In which Letters To Tiptree is still turning heads, and it’s winter in Australia. Much winter. So coldness. You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.
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World Fantasy Award finalists
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Alisa: Undisclosed – Vacated; 4 hideous romcoms (Remember Sunday, Thanks for Sharing, Life Happens and Something Borrowed)
Alex: Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones; Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress; Fifth Season, NK Jemisin; The Hollow Crown
Tansy: Person of Interest Season 5, Book Smugglers Quarterly Almanac (especially John Chu’s “How to Piss off a Failed Super-Soldier”), Batman v Superman; Hamilton, Rocket Talk podcast – Amal El-Mohtar on Does Hamilton Count as Genre.
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What if you could genetically engineer babies to turn off the necessity to sleep? What if, with all that extra time, those children turned out to be super intelligent? And what if there were other consequences as well, that really hadn’t been anticipated?
That’s the premise of Beggars in Spain. While the science may be somewhat wobbly – sleep deprivation is a torture technique, so surely there would be greater consequences on the negative side – the point of the book is the social ramifications. Because of course, it’s only a small minority of foetuses who get this modification, thus creating a brand new minority group – one with what looks like enormous advantages over ordinary people, or Sleepers.
The focus is on Leisha, a Sleepless, whose sister Alice is a Sleeper and who often serves as a counterpoint to Leisha. The narrative skips through several stages of Leisha’s life, which I really like as a way of exploring developing social expectations, ideas and consequences. Firstly, Leisha is born, grows up, and goes to college. Then she is in her 40s, a lawyer, and American society has changed radically around her – there’s a huge reaction against the Sleepless, and the Sleepless themselves are more and more disillusioned by ‘normal’ society. To the point where many are starting to segregate themselves. Twenty years later and society has once again altered radically, with a hideous class system such that Kress draws deliberate parallels with Rome and the old ‘bread and circuses’ maxim. Then yet another couple of decades later things are changing for the Sleepless, and there are likely to be consequences for the world… but that, presumably, is for the next book.
Not being American, I think there were subtle (and not so subtle) digs at American society that didn’t really make sense to me. There’s a lot of discussion about American society not appreciating individual effort and problems with the notion of equality and so on that, while I got what Kress was talking about, didn’t have the immediate or historical resonances that I suspect a well-read American might pick up. Nonetheless this is an intriguing novel that combines generally engaging characters and genuine moral difficulties; there’s some action, there’s some intense political discussion, there’s some surprising technological development and totally retrograde societal change. I’m going to be getting the sequel.
I got this from the Strange Horizons fundraising drive; I wanted to read more Nancy Kress because her After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall was just so darned good. Also to keep up my efforts to keep reading female authors.
This is a really clever alien contact story, which like so many of the good ones tells the reader more about humanity than about any putative alien species.
Here, an alien ship arrives – apparently from the direction of Deneb, although not actually – and eventually tells the humans that the Earth is heading for a ‘spore cloud’ that will have disastrous consequences. The aliens are here both to warn the Earth and to seek answers to the problem of the spores, which will get to their planet some time later.
The story is told by Marianne, a geneticist who gets involved in the work with the aliens, and her estranged son Noah. They bring completely different perspectives to the story, of course, which are nicely complementary; they also allow Kress to explore family issues which are crucial to the story she’s telling.
The science is really a important part of the story: how scientists work, what risks they can and should take, what everyday life in the lab is like (boring). Neither more nor less important is the social aspect. How does a mother deal with children who are different from her – and how do they deal with her? How can the world deal with knowing that there are aliens out there, and that a disaster is approaching? And then there’s the politics too: this is set in a US that has become increasingly isolationist, a powerful border security force and many people wanting heavy tariffs on imports and restricted migration – and how does that play with the arrival of aliens?
At 189 pages, this is a short novel; it’s fast-paced, easy to read, and wonderfully engaging.
There are interesting parallels between this and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Both deal with humanity’s contact with aliens, and with the repercussions for humanity especially in the realm of religion. There are vast differences, of course – how contact is achieved, the type of people involved, and so on. I think Russell’s is better, overall; I appreciated the characters more, and I think it’s overall a more sober look at the repercussions for humanity. But I also think the two books are trying to do different things, and Kress has achieved something impressive in her novel.
Aliens have contacted humanity with the sole intention of Atoning for some crime they committed against us… ten thousand years ago. They don’t reveal what that crime is, nor how they intend to atone for it. Instead, they talk to anyone who can get the bandwidth to reach the moon, and set up a boring website asking for volunteers to act as Witnesses. Predictably, they get millions of applicants, of whom 21 are chosen to go to seven different planets – planets inhabited by the descendants of humanity kidnapped ten thousand years ago (cue Stargate music). This, however, is not the crime. Almost the first half of the novel focusses on Cam and Lucca, Witnesses sent to a binary planet system to live with their many-times-removed cousins in order to discover the thing that they will ‘know when they see it’, according to the Atoners. Intriguingly, numerous chapters are also given to one of those whom the Witnesses interact with, providing an at time painful glimpse into the arrogance and cluelessness of one Witness. Slight spoiler, which really isn’t: they discover the thing. They don’t really know it when they first see it. But, as the blurb promises – or threatens – the knowledge does change them, and at least some people back on Earth. The rest of the novel is working through the repercussions of that knowledge, this time largely switching focus to other Witnesses, and only occasionally returning to Cam and Lucca. And, similar to Kim Stanley Robinson so gloriously in 2312, chapters are punctuated with ephemera: conversation transcripts, Oprah interviews, advertisements, etc. These add a wonderful verisimilitude to the world that Kress imagines, only a decade away from now: many thing similar (yes, Oprah; also internet trolls); and some different. Kress throws in some lovely SF-ish moments – just enough to be incongruent, to remind the reader that this is not today.
What this book is not is an alien contact story. Yes, it deals with first contact, and yes the aliens are pivotal. But that’s exactly what they are: a pivot, a lever, a fulcrum. They are a point about which the plot revolves, but not the focus. They are almost completely opaque and don’t exist as characters at all. Rather, the focus is on humanity: how humans react, how humans interact. For an SF novel involving aliens and space travel this is a distinctly earthly novel. It’s also a bit depressing, but perhaps that’s a reflection of a near-future novel published in 2009. That’s not to say that it’s without hope, but… it’s not especially upbeat. Nonetheless, I did enjoy it overall. As mentioned above, Kress deals with the repercussions of the Witness discoveries on religion, as well as on other aspects of society. For this, and the fact that she treats religion seriously (even if it is only through Catholicism, which isn’t completely representative of Christianity let alone all religions on the planet… perhaps it is the most prevalent religion in the US, where it’s largely set? I don’t know), definite kudos. I still think Russell did it in a more nuanced manner, but it was also more of a focus for Russell than for Kress, who is writing a story that’s closer to thriller than philosophical treatise, whereas Russell is the opposite. And Kress does what I presume she set out to do: write an engaging, enjoyable, intriguing novel that combines off-beat characters – not all of whom are likeable – with a plot that keeps you flicking pages (I read it in a day…) and, cliches ahoy, a serious kicker at the end.
Steal Across the Sky can be bought at Fishpond.
I’ve been doing reading towards voting in the Hugo Awards, so these are some thoughts on what I’ve read recently – all in the shorter fiction categories:
“Fade to White,” Catherynne M Valente (Clarkesworld, August 2012) – DAMN, man. This novelette is astonishing. Non-linear structure, with advertising copy complete with snarky editorial commentary interspersed throughout the stories of two adolescents living in a post-WW2 alternative America: alternative because things have clearly gone from defeating Germany straight to Hot War with Russia, and that war has come to American soil. Not only is this a fascinating and chilling look at the repercussions for adolescents growing up in such a world, it’s also a frightening and perceptive look at how gender and race issues might play out, too, in an America so threatened. A bit like Handmaid’s Tale in that respect. I should have talked about this one last because much as I liked Pat Cadigan’s “The Girl-Thing who Went out for Sushi” (Edge of Infinity), I think this gets my vote.
“The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Postscripts: Unfit For Eden, PS Publications) – a really lovely story. One of those stories that uses a fantastical idea but makes it normal (well, ish) in the society: in this case, a boy made of glass. The eponymous character is regarded as a freak for having no shadow; the two form a friendship based on their bizarreness. This is poignant and lovely; I’m very happy I got to read it
“In Sea-Salt Tears”, Seanan McGuire (Self-published) – I read the first October Daye book and was completely unimpressed. I had no idea that this was connected to that series until I saw someone mention it on Goodreads. So, with no background at all, I actually really liked this story. Selkie stories are so hot right now (and it’s pretty funny reading this after recently reading Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers,” which I adored) – this one felt like it did something a bit new with the mythology, which I enjoyed.
“Rat-Catcher”, Seanan McGuire ( A Fantasy Medley 2, Subterranean). Meh. Cat-fae in 1660s London.
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications) – totally my pick. Again with the non-linear structure, as the title suggests. Bits of the story happen in a world recognisably our own where one of the main characters is trying to figure out a series of kidnappings. Bits of it happen in a very weird future world where some cataclysm has occurred and a small remnant population is trying to get on with. And there’s a bit during the fall as well, of course… and by that stage everything has started to come together, and both of the main characters really make sense and are utterly captivating. Very, very nice.
The Emperor’s Soul, Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Publications) – haven’t managed to finish it yet. Possibly shouldn’t therefore comment.
On a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (Immersion Press) – I don’t know anything about this universe of de Bodard’s, so I have no idea whether I’ve missed important character references or whatever. Nonetheless the story was highly engaging, and made basic sense – war isn’t hard to understand, and the repercussions for refugees are of course familiar. The intricacies of family entanglements are taking to an extreme and fine degree, but again the basic notion isn’t hard to grasp. It’s beautifully written and very absorbing.
San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, Mira Grant (Orbit) – have not read, won’t bother because I haven’t read the Newsflesh series (and don’t like zombies).
“The Stars Do Not Lie”, Jay Lake (Asimov’s, Oct-Nov 2012) – interesting idea. Would have been a whole lot better if it wasn’t transparently a Galileo/scientists in general vs Catholic Church story, with little effort to develop an interesting take on the religion.
So, for what it’s worth – those are some of my thoughts!