Tag Archives: sf

The Future is Female! Volume 2: 1970s

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in October 2022.

Lisa Yaszek has put together another very fine set of stories that highlight the variety of science fiction that has been produced by women, this time in the 1970s. Arranged chronologically by publication date, this fiction has some stories that are angry, and some that are more on the whimsical side; some that (I think) could only have been written by a woman, and others that don’t particularly reflect a gendered authorship (and then there’s the James Tiptree, Jr). Some feel like classic SF, others are more experimental. I didn’t love them all. As a set, this is a really amazing way to showcase the variety of what women can write and have written.

Some I’ve read before: “When It Changed” (Joanna Russ) always gets me and I hope will always be discussed as part of science fiction in general, and not ever just relegated to ‘battle of the sexes’ conversations. I don’t understand why we don’t talk more about “The Girl who was Plugged In” (Tiptree) when we discuss cyberpunk; “The Screwfly Solution” (Raccoona Sheldon) is always completely horrific, and so is “Wives” (Lisa Tuttle), for very different reasons. I have always loved “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” (Vonda N. McIntyre) for its exploration of love and compassion – and same, in some ways, with “The Day before the Revolution” (Ursula K. Le Guin), although the latter is even more poignant; I always need to just stop and stare into the distance for a moment when I read it.

Of the others, there were several that stood out. I’ve read very little by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; “Frog Pond” was very nicely paced, and the reveals built up beautifully. Kate Wilhelm’s “The Funeral” was quietly terrifying as the state of America was slowly revealed – and these two, next to each other, were particularly distressing to read in the current state of the world. “The Anthropologist” (Kathleen M Sidney) feels in some ways like it’s in conversation with Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, with its exploration of living between two very different worlds. And as someone who occasionally feels sad for Curiosity and Voyager etc, never being able to come home, “View from a Height” (Joan D Vinge) was something of a gut-punch. Gorgeous, but a bit harrowing.

… clearly, I think this anthology works for both people with some knowledge of the state of the 1970s field, and I believe it would also work for those who want an introduction to 1970s SF in general. It’s nicely comprehensive.

Growing Up Weightless, John M Ford

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. The re-published edition, from Tor Books, is out in September 2022.

Honestly this book really shouldn’t work. It’s so full of lacunae it was like reading the second or third book in a series and not having the information to fill in the gaps. Another issue is the formatting, although I suspect that’s a matter of it being an e-ARC: there are sections where the POV suddenly changes but it’s not indicated by an extended break or anything like that. And if that’s an artistic choice rather than a formatting thing… well, I don’t particularly like it, but it did make me work harder and pay probably closer attention, so maybe that’s what Ford wanted for me. And thirdly, it’s not exactly a grand story. No explosions, no dramatic twists of fate for society, no incredible revelations.

And yet.

It shouldn’t work, but it does.

It’s not a grand story: it’s an intimate one, a growing-up story – as the title suggest, ‘growing up weightless’: it’s set on the moon, not all that far into the future but far enough that there’s a settled, indeed governmentally independent, colony. And as children have done since time immemorial, some of the children of the moon are unsettled, feeling like they don’t fit in and want more/different/other. And they’re also playing games: surprisingly substantial parts of this story are the kids playing a role-playing game, as outlaws in Sherwood Forest (do I love the idea that this milieu could continue to be attractive for coming generations? yes I do).

Matt, the main character, is born into an important luna family, and is feeling the pressure to figure out what he’ll do as an adult; he basically knows, but he’s afraid to tell anyone else. He loves his friends, and acting, and the role-playing game they’ve had going for many hours now; his relationship with his family is a bit fraught. The moon is somewhere that teens can travel around quite safely, especially within their own domes; there’s excellent train networks, so you can travel between domes too – and so they do. This is pretty much how the main action happens, such as it is. This is, on reflection, a fairly claustrophobic story, as befits one set on the moon.

Along – or perhaps slightly behind – Matt’s story is his father’s, and this is where even more lacunae exist. Albin’s relationships with various figures, the decisions that need to be made for the moon’s future, even how he feels about anyone – all of this is very shadowy. Which mirrors how Matt feels about his father, really, so again maybe that really makes sense and I’m only realising as I write this just how clever and deliberate Ford was.

It probably shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and I am once again grateful that Tor is re-publishing Ford’s work, so that people like me get to appreciate it.

Enclave, by Claire G Coleman

I received this from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost.

If you’ve read Terra Nullius or The Old Lie, by Coleman, then I heartily recommend the same strategy as I used: just read the book. Don’t read this review, don’t read the blurb. You already have a sense of how Coleman writes, and what Coleman writes. The first two were very different, but you know how they’re similar; this is also very different, but it’s clearly a Coleman novel. If you were staggered by those first novels, then you really don’t need to anything else other than: it’s a new Coleman novel.

Still with me? Haven’t read either of the first two (but now you know you should because they’re amazing), or somehow not sure about this one? Christine lives in a walled city with no contact with the outside world. Everyone knows that the outside world is terrifying, full of violence and bad things; unlike their city, which is calm and peaceful and carefully surveilled for any trouble. Everyone who lives inside this city is white; the bussed-in servants are brown, but they’re nameless and just go about making houses liveable. Christine isn’t entirely happy – her best friend is missing and she doesn’t know what to do – and then does something unforgivable, and then everything changes.

It’s fantastic.

Bootstrap, by Georgina Young

Received from the publisher, Text, at no cost. It’s out on 19 July 2022, $32.99.

As a time travel/ romance set in Australia, this book is fine. A pretty slow start – there’s a lot of setting up of the small town and the two main characters – but the second 2/3 is pretty well paced. There are some quirky ideas, the characters are believable (and recognisable, for Australians at least), and it’s… fine.

Yes, I know that sounds like damning with faint praise. And it is fine! Truly! I didn’t mind reading it! But… it’s not outstanding. Sadly. For a YA audience that’s not read many time travel stories; or for Australians who have never seen themselves on the page before, maybe it would be different? I don’t know.

I have a couple of issues with the book. The first is with the blurb writer – note, please, NOT with the author. The book itself literally references The Time Traveller’s Wife. So when the blurb calls this a “genre-bending” novel? No, it’s not. Jonathan Strahan’s new anthology is literally Someone In Time: Tales of Time-Crossed Romance. So time-travel and romance isn’t new. Even making it queer doesn’t make it new.

The second issue is the language. It’s very Australian. In fact, I would go so far as to call this excruciatingly Australian. I am a big fan of stories being told in the vernacular, but this felt like the author had first written the story in more generic English and then went back and switched everything to the most ocker she possibly could. For instance: “I get a schnozz full of water” (138), “I wanna touch him” (140), “And it’s like finally, ya nong” (144) and so on. Piles of Aussie slang (logs in the toilet) and references to Australian brands (Lemon Fresh, a man eating a Barney Banana ice cream “shoulda gone a chocolate Paddle Pop, idiot” (58). It just ends up feeling like the author is trying too hard. But maybe I’ve become an elitist and I don’t appreciate what kids in small towns really want to read. So if this works for those kids, awesome! It just means I’m not the right audience, and I’m fine with that.

The Genesis of Misery, Neon Yang

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out at the end of September, 2022 (sorry; I promise it’s worth waiting for).

WHAT DID I JUST READ AND WHERE CAN I GET MORE OF IT?

… actually, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing else quite like this. (Dare I hope to add ‘yet’?)

This was just… so much. So great and so complex and so enthralling. So fast-paced and so intricate. So many genders and so many alliances and betrayals and things-aren’t-as-they-seem; so many space battles. Also angels and messiahs and heretics and possibly divine intervention. Also an irritable and foul-mouthed protagonist who is out for the main chance and whom some people think might just be the path to salvation. Of some sort.

Where do I even begin? The story starts with one person (probably human) asking another (not human, taking many different shapes throughout the conversation) for ‘the story of Misery Nomaki’ – and what follows is that story, with all the narrator’s caveats about truth and consequence and revelation all being problematic. At the start of that story, Misery (she/they) is having a bad time, trying to make her way through a very large space station; she’s able to manipulate any holystone she comes across, which is useful, but that doesn’t necessarily help when you’re stuck in a warren of tunnels and don’t know where you’re going. Her delusion, Ruin, isn’t being of any help, and there are weird all-white, maybe-cloned saints that are freaking her out.

… and it just gets more quirky, and more clever, and more intricate, from there. Fighting princesses, treachery, giant battle mechs. Zero clear explanation of ‘holystone’ – holy obsidian, holy jasper, and so on – but some very tantalising hints; no real explanation of how saints actually happen, except that somehow they can live on starlight alone? Sometimes an author’s expectation that you’ll just go along with whatever whacky things they’ve created for their new world is overwhelming or irritating or enough to make a book Too Much Work. Not so here: there’s just enough explanation to make everything hang together – surely you don’t need saints explained, this is what they’re doing! – and the writing is so gripping, and Misery so enticing, that explanations can wait; I need to know what’s happening next RIGHT NOW.

Everything about this book worked for me.

Finally, something I’ve seen a couple of people mention that to me, at least, is a bit of a spoiler (in an odd way), but may be just what someone else needs in order to read this… it’s an historical thing that the story seems to be inspired by (I haven’t read confirmation of that, but it does make sense)… only read on if you’re now intrigued!

Continue reading →

Rocannon’s World

Many years ago I had this idea for essays about Ursula K Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. They’ve been sitting around in my brain for ages, so I thought I’d post a short bit from the first one. Partly as a kick to myself, partly to see what other people think… if you’ve read Rocannon’s World I’d be interested to hear what you think (it’s still very draft!).

Narrative conventions: questioning “the hero”

Le Guin’s playing with narrative conventions begins in the Prologue. Semley’s experience fits a pattern for those who spend time with the fairies under the hill – one night with them being, in reality, much longer. However, although her story seems at first that of the hero on a quest, Semley definitely does not fit that pattern. Her quest is ultimately pointless, since she gains the jewel but loses her family. Thus Le Guin questions the very idea of the hero’s quest, with one objective met but devastating long-term consequences. Indeed, the idea of the hero has already been challenged through the fact that it is Semley, not Durhal her husband, who has the idea and the courage to undertake the journey. 

As the main character, it might be expected that Rocannon would be the hero. However, he never plays into that role. It isn’t that he is a coward; he rejects Mogien’s suggestion that they find the ship given to the Clayfolk so that Rocannon can leave the planet, saying “I’m not going to run off eight years into the future and find out what happened next!” (27). However, he rarely plays a direct part in the action. He does participate in combat at one point, and gets in a shot at an enemy, but then himself gets shot through the leg. When he does manage to have an impact on events he is closer to an Odysseus than anything else, using words, silence and cunning to get his way – sometimes. For instance, when he is about to be burned at the stake, he uses his impermasuit to withstand the heat and refuses to speak to his captor Zgama. He doesn’t rescue himself, though, relying on a companion to do that; neither does he rescue his friends from the strange insect-like people, this time relying on the help of strangers to do so. When he and a companion are threatened by ruffians, he gives up Semley’s necklace rather than attempting to fight or connive his way out. Thus, while he is the protagonist, he is not heroic. Mogien is far more traditionally the hero, riding his wingsteed into battle and slaying enemies. Interestingly, there is never a comparison made between the two: Mogien, while not as knowledgeable as Rocannon, is never shown to be a thug; Rocannon is not lacking in manliness for not matching Mogien. Le Guin suggests that survival doesn’t necessarily have to do with heroism, and that there are multiple ways of being a man and being useful.

Story and reality

The Prologue opens with a question: “How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away?” (3). It continues, “How can you tell fact from legend, truth from truth?” – proposing that legend is, in fact, a form of truth. The opening of the story proper furthers this theme: “So ends the first part of the legend; and all of it is true. Now for some facts, which are equally true, from the League Handbook for Galactic Area Eight” (22). Mythology and academic texts are thus given equal stature in the matter of ‘truth’. 

The City Inside

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in June 2022.

This was… incredible, and devastating, and gloriously written. And I’m not sure I have the words to properly explain how and why.

Firstly: if you’re looking for an entirely straightforward, narrative-driven story, this is not for you. If you’re interested in character and world development and fabulous prose (and a narrative that still has me thinking), then you’re looking at the right book.

The first few chapters are all about setting up the world. It’s the mid 20th century, I think; and it’s Delhi; and things are both recognisable and completely unfamiliar. Joey is a Reality Controller at a Flowco; she has a smartatt on her wrist that monitors her health and suggests cat videos when she’s stressed, and she regularly has to wear a mask when she’s out and about. Confused? I was, a bit, when I started; but I was also intrigued and rapidly sucked in (and it took me a couple of seconds to understand ‘smartatt’ as ‘smart tattoo’ and then I was very impressed with Basu. Also terrified). The key thing to get your head around is the Flow, which takes the current ideas of infotainment and reality tv and influencers and life-casting and making it more massive, more pervasive, more curated and… generally just More. This is the big thing that’s both familiar and not.

As an Anglo Aussie, I’m the first to admit I don’t know all the ins and outs of current or past Indian political history, nor the concerns people might have for future directions. That’s a big part of the background here: Joey’s parents were involved in protests and suffer the consequences; things are unsettled and maybe tyrannical in Delhi and perhaps across the city. There are ongoing protests and various groups being oppressed. On the one hand, I am quite sure I missed a fair bit of political nuance that someone living in Delhi would just pick up almost without thinking (like a reference to politicians and onions for me). And that’s just fine: there are always different experiences for different readers. Because even without that political knowledge, I could understand enough about the tensions to know that this is a world I wouldn’t want to live in, with its fear of cameras everywhere and no trust of the government. And just to show how bitter things are: “her parents didn’t know whether to blame the pogrom or the pandemic, because they’d known the end times were coming but hadn’t known they’d be multiple choice” (p6).

The story follows Joey and colleagues and delves into the world of a Flowstar as well as tapping on parts of the broader world. Most people are out for what they can get for themselves and their families; some people are trying to buck the system; there is a massive gap between the haves and havenots. Much of the book is about following the characters and experiencing their lives… in much the same way that they themselves are producing a Flow for people to experience. Which makes me reflect in some horror on the explicitly voyeuristic nature of fiction and may send me into a tailspin if I get too worried about the privacy of fictional characters.

The writing is an absolute treat. It’s dense, in the descriptive and absorbing sense; it’s deeply evocative; and still entirely readable. I enjoyed every minute of the reading even while I was completely horrified by the experiences of the characters.

Rosebud, by Paul Cornell

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2022.

Well that was… a ride.

Cornell’s novella follows in a trend from the last few years of exploring issues of humanity through the lens of AIs. I mean, I know that authors have pretty much always been exploring what it means to be human through the medium of the robot, right back to Metropolis; but I feel like it’s somehow become more pointed, or nuanced, or something, in the last 5 or so years. Maybe I’m just being shortsighted; maybe I can blame Murderbot for this perception.

Anyway, Rosebud is a spacecraft orbiting Saturn – a spacecraft about 1mm in diameter, crewed by five AIs of varying (and really very varying) provenance. They encounter an anomaly, and they investigate. In doing so, they are confronted both by their own identities, as memories are brought to the fore, and by the consequences of the anomaly – what it’s doing to them and what it might mean for the humans back on Earth. To investigate, the AIs are forced to be embodied – and as is generally the case, bodies have consequences.

I can’t quite describe the style this is written in. It’s present tense; it’s third person, but the POV favours one character, Haunt, in particular. It also feels more spoken, I think, than written; perhaps formalised internal monologue? For instance: “That’s how this is supposed to do. Doing it on their own is above their pay grades. Not that they’re paid. This is big people stuff” (p14). It’s certainly very readable – I powered through it in a sitting, despite some of their narrative weirdness that occurs thanks to the anomaly. There’s some amusing banter between the five characters – they are very different, with wildly different expectations and desires and perspectives, and they’re not always interested in cooperating with each other.

If you’re a fan of Paul Cornell, this will probably work very well for you. It’s not my favourite Cornell (that would be the Lychford series), but I’m certainly glad I got a chance to read it.

Kundo Wakes Up

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in March 2022.

Firstly, for those who have read The Ghurka and the Lord of Tuesday, this is set in the same universe but is not a sequel; so there’s no pistachio-cracking Gurung, no Melek Ahmar getting furious about the world. One blurb describes it as a “companion”; it is still a world in which the climate crisis has reached epic proportions; in which some cities are run by an AI called Karma (a different version in each city, it seems); and humans can basically only survive when they’re in sufficient numbers that the nanites they create are at such density that they can make the climate liveable. In Karma cities, there is no money; there’s just points for good deeds, which you can ‘spend’ to get what you want. And when there’s points, there’s always going to be people who have none – who are zeroes… Oh, and also there are djinn.

This time, the focus is Chittagong, Bangladesh. And things are not going particularly well – either for the city, or for Kundo, once a famous-enough artist, now a man whose wife has left and whose life is such a stretch of nothing that he easily loses track of days. The focus of the story is on Kundo looking for his wife; I have to admit that I was a bit worried about where the story would go – there are good reasons for wives to leave, and Kundo admits he was never a great husband – but I shouldn’t have been concerned; Hossain dealt with that aspect of the story skilfully. In the course of trying to find his wife, Kundo gets a team together – a struggling mum, a has-been underworld figure, and a junky coder. Together they try and figure out the world, and get enough to eat, and maybe some basic human dignity as well.

It’s another really great story from Hossain. He explores the variety of humanity: what they need – and what they want; frustrations and desires and ways of relating; what’s good for one but not for another… all in the context of quite a frightening view of the future, actually, that still manages to have some redemption and goodness in it.

I’m hoping that we get more stories from this world.

Kaiju Preservation Society

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in March 2022.

This is my first written-in-COVID, mentioning-COVID, novel. If you’re not ready for that yet, maybe skip this for now.

Having said that, it’s not like it’s ABOUT COVID (you should avoid Station Eleven more than this book if it’s the ABOUT COVID aspect you’re worried about). Instead, the realities of businesses being shut down and people being frustrated is a catalyst for our narrator to take an… unusual job. He doesn’t realise the full weirdness of the job when he signs on, of course.

Look, you can see the title. Kaiju Preservation Society. You’re already ahead, since Jamie just knows he’s signing on to lift things for KPS, a group who help look after ‘large animals’. What sort of large animals? He doesn’t know until after he gets on a plane with other newbies, and then through a door, and then… ta dah.

This is what I take to be classic Scalzi. Super fast-paced – not TOO fast, so I never felt lost, but also nothing extraneous and very few lulls and I read it in a single afternoon. Effortless diversity, delightful banter, and persuasive enough that I was content to read about ludicrous kaiju biology and just go along with it.

It’s pretty obvious from the set-up – newbie gets involved with group who are looking after kaiju, which are secret from most people in the world – that eventually something is going to go wrong. That’s no spoiler, but I’m also not going to reveal WHAT goes wrong, because I am not a monster (heh). I was fascinated, though, by some of the commentary Scalzi gets into what could just have been a romp (this is not unexpected, of course). The idea that private corporations AND governments might work together on something as expensive as this is… kinda weird from an Australian point of view. I mean it happens, sure, but I feel like we’re less at ease with it than the American standard. (Maybe I’m just naive.) The discussions about how start-ups sometimes work, and how the American system let people down during COVID, were also particularly sharp – while completely fitting into the narrative.

This book is bonkers, and was an absolutely delightfully madcap ride. An excellent read when you when you want to immerse yourself into something delightfully ridiculous.