In which we celebrate the real beginning of awards season, taste honey and launch Alisa into her new world as PhD student of publishing… You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.
Stella Prize longlist with special appearance by our own Margo Lanagan.
Libba Bray on misogyny at the Oscars
Also, go read NK Jemisin talking about race, misogyny & Quvenzhané Wallis with “Fantasy fans, where’s your outrage?”
We didn’t discuss that one on the podcast because – well, what can we possibly say as three white women that Jemisin didn’t say a million times more effectively? Read her instead.
Thoraiya Dyer interviewed for Cosmos Magazine about how becoming a full time mum was actually great for her writing career.
Splashdance Silver back in e-edition – Tansy’s first novel, now celebrating its 15th anniversary.
ALEX: Etiquette and Espionage, Gail Carriger; The Chains that you Refuse, Elizabeth Bear; Rainbow Bridge, Gwyneth Jones; Caprica.
TANSY: Perfections, Kirstyn McDermott; For Darkness Shows the Stars, Diana Peterfreund
ALISA: The Honey Month, Amal El-Mohtar
New Segment: Diary of a Publisher – it’s our duty (and that includes all our listeners) to keep Alisa honest as she walks away from her dayjob to take up the challenge of a PhD in creative publishing. Mind the flannel!
It’s our birthday next fortnight – have cake ready for when you listen!
Please send feedback to us at email@example.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!
Edge of Infinity is not especially concerned about Earth, but it cares deeply about humanity. It’s not blindly optimistic, but neither is it depressingly morbid. It cares about the little things and the big, it’s got romance and death, and lots and lots of adventure, set within our solar system but not on Earth. Also, space ships.
Pat Cadigan opens the anthology and immediately throws the reader into the position of deciding whether they can hack the displacement. “Nine decs into her second hitch, Fry hit a berg in the Main ring and broke her leg.” This, accompanied by the story’s title – “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” – is a very clear sign that Here Be Science Fiction; the sort of science fiction that requires the reader to do a bit of work, while trusting in the author that these things really will make sense. And, of course, they do; Cadigan is a marvellous writer who mixes the very weird with the quite familiar, and gently leads the reader to understanding where she’s going with her story. The unfamiliar language is used partly to warn the reader that this is not a situation they can just take for granted, but also because it’s entirely appropriate that language would change out there around the moons of Jupiter – perhaps especially, as in this case, when those living in an alien-to-humanity environment have themselves changed from the human standard, at least morphologically. Cadigan also makes some interesting points about how being “two-steppers” has impacted on humanity’s ways of thinking, especially with regard to binary decision making. At heart, this story is about choice: an individual’s freedom to make choices about their body and their livelihood and where they live. Just suggested in the background is also a broader discussion about political choice, too, with shades of James SA Corey’s Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, about the place of Jupiter in the solar system. It’s a fitting opening to the anthology, flagging as it does many of the issues that resonate across the set.
Elizabeth Bear’s”The Deeps of the Sky,” which comes next, is the only story that focusses on aliens. Here again though the focus is on choice; Stormchases and his skiff have been out mining a storm for trace elements such as iron when a curious object appears in the sky, and he has to decide what to do about it. The plot is thus quite straightforward, but it’s the world building that makes this story an interesting one. As mentioned, it focusses on an alien society – probably living in Jupiter – and aside from the alien biology, the aspect Bear gives most attention is that of reproduction. Who gets to reproduce and with whom, and at what cost (…literally) is absorbing Stormchases, and therefore the narrative. And it is indeed different enough to cast a rather fascinating light on humanity’s own tendencies in those realms.
Bringing the anthology back closer to home (… again, literally) is James SA Corey’s “Drive”, a story that unfolds along two different temporal tracks: in one, Solomon has just taken off from Mars in his souped-up space craft; the other follows Solomon from his first encounter with Caitlin and their subsequent relationship. Like Cadigan, Corey envisages a solar system that is as uneasy with differentials in political power as it is with access to, and production of, resources. This provides much more of the narrative tension for Corey than it did for Cadigan; Earth’s attitude to Mars has an immediate impact on Solomon and his life. I’m excited to see stories like this one, despite its melancholy tone, because it puts the idea of colonising Mars squarely back into the realm of the possible, at least from an SF perspective. There’s no suggestion that it will be easy – quite the contrary – but at least humanity is there, reaching beyond our own troposphere. Somehow the idea of being out on Europa or Titan isn’t quite the same, even though the colonisation of Mars is generally a prerequisite of that further expansion.
Sandra McDonald and Stephen D Covey deliver “The Road to NPS,” similar to “Drive” in that it focusses on the issue of transportation – bringing to mind Samuel Delaney’s Nova, and the suggestion that once a civilisation expand beyond the solar system, transportation becomes the most important issue. For Rahiti, this presents a challenge he cannot leave alone – despite the threat, and very real danger, inherent in doing so. Rahiti is one of few antagonists of this anthology that I did not particularly connect to. I think this is partly because his motivation seemed to be entirely commercial – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it simply did not work for me. And he just didn’t seem like that nice a guy, overall.
The first AIs turn up in John Barnes’ “Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh,” where, intriguingly, AIs are therapists. For humans. Which is about the most unlikely role I’ve ever read them in. This is one of the most complex stories of the anthology, narratively speaking. The “I” is the AI, and the narrative follows multiple threads. First, and appearing sporadically throughout, is the narrator’s own musings on its own capabilities – specifically the difference in subjective time that it and its human interlocutors experience. It draws a comparison for one of the humans: that “the ratio of [its] cycles of information processing per second to theirs is about the same as theirs to an oak.” In response to which, very sensibly, the human (eventually) asks what an oak would think about… which doesn’t seem to be the point, but perhaps from the AI’s point it is. Anyway, the story is a fascinating glimpse into what that sort of processing power might do (brain the size of a planet, and so on). The rest of the narrative involves the AI musing on its interactions with two humans it has counselled. Laura and Tyward see the AI for different reasons – Laura because of Ty, Ty because of an ant (a mechanical one). Their relationship, shown through the AI’s interactions with them as individuals, is poignant and realistic, even though I think the conclusion is a bit of a stretch. Finally, I’d like to point out how hard it was to write this without referring to the AI as ‘he’. I think this was because its character came across so strongly, and as humanly flawed rather than a remote perfect artefact, that it seemed wrong for it to be genderless. As for ‘he’ – well, yes. Aren’t all robots male? (sigh)
Paul McAuley’s “Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden” wins for longest title. It, as a title, also covers the most important things that Mai Kumal learns about when she travels to Dione, one of Saturn’s moons, on the occasion of her father’s death there. Overall this is a less a narrative, really, than a rumination on what humanity might do Out There, so far away from the safe little blue ball. Colonisation; extreme adventure sports; secretive colonisation; and outrageous, lavish works of art. This is definitely one of the more overtly optimistic pieces of the anthology. While it’s a bit sad that Mai and her father were estranged, this is set against a glorious back drop of humanity’s potential, both in terms of relationships and Grand Achievements. And I think it’s a wonderful dream, for that.
Taking quite a different tack, one of the narratively most straightforward stories is “Safety Tests.” Here, Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes a very normal, albeit still dangerous and necessary aspect of humanity + machinery – the idea of needing a licence – and explores it. In space. Using spaceships. Around an inhabited space station. Over the course of a single day, Devlin must deal with six quite different applicants for public piloting licences. Things progress from there about as Devlin appears to expect every day to progress. That is, poorly. There’s not much extra world building built into this story, but it’s the sort of situation one can imagine fitting into most any space-faring story (imagine Ellen Ripley or Han Solo going for their licences. I dare you).
“Bricks, Sticks, Straw” is my favourite story of all, so thank you very much Gwyneth Jones. Set very briefly on Earth, the focus is on four Remote Presence devices, operated by humans on Earth but physically located on the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. Thanks to a solar storm, the link to those devices is severed, but the software agents… well. They continue to exist, and to operate, if in rather different ways from what their designers and operators would recognise. These manifestations are wonderfully thought out – how such software, designed to be intelligent and run programmes, might react to apparently being abandoned by their makers, and how they might interact after that happens. (It does make me wonder somewhat about the poor old Mars landers and rovers….) Sophie, on Callisto, is the focus of the story: she is both an array collecting data of the Jovian system; and a memory, or a remnant, or an avatar of the Sophie back on Earth. Of the four devices, she is the only one who both accepts this reality and thinks that getting back in touch with Earth is actually important. So this is the only story that does not imagine humanity having literally spread out through the solar system – yet, anyway; it’s also the story that feels temporally closest to Now. Sophie is delightfully engaging, and her concerns entirely realistic (within the bounds of the story, naturally).
Following a theme of Hannu Rajaniemi work in Jonathan Strahan anthologies (… that would be two from two, so maybe not a theme yet; the other one was “The Server and the Dragon,” in Engineering Infinity), “Tyche and the Ants” is the most magical-seeming of these stories, while – as the reader suspects throughout and has confirmed by the ending – having a very solid science fictional basis to everything; it’s the perception that lends the magic, not the action. It also comes close to the Jones story as being my favourite. Tyche lives on the moon, dividing her time between the Base, where she’s meant to stay, with only the Brain for company; and the place through the Secret Door, where waits the Magician and various other creatures. Her seemingly happy life is, however, disturbed the day the ants come to the moon. On one level this can be read as a poignant almost-fairytale; it’s sweet, if combined with some rather sad moments because of Tyche’s confusion. However, Rajaniemi does that wonderful thing of suggesting an enormous background to the story, without ever overwhelming the immediate story – and I now really want a novel set in this universe. Please. Because there are all sorts of ideas about humanity that are suggested at but not fully developed.
The main narrative thread of most of these stories so far (the Barnes is perhaps the exception) has encompassed a relatively short timeframe. Not so Stephen Baxter’s “Obelisk.” Beginning with the arrival of Wei Binglin on Mars, as he pilots the Sunflower in after a very difficult voyage, the story follows the next several decades of Binglin’s life as he adapts to Mars, deals with the brash American Bill Kendrick, and both watches Mars develop and assists in that happening. Binglin is an interesting character through which to explore this; he feels a great deal of guilt concerning the Sunflower, and he’s unconvinced, early on, about living planetside. His growth as a character works overall, and I can absolutely agree with how Baxter imagines Mars bootstrapping itself. And the fact that he imagines it as a largely Chinese endeavour is certainly believable, although there’s not a whole lot of Chinese-specific culture to be seen. However, I was troubled by the way Baxter dealt with Xue Ling, Binglin’s adopted daughter. The role she plays seems largely superfluous; certainly the apparent pull she exerts on both Binglin and Kendrick is not required to get them to do what they do. Rather she sometimes seems like an excuse. Her actions at the conclusion of the story were especially problematic, seeming not to fit in at all and feeling instead like gratuitous sentimentality on Baxter’s part, or as if there needed to be some big dramatic Thing to impart some sense of occasion to the story. It was unneeded and I think actually undercut the rest of the story.
Alastair Reynolds’ “Vainglory” is another story that uses two temporal tracks. In the first, Loti Hung is confronted by Vanya Ingvar, and asked some uncomfortable questions about her interactions with a certain Skanda Abrud; while the second is essentially Loti remembering exactly that interaction. While many of the central characters throughout this anthology have been engineer or science-y types (although not all, Tyche in Rajaniemi’s story and Mai is McAuley’s especially), Loti is quite different: she’s an artist. Specifically, a rock artist – someone who carves rock on a massive scale – we’re talking asteroids here. And I love the very idea of a science fiction story that focusses on the possibilities for art in the future, in these far-out locations humanity may find itself in (McAuley does a similar thing). The story is about one of Loti’s commissions, and it not turning out to be quite what she thought; and Ingvar investigating just exactly went on with it. The interaction between the two women is understated and believable, as is that between Loti and Skanda. Again, this quite personal story is set against a much larger backdrop of solar system colonisation, the arrogance of wealth, and questions of justice.
While transportation may be one of the major issues of solar system colonisation, as shown in “Drive” and ” The Road to NPS,” solar system habitation is going to be greatly impacted by something that already affects large swathes of Earth: access to water. In “Water Rights,” by An Owomoyela, this issue is front and centre after an explosion interrupts the water supply for many of the near-Earth colonies. This is of immediate interest to Jordan Owole because, as the owner of an orbiting hydroponics outfit – which naturally has a large reservoir – she’s now become of great interest both to the authorities and to independent orbiting homesteaders. Which is an uncomfortable position to be in, to say the least. While this sounds potentially depressing, Owomoyela pulls a beautiful turn at the end which nearly brought tears to my eyes, and makes it amongst the more obviously optimistic of the anthology.
The ultimate story in this set is from Bruce Sterling, and a weird one it is. “The Peak of Eternal Light” is set on Mercury – a Mercury with incredibly restrictive and quite bizarre gender restrictions, especially when it comes to marriage. There were moments when I, as a woman, found reading this story actively unpleasant; while Sterling may not (probably does not) accept the ideas presented here as worthy, and does indeed go on to critique them to some extent, it was still not an enjoyable experience. There are a number of instances where he veers very close to existing stereotypes that, in a futuristic setting – even with outre accoutrements intended to suggest perhaps that this is new and weird – were depressing to imagine continuing beyond the confines of Earth. Marriages are entirely arranged and intended to be endured, nothing more; couples spend time with one another in strictly regimented ways, and the women appear to live in the equivalent of a harem. The central couple, who refer to each other as Mr and Mrs Peretz, do begin to question some of the limitations placed on them; and I did enjoy the idea that the bicycle, which was indeed a revolutionary form of transportation in its time for women, would find a new lease on life on Mercury. This questioning, though, did not compensate for the overall image of life on that planet. I do not want Sterling’s vision of the future.
Overall, this is an awfully good anthology. And it’s very exciting indeed to read an anthology entirely dedicated to science fiction, and science fiction of what might be called the medium term future; not the immediate collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, nor the humans-spanning-the-galaxy stories (which I do adore, I’ll be honest). It’s an anthology that spans ideas, planets, concepts, personalities and the future of humanity. What’s not to like?
The last thing I expect from the final book in a trilogy is for it to throw up major questions about the characters we have come to, if not love, like and admire over the course of two books. But that’s exactly what Bear does in Grail. It’s a remarkable move that I admit makes a fitting end to a remarkable series. As with Chill, there is no way of telling from the front cover that this is part of a series, although the blurb mentions that it brings Bear’s space opera “to a triumphant conclusion.” Unlike Chill, though, this book probably would make a bit more sense by itself.
Grail opens not on the great generation ship but on a planet, with a completely new set of characters. At first I thought this was going to be the descendants – or perhaps even the ancestors – of our friends on the Jacob’s Ladder. Turns out that no, these people are human colonists who have been on this planet for generations, the descendants of the people who had initially populated Jacob’s Ladder.
You may think you can see where this is probably going. I certainly wondered if this was going to turn into an Us vs Them scenario, and whether it would lead to violence. However, I seriously underestimated Bear – always a bad idea. The inhabitants of Fortune (the planet, which the Jacob’s Ladder crew have jokingly named Grail as they approach) have not been static in their own development. They haven’t gone down the same route as Perceval and co, though. Rather, they have made explicit moves away from the religious zealotry that originally drove the generation ship into space. And they have done this via psychological and, I think, chemical means. Isolating the area of the brain leading to ‘sociopathic’ tendencies and… minimising them.
Bear does not set up a good/bad dichotomy here. From Fortune’s perspective – and especially through the eyes of Danilaw, currently in charge and the one who ends up interacting most with Perceval etc – those on board the ship are totally, utterly, unregenerate barbarians of the worst kind… and the reader gets to see just how weird some things about them are, from the outside. Things the reader has come to accept as normal, over the last two books, because that’s what you do when you suspend disbelief. To have that acceptance thrown back into my face was, frankly, shocking. I can’t imagine what it would be like now to re-read the series, with this new perspective thrust upon me at the end. At the same time, though, it’s not like Danilaw et al are that normal and comfortable. I almost found them harder to accept because at least on the Jacob’s Ladder, I know they’ve been deliberately making evolutionary choices, they’ve been in space for centuries, and weird semi-cyborg things of course happen out there in that context. Fortune’s inhabitants do not have that excuse. Their psychological and neurological changes happened initially on Earth itself, in response to perceived threats from religious and political zealots. I was reminded uncomfortably of ideas from 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 – not that Bear is riffing off them, but having choice removed from people, particularly choice that is dear to my heart? Squirm-y making.
The plot is appropriately twisty and intriguing, as befits the conclusion to this series. The characters continue to be intriguing, attractive and repellant almost at the same time. We finally get a better understanding of the ship itself, thanks to the outsider perspective, which is a nice culmination of the gradual reveal from the first two books.
All in all a very clever conclusion to a very clever series.
In which we surf the wave of feminist SF news that has deluged the internet this fortnight, plus Margaret Brundage, why YA books are allowed to be as dark as they want to be, the Tiptree Award, Connie Willis, were-thylacines, Ted Chiang and Alex finally discovers Bujold… You can download us from iTunes, or download/stream from Galactic Suburbia.
Nicola Griffith on the m/f imbalance in an informal SF favourites poll in the Guardian.
The Guardian: Damien Walter, author of the poll & followup articles revises his comments in response to Griffith.
Niall Harrison follows up on Strange Horizons.
Cheryl Morgan on invisibility of women (some really interesting discussion in the comments, too).
The Guardian again, asking with wide innocent eyes if SF is inherently sexist.
Ian Sales announces the SF Mistressworks blog project.
Nicola Griffith asks you to take the Joanna Russ pledge.
Nine Reasons Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia (interesting in light of the recent spout of incidents we’ve watched, notably the one with Nick Mamatas where winning World Fantasy Award was considered too regional to be significant).
Wall Street Journal on YA fiction.
Change to the Norma eligibility guidelines.
Why Galactic Suburbia T-shirts are no longer available through RedBubble.
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Tansy: Thyla, Kate Gordon; Will Supervillains Be on the Final? Naomi Novik
Alisa: Coode St Podcast with Ellen Klages, Eileen Gunn and Geoff Ryman; Connie Willis – Even the Queen; Octavia Butler – Bloodchild
Alex: Chill, and Grail, Elizabeth Bear; The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang; Welcome to the Greenhouse, Gordon van Gelder; Steampunk! Kelly Link and Gavin Grant.
Please send feedback to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, 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!
This is definitely a second-book-in-the-series, not that you can tell that from the cover – which must have been annoying for some people. As such, there are spoilers for the first book, Dust.
Chill picks up only hours after the end of Dust – Tristen Conn awakens in an acceleration tank, after the colony ship has had to accelerate at drastic rates to escape a supernova. The first part of the story therefore follows the experiences of Tristen, Caitlin, Benedick and Perceval as they accustom themselves to their new roles, new relationships, and – in Perceval’s case – new status. They do not do this unhampered, of course, because Arianrhod – she whose actions contributed significantly to the disasters of Dust – is also abroad, and again contributing to chaos. Much of the novel is in fact concerned with chasing Arianrhod, with Tristen and Benedick’s desires for vengeance running hot. As they do so, they encounter new areas of their world/ship, Jacob’s Ladder, that both broaden and confuse their understanding of the world and its purpose.
There is a lot of chasing in this book; a lot of running, some hiding, the occasional ambush. One consequence for the reader is in demonstrating the sheer size of the ship. However, this is not done as well as I would have liked, as Bear shows little interest in emphasising the size or making it feel as seriously large as it must be. This is problematic because without it, I couldn’t help but feel that Tristen, Benedick and their companions were doing little more than running through corridors, either aimlessly or only to advance the plot by allowing them to meet new and difficult characters. Although they clearly have a destination – or, for most of the story, an objective – it did make the book feel a bit like it was running on the spot. On the other hand, they do meet new and interesting characters (just wait for the orchids), and in the process we learn more about the characters (especially Tristen), the history of the Conns, and the world/ship. Not quite enough that everything makes sense – and I still have some trouble with the Conn family tree, which makes things a bit confusing sometimes – but enough that some pieces from Dust begin to fall into place, and other conclusions are suggested.
More is learnt about the Conns and the world/ship through those who stay behind, too. Caitlin – Chief Engineer, doing what she does best – learns all sort of interesting and uncomfortable things from the resurrected Jsutien, once an Astrogator. Meanwhile Perceval, who has had hardly any time to come to grips with the fact that her sister-love Rien has been subsumed into the new world angel, is forced to start acting as Captain – which means interacting with the new angel, whether she likes it or not. Despite her preeminence in Dust, and her new role as Captain, Perceval actually doesn’t appear as much as I had anticipated here in Chill. This lack contributed to my feeling somewhat unfulfilled by the novel as a whole. Even when she was the focus of particular sections, the reader is not given the same access to Perceval as in the first book. This is not a result of shifting focus; this actually contributes to the pace and excitement of the story, I think, as well as its richness. Instead it felt more like Bear wasn’t sure how to deal with the new Perceval – and that she was more interested in the chase scenes. Perceval’s scenes felt a bit cursory.
It might sound as if I didn’t enjoy this book very much, but that’s actually not true. I like the characters, and especially learning more about Tristen and Benedick, who were fairly opaque in Dust. Bear does some interesting things with the world/ship as a whole – and although she doesn’t always see them through, offering them more as tantalising possibilities, I’m hoping that the third book (Grail) will bring things to a magnificent conclusion. I generally enjoy Bear’s dialogue and her descriptive passages as well. So I’m definitely going to read the third book.
I read this book as the January book for the 2011 Women in SF Book Club, being organised by TJ at Dreams and Speculation. I’d not read any novels by Elizabeth Bear before, although I’ve enjoyed a number of her short stories and she’s also one of the contributors to Shadow Unit, which I adore. I didn’t know what to expect from this story, but it wasn’t what I got.
In short: I really enjoyed it, and am totally cut that it’s the first of a trilogy! (I thought I was doing so well with avoiding those.) I enjoyed the characters, and I thought it was a really interesting take on a not-original (which doesn’t mean it’s not interesting) SF trope.
At length, with spoilers:
I didn’t read the blurb before reading the book. The cover gives some indication of angelic types mixed in with technology, which I thought was a fascinating idea, and then the angel comes in right at the start – sans wings. Perceval, the angel and a woman despite the name, is a really fascinating character. She’s conflicted, she’s loyal, she never gives up despite an enormous amount of wearing down and opposition.
There are numerous other characters, but most of them are really only bit parts with one, maaaybe two exceptions: definitely Rien, maybe Jacob Dust. It’s Rien’s point of view that we get most often; starting as a lowly servant, discovering that she’s Perceval’s half-sister and actually of some consequence, and going and having some adventures – she is, I think, more approachable as a character than Perceval, who despite having some flaws and being somewhat tormented is more symbolic, more… a talisman. Rien is earthier, more grounded, and I think more approachable. Dust, on the other hand, is not very likeable or approachable at all; he’s quite a quirky take on the slightly crazed AI which I really enjoyed (I enjoyed the whole idea behind and consequences of the fractured AI, actually).
It took me a while to realise that the setting was a generation ship; right at the start I wasn’t even sure it was set in space, and I was wondering whether this was going to be some planet where the people had reverted to a faux-medieval existence with just a few people still taking advantage of old tech. Which is kinda true, but everyone is aware of the fact that they live on a spaceship, even if they don’t necessarily do anything directed connected with that reality at the moment. It’s a really clever setting: being on such an enormous ship means there’s not the claustrophobia of space travel in a tin can, and there are more options for moving around – and for having two antagonistic parties at each others’ throats but far enough apart that they have to actually work at reaching other. But it also means that vacuum is a genuine threat, which is a problem you never get dirtside… and it means you have the option of moving the whole damn ship, too (hence the trilogy).
I still haven’t quite figured out whether there were more Arthurian links than just Perceval’s name (and she does talk about being a knight errant… oh and there’s also a Tristen), and I somehow missed them. The third book is apparently going to be called Grail, so maybe there are – or maybe they will be more developed over the next two books.
Finally, let me say that I really didn’t expect the conclusion, which is a pretty awesome outcome when I read a book.