Tag Archives: sf

Unknown.jpegDon’t be like me: if you think you might like to read The Calculating Stars, just buy this at the same time. Because otherwise you’ll get to the end of the first and you’ll be forced to cry NOOOO and shake your first at the sky because you can’t go immediately on to this.

Trust me on this. (Also I can’t believe I didn’t review Stars when I read it. Oops.)

Elma York is a scientist and a pilot. There’s a dreadful catastrophe on Earth in 1952, and from that point history is different from our history, because humanity’s attempts to get to space happen much, much faster, from necessity rather than hubris or curiosity.

York is female, and Jewish. It’s the female bit that leads to most of her personal difficulties; it seems to me that Kowal pulls no punches when it comes to laying out the sexism of the 1950s and 60s. I often found it distressing to read about. And it’s not only that which is distressing. There’s also the racism: York herself, while not actively racist, is complicit in the systemic racism of her time because so often she simply isn’t aware of the experiences of the not-white folks around her. And her attempts to ‘help’ are often blundering. I do like that Kowal shows York learning from her mistakes – sometimes because she is actively shown what she has done, or what society has done; sometimes she thinks her way there personally. She’s certainly never perfect, though – she’s a product of her times.

And then, in terms of things that can be hard to read about, York also suffers from anxiety. Although I do not myself suffer from it, it was reading about this that perhaps affected me most. The way it physically affects her, and the way those around her react, and the reasons for it existing or being exacerbated. Kowal writes about it exquisitely (said the person for whom it is largely unfamiliar, so take that into account).

I really feel like these books are perfect for 2018.

I don’t want to spoil either book, so I won’t go into much detail of the plot, but of course humanity’s efforts to reach space and work there are more successful in the books than in real life; otherwise there wouldn’t be two books (AND, so excite, at least two more planned!!) about it. But it’s fair to say that there is no plain sailing – which is as you would expect from Kowal, frankly, and indeed from any early-space-reaching novel attempting verisimilitude.

I love these books with a great passion. They tore at my heart, and made me angry for the way people are stupid for stupid reasons; they made me happy for the fact that there are good people, too, striving to do what is right and sometimes failing but also keeping on going, often in the face of terrible opposition. I love Kowal’s writing and I love the pacing of these stories and I cannot, cannot wait to read more set in this world.

Making the Monster

This was the second book in my birthday haul from my mother this year. The first was… not as good as I had hoped. Happily, this did not fall into the same trap.

The idea behind Harkup’s book is to look into the science that was happening around the time of Shelley writing Frankenstein, to explore what ideas influenced her. I was slightly concerned that this could go down the route that Russ identifies of suggesting Shelley was nothing but a conduit for the ideas of the time, but she does nothing of the sort. She does look into what sorts of things Shelley’s husband, father and friends were into, but only to suggest that this is how Shelley herself could have found out about these things: with Percy interested in electricity, for instance, it makes sense that they may have talked about some of the ideas being discussed by scientists, and so on. So I was relieved that this book is very much about how Mary Shelley herself knew what she did, and how she might have accessed knowledge of galvanism and resurrectionists and all of those other things that are so vital to the development of this story of the modern Prometheus.

As well as being an investigation into the science of the early 19th century, this almost inevitably also becomes a biography of Shelley – where she was when, who she encountered, how different places gave her access to ideas or inspiration, and so on. There’s also a discussion of how popular culture has dealt with the story, and the ways that film versions in particular have percolated through the popular Western mindset – and how these are often quite different from Shelley’s actual story.

Electricity, preservation of flesh after death, skin grafts, the circulatory system, evolutionary theory, blood transfusions, batteries… all of these things were being discussed in the early part of the 19th century and had an impact on Shelley’s writing. This is a fascinating introduction to the science of this period as well as being a fascinating way of thinking about Frankenstein. Harkup also does justice to Frankenstein as a way of interrogating science, and scientists.

I don’t adore Frankenstein – I’ve only read it once – but I really enjoyed this historical context.

The Buried Ark

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Pan Macmillan Australia, at no cost. It’s out now.

This is the sequel to The Silent Invasion, which I’ve previously reviewed. It was excellent, which is why I was excited about getting this to review, and it lived up to expectations – in terms of suspense and character, anyway. I had no idea, and no expectations, about where the plot would go; as it turned out, I wouldn’t have been able to predict it even if I’d tried.

If you haven’t read The Silent Invasion, you should go off and do that. All you need to know is that it’s set in a very familiar Australia, except that spores from Somewhere Else have been infecting and affecting regions of the globe – starting in the tropics and moving to the temperate zones. Flora and fauna are being Changed, and so are humans. In response, in Australia, there are no-go zones and suspicions of people who might be affected. The central character, Callie, is trying to look after her little sister Gracie, who has somehow been infected. The book ends on an epic cliffhanger, hence my excitement about getting this book to resolve it. You really don’t want to read this without reading the first book; but it’s only around 250 pages, and it’s YA so it’s super fast-paced, and it’s definitely worthwhile.

 

Spoilers for those who’ve read The Silent Invasion

So, that cliffhanger! I’d forgotten exactly what had happened, at the end, so I re-read the last chapter before starting this sequel – which was an excellent idea because the first page is basically the next second after the last page of the first. Which I quite like, except it does make me curious about why they are separate books. I guess 500 pages are harder to sell to a YA market? Anyway: briefly things seem like they might be okay for Callie, even though she’s lost Gracie and Matt, but – as I’m sure you kinda expect – things do not eventuate into a happy garden of joy. Whatasurprise. Callie ends up heading back out of the Zone, which then becomes a ‘from frying pan into fire’ scenario. And then… well, it’s a little spoiler, but it’s a frying pan to fire to slowly boiling pot of water scenario: you know, where you don’t realise initially that things aren’t great until the water starts really heating up around you? Yeh. That. Callie meets new people, learns of new ways of trying to deal with the Change, briefly feels like life may actually go ok. Poor Callie.

There are more women in this novel than I remember from the first, but that may just be my memory; certainly Callie was moving relatively quickly, so she met a lot of people but they haven’t all stuck in my mind. She doesn’t meet that many of her own age, but that makes sense in the context of where she is. There’s one person that really sticks with me, because of his name: Dr Omelas. If you know Ursula Le Guin’s work, that may give you a slight idea about the sort of thing he’s involved with… if you have no idea what I’m referring to, don’t worry, it won’t affect your enjoyment of the story!

If you enjoyed The Silent Invasion, you definitely want to keep reading the trilogy. Go grab this! Support Australian authors!

The Black God’s Drums

image.pngThis novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be published on August 21.

As an Australian, I’m sure I only picked up the surface detail of what Clark is doing here in his alternative history of America. That was enough, though, to be both utterly intrigued by the world he’s imagined and to follow this awesome story that I really hope everyone goes out and grabs.

This is alternative history in two senses. One is that there’s airships and some other tech that doesn’t fit with what the nineteenth century actually had; a variation on steampunk I guess. The other is that, partly because of this technology, things went somewhat differently in Haiti after and during the slave revolt there, and when Napoleon tried to reimpose slavery; and, possibly connected to this although that’s unclear, things are also different in the USA: like it’s not the USA. This is post-Civil War, but instead of reconstruction, Confederates and the Union are still separate. Oh, and New Orleans is neutral, and basically seems to be operating as its own city-state.

There’s a lot going on here, and all of that is just background to understanding why our protagonist, Creeper, is trying to find someone to pass along some information to, and then ends up in an unexpected adventure.

This is a beautifully written novella, both fast-paced and with complex enough characters that I cared about them. Creeper is awesome, there are seriously odd nuns (I REALLY want a story about them please and thank you), and the captain of an airship who takes zero nonsense from anyone. Plus a scientist with dangerous knowledge in his head and… yeh, you get the picture. The characters are a multitude of colours and ethnicities and nationalities, as befits New Orleans as a neutral and open port; there’s really interesting discussion about old, African gods being brought to this new world, and what power they might have. This is alternative history that really works: it makes sense (see caveat above re: me and American history), and it challenges modern conservative white notions of what alternative history is; it also just straight-out challenges boring old racism pretty much just by its existence.

I loved it a lot and would be very happy to read more in this world.

Rogue Protocol

9781250191786_FC.jpgYeh. So. Soon after I admitted I was slack about reviewing Artificial Condition, I received the ARC from Tor.com for Rogue Protocol… the third in the Murderbot series. So now I am being A BETTER REVIEWER. But also it doesn’t come out until August 7, sooo… sorry about that. Honest.

If you haven’t read the first two, you really want to. Don’t read this unless you have. SERIOUSLY a former Security bot whose hacked their governance system and is trying to figure out how to live in society and not get shut down or have humans run away from them: WHY HAVEN’T YOU READ THIS YET. Also, the first novella in the series won a Nebula on the weekend, so it’s not just me in love with the whole concept.

Murderbot has managed to get away from the annoying humans whom they ended up helping in their possibly pointless search for justice. Now Murderbot is on their own search for justice, hoping that getting evidence of Evil Deeds to help the person who helped emancipate them will… do some good. Or something. Unsurprisingly, Murderbot ends up having to help more hapless humans in difficult situations. Because Murderbot just can’t help it. I’m a history teacher; I will teach you history if the occasion calls for it. My mother will join committees. Lois Lane will look for the angle, Batman will growl, Han Solo will make a quip. Murderbot will help you in your possibly doomed quest for safety and/or justice. It’s just the way it goes.

A super superficial reading of this series would suggest that Murderbot is searching for their humanity. But that, as I said, is superficial and does Murderbot a disservice: they are not human and are not looking to be human. They are, though, searching for a meaning to their identity, and possibly a way to interact with humans on their own terms. Which may or may not involve compassion, using their skills in useful ways, or killing the people who get in their way.

I love Murderbot and, increasingly, I love the interactions they have with other AIs. I mean the humans are fine and all but it’s the AIs who are really interesting. In the last story, we had ART, as Murderbot termed them; ART was more than they appeared, and had very definite ideas about some things. Here… well. The situation is very different. Miki is a whole other level of difficult to deal with: I think reading this immediately after Artificial Condition is really fascinating in terms of what AI identity means. I can’t wait to see how Murderbot develops after these interactions.

Wells is doing a marvellous job of reinvigorating the entire AI genre. I welcome it.

Artificial Condition

9781250186928_FC.jpgaka Murderbot Diaries part 2.

This novella was actually sent to me by the publisher um, quite a while ago. I read it then and I’ve talked about it on Galactic Suburbia but… my mind just hasn’t been in reviewing mode in the way it needs to be. So I feel bad. And now I’m reviewing it when it’s just come out. So at least if it sounds like your sort of thing, you can just go and buy it immediately?

Anyway, this follows directly on from All Systems Red, which is generally just known as Murderbot, after the character telling the story. If you haven’t read that, I don’t recommend reading this… but I DO recommend going and getting the first one, and THEN coming to this one, because what’s not to love about a robot that’s self-aware and knows that if the humans find out about that there’s going to be trouble, but maybe not as much trouble as if there’s not enough soap/space opera to watch in their downtime?

I might love Murderbot a lot.

Interestingly, I didn’t love this one quite as much as the first one. Don’t get me wrong, I devoured it and am very excited that there are more to come. But it wasn’t quite the same revelation as the first one – which is only to be expected.

Basically this is following Murderbot as they go off into the world (galaxy) alone, trying to figure out how not to be compromised, and also trying to figure out a bit of their past. For me, I think the best parts were Murderbot interacting with other AIs, and figuring out their limitations and how to interact with them without revealing too much. That whole negotiating yourself and others who are kind of like you and kind of really not.

It’s really, really great, even if it’s not quite peak swoon-worthy-ness like the first one. I can’t wait to read more of Murderbot as they figure out how to be what they want to be.

Elysium Fire

UnknownThis book was sent to me by the publisher at no cost. It’s out now… because I’ve had it sitting here waiting for a review for a few more weeks than I feel happy admitting to… oops.

If you’ve read my blog or listened to Galactic Suburbia, you’ll know that Alastair Reynolds is one of my all-time favourites. One of those authors where I don’t even both reading the blurb, I just want the book. So I was very excited last year when I heard that there was going to be a new Prefect Dreyfus story, because I loved The Prefect (now re-released as Aurora Rising).

You know how books are advertised as “a Nancy Drew mystery”? Well, this is “A Prefect Dreyfus emergency”. I love it.

While it’s not a direct sequel to the first Dreyfus story, there are elements that continue from that first book; you could read this and pick up on those things relatively easily, but it would spoil the first book for you. And I love the first book so I suggest going with The Prefect Aurora Rising and then coming to this one. If you like police procedural/ mystery type stories in an epic space setting – ten thousand habitats in orbit around a planet, all only connected by the most direct democracy imaginable – then I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to read both.

So, all that said: Tom Dreyfus is once again acting more like a policeman than he’s meant to, following leads that don’t look like leads to most other people, and generally making a nuisance of himself in pursuit of Justice and Truth. Oh, I’ve just realised why I like him so much. Anyway, someone appears to be trying to destroy that democracy I mentioned as well doing bad things to individual citizens, and Dreyfus is having none of it. Races against the clock, persuading reluctant allies, dealing with unexpected foes, and zooming around the Glitter Band all follow ineluctably and create a delightful story.

I like Dreyfus because he’s not perfect and he’s not just banging a drum about some theoretical ideal; he knows the Glitter Band’s democracy isn’t perfect but it’s the system he’s there to protect. He knows he doesn’t always get it right, but he tries and keeps trying. He’s a good friend and an occasionally subordinate employee but only when it seems necessary – and unlike Poe Dameron, he expects to cop to the consequences.

I also liked this book because, like The Prefect before it, it’s not just about Dreyfus; a couple of the other characters also get some space – Jane Aumonier more so in this book than the first, which I also really enjoyed because I love her a lot.

This is a fun read, and a fast one (for me anyway) – the pacing is tight and definitely rolls your through events as consequences start piling up. I’m kinda hoping there might be another Prefect Dreyfus emergency somewhere in Reynolds’ brain…

Time Was

image.png

This novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It’s available from April 24.

I generally love Ian McDonald so when I found out Tor.com had bought one of his novellas I was pretty excited… and it is indeed excellent. It’s different from what I expected, although I don’t know what I expected, since Luna: New Moon is very different from The Dervish House, for instance.

The blurb calls it “A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it” and really I think you shouldn’t find out any more than that. The gradual unravelling of the mystery is part of the charm.

The story opens with a book collector and seller finding a letter pressed between the pages of a volume of poetry, and proceeds in fits and starts across time from there. It’s partly his story – of love and obsession and books – and partly that of the letter-writer. It’s about war and loss and love and obsession, and time. You’ll be a bit confused at first as the story skips to different times but it’s worth it.

I enjoyed the story that Emmett uncovered but I also really liked the way McDonald makes Emmett not just the finder of the story but gives him a story of his own – one that’s subservient to the mystery he’s unravelling not just for the sake of McDonald’s story but because he, Emmett, is obsessed. And has to deal with the consequences of that.

Definitely worth picking up when it’s available. A lovely story and beautifully written.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

imageDid your brain go totally Roald Dahl when you saw the title? Mine did. Anyway, this novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be available for you to read from 13 March, 2018 (which is this year!).

Somehow, don’t ask me how, I managed not to read “The Waters of Versailles,” Robson’s highly regarded short story from… last year? The year before? I don’t know how I managed not to read it, given everyone else was raving about it… I just didn’t get to it. I’m going to get to it now, because I’ve read this and it’s excellent.

Seriously, just go pre-order it. Do you like the paradoxes of time travel? Do you like cranky old women being cranky and smart? Do you like a bit of ancient Mesopotamia? GO. PRE-ORDER.

It’s well into the future, things haven’t gone so great for humanity but they’re maybe kinda improving, if people manage to focus on what’s relevant. Time travel is… probably not relevant. But it’s consuming a lot of attention. But maybe it could be used for something relevant? That’s what Minh is hoping, anyway, as she prepares a brief for an intriguing new job.

The world that Robson has developed here is suuuuper developed for such a short story; as in, I wouldn’t be surprised to read at least a novel just fleshing out the things that she hints at here in terms of economies and habitats and generational attitudes and… yeh. That bit alone is completely absorbing; reminded me a bit of Iain M Banks’ civilisations. And then you add time travel.

The opening is somewhat disconcerting, as there’s clearly two separate stories being told – one with gods and monsters, one with technology. Very quickly the links between the two become evident but exactly how things will resolve is not at all evident. I really enjoyed the way that Robson played off the two different civilisational points of view. I also really enjoyed the different characters she employs. Minh is my favourite, of course: how could she not be with her crankiness and her competence and her bloody-mindedness? But her companions are also great and offer excellent, necessary and important alternatives to Minh’s point of view.

I am well impressed with this novella.

Octavia E Butler: Modern Master of SF

Unknown.jpegGerry Canavan wrote a fabulous essay in Luminescent Threads about ‘disrespecting Octavia’ – about whether or not work in Butler’s archives that remains unpublished ought to be published now, against her wishes. It’s a thoughtful essay that acknowledges it’s not an easy question to consider, and makes the unpublished work sound fascinating while admitting its flaws.

I knew Canavan was writing a biography of Butler when we asked him to write for us, and I’d been meaning to get hold of it… well, all year. I finally did and I finally read it and it is exactly as wonderful as I had hoped.

To call it a biography isn’t quite accurate. It is that, to an extent; you certainly learn the outlines of Butler’s life, and Canavan is quite explicit in looking at the struggles Butler faced in finding the time to write, how much re-writing she did because she wasn’t happy with work at various points, and other aspects of her life like receiving the MacArthur fellowship and so on. But this is also an extended critique of Butler’s work – both published and unpublished, because one of the amazing things about this book is that Canavan had access to the many hundreds of boxes of papers that Butler left when she died so suddenly. They’re stored at the Huntington, and their finding guide alone is over 500 pages in length.

Makes me want to start printing out and filing emails.

Each of the chapters is based around a particular creative period in Butler’s life, which I liked because it foregrounds that the creative output is the focus of the book but/and that it happens in tandem with the actual events in Butler’s life. Canavan traces themes across her work, as well as the ways in which so much of her fiction (12 published novels and 9 short stories!) can be seen as connected to one another: through early drafts and plot ideas as well as the motivating ideas. It makes me desperately want to read some of that unpublished work when I read about what she was trying to do in them… although Doro/Jesus sounds a bit weird even for me.

This is not a long book and it’s not a dense book. It’s not a nitty-gritty, every-day-at-a-time biography, and it’s not a highly technical literary analysis – it’s far more approachable and engaging than either of those would be. This is a book for people who love Butler’s work and want to know more about her and her work. It works brilliantly.