Tag Archives: sf

You Sexy Thing, by Cat Rambo

I received this to review via NetGalley.

This is right on the edge of “too silly” for me. It mostly doesn’t fall over, but skirts precipitously close. There’s mention of magic to do various things (although it all happens off-stage) at the same time that this is a galaxy-spanning society with a multitude of species and, it seems, a variety of FTL options for travelling around. There’s a bit of prophesying going on, too, just to add to the mix.

The blurb suggests this is Farscape meets Great British Bake Off. Yes to the Farscape: improbably different alien species interacting, living and working together; up to and including a biological ship, now I think about it. There’s also a bit of Firefly. These comparisons are good for me; if you’re able to suspend your disbelief about humans and squid-like and bird-like and vegetative species all being in the same place, then you’ll be fine with this. The GBBO comparison is a bit thinner and honestly that’s where I was a little disappointed. Cooking is definitely a factor here – the protagonists are running a restaurant when everything goes to hell in a handbasket, and features sporadically throughout. It’s not a competition and there’s not much baking, and really there could have been more food in general. So if what you’re really craving is a pretty food-based narrative, I don’t think this will meet your needs.

The story is a fairly straightforward one – which isn’t a negative: Niko and her companions were soldiers, now run a restaurant, things go boom (not their fault, swear), and then adventures ensue. Including hijacking and piracy and identity trouble and pasts coming back to haunt, etc. It’s fast paced, there’s a good amount of banter, there’s engaging characters, and no desire to make this any sort of morality tale or a solemn exposition of galactic society. It’s a romp, and for that it was well worth it.

(It should be said that there’s some rather surprising violence about halfway through – surprising because up to that point it hadn’t been graphic at all – which I found disquieting because it seemed so out of place.)

All up, a fun read, and honestly isn’t that something we need right now?

In the Watchful City

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

This… is a really hard book to write a review on.

I could just say it’s amazing, but that doesn’t give you much sense of, well, anything.

I could just say it’s a book you have to experience to appreciate but… that’s so deeply a cop-out I can’t even.

So. Let’s try this.

Characters? Varied and intriguing and even though you’re with most of them for such a short period of time, I felt emotionally connected to pretty much all of them. I’m pretty stony-hearted so that’s saying a lot. Gender diverse (two, I think, non-standard pronouns), very little physical description so imagine what you like of skin colour etc (aspects of Chinese-based world-building like references to foot binding had some impact on my imagination).

World-building? One of those instances where there are so many little moments where something is mentioned and I’m like “wait WAIT what? You need to explain that more!” and the author just ignores me (unsurprisingly) and although I don’t fully understand some idea (which might be my lack of cultural context or it might be deliberate), it turns out actually I don’t need those details to fully experience the world and the story. Having said that, by the end of the story I had a lot of tantalising detail that gave me a very full sense of the world – far more full than might be expected from a fairly short story, and especially one that’s not entirely linear.

Plot? There’s one main one – Anima lives in Ora, and works basically as part of a surveillance system, designed to keep citizens safe. Anima meets someone very unexpected, as well as experiencing tragedy. But along with that, there are additional stories, told to Anima via representative objects… and I loved Anima but maybe I loved the stories more? Some involve great loss and some involve victory and they all help to develop a sense of the world in which all of this is taking place.

It’s SF and it’s fantasy. The writing is gorgeous. It’s utterly absorbing. It’s going on my list of things to nominate for awards next year.

Hard Reboot

I received this as a review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

It’s a far future universe where humans have spread to other planets and the Earth is basically a dump. It’s still worth visiting if you’re a historian or archaeologist, but you have to take drastic measures, like disabling your ability to access the network, and even physically covering up the jacks in your head, because otherwise they’re likely to be targets for malware.

Kas, a scholar whose background may get in the way of her achieving her goals, gets the chance to go to Earth and watch mech battles in the Drome (and it took me an embarrassing number of pages before I fully clicked that this was short for hippodrome or similar). From there, things go exceedingly not well, from accidentally laying a bet to being chased to meeting people she’s not meant to and getting on the wrong side of her boss.

Hard Reboot is fast-paced and exciting and a lot of fun to read. It flits between Kas’ perspective and that of Zhi, a mech pilot struggling to make her way as an individual in a society dominated by a corporate-or-is-it-a-gang. The narrative reveals teasing bits of what has made human society the way it is, but there’s still enough that’s not explained that it remains a bit opaque, a bit mysterious. Kas and Zhi’s interactions include an amusing level of banter, and the descriptions of the mech battles balance being precise in the mechanics with not going into the sort of boring detail that irritates me in some fight descriptions (my spatial awareness doesn’t really let imagine what you’re describing and also I don’t really care).

Definitely another good novella in a string of such from Tor.com.

We Are Satellites

I received a review copy of this novel from NetGalley.

I love Sarah Pinsker’s work and this is no exception.

We have always lived in a world where access to technology can determine what an individual is able to do. We’ve also been making body mods, as a species, for an awfully long time. And SF writers have been wondering about wearable tech, and body mod tech, and brain alteration, for a fair while. We Are Satellites fits right on in to that area of exploration.

The book opens with a new device, a Pilot, becoming available. The exact science is never explored but it’s designed to help with focus and somehow enable users to have ‘functional multitasking’. And to show that you’ve got one you have a small blue LED on the side of your head… yes, it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise this was a Pilot light. A Pilot is connected directly into your brain and this very idea is absolutely terrifying to me.

Pinsker chooses to tell the story through one family: Val, Julia, David, and Sophie. Val is a teacher; she’s anti-Pilot (and look, all her reasons are so completely mine that I can’t help but make her my favourite). Her wife Julia works for a politician and ends up getting a Pilot (and her reasons absolutely make sense, don’t get me wrong, it just makes me a) squeamish and b) cranky at the idea of feeling compelled to get something in order to keep up). Their son David also gets a Pilot, while daughter Sophie can’t because of her epilepsy. Pinsker uses chapters from the perspectives of the different characters to both explore the various issues and move the narrative along; one thing I loved is that it wasn’t a steady cycling through each character, but there were times when you got three Val chapters and then moved to one of the others. This meant the narrative felt less jumpy than might otherwise occur, and you can get to know one character that bit more. Using the multiple perspectives, though, also means the chance to get a more authentic exploration of having/not having a Pilot, and exactly what’s going on within the family.

The story arcs over several years, which means that Pilots have a chance to become more embedded in society, and for expectations within society to change, and for organised protest to develop too. It also means Sophie and David grow up and the family dynamics change. All of this makes for a narrative that moves along at a nice pace – striking the balance between interrogating issues thoughtfully, and experiences that compel reaction.

This is a hugely enjoyable novel and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on awards lists next year.

The Album of Dr Moreau

I received this as an ARC courtesy of NetGalley.

This novella has gone straight to my “Possible 2022 Hugo Awards nominees” list.

Actually the first thing I should admit is that I don’t think I’ve ever read The Island of Dr Moreau, so if Gregory is doing anything more clever than the sorts of things you can pick up with a general understanding of the story (and he probably is), then I missed it and I’m sorry about that. HOWEVER, this does mean that you don’t have to know what the author is riffing off in order to appreciate this as a deeply funny, deeply interesting, and generally wacky story.

There’s a lot going on in not many pages.

It’s a detective story: there’s been a murder, and it needs to be investigated, and it is. Despite TS Eliot’s rules of detective stories.

It’s framed as a story being told to someone who knows bits but not all of a story. The narrator occasionally intervenes.

It’s definitely science fiction: after all, the members of the band that it revolves around are human-animal hybrids. And what a band they are.

It’s about music, and I’ve had Backstreet Boys stuck in my head half the day, THANKS FOR NOTHING GREGORY.

It’s about family and love and loss and identity and humanity. Stereotypes and terrible puns and growing beyond your childhood. Also, Las Vegas and fandom.

This story is one hell of a ride. I loved every minute of it, even when it made me feel a bit confused (that got cured), or sad (that didn’t). You should definitely read it.

Fugitive Telemetry

This book was provided by the publisher at no cost.

I’ll be honest – it would be hard for me to give a completely objective review of this novella, because basically Murderbot can do no wrong.

Important thing to note: I really don’t think it’s worth coming to this book as your first Murderbot experience. In the first place, reading all of Murderbot in chronological order is just such an enormously rewarding endeavour that why would you not? (I’m so embarrassed it took me until this year to tell my mother to read these stories.) Secondly, of course, this is the sixth book: there’s so much character development, and narrative, that is alluded to here – you’d be doing yourself a complete disservice.

So. Read Murderbot. Of course.

This story actually isn’t the the one I was expecting; I had thought we were getting Murderbot and ART hanging out being snarky. Not that I’m complaining! All Murderbot is good Murderbot. Instead, we’ve got Murderbot on Preservation Station, being Dr Mensah’s protection, and kinda accidentally ending up as part of a murder investigation team (which it totally didn’t do, and you know that’s true because if it had, it would have done a way better job of hiding the evidence). As usual with a Murderbot story, we get a sometimes-hilarious look at a Security Unit’s impression of human security measures (very poor), its intense dislike of human interactions, and a longing to just be left alone to (re)watch Sanctuary Moon (relatable). There’s snark, and the figuring out of whodunnit, and some grudging personal reflection that Murderbot would honestly rather do without. Also the odd fight and some relationship-building that eventually works out okay.

Murderbot continues to be one of the great AIs of modern fiction. Its deep commitment to keeping up with its preferred media, its irritation at human foibles, and its exasperated habit of looking out for hapless humans make it deeply relatable in a way that it would surely find deeply offensive. I would read Murderbot’s reviews of Sanctuary Moon, I would read Murderbot doing routine security patrols, and I would read Murderbot inter-bot snark until the cows come home.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillaries

Sometimes I make myself feel guilty about my book choices. Occasionally it’s the actual type of book – although that’s less common since I taught myself to (generally) not be embarrassed about romance fiction. More often these days it’s about re-reading. Because how can I consider re-reading when there are books I own that I haven’t read yet??

2020 involved both a fair bit of guilt and a fair bit of “need comfort, shuddup brain”. I got to December and really wanted to read a certain trilogy but realised I had already comfort-re-read it that year. I found something else that was reassuring to read instead.

This post is brought to you because I just finished re-reading the Ancillary trilogy by Ann Leckie. It was the fifth time I had read Ancillar Justice, and the fourth time for Ancillary Sword and Mercy. (I seem to have not read Sword when it first came out, or something??) And there are still things that I had forgotten – details that delighted me again – and bits that I had forgotten. And along with all of that, the magnificent reasons why we – I – re-read: the comfort of knowing that the writing will be good. That (in this instance) things will work out ok, despite the dramatic and serious problems. That even though I’ve forgotten details, I know in the back of my head these are books that I have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy. I inhaled them, once again.

The fact that Breq refers to everyone as “she” because there’s no gendering in her language struck me again, not least because I remember it being one of the big issues everyone brought up eight years ago when it was published; this sort of recursive thinking is also part of the reason for why re-reading is fun – you get to reflect on your initial reflections and see how things have changed. I admit, I did once again find myself sometimes wondering about the gender of different characters, just like every other time, and then reminding myself that the point is it literally doesn’t matter. I was also massively struck, once again, by the imperialism and colonialism aspects – Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire now contributes to the dialogue on this issue in fascinating ways that I still haven’t sat down to fully analyse.

The part that got me more this time is the delightful almost-domestic aspects that contrast spectacularly with the empire-threatening aspects. Breq and Seivarden’s relationship – its development, its purpose, the difficulty both of them have with it; relationships between crew and ship; and the actual familial relationships too. I find I am becoming more interested in exploring ‘found family’ in fiction, and I’m intrigued to realise how often this is part of the narratives I already enjoy.

This will not be the last time I read this trilogy and I am almost excited for future-me that I get to come back again.

(After finishing Mercy I then spent about an hour and a half faffing around trying to figure out what to do next because my brain really wanted to start re-reading Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, and I felt too guilty to consider it. Then I finally gave in. And Ninefox Gambit is just mad, wonderful, brilliance (and I had completely forgotten how it opens). )

Infomocracy

Not sure how I missed this one when it came out a few years ago… some failure of mine or the system, I guess. Anyway, I finally read this (and the rest of the trilogy) last year, and felt a hankering need to reread this year. And apparently I didn’t review it last year, so now’s the time!

There’s no specified year that this book happens; it’s two decades after the near-global institution of micro-democracy, and it’s still a fairly recognisable world aside from that, so mid to late 21st century makes sense. Micro-democracy means that most of the world has been divided into ‘centenals’ – areas of 100,000 people (or is it voters? that’s unclear, I think) – and each centenal votes in their chosen government. The biggest are Heritage, which seems like an ordinary conservative party, and Liberty, which is theoretically all about citizen freedom… then there are some old-nation-based parties, like 1China; and most terrifyingly, there are military-based parties and corporate ones, the largest being PhilipMorris. In the long run I’m not sure which of the latter two are most scary. And then, the party that gets the most centenals over the whole world is the Supermajority and they get… some unspecified powers.

This entire book is about the lead-up to the third global election. I know, it doesn’t sound like it should be riveting. But oh my goodness, it is.

Firstly, this isn’t just a world with micro-democracy. It’s also a world with Information. Information is like Google, I guess, but made a public utility that is genuinely meant to be working for the good of everyone. There’s a touch of cyberpunk in that most everyone can access Information via a handheld device if they must, or via optical implants if they can; depending on your Information settings, you can walk around anywhere and get facts about the construction of buildings, names of plants – and the public Information of the people you’re around. Older begins to explore the consequences of Information here (and I know it’s ‘begins’ because that’s something that continues throughout the trilogy, SORRY SPOILERS). And what happens when Information isn’t available?

Secondly, of course something nefarious happens, and it needs to be rectified. The two focal characters are Mishima – absolutely my favourite – and Ken. Mishima works for Information doing a variety of things, which sometimes involve a stiletto and shuriken and climbing furniture. She also has a ‘narrative disorder’ which is never fully explained but helps (usually) to sort through a mass of data. Ken is a campaigner for one of the middle-tier parties, Policy1st, who ends up finding out some of the nefarious things and gets pulled into the action. Ken’s fine; he’s an interesting mix of altruistic and self-interested that makes sense, and his doubts and angst are portrayed sympathetically but not at annoying length. Mishima is awesome; she is splendidly capable but not all-knowing, and I basically love everything about the way she acts, reacts, and thinks.

This is seriously awesome book. I guess it’s on the ‘techno-thriller’ side of things although exactly what that means I’m a bit hazy on. I would be confident recommending this to someone who doesn’t love SF, because it could almost be tomorrow; the tech’s not that outrageous. It’s fast-paced but not ludicrously so, there are a range of characters who show a range of issues, and it’s just great.

The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson continues to be one of the great voices of climate change fiction – particularly, the consequences of, and how humans might mitigate them (since no way are we avoiding).

The Ministry of the title is the use-name for a small international organisation set up under the auspices of the Paris Climate Agreement, kind of but not entirely associated with the UN and based in Zurich. Their remit is to basically to represent future generations, who currently don’t get a say in what they will inherit, and therefore to advocate for policies that will be good for those future people. It’s a clever way of showing that current decisions have downstream consequences, and of having people whose job it is to focus on that.

Part of the book, therefore, focuses on the Ministry: policy and the struggles of international collaboration. Another large part isn’t even really narrative so much as a series of vignettes from individuals who are either directly affected by some aspect of climate change – like the devastating heat wave that opens the novel – or by people who are involved in climate change mitigation, like farmers in Kerala who are doing awesome things with agriculture. The scope of the book is a couple of decades, thus showcasing the problems as they develop as well as the myriad and varied attempts to deal with the issues.

It’s not a standard linear narrative, therefore; but it is recognisably a Kim Stanley Robinson. For example, New York 2140 had several characters to follow and a few clear narrative threads, which sometimes intertwined, plus the narrator who dumped info on you. This is more experimental, I think, but feels like an extension of what was going on in 2140. I guess there are two main characters, although they probably don’t get quite enough space to really legitimate the title: the head of the Ministry, a middle-aged Irish woman who is awesome; and an American aid worker caught in the Indian heatwave who continues to suffer the repercussions of that for years. If it’s anyone’s story, it’s theirs; although having said that really it’s the planet’s story, and that of the entire population. Which feels so right for a book like this. It makes sense to hear from farmers in India and glaciologists in Antarctica! Less so the bits from the sun, and a carbon atom; but I’m prepared to indulge Robinson’s whims.

I trust Robinson to generally have his science right, if slightly on the outlandish side – that is, his suggestions probably match known science, but they may require more time / other resources than is considered feasible… although actually, this is something that he addresses in the book – that what seems like a large amount of money kinda isn’t when you set it in context. I do wonder whether a copy of this should be sent to people at the UN, and glaciologists, and agriculture people…

This book won’t work for everyone. The structure will annoy some, for sure, because it decentres characters and because it doesn’t really have much of a narrative. It just… covers a period of time, and what happens to the world in that time. So if you like a neat open and close, this probably isn’t for you; if you like really strong characters driving the story, likewise. But I really do recommend this as an exploration of the next few decades on our planet… it’s both optimistic on some levels but also devastating.

Station Eleven

The first question to ask here is, how did I not read this book when it first came out in 2014? And then how did I not read it when it won the Arthur C Clarke Award?

Those of you who have already read this are now possibly backing away in dismay, and reflecting my second question:

How could I read this book this year: did I not know that it involved a… y’know… flu-like virus??

The answer to the second is no, actually, I didn’t. It came as quite a surprise. And it’s a bit of a spoiler I suppose to those who haven’t read it yet but I figure that’s a community service at the moment. Because the thing is, this is a fantastic book and I want to recommend it to everyone… it’s just that, at the moment, such recommendation requires a little delicacy.

“Mum! You should read this book!! … how do you feel about reading about pandemics?”

(That’s not quite verbatim, but close.)

(For the record, she said she was fine with it.)

At any rate, I bought this in one of my spates of book buying this year, as a title I’ve had hanging at the back of my mind for five years and knew basically nothing about. And then I read the whole thing in a day. I would have read it faster than I did but I had to keep stopping to eke it out just a little bit longer. Yes, it’s one of those.

There’s a lot to love about this book. The writing is wonderful, easy to read and utterly absorbing. It takes a particular style to get away with declaring “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” In the first part of the book, in particular, this felt a lot like one of the best of Kim Stanley Robinson’s stories (and yes, just to be clear, that’s definitely a compliment from me).

The narrative goes back and forth between times – pre- and post-pandemic – filling in character histories, drawing links between people, giving detail to the world. The two central characters (I would argue) are introduced at the start of the novel – both actors, one old and one a child. Their lives and the people they interact with largely inform the rest of the story. The child, in particular, grows up to be a focal part of the future story, traveling with a group of actors and musicians across an America utterly devastated by pandemic (see? this is why recommending it requires a certain delicacy right now!). These artists use a Star Trek quote as their raison d’être: “because survival is insufficient”. And I love this for many reasons.

As well as flitting between times, the narrative also shifts between characters – all of whom end up having some connection with the two actors, deep or glancing, which is a neat device that Mandel manages to make neither cheesy nor just too convenient. The range of people (rich and not, pleasant and not, etc) allows Mandel to explore multiple human experiences and reactions to disaster – which, let’s face it, is often the point of writing post/apocalyptic narratives. Another sign of a narrative that is well-paced and features multiple characters is that I never got impatient in reading about some new character, wanting to get back to an original – they were all engaging and, especially as the threads started to come together, I always wanted to see what the new character brought.

There’s not that many books about which I can confidently say “I will read you again.” This is one of them.