Tag Archives: sf

Hopeland, by Ian McDonald

I was sent this by the publisher, Tor, at no cost. It’s out in late Feb, 2023.

My first reaction was and is: What. On. Earth.

What did I just read?

I mean, aside from “something wonderful”, which is easy and true, but gives no information.

Seriously though I was a third of the way through this book and still had no idea what sort of book I was reading. I was barely even sure of the genre.

Fantasy? – maybe?

Science fiction? – basically yes, but only once I was about halfway through?

Maybe just… fiction? But there were definitely some bits that were too weird to entirely count as mainstream, not-speculative, fiction. Also, it’s Ian McDonald.

I’ll admit I hadn’t read the blurb. It’s Ian McDonald, and it’s called Hopeland… why would I read the blurb? So part of my confusion is my own fault. But having now looked at the blurb it’s actually of little to no use in explaining what on earth this is about, so I don’t feel too bad.

So… the story starts in London, in 2011, during the riots. It’s not about the riots, but they certainly set a scene. Raisa meets Amon entirely accidentally – she’s racing across roof tops, he’s looking for a micro-gig he’s meant to be playing at. He helps her win, she invites him to a party with her family, and… it basically goes from there. Occasionally together, often apart, Raisa and Amon live through the next several decades. And see, it’s not like they become hugely important politicians or scientists or celebrities – this isn’t the story of hugely significant people. It’s a story of two people – and their families – living through the consequences of climate change and everything else in the world right now. They have their impact, it’s true, and sometimes on a large scale, but more often in the pebble-and-avalanche way.

It’s utterly, utterly compelling.

Raisa’s family are the Hopelands – more than a family, really; not a nation, certainly not an ethnicity or religion although with aspects of the latter. It takes the notion of ‘found family’ to extraordinary and glorious places and challenged a lot of how I think about family, how it’s constructed and what it’s for. Amon is a Brightbourne, a very different family but with its own legacy to contribute (and his family is where I started wondering if this was a fantasy of some sort).

I want more stories like this. It’s about the very near future so it deals with climate change – and manages to come out hopeful, ultimately, but not saccharine in any way. It’s about people and their failures and their determination to do better, to make themselves and the world better and leave it better for their kids. England, Ireland, Iceland, Polynesia; young people, old people, challenging gender binaries, and playing with Tesla coils. This book is just amazing.

Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind – anthology

WHAT.

I didn’t know this book existed until this year. It was published in 1985.

The list of contributors is just… I mean:

Joanna Russ (the only reprint)

Gwyneth Jones

Tanith Lee

Pamela Zoline

Mary Gentle

Lisa Tuttle

Raccoona Sheldon! …

and that’s just the names that I immediately recognised.

It’s nearly 40 years old, so some of the stories have aged, I guess? But honestly the general issues in discussion still feel pretty real. Zoline’s “Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire” – children kidnapped and swapped to stop a nuclear apocalypse – still feels like a chillingly appropriate concept. Josephine Saxton’s view of advertising is hideous and, again, not as laughably far-fetched as I might like (it is ridiculous, but also… ads…). Beverley Ireland’s “Long Shift” is remarkable for its focus on a single woman, just doing her job; I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this published today. Pearlie McNeill is (was?) Australian, and I’ve never heard of her! Apparently this was her only piece of fiction? – SF, anyway. And this is where Raccoona Sheldon’s “Morality Meat” was first published, which is… a moment.

There are very few poor stories here. This is an amazing anthology.

After the Dragons – Cynthia Zhang

SOMEONE gave me a voucher to buy books for my birthday, and I was stumped. I love a voucher but then I get all – I must buy The Right Thing! I don’t want to waste it! So what books to buy?? And then I remembered that (at that stage) the Ursula K Le Guin Prize shortlist had just been announced, so there was an answer to that question: I bought a bunch from that list. And After the Dragons is one of them.

In the cover quote, Mary Robinette Kowal describes this book as having “quiet intimacy”, and that’s so right. It’s not about epic events (like She Who Became the Sun); it’s about the everyday joys and tragedies, in a world with lots of problems.

It’s set in a kind of tomorrow – it’s not far future – but in a world sideways to ours, because there are dragons. Not epic mythological dragons for slaying – it’s unclear whether those were ever real even here – but small, say pet-size. Indeed sometimes they are kept as pets… and as with kittens and puppies, sometimes they get dumped by their owners. And sometimes they just live as wild animals, and that means having to adjust to living in urban areas and with humans. Which doesn’t always go well. I was thinking about Anne McCaffrey’s Pern – still probably the fictional dragons my mind goes to first – and these are more the fire-lizards of Dragonsdawn rather than the later, genetically altered dragons.

For all that the dragons are there, this world is very much ours. There’s climate issues, there’s political tension, there’s racism; poverty and illness and family trouble on the personal level. The story is told from the perspectives of Beijing resident Kai – Xiang Kaifie – an artist, carer for dragons, and ill; and Eli, Elijah Ahmed, biracial American student visiting the hometown of his deceased grandmother, who gets drawn into Kai’s world of rescuing street dragons.

As I said, this is not epic. It’s low stakes on a global scale, although high stakes on a personal one: health and love and relationships and what the future holds are all immensely important to the people involved. It hints at troubling systemic issues but always focuses on the people at its heart. If you need a relief from world-shattering events this is a good choice, although I’m not promising that it’s all sunshine and light (it’s not). But it is a delight, and it is definitely worth your time.

Can’t wait to read more from Cynthia Zhang.

The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century

When the Ursula K Le Guin Prize shortlist was announced, I was intrigued. I hadn’t heard of most of the titles, and I happened to have a book voucher from someone for my birthday, so I promptly went ahead and bought a number of the books.

This is the first one I’ve read. And it’s amazing. And it was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize??

It’s 136 pages in length. Not all of those pages are filled, because the bulk of the book is made up of employee statements… and as anyone who’s ever looked at employee feedback will be unsurprised to learn, some people have written a couple of pages and a few have written just one sentence. And that’s it – that’s what you learn of this 22nd century workplace. It’s almost entirely from employee feedback.

It’s brilliant. There are devastating gaps, and hints at terrible and wonderful things. There are touching moments of humanity and grim reflections on work and the workplace. Have you seen Severance? It’s not exactly like that but if you put them together you are forced to start thinking more about corporate workplaces than perhaps the managers would like us to.

The workplace is the Six-Thousand Ship, and the employees are its crew. Where are they? Not quite sure; that is, it’s around a planet called New Discovery, and it’s not near Earth, but other than that – no details. Some of the crew are human, while others are humanoid: some who were born, others who were made. There’s sometimes tension between the two groups, and sometimes camaraderie. Most of their work is what you’d expect on a spaceship, but some of it isn’t. Some of the complaints are also what you’d expect – around isolation, for instance – but some of the comments centre around objects that are never fully explained, from New Discovery itself. It’s deeply familiar, because some Ravn suggests aspects of work won’t change no matter the situation, and simultaneously quite alien.

It’s very, very, clever; absorbing, wrenching, sometimes disturbing, and I loved it.

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’.