enemy. On the other side, the Valans and their different factions are a little more broadly painted and generally ended up blending together for me, although I was pleased that most of the military units were depicted as having women at all levels below the very top, and one of those women in particular is very much an ally to patriarchy and instrumental in keeping the conflict going, reinforcing the idea that we are watching a clash of societies and not some narrow, patriarchy-dependent Battle of the Sexes.

The two main POV Valans blend well in that mix, and it’s telling that of these two, it’s  Spinel who ultimately takes the teachings of Shora to heart, though not by completely rejecting the things he’s learned from his own upbringing. Spinel starts off extremely uncertain and closed off to the Sharers, having been brought unwillingly to the planet to satisfy his parents. However, his experiences on Shora, and a brief return to Valedon, allow him to re-evaluate his own identity and the ways in which one can derive meaning and status in a community. Of course, there’s also an inevitable romance with Lystra (for the record, she finds him equal but not superior to her previous female lover, and where none of the characters find her choice remarkable or enviable for gendered reasons – thank goodness!); a small and thankfully minor part of his coming of age is based on learning not to force PIV sex on people who don’t want to do it, and how he’s not actually that good at making women happy when he goes for that anyway. I can’t say the book needed this subplot, although the overall relationship between Spinel and Lystra is useful for providing an in-universe answer to the “is The Other human?” question which plagues the characters on both sides for most of the book.

(There’s also one attempted rape, which is subverted by biological engineering and which ends up causing undefined physical harm to the perpetrator, as well as being denounced by surrounding characters. Although this pushes the conflict further into the realms of the fantastic, I certainly didn’t mind the narrative blocking sexual violence in things I’m trying to read for fun.)

 

(All spoilers end)

It’s ultimately hard for me to separate my enjoyment of this book out from the fact it’s in a subgenre I love so much, and it avoided most of the missteps that make some other books from around this era more difficult to get behind (looking at you again, Shore of Women… and Gate to Women’s Country…). However I think this is a classic for a reason, and there’s a lot here to enjoy even for a less partial reader, both in terms of the worldbuilding and technology, as well as in its approach to conflict. If you’re not sure whether you like novels about planets of women taking on the patriarchy, you could do a lot worse than to start here — and please let me know when you discover that it’s the best genre ever, so that we can continue to be friends accordingly.

The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe

book of heroes.jpgThe Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Alexander O. Smith

My version published November 2011 by Haikasoru (originally Jan 2010); Paperback, 352 pages.

The Short Version: This book has an interesting, if unforgiving, interpretation of the relationship between heroes and villains and the stories they create, with has a great deal of early promise. Unfortunately, it ends up somewhere geographically boring and ethically distasteful, with some bonus sidelining of the main female character along the way.

Rating: 5 sentient magical dictionaries out of 10

This is the second book by Miyuki Miyabe I’ve read, the first being Brave Story, a more explicitly young adult portal fantasy about a boy on a JRPG-inspired quest after family trauma in the real world. I picked up the ebook sample of the Book of Heroes at the same time, as a contingency read during a holiday to Japan, but it wasn’t until I fell in love with the paperback at a physical bookstore that I decided to bring it home and give it a read. (It has a flipbook animation next to the page numbers! And a note on the typography at the end! Who doesn’t love a book with a note about typography.)

The Book of Heroes is also a portal fantasy at heart, though not a traditionally structured one. It’s also about a kid (this time a girl called Yuriko) whose family undergoes a huge trauma (the disappearance of her brother Hiroki, a model student, after a violent incident at his school in which a classmate dies), and undertakes a magical quest which she believes will bring him back and return their life to normal. But where I remember Brave Story being generous with its characters and plotline, The Book of Heroes is both subversive and unforgiving, and ultimately a much less pleasant tale.

This is a book about how certain types of stories ruin lives, and how becoming caught up in a good vs evil narrative, even on the side of good, can be a terrible thing. Hiroki, we learn, has killed a classmate because he has been possessed by a spirit called the King in Yellow, who is also The Hero: a sort of meta-textual double-headed embodiment of all grand good vs evil narratives. The King/Hero is supposed to be imprisoned within the titular Book of Heroes, looked after by a group of “nameless devouts” in another dimension, but the spirit is also present in various other books throughout the real world and the worlds of fiction, and can escape if he obtains enough vessels.

For obvious narrative reasons, Hiroki is the last vessel the King/Hero needed to escape this time, so he’s out threatening us all, and its up to Yuriko and her talking book(!) sidekick Aju to stop him — except it isn’t, because there are a ton of well trained warriors called wolves who are also on the case. Of course, Yuriko is going to give it a go anyway because she’s a plucky young adult heroine, and these wolves don’t sound like they are going to be interested in saving her brother as part of this King/hero recapturing business. So off we go.

(Moderate spoilers follow!)

There’s the makings of something fascinating here, and it gets more intriguing when Yuriko’s initial jaunt into the nameless devouts’ dimension (which has a harrowing concept behind it) comes to an end immediately after the setup, and she then brings her magical powers and friends back into our world. A few engaging chapters follow with her learning more about what happened to her brother — this plot point which juuuuuuust fell within the bounds of credibility to me, but that’s sort of the point — and using her new powers and understanding to interact with the world as something more than the 11-year-old schoolgirl she has been to this point.

Unfortunately, things start to get both more convoluted and less interesting halfway in when one of these foreshadowed wolves turns up, and we find ourselves moving from our world into a different dimension with a rather uninventive fantasy narrative going on. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with this new world (which has also been affected by the King/Hero, but in a very cliche tropey way), and this is where the rest of Yuriko’s story takes place as she continues her search for her brother while everyone around her gets increasingly secretive and cagey about some inevitable twist.

This is the point at which my gender bullshit alarms became impossible to ignore. As the story goes on, the male characters and sidekicks pile up and take over until Yuriko becomes drowned out by their relationships and problems. We also have to put up with the wolf character Ash constantly bringing her down as “a girl” who isn’t capable of controlling her feelings and completing the quest, producing dialogue which adds literally nothing to plot or characterisation. The sense of Yuriko becoming sidelined in her own story is disappointingly confirmed in the end, when Hiroki reemerges and makes Everything About Him in the most unsatisfying twist possible. To add insult to injury, Yuriko is then informed that literally every (male!) character except for her knew that the twist was coming, hence their caginess, and that they had deliberately misled and manipulated her into a certain path. So much for that “we don’t even need you specifically to go on this quest, we have grown men who can do it better” thing!

Yuriko accepts this. She also accepts that there will ultimately be no justice for her brother or the people he was trying to stand up against in our world, because according to the logic of the book, fighting against injustice will ultimately just bring more pain on people she’s trying to protect. This “revelation” is supposed to be the culmination of the “coming of age” portion of her journey, and the conclusion we are supposed to draw from the “heroes and villains are two sides of the same coin” mythology. Needless to say, I think that’s complete nonsense, and was immensely disappointed to see such an interesting set-up devolve into the narrative equivalent of “maybe both sides are just as bad as each other!” It’s not true for political parties, climate change, or the war between Jedi and Sith, and it’s definitely not true for elderly school teachers who allow and encourage bullying children to the point of suicide, which is what’s under discussion in this case.

(Spoilers over)

As you can likely tell, I desperately wanted to enjoy the Book of Heroes more than I did – the way it explores the impacts of heroic goodness as something inseparable from evil has immense promise, and I’m fascinated by stories which create myths to explore that connection, rather than the seemingly more common strategy of making everything dark and full of antiheroes. Book of Heroes’ mythology starts off unforgiving and, if anything, gets bleaker as the story continues, imposing extraordinary punishments on those who seek to live as heroes. This darkness is not inherently a bad thing, but my disbelief stopped being suspended the moment the book asked us to believe that the best good we can hope for is peace and stability, and that turning a blind eye to chronic injustice is the only thing we can do to bring this about. Ultimately, Miyabe’s mythology creates a world which I don’t wish to learn from or escape to, and that doesn’t leave many reasons to want to read.

Audiobook Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman (Narrated by the Author)

Released 24/02/2017 (Audible UK)

The Short Version: An extremely enjoyable if man-heavy set of tales, well suited to Gaiman’s prose style and to audiobook format. But will humans of the future think his are the only versions? (Probably not.)

Rating: 8 strands of magical hair out of 10

How does one come to appreciate a mythology that no longer exists in any complete form? If I’m to understand Neil Gaiman and the rest of the internet correctly, the answer in the case of the Norse Gods is to turn to Marvel comics, and their loving adaptation of Thor and friends as part of their superhero stable over the past half-century. Certainly, Gaiman is very open and unapologetic (rightly so!) about arriving at the stories from that angle, but he’s obviously come to a rather fuller understanding of the surviving texts to write this retelling of the Gods of Asgard and the little we know of their soap opera lives. To be fair, I wouldn’t know if he’d only read/watched Thor before writing this, given that I haven’t read/watched Thor (or read the Poetic Edda), but I’m going to assume that Marvel has less high stakes blacksmithing and salmon fishing in their versions, whereas Gaiman and his literary predecessors have us well covered there – hurrah!

Norse Mythology weaves together an overarching narrative out of a patchwork of myths, mostly starring Odin, immensely wise father of the Gods; his hammer-wielding and considerably less wise son Thor; and Loki, the original* That Fucking Guy We Can’t Just Stop Hanging Around With. There’s also a rotating cast of godly relatives, giants, animals, love interests, animal love interests, and (most controversially) dwarves without Scottish accents, taking us all the way from the birth of the world to the end days of Ragnarok, and beyond into the next world to come.

I’ve had mixed success with Neil Gaiman in print, but Norse Mythology works brilliantly as an audiobook with the author’s narration – this is literally the perfect fit for his matter-of-factly magical prose style. The tales are mostly around half an hour long, which is a great length for making bread dough, tidying a single cupboard (if your cupboards look like mine), filling a moderate commute or giving yourself a bedtime story. Having come to this from the full-cast recording of Dune, which spared no expense when it came to odd background noises, I would have loved some 5-second musical interludes between chapters to demarcate them better, but that’s hardly a substantive criticism. The stories themselves hold up well, with lots of trickery and suspense and bizarre magical happenings and a sense of good mostly triumphing at the end of each story, although with enough creeping victories for evil to set up the total devastation of the finale.

Gaiman notes in the introduction that the stories that have been recorded are disproportionately those of the men of Asgard, and that the tales behind many of the women have been lost entirely. That imbalance is very clear here: Freyja shows up a few times as a loudly unwilling prize to giants who come seeking her hand in marriage, and other women like Sif and Hel also have moments, but the actors are almost exclusively men. I assume from the mention in the introduction that Gaiman is very conscious of this lack, and that it was likewise a conscious decision to remain true to the source material at the expense of using artistic license to give these ladies more screen time. On a purely personal level, I’d have liked to read “Gaiman’s newly invented version of Frejya and Sif and Frigg’s fabulous lady happenings”, but I understand why objectively that would be a much more controversial and upsetting choice – I have seen concerns elsewhere that having an author with a profile as high as Neil Gaiman risks “canonicising” this version of Norse Mythology at the expense of other interpretations.

I get this – I had only vague knowledge of any of these stories before the audiobook, and as I’m unlikely to ever seek out older versions for fun, for me this is the primary lens through which I’m going to think about these stories for the foreseeable future. One of the limitations of audiobook in particular is that you can’t easily add a bibliography for people looking to seek out more information (does the print book have one?), and I came away feeling like I had only a slightly clearer idea of where I’d go looking if I were to suddenly decide to start studying original texts and scholarly introductions to the myths. But then, far more kids since 1962 have only ever met this Thor:

THOR!

Or, as of 2011, this one:

THOR AGAIN!.jpg

And yet the fuller, more nuanced version survives for as long as there are people to curate and look after the information we have left. If Neil Gaiman serves as another conduit for interpreting these stories at the expense of complexity for casual readers, I’d hope he acts as a gateway drug for enough future mythology nerds to keep any long-term flattening of these myths at bay. Until we all turn on each other and then get drowned by the Midgard Serpent, that is.


*Probably not the original, I think this guy has been around for all of human history.