While this may not be a uniquely Australian perspective on the future – other places have deserts – there’s still definitely a strong Australian flavour running through this world. The Dead Red Heart, the dust and sand, the mad tankers (Sparks acknowledges a debt to Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong), the caravans, the grim survival in the face of crappy odds. Also the place names that occasionally gave me a giggle, to see them cropping up in this devastated future.
Cat Sparks is a friend… but she’d never expect anything but the truth from me, so don’t worry; this is definitely a fair review.
So it must be pointed out that you shouldn’t come to this book hoping for a happy post-apocalypse world, or a happy post-apocalyptic story. That is not how Sparks rolls. There is unpleasantness and violence and maiming and death and loss and lots and lots of hideous sand. This is a world where human survival relies on following rules that enable communities to survive even if you don’t understand them; where groups have to be wary of other groups because even though helping each other is a good idea, sometimes my group against yours might mean we survive at your cost. Did I mention the sand? There’s a lot of sand. Life is hard and for most people, requires hard work and sacrifice. Well, for most people… and that (naturally) is one of the tensions that Sparks works through here.
This is a world after global conflict, some indeterminate period in the world’s past, that involved soldiers created by humans – robots, cyborgs, and all manner of variations on the theme. Exactly what happened in the past is never spelled out; I got the feeling that a whole bunch of conflicts got conflated and thus, a thoroughly mangled world – which isn’t unimaginable. But the history itself doesn’t matter so much, except insofar as the remnants can be either helpful or harmful to the humans still making their way. Coming off Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series, this is refreshing, and I liked it: for most of the population survival is more important than history, and that makes sense.
The novel is made up of a large and varied cast, whose stories eventually intertwine. There’s an adolescent on a caravan in the desert fed up with her life; a supersoldier reawakened; an old, old woman eking out the end of her life; a grifter; and representatives of those doing better than everyone else, come to see what the rest of the world is like. It was good to read the variety of perspectives and remember that human survival will mean a diverse range of experiences.
The story at its most basic is a straightforward one. But the thing that really made this stand out was the world building. It helped that I happened to be reading this in a blast of hot days, but even if it had been the middle of winter I would have felt hot, felt parched, felt distressed by the unrelenting nature of the world – this is a world that really can’t support humans very well anymore. But humans are determined and bloody-minded, and that comes through too.
One thing that annoyed me was in the proofreading. There were a number of instances where commas were in weird places. And of course I can’t now find an example because I forgot to mark them, so it looks like I’m complaining out of turn. But they were definitely there: commas as though there were three adjectives but there was only two, for instance. Not a problem with the story, but something that threw me a few times.
Overall this is (I can’t believe) a great debut novel from Sparks. I hope she has more vices stories in her after she finishes her PhD…
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. It’s out today; RRP $19.99.
I enjoyed but wasn’t blown away by Zeroes; I was immensely more impressed by Swarm. With a few niggles about the haste with which this third book ended, I am basically very satisfied with how the trilogy concluded. It levelled up nicely, ramped up the consequences and problems being faced, complex-ified the characters… and it’s a very fast-paced read. Hugely enjoyable.
The basic premise, in case you’ve missed it: six kids in a little town in America, all born in 2000, have powers, of a sort. They’re all different powers and take varying degrees of control. None of the kids is really all that happy to have their powers. They end up working together basically because of Nate, or Bellwether, whose power is a persuasive one. So if you’re into superpowers and their consequences for individuals and families and communities, this should definitely be on your radar. Continue reading →
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now, RRP $29.99.
Terra nullius has a specific resonance for Australians who know anything about their history. It’s the legal fiction under which Britain decided they could colonise the land that’s now Australia, because it was ‘nobody’s land’ – that is, no one that the British recognised owned it. Because the British didn’t recognise the traditional owners as ‘owning’ the land, for a whole bunch of reasons. So for Claire G Coleman to use that as the name and premise of her book is brilliant, and pointed, and tells you a lot about what the book is on about before you even open it.
Coleman, who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, won the black&write! writing fellowship in 2016 with this manuscript. The main reason why I think that’s awesome – aside from the obvious one that it’s a great book – is a bit spoiler-y, and that’s a bit of a problem with discussing this book at all…
The blurb talks about Natives, the Colony, and Settlers. It says “This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history. This TERRA NULLIUS is something new, but all too familiar.” Along with the fact that this is a didactic book (in no way a criticism) that does its message-work with clear prose, understandable characters, compassion and a lot of toughness… I can’t really say much more about the book without revealing what makes it something other than a book about Australian history. There’s runaways and enforced schooling and hiding from Settlers and Settlers complaining about the environment… and… other things.
I want to throw this book at all white Australians. And I would be fascinated to hear what non-Australians think, especially people living in other colonised lands. I don’t know enough about how that’s spoken of elsewhere to know whether the resonance would work in a non-Australian context… but I think there’s enough commonality for it not to be a completely foreign experience.
And now, for those of you who don’t mind spoilers:
I received this book from the publisher at no cost.
I really really liked this book. It’s very different from the Ancillary books, despite being set in the same universe; the concerns are different and the setting is different. What’s not different is the awesomeness of the writing itself, and the sheer excellence of the story and that the characters are delightfully well-rounded and gripping.
I told you I liked it.
Some of the things I really liked are minorly spoilery, so they’re below, but at heart it’s a ripping good story with characters I genuinely cared about in a society that’s just different enough to be alien and similar enough to be familiar, with the differences being intriguing. There’s political shenanigans and surprising coincidences and sibling rivalry and questionable identities…. Also, if you have read the Ancillary books (in no way necessary, although there is a tangential spoiler for the books), it’s fun to see how other societies view the Radch (unsurprisingly, with suspicion).
It appears to be a stand-alone, in case unfinished trilogies put you off. I didn’t quite read it in a day, but close. I adore Imray, the main character, a lot.
These spoilers don’t spoil the story, but just in case you want to discover them yourself:
1. The gender stuff! Choosing your own gender and your own name! With THREE options, and no suggestion that there’s any link to any physical bits! Such a neat way of doing it. And it’s just… there… and doesn’t play a role in the plot itself, because really why should gender play a part in what someone can do? As I write this I realise that that’s actually really significant: Imray has chosen to be female but there’s no suggestion that she is impaired by that, and none of the non-binary folk are hampered by their choice either… they’re all just people.
2. The vestiges! I see this as a nod to the Roman lares, the household gods, and the fact that leading families would have remnants from their famous ancestors to boost their own standing. But of course heaps of people do this sort of thing – investing objects with numinous power – just look at celebrity objects that get sold for stupid amounts of money. I loved that even when the authenticity (provenance!) of objects was questioned, Imray realised that in one sense at least it doesn’t matter if an object is genuine, because of the way it accumulates power and authority thanks to how people think about it. I really, really enjoyed this aspect.
3. Imray herself. Her appearance is largely irrelevant to the plot, which I really only noticed the one of two times that it <i>was</i> mentioned, in passing. And those mentions were about things like a particular space suit not being designed with someone of her roundness in mind. This is a person who’s not tiny but… no one cares. Also, she cries several times – and is never criticised for it, never made to feel like that’s a weak, womanly thing to do. She tries not to cry, a few times, so as not to betray her emotions – but it’s not gendered.
I mean, it’s called All Systems Red, but everyone’s just calling it Murderbot.
Cleverly written, intriguing plot, and a narrator that I really, REALLY want to hear more from.
I had heard a lot about Murderbot before I read this. Remarkably, it actually lived up to the hype. Written almost like a diary, it allows the reader into the mind of a robot who has been tasked to look after some explorers – who don’t realise that their robotic servant has no control chip, and is therefore choosing to look after them rather than simply and blindly following instructions.
It’s a reflection on autonomy, and choice; on how we treat those in subservient positions, the uncanny valley,and identity. It is also a mighty fine story that kept me engrossed and makes me leap for joy when I know there’s at least another three in the series to come.
This novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be on sale in January 2018.
Binti has changed: she changed by leaving home, she changed through her dreadful encounter with the Meduse, through her time at university, through her discovery about the truth of the Desert People. One of the major issues that she continues to deal with in this, the third and final story, is the ongoing consequence of those changes. Personally, and in her relationships with family and her wider community, and indeed the world. While there are broader things of concern going on, this is really the heart of Okorafor’s story and I really love it. She ends up feeling so many connections to so many people and groups; the question of how you please yourself, or everyone, is of ongoing concern.
Aside from her own personal tussles, this book is also focused on the ancient feud between the Khoush and the Meduse, which Binti discovers herself in the middle of. It’s been in the narrative since the start, since it instigated the events that made Binti who she is. Okorafor looks at how two large political entities might confront one another, as well as how that impacts on the non-involved around them.
All three Binti stories are wonderfully well written. Okorafor writes dialogue beautifully and she evokes the desert, here, powerfully. I do feel that this is the least satisfying of the stories overall, mostly because the conclusion felt slightly rushed and there were a couple of connections that didn’t flow as well as I expected. Nonetheless, it was a hugely enjoyable read and I definitely recommend reading all three.
Haven’t really talked about this much in these parts, but I’ve been working on a second book this year! This one is in honour of Octavia Butler, a groundbreaking science fiction writer: amazing stories, provocative ideas, and (it appears) the first African-American woman to make a living from science fiction. And this is the cover!!
The book comprises almost 50 original pieces – letters and essays – to and about Butler, encompassing a bunch of different issues and themes and responses. You can see the list of contributors at the Twelfth Planet Press site. It will also include some reprinted material.
I’m really pleased with how the book has developed, and I am in love with the cover.
Tansy, Rivqa: I hear you have an exciting new project coming up. Care to share what it is?
Hi, Alex! We’re about to launch a crowdfunding campaign for a new speculative fiction anthology of artificial intelligence stories: Mother of Invention.
So tell me about this title. Who came up with it, what’s the point, and so on?
Artificial intelligence stories, from the very beginning, have always been dominated by the idea of a male creator ‘giving birth’ to robots or intelligent computers. This in turn means that we end up with a lot of artificial intelligence narratives with a sexy female robot, or a disembodied voice played by Scarlett Johanssen. Starting with Frankenstein (though even going back to the Ancient Greek Pygmalion/Galatea myth) the stories so often centre around the idea of what happens (or what goes terribly wrong) when men create life. Is Susan Calvin the only iconic female creator of artificial life in our whole genre? We’re happy to be ‘well, actually’d on this one, but she’s definitely outnumbered by her male counterparts.
To be honest, the ‘isolated dude builds/interacts with sexy robot girlfriend/daughter and/or angry robot/computer son who wants to kill him’ tropes have become the SF equivalent of ‘middle-aged college professor has affair with younger female student’. And just because (some) women can have babies biologically doesn’t mean they can’t build robots or super-smart imaginary friends as well as, or instead of, creating life the squishy old fashioned way.
We wanted to challenge the gender dynamic of artificial intelligence stories, and rather than focus on the ‘why are all robot women sexy and adorable’ trope, we thought we’d let some fantastic writers explore the idea of what kind of artificial lifeforms women, and other under-represented genders, might create.
As for the title… it took us ages to find something that captured what we want, but ultimately the quote ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ gave us the answer. When it comes to artificial intelligence stories, the motivation is often just as interesting as the ‘how it all went terribly wrong’ part, and we’re interested to see how the gender of the creator in these stories will affect what they build, and who they make.
The anthology will be published by Twelfth Planet Press… why go with them?
Twelfth Planet Press have a reputation for smart, thought-provoking projects and for challenging the gender dynamic of SF publishing, so they were absolutely our first choice. We’ve both worked with them before, though mostly at the fiction writing end of things, so it’s exciting to be getting our teeth into an editing project this time around.
We want to follow in the footsteps of Kaleidoscope and Defying Doomsday, which were both fantastic, diverse anthologies with strong political concepts behind them.
Do you have a stash of money up your collective sleeves to pay the authors for the project, or do you have some other plan?
Crowdfunding is our plan! With a project like this, a crowdfunding campaign has a lot of benefits to it, particularly that you can create advanced buzz for the book, and also gauge the interest of the readers. If we can’t make our target, then we don’t have enough interest to make the book viable, and it’s better to know that up front. The best thing about crowdfunding is that we are able to comfortably pay the authors (and editors and designers and artists and everyone) professional rates, which is often a hard ask for an Aussie small press budget.
Twelfth Planet Press has run a couple of very successful crowdfunding campaigns for anthologies like this one, and each time that has helped to bring international awareness to the book which is hugely important. We may be working out of the Australian suburbs, but we want to get this book into the hands of readers all around the world.
This will actually be the first time Twelfth Planet Press has worked with Kickstarter rather than the locally-based Pozible, so that’s an exciting adventure. It will be interesting to see whether it makes a difference to international reach.
Are there any authors associated with the project yet?
Yes, there are! We’ll also be opening for general submissions after crowdfunding closes, from July-August 2017.
Our core team of Mother of Invention authors are Seanan McGuire, John Chu, Kameron Hurley, Nisi Shawl, Sandra McDonald, E.C. Myers, Justina Robson, Bogi Takács, Rosaleen Love, Cat Sparks and Joanne Anderton. We also have an essay coming from Ambelin Kwaymullina, which we are very excited about.
Do you have dream plots or ideas you’d like to see reflected in your slush pile?
Tansy: I’m not gonna lie, I kind of want at least one super smart sexbot story and/or a gender-reversed Stepford Wives story. So many robot-as-person stories are about beauty and perfection and the unrealistic expectations on human/artificial female bodies, so I’d love something that turns that around to look at the potential sexuality/sensuality of artificial male bodies. I’d also love to see stories that look at how women socialise and connect to each other, and how intelligences that are created by women might reflect that. I’d definitely like a range of ages of the creators — a 96-year-old woman and a 15-year-old girl are going to create a different intelligent software, presumably. What would you get if they worked together?
I also really want stories that challenge our premise, challenge the gender binary, and allow for a wide, inclusive definition of what gender means anyway. Artificial intelligence is a theme that invites a complex exploration of gender (or an absence of gender) beyond just the creator themselves, so it would be fantastic to get stories that do this.
Rivqa: While I’m sure we’ll be including some ‘AI turns evil’ stories, I’m personally more excited to see stories that explore our creators’ creations in more subtle ways. In particular, autonomy interests me as a writer and a parent. At what point do we let go of our children, whatever their nature? What does it mean to make an autonomous AI, whether purposefully or accidentally?
Like Tansy, I’m excited to see how our authors use the theme to explore gender identity and expression. Would a female, genderqueer or agender creator necessarily invent something different to a cis male creator? Or is that just playing into the kyriarchy’s hands in a different way? I can’t wait to see how our submissions subvert the tired old trope of the cis male inventor, because I have no doubt that they’ll do so in a multitude of ways.
At a simpler level, I’m just looking forward to reading stories from people who love robots as much as I do, because I think they’re awesome.
What’s the timeline for all of this?
It all starts in June 2017, just a few weeks from now! We’ll be crowdfunding for the whole month. We’ll then have our open submission period and be reading, selecting and editing for the rest of this year. We’ll be delivering crowdfunding rewards from early 2018, with the book itself delivering to supporters in June 2018.
We also have a stretch goal planned for a companion series of gender and artificial intelligence essays which would, if we reach the target, extend beyond the original timeline.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is a writer, Hugo Award-winning podcaster and pop culture critic based in Tasmania. Her award-winning fiction includes the Creature Court trilogy and the Love & Romanpunk short story collection. Tansy has edited various magazines and books, most recently the Cranky Ladies of History anthology which was crowdfunded in 2014. She also regularly assesses manuscripts for the Tasmanian Writer’s Centre.
Rivqa Rafael is a writer and editor based in Sydney. Her speculative fiction has been published in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications), Defying Doomsday, and elsewhere. In 2016, she won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. As an editor, she specialises in medical and science writing, both short and long form; she has also edited memoir, fiction and popular magazines.
I think this is the first James Bradley book I’ve read, which is… a thing. If this is an indication of his calibre, I shall rectify that.
This is a near-future Australia. The entire world has been affected by alien spores that Change animals, plants and people – not everyone, but many of those who come into contact. And the spores seem to particularly like it hot and humid, so there’s been an exodus of people from the tropical parts of the world. Of course, this hasn’t been particularly well received by the temperate parts of the world. There are walls. And camps. And suspicion of foreigners.
All sounding a bit familiar, isn’t it.
The heart of the book is Callie, an adolescent whose father Changed some years ago and whose young sister is now exhibiting symptoms – because even in temperate Adelaide, you’re not safe from the spores. Rather than allow Gracie to be taken to Quarantine, Callie decides to run away with her to the Zone: the part of Australia that’s been sectioned off by a mighty Wall, to the north of which the Change runs riot. Cue adventure and desperation and bravery and hardship.
What is perhaps most intriguing about this book is the prologue. I mean, I really enjoyed the book, and Callie is a gutsy character, and I liked the depiction of Australia. But the prologue? It makes it clear that this desperate adventure across southern Australia is only the beginning of what will confront Callie across the trilogy. Because in the opening paragraph, she mentions “this alien beach,” and being “under a sky so full of stars that even the night shines”. There is something much weirder going on than just another version of the Triffids, or a slow invasion story. And while I enjoyed the look-after-the-sister story, I am really intrigued by what’s going to happen to Callie to lead her to this alien planet.
Bring on the next book.
Book 2 of Cixin Liu’s trilogy that started with The Three-Body Problem.
You could probably read this without having read the first book – it’s been ages since I read Three-Body Problem and I didn’t remember a whole heap – but honestly, why would you? It’s such an amazing book that if you’re considering reading these at all (perhaps because the third one has just been nominated for a Hugo Award, which the first book won), seriously just go and read both of them.
So the world is going to be attacked by an alien space-navy… in four centuries. Meanwhile emissaries from those aliens are already here, because somewhat hand-wavy-science, and they’re both halting humanity’s exploration of science and potentially listening in to every single conversation we’re having. So what can be done to try and deal with the aliens, and not have them sabotage humanity’s plans? (The aliens have their human tools, of course, too.) You nominate four people to be Wallfacers: people who have authority to do anything as long as they justify it as “part of the plan”… and they don’t have to explain anything, because if they explain it then the aliens might find out.
Because nothing could go wrong with that plan.
And that’s only part of what this novel is about. There’s also love and loss and trauma and sheer human effrontery. It takes place in the near-isa future and then a few centuries after that. It mostly takes place in China with a few bits elsewhere. Lots of it is from the perspective of Luo Ji, who would really rather it wasn’t, thanks all the same.
Some of the things I really enjoyed and/or was intrigued by:
- The acknowledgement, and exploration, of the idea that when confronted with an alien enemy, one of the likely responses is defeatism. Even in the armed forces. This is actually quite refreshing, given how often Hollywood blockbusters like to present (usually American) soldier-heroes.
- The general lack of draaaamah. When things go bad, people react, but there’s not pages upon pages of people feeling sorry for themselves. Nonetheless, these are still generally real and believable, if restrained, characters who I enjoyed reading about and did feel that I got to know (somewhat, anyway). (And I’m not only referring to the Chinese characters when I say that; the USan and other characters also don’t go in for massive theatrics.)
- Shi Qiang. About the only main character to transition from Three-Body to this, and I love him. He’s so quirky and shrewd and insightful and human. (I can imagine Miller, from the Expanse, and Da Shi getting together and drinking way too much and sharing police stories for hours.)
- Zhang Beihai. What even was going on with that narrative arc? Fascinating and unexpected; every time he appeared on the page I didn’t even bother trying to figure out what was going to happen. Because I knew I would be wrong.
This is a great science fiction novel and I’m completely stoked for the third, although I can’t really fathom where it’s going to go. Do not read this unless you prepared for some pretty hard-core science discussion, and if you’d rather that your fiction has in-dpeth discussion of character motivation and lavish character reflection. Do read if you enjoy a brilliant SF story with breathtaking ideas.