Monthly Archives: September, 2012

Galactic Suburbia 69

In which we admire our Hugo pins, discuss the narrative around bestseller authors like JK Rowling, and take on the idea of what a Best Of anthology actually means. You can get us from iTunes or from Galactic Suburbia.

News

HUGO PINS

Trifle Club

The Casual Vacancy released – are you going to read it?

Giveaway from ages ago – copy of Showtime goes to Terry Frost for Joshua York from George R R Martin’s Fevre Dream

New Giveaway for Kaaron Warren’s Through Splintered Walls. Tweet, comment, email or Facebook us about your favourite Australian ghost story OR your favourite female vampire.

Paul Kincaid in the LA Review of Books suggests that SF is tired. Reviewer, heal thyself? He also talks on this subject at the Coode Street Podcast.

Aurealis Awards reminder: submit your books and stories now.

What Culture Have we Consumed?

Alisa: Soft Apocalypse, Will McIntosh, SportsNight (& Newsroom)

Tansy: Sea Hearts, Margo Lanagan; Marvel Heralds; Outer Alliance Episode 24 Changing the Conversation with Julia Rios, Nnedi Okorafor, Jim C Hines & Sofia Samatar.

Alex: Battleship; The Forever War, Joe Haldemann; City of Illusions, Ursula le Guin; The Shapes of their Hearts, Melissa Scott; Nova, Samuel Delaney

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Caliban’s War: a review

This review will contain spoilers for Leviathan’s Wake, the first in this series.

Leviathan Wakes centred primarily around two characters: James Holden, somewhat reluctant captain of a fairly small spaceship who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then things got worse; and a detective straight out of the pulps, whose obsession with finding a missing girl took him all sorts of interesting places and got him involved in some very, very messy stuff.

When Caliban’s War opens, Miller (the detective) is gone, and Holden is trying to figure out what to do with his now-smaller crew on his very shiny, somewhat illegal and quite fast Rocinante. But events begin with two completely new characters. In the Prologue, a young girl is taken from her creche and shown a man who is not a man; in chapter one, a Martian marine watches her platoon get slaughtered by something monstrous, which doesn’t react like it ought to. Both of these events indicate fairly obviously that the molecule that caused all the fuss in Leviathan, and which crashed on Venus at the end of that novel – but clearly didn’t get destroyed – is Up To Something. And we go from there.

Mars and Earth are on the verge of war, while a little girl is missing. The political position of the outer planets and asteroids is of serious concern, as is the relationship between two crew members. What I really liked about this novel is that it manages to focus on the big and the small at the same time, without trivialising and without making one look pointless in comparison. Prax’s world is (quite literally) falling apart and he can’t find his daughter and this is a real, vital, and urgent problem that has to be dealt with. Meanwhile, how to keep incompetent politicians from muddling into a war – or, worse, deliberately starting one – consumes Avasarala’s night and day, as the assistant to the undersecretary of executive administration of the UN – a title that sounds empty but that really makes her one of the most powerful wheelers and dealers on the planet. These two plots get about equal time, and equal sympathy, which is a marvellous achievement – especially since they’re not the only parts in the whole. There’s also Bobbie, the Martian marine, and how she copes with being a survivor, as well as being turned into a political pawn; and Holden sticking his nose in where he knows it doesn’t belong, meanwhile maybe messing things up with Naomi. Plus, all of this is tied into That Alien Molecule.

The storyline might sound like it gets a bit complicated, but Corey (actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) keeps it well under control by cycling through the different points of view in distinct chapters, each of which is named after their character. I get that sometimes authors want the reader to be in the dark about who is speaking, but sometimes that’s just a pain in the butt, so I applaud this measure. The collision of the different plots, which you just know is going to happen, happens in occasionally surprising but consistently pleasing ways – it never feels forced, and the plots entwine and carry on organically, with individual threads not getting subsumed by what might be considered (by some) as more important matters.

Characters are one of the strengths of this writing team. Holden is the main carryover character, but despite the reader already knowing him fairly well he still manages to occasionally surprise, as he develops in response to new stimuli such as his position with Rocinante and Naomi and oh, his experience with nasty mutant alien things. Much of that development is for the worse, at least at first, but it’s real and sympathetically described – not just put in for shock value. Of the others, probably my least favourite is Prax, a biologist, and the one whose daughter is missing; he’s the least interesting exactly because he is so single-minded in what he needs to achieve. His personal degradation matching Ganymede’s is cleverly written, but I don’t find monomania that intriguing. Meanwhile, Avasarala and Bobbie tie for my favourites. Avasarala balances foul-mouthed, cynical, driven and obsessive politician with loving grandmother is totally believable ways, and makes me despair for world politics. Bobbie’s development is probably the most nuanced of all: she deals with the aftermath of her platoon’s destruction, with the tension between Mars and Earth, with politics she knows little about and cares for less, all outside of the marine corps which is the only place she’s ever wanted to be. There are some novels with shifting points of view where as a reader, I am tempted to skip some chapters to get to the interesting bit. That’s not a problem I faced here.

Finally, a note on world building. The tensions between Mars and Earth, and the Outer Planet Alliance, can be read to some extent as an extension of terrestrial politics over the last couple of centuries; Mars and Earth are superpowers, while the OPA are colonies beginning to buck the reins of their colonial masters. It’s not a straight transposition, of course, but the idea that some – especially Earth-based – politicians would attempt to treat the solar system as an extension of their own world definitely makes a sad sort of sense. Zooming in somewhat, Corey’s development of the way asteroids and moons could be made not just habitable for humanity but vital to humanity’s livelihood in space is beautifully detailed without being overdone. As is the fragility of those systems. And their vision of Earth? Brilliant – and one of the interesting points of optimism for the system as a whole, which I won’t describe because it would just take too long.

Overall? I enjoyed Leviathan, but this is even better.

Battleship… the movie

Look, I know. I know, OK?

I knew before we rented it that this was going to be totally unmitigated crap. And it was, so there were no surprises. Right?

Actually, I was a bit surprised at just how absolutely atrociously awful it is. I can watch and enjoy the odd bit of unmitigated crap, as long as the explosions and chases are entertaining enough. But here… well. The characters are laughable, you could drive a semi-trailer sideways through the plot holes… the plot for Battleship almost makes Transformers 3 look like it HAS a plot (although I did not want to scrub my brain after watching this, which I did after watching Transformers 3. Maybe because I watched B in two sittings, and not in a theatre having paid quite a lot of money).  And the science… zomg the science. Or rather, lack thereof. Friends, this movie shows people trying to communicate with another planet by using a radio telescope to fire a coherent laser beam at it.

I just. I can’t. There are no words.

This review is, actually, superfluous. Everything you need to know about the movie can be found in this hilarious review. It contains multiple spoilers but, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, and at some stage you are forced to, use this as a drinking game: every time you get to one of the points mentioned, drink! That review does, however, miss THE most awesome bit of the whole film: using an anchor to make a battleship do a handbrake turn. Seriously.

The plot: aliens are coming in response to the message we sent and they want to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Or something. Since there’s no actual communication, how do we know that? Oh yeh, because they’re ALIENS. Then plucky sailors fight them off. Where plucky sailors include Rhianna trying to look badass, some punk kid who turns out to be a genius, and a bunch of old dudes who just happen to be hanging around.

The characters: there are none. They’re all just cardboard cut-outs.

The one good thing this movie proves: Liam Neeson really, really doesn’t care what you think anymore.

The Shapes of their Hearts

Cyberpunk. I loves it. This is not one of the best, but it’s definitely an interesting idea: someone has a new revelation from God, and recruits followers; for various reasons they leave for a new world, but this is complicated by said revelation, so original dude has a scan done of his brain and this scan lives on as a computer programme to keep giving visions and explaining the revelation. Et viola: deus ex machina where you take an I-don’t-understand-Latin stance; a very literal ghost in the machine. Now add someone who wants a copy for themselves, but that would be illegal, and… here we are.

I do not understand the title.

The plot: is generally straightforward. The POV jumps around a bit, but not confusingly. There are a few twists in the tale, generally related to character revelations, and the conclusion was pleasingly both appropriate and not completely neat. It’s closer to a heist story than a quest, in the way the Object is sought after; the vaguely criminal, or at least not-completely-above-board, elements contribute to this feel. One of the problems for me is that there are some tantalising little side stories… but they’re only hinted at, never given conclusion or even fleshed out very much. And this was annoying mostly because some of them appear, at the start, as if they are going to become very important. But they don’t.

The characters: a good variety. (Hey, I think it passes the Bechdel Test! Woot!) There’s the kinda-cops on Eden, who each have troubled/secretive backgrounds but work well together (that makes it sound like a buddy-cop movie; it’s really not); a DaSilva (cloned bodyguard) and her employer; and an IT/weather tech on Eden who’s really not sure she wants to be there anymore. The POV switches between one of the cops and the IT woman, mostly, which works well. None of the characters are especially fleshed out – there’s some background here and there, but not a whole lot about motivation or interactions beyond the plot – and now that I think about it, I didn’t actually care much about any of the characters themselves.

All of this makes it sound like this is a novel not worth bothering with, but there are definitely some really great aspects – I did finish it, after all. If you’re not in to cyberpunk then it isn’t for you, but I really enjoyed the bits ‘online’, so to speak, with one of the characters stuck there and having to deal with their predicament – including hostile programmes and the possibility of being ripped out of the virtual world, with attendant physical ramifications. I also enjoyed much of the characters’ interactions, and the plot itself: it’s fast-paced, easy to read, and enjoyable. The world building isn’t wildly exciting or innovative, but some of the ideas that Scott brings out certainly are. There’s only a passing reference, but the issue of clones is fascinating, especially when they know what they are; she’s done interesting things imagining how the law might treat them. The question of FTL travel is barely touched on, but again is really interesting: Scott allows it, but with serious physical and mental consequences if you do it too many times. I would read a whole book that set out to explore that idea.

Long story short: I didn’t love it, but it doesn’t put me off other Scott novels (which is good, because I have at least one more already on the shelf…).

City of Illusions

Fulfilment of my desire to read all of Ursula le Guin’s work continues apace, but this did not actually move me towards my goal… since as soon as I opened it I realised that I had read it before (in a double with Rocannon’s World). However, my memory being what it is, I couldn’t remember details, so I just kept on reading.

City kinda fits into the Hainish cycle, but doesn’t really. It’s set on an Earth that has been a part of the League of All Worlds – the general background for the Hainish novels – but Something Has Happened, far back in the past, such that humanity now appears to exist solely in isolated enclaves that have little to do with each other, let alone to do with an interplanetary society. Some of the Hainish novels mention an Enemy approaching, and there is rumour of an enemy on Earth too, but their connection, if any – ?

The novels begins with a strange man wandering out of the Forest into the clearing of Zove’s House, which is something that just doesn’t happen. Additionally, he has weird eyes, as shown by the cover there – yes, like a cat. (Note: I think the blurb accompanying this edition is atrociously misleading.) He is taken in, and taught to live as a man, because despite being fully grown he has no language or any other capabilities beyond those of an infant. They give him a name: Falk, meaning yellow. Eventually Falk leaves, in the manner of young men who feel they have a quest to complete, and his travels take him to various parts of the world – meeting new people, most of whom are far less welcoming than his original sponsors, and eventually getting to the city of the Shing, who may or may not be enemies. And there he learns a secret….

I like this story a lot, for all it’s not my favourite. I always enjoy le Guin’s imagined future societies, and the things she sees continuing: here, for example, the Older Canon, Taoism, and the Younger Canon, which appears to be bits of the Bible; bits and pieces of technology; occasional random names (Kansas!). Her people are often sketches but for all that they generally feel real; Parth, Falk’s main teacher, is only in the story for the first 25 pages, but she is vital and vibrant and alive. The plot is also sparse; I have been known to describe le Guin’s work as exquisite pencil drawings, especially when compared to the lavish oil paintings of much modern fantasy. Anyway, the story certainly doesn’t fill in all of the details of Falk’s learning or his quest: after 11 pages, she skips five years – I can well imagine some authors taking the first book of a novel to fill in that time with everything he learnt! There are some clever twists along the way, but I don’t really think they’re the main point, somehow. The story is definitely important, but ultimately I think it is the vehicle for demonstrating Falk’s character, how he changes and develops and deals with situations.

An interesting part of the le Guin canon, for sure.

Galactic Suburbia 68!

The post-Hugo edition! In which stats are chewed and swallowed, rebels become the government, the secret (true) history of Wonder Woman is revealed and Alisa joins another cult. You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.

News

Hugo Awards: The Winners, the Ustream and the Stats (you can download the stats pdf at the bottom of the page that links to)

Caroline Symcox on coming out as Christian to SF Fans & coming out as SF fan as a curate.

Another Wonder Woman TV show in development – this one may contain some Wonder Woman.

Further discussion on conventions, creepers & safe spaces
Genreville
We Don’t Do That Anymore
And the SF Signal Podcast

Science books written for girls, or possibly “girls”.

What Culture Have we Consumed?

Alisa: Newsroom; Getting Things Done podcast, David Allen

Alex: Outcasts; Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn; Midnight Lamp, Gwyneth Jones

Tansy: How to Train Your Dragon audiobook; To Spin a Darker Stair (Fablecroft); The Twelve Labors of Wonder Woman;

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

In the Mouth of the Whale: a review

I have not read The Quiet War nor Gardens of the Sun, so no doubt I missed some of the A-HA! moments that other readers got. But the promotional copy said this could be read as a stand-alone, and I pretty much agree. McAuley explains pretty much everything – eventually, in some cases – that is clearly a hang-over from the other two novels, and the action certainly seems to stand by itself. I’m not sure whether I am now spoiled for those other two novels, or whether this will simply give me a different way of looking at them. Because I certainly intend to read them, which may be the biggest endorsement I can give of this novel. It makes me want to read more of the same universe.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives in multiple places. There’s the Child, growing up in Brazil with what appears to be a fairly normal childhood, but which clearly is not – for a start she is referred to as “the Child,” and capital letters may as well be glowing and red as well as capitals; then there’s the fact that her part of the story is not told by an uninvolved third party or by herself, but by a ‘we’ who refer to the Child as “our dear mother, twice dead” (p4) and about whom too much knowledge has been lost. So, weird.

Then there’s Isak, who is introduced while harrowing a hell with Horse, his ‘kholop’ (possibly terminology from the other books?), and whose life is as esoteric and bizarre as one could hope in an SF novel. Something of an outcast but still devoted to his family and his job, talented, and rather good at getting into trouble and usually getting out of it. Hells are technological rather than spiritual, but there’s still something Dante-esque about them and their connection to the ‘real’ world.

Finally there’s Ori, who works “on the skin of the Whale” (p19), whose jobs seem as dangerous as Isak’s but with a lot less kudos. The Whale is a monumental craft orbiting… somewhere… and Ori and her kin are essentially enslaved workers, keeping it going for their masters. She’s got ambition but seemingly little hope of fulfilling it.

These three stories look, for a long time, like their intertwining is going to take quite some stretch of the imagination. But intertwine they do, of course, and it works. But aside from the plot, one of the very interesting aspects of this novel is the storytelling techniques used by McAuley. The Child’s story is told, very consciously told: the reader knows there is a narrator, because they break in every so often to comment on what is unknown or on various frustrations. Isak gets to tell his own story – he’s an active narrator, choosing what to tell. And Ori, the slave, is the subject of a faceless narrator, with no choice over what is told or not. Very, very clever.

The plot? Well, it’s set a long way in the future, and humanity has splintered into a number of different… I want to say genres, but that would be weird. I’ll go with subsets instead. They do not coexist peacefully, and there’s something that all of them want to control for very different reasons. And in their own way, the Child, Isak, and Ori all end up playing a part in the battle to control and use that object.

Each of the threads has some very interesting aspects to it along the way, of course. Through the Child McAuley explores a not-too-distant Earth, with gene modification and other such SFnal aspects but also family interactions and attitudes towards technology. Via Isak the theme of technology is continued, and how knowledge can or should be stored and used – and what it means to keep it safe. And in Ori the ideas of freedom and individuality are played out and explored.

Very enjoyable far-future SF, with quirky and fairly well-developed characters. Lots of fun to read.

Among Others: not a review

A friend asked me about this book the other day. She knows that I am into the Hugos, and she had heard people on Triple J – a radio station branding itself as the ‘youth station’ – talking about this as having won Best Novel. She said they described it as basically Harry Potter.

I imagine my reaction looked pretty funny, because I just. I can’t even. What?

Yes, there is a boarding school involved in both; yes, there is magic (…maybe?) involved in both.

But still. What?

Anyway. I loved this book. I read it so long ago that it seems a bit pointless writing anything that pretends to be a review, so I won’t – I just want to note down a few thoughts.

For all that I loved it, I did not love it as much as others. I know it resonated strongly for a lot of people because it reflected their own experiences, of The Discovery of Science Fiction especially. Mine it does not. Partly this is an age thing: Morwenna, the narrator, who tells this book via diary entries, is doing stuff on my birthday. I mean my actual birth day. So there’s that. More significantly though, it does not record my experience of discovering science fiction. In specific terms, I haven’t read most of the authors and titles Morwenna reports discovering (and there are a few I hadn’t even heard of) – I had to promise myself that I will read the novel a second time with pen in hand, to stop myself from feeling bad about not keeping a list of books to read as I read it the first time. In more general terms, this isn’t how I came to it. I started more with fantasy, and I was also reading a broader range of stuff, in my teens. I can remember one kid at my school with whom I shared an interest in speculative fiction, and we never talked about it. So… yeh. For me this reads as a fantasy both in magical terms (which I still think might not necessarily be real) but perhaps even more in the finding-of-like-minds aspects. Outside of cons (and sometimes even there, let’s be honest) I’ve rarely had the sort of experience Walton describes for Morwenna. It’d be nice though.

I really enjoyed Morwenna’s voice, and the novel worked especially well as a diary. She often sounds a bit older than she is, but I think the diary format explains that (as well as her somewhat precocious nature, and her voracious reading lending her an excellent vocabulary): it makes sense for someone like her to be experimenting with language in a private forum, and giving herself permission to push her imagination and storytelling to its fullest extent. I liked her ambiguity – about herself and in her attitudes towards her parents, friends, and school. She has very sensible reasons to be concerned on some of those fronts, especially about her mother, that do not translate to ‘real life’ – but the general feelings can, and do.

I admit that I am surprised that it won the Hugo, given its competition. Everyone seemed to think that GRRM had it sown up; in a year without that, I would have thought Mieville would win hands down, but then I adored Embassytown immensely so possibly I’m biased. But no: a book with a smattering of magic that is all about the discovery of SF and SF fandom won. I think that’s rather lovely, actually, and obviously also reflects the voters themselves… although what it says about them, I’m not willing to speculate.

We Who Are About to…

This is not an easy book to read. But it’s a Russ, so that’s not exactly a surprise, is it? She takes an SF trope – the idea that survivors of a crashed spaceship somehow colonise an uninhabited planet – and wreaks merry havoc.

This was apparently first published as two novellas (maybe even novelettes; the book is only 120 pages). By the end of the first half, all but one of the characters is dead. Surely the second half is going to show the sole remaining character that the planet is actually inhabited?

Yeah no. Not so much.

Told from the perspective of a woman who really doesn’t fit in with her fellow survivees, this is quite an uncomfortable read, for a lot of reasons. Firstly there’s the attitudes of each of the survivors: their entitlement, feelings of contempt, and the beginnings of a Lord of the Flies milieu. Then there’s the narrator herself, who while apparently more likeable – if only because the reader has insight into her thought processes – is still an uncompromising and actually rather difficult person to be around. And then there’s the plot, which is basically: crash; deal with each other; deal with being the only human on the planet. The end.

The other characters are very difficult to get your head around because we only see them from the narrator’s point of view, and for quite a limited amount of time. There’s a young girl, clearly spoiled and needy; her parents, who have all sorts of weird things going on with money and work and respectability that actually, when you deconstruct them, aren’t that weird and that makes it all the more uncomfortable (trophy spouse, use of marriage, etc). A jock in a universe that appears to have less use for such types, and a professor who appears to be the polar opposite and whose smugness speaks of all that’s wrong with academia. And two other women – quite different from each other, but sharing elements with our narrator, which makes her uncomfortable and serves to illuminate her character as the story progresses.

The narrator’s background is something of a jumble, which is unsurprising given that Russ writes much of the last half in almost a stream of consciousness. We learn a bit about her experimentation with niche religion and politics, a bit less about her relationships – platonic and sexual – and a bit more about her sheer determination in the face of difficulty. I don’t know that I liked her, but I certainly admired her.

The plot is definitely a secondary consideration here. While it is of extreme importance, because it’s the springboard for Russ’ investigation into character and because it’s an inversion of an SF trope, there’s so little to it (really taking place almost solely in the first half) that it must be secondary, I think. Which is not to suggest that it is poorly constructed or anything like that, of course. It’s confronting and minimal and all the more confronting for that.

This must have issued an important challenge to SF when first published – and still does, I think. It’s not easy, but it is worthwhile.