Tag Archives: sf

This is how you lose the time war

Unknown.jpegSome people I respect were raving about this, and I like both El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s work separately, so I thought I’d give it a go. Bought it on my day off (e-copies really are very useful) and made a start on it.

And then I finished it. In one sitting.

I think it’s a novella… but still. Yes. I inhaled it. It’s brilliant. It’s about time travel and two rival versions of human history.

Why are you still reading? Just go buy it already.

If you’re still reading and you’re not convinced: two very different views of how human history should play out are in competition across time, and across the multiverse – or strands, as our narrators call them, which means that you get all sorts of symbolism along the lines of braids and so on. Very clever; I like it a lot. Our people go upstream and downstream and across strands and they’re always looking to make their version come out on top, and thwart their opponents.

And then Red and Blue start to communicate. And then (I’m sorry) things start to unravel.

The story is fabulous, the ideas are enthralling and rich and wonderful. The characters are always somewhat opaque but honestly that fits so well with what’s going on and with who and what they are, that it was fine.

The one thing that some readers might find off-putting is the language: I saw someone describe it as ‘baroque’ and that’s probably fair; it’s extravagant and ornate and rich and luscious, sometimes whimsical and playful, full of symbolism, and occasionally meandering. I loved it; it’s the sort of prose that will definitely reward re-reading, and a slower read, in order to really mull over the weight of the words.

Straight to my ‘possible Hugos’ list for next year.

New Suns: an anthology

Unknown.jpegOctavia Butler once said, “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” And thus, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Colour, edited by Nisi Shawl. It’s a remarkable set of stories: varieties in genre and tone and settings and characters. Some of the authors are people whose work I’ve come across a bit (E. Lily Yu, Andrea Hairston) while many others I was only vaguely familiar with – and several whom I’d not heard of before. Which is generally a good sign, in an anthology, for me anyway.

I’m not going to go over every story, because that would be boring. I want to mention a few highlights to give a sense of the range of stories.

Minsoo Kang’s “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations” hit my history-teacher heart right in the middle. I love way it’s told – as an historian or archivist finding out more and more information – and I love the story that’s told through that information, and I ADORE the ‘Marginal note’ at the end for the way it cuts through and kinda sums up a lot of what historians of marginal communities have been doing for several decades.

“Burn the Ships” by Alberto Yáñez also hit me in the heart, but for different reasons. When I read in his bio that he “draws on his Mexican and Jewish roots” to inform the story, I could absolutely see the parallels; it’s not a re-telling of a story from either of those cultures, or a combining, but… using their histories, of conflict with The Other especially, to come up with perhaps the most emotional of all the stories in the anthology. It’s just incredible.

Indrapramit Das’ “The Shadow We Cast Through Time” is a non-linear narrative that looks at the consequences of human settlement on alien planets, how societies shape themselves in response to danger – and vice versa – and the connections between people. It’s gorgeous.

“Harvest,” by Rebecca Roanhorse, is horrifying. I’ve now read a couple of stories that involve deer women, and I already know enough to never tangle with one willingly.

If you’re looking for a non-themed anthology and you want to know who’s hot right now in speculative fiction, you should pick this up.

Hexarchate Stories

42201485.jpgI am a huge fan of the Machineries of Empire series, which apparently I haven’t reviewed here and that’s a terrible oversight. So I was very excited to finally get this, and dive into the back story of the empire in general and Jedao specifically, and Cheris too. Many of the stories are quite short snippets, which I found intriguing, and they definitely add to the overall character development.

And then I got to “Glass Cannon”, at the end. And then I realised that it was basically a continuation of the final novel. So then I had to stop, about 5 pages in, and go back to the start… so I’ve read the whole trilogy again in the last week. And it’s still amazing and breathtaking and heartwrenching.

(Massive spoilers below…) Continue reading →

Green Earth

Unknown.jpegI remember when the the Science in the Capital books came out; I was unconvinced about whether I could face a near-future story about climate change. So I did nothing about reading them. Then I recently discovered that the books had been released as an omnibus edition, and I figured – why not. And the introduction to this edition reveals that it’s a director’s cut – and not in the way that Raymond E Feist did his version of Magician: in this case Robinson has actually cut extraneous material, for a variety of reasons, and I’m quite impressed by that whole process.

So anyway, now I have read the trilogy-that’s-really-one-long-book. And it must be said that it’s rare for me to finish a book where I kinda loathe the main character.

The book opens in a style that suggests the story will be told through a variety of voices. Each chapter opens with some extended comment on science or politics or global events, and then the chapter proceeds with different characters going about their everyday lives – which frequently interact with each other, and with making science- and climate-related decisions. There’s Anna, a scientist at the National Science Foundation; Frank, a visiting scientist at the NSF; Charlie, Anna’s husband and advisor to a senator, who works from home and is mostly caring for his youngest son; Leo, a scientist in a small biotech startup lab; and a couple of others. As it went on, though, there was somewhat less of this multi-focused approach.

It was intriguing to read a book that paired the domestic, sometimes banal, frequently humdrum lives of its characters – in the office, or the home, or the lab – with important scientific discoveries or crucial policy decisions. Like in real life. The conversations often looked really odd on paper… until I listened to them properly in my head, and then they sounded like just normal conversations. Zagging in odd directions, incomplete sentences, and so on. Robinson has often captured actual life with true verisimilitude, and I mostly enjoyed it.

However, the character that I initially liked the least is the one who ends up having most of the narrative. This is Frank. He has what I regard as a poor attitude to science, and an even worse one towards women. If I had realised that this was going to be largely Frank’s narrative, I may not have kept going. In fact it’s possible that if I had been reading this as three separate books, I would not have picked up the second after the first.

Now, I have little objection to abandoning a book – I mean I hate doing it, but I will, because life is too short to read crap books. So why didn’t I abandon this book? Because I did want to know what would happen to the other characters. And because I was truly interested in where Robinson would go both in destroying the world through climate change, and suggesting possible ways of dealing with it.

Was it worth it? I still didn’t like Frank. In fact I got really impatient with him, and his whole personal storyline seemed pretty weird and actually beside the point for the overall story… and this sense is growing the more I think about it. However, as a way of thinking about how science might help the world deal with the repercussions of climate change, it’s certainly an intriguing novel. And like many of Robinson’s books, ultimately hopeful. (Perhaps too hopeful?) So I don’t regret reading it. For a reader who is interested in both politics and science, I expect this would hit a lot of buttons (unless you’re very over the ‘America saves the world’ narrative, which this leans into pretty heavily, so be warned).

Sadly, Robinson made yet another odd statement about an Australian animal (he implied there’s not that many black swans in Red Moon). This time, a character comes across an animal dead in the snow: it’s a wombat, and then there’s mention of warm-weather critters needing to be looked after.

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From here; I’ve seen wombats in the snow a lot, so… nah. Not so much.

Robots vs Fairies

Unknown.jpegI am reminded, perhaps obviously, of Zombies vs Unicorns, the Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black anthology from several years ago. It’s the same sort of idea: which trope is better? Which sort of close-to-but-not-human species can authors have the most fun with, do most with, and so on? But more than zombies and unicorns, the authors in this anthology make powerful statements in their afterwords for why both robots and fairies can and do have such enduring power in our narratives. They are like us, but unlike. Robots are made by us; fairies live in parallel; both can be imagined to have legitimate grievances with humanity; both can potentially blend into humanity… and so on. Max Gladstone suggests robots are the future, and fairies are our roots.

So there’s a lot to explore in an anthology inviting authors to choose one of these archetypal features of our speculative fiction.

What surprised and amused me the most in this set of stories was the number of times authors decided to play with both. Seanan McGuire starts the ball rolling, and Catherynne M Valente finishes it; along the way, there are a couple of variations on Pinocchio that I didn’t always pick up – it’s not a significant story for me – as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and other ruminations on how robots and fairies might be seen to fade into one another, one way or another. I really, really liked this aspect.

In fact, I liked this anthology in general. The stories are generally very well written, and there’s a marvellous balance of fun and heart-wrenching or somewhat horrifying, as well as often having significant points to make about humanity and how we interact with our world. McGuire’s views on theme parks were great fun to read; Ken Liu’s story on automation was chilling and brilliantly written (unsurprisingly). Sarah Gailey also contributed a supremely chilling story that I really wasn’t prepared for, and Madeline Ashby’s was haunting and lovely, and Maria Dahvana Headley got me with a rocknroll and fairies story that was always going to push my buttons.

Themed anthologies can be a fraught business. This one gets it right.

Stephen Baxter’s Space

I loved the Manifold series when I first came across it. It was the first Stephen Baxter work I ever read and it hit all my buttons: space and aliens and science (ish) and outrageous ideas. The characters were fine and the pacing felt great.

I read those books many years ago. I decided to go back and read Space to check if it held up, and because I needed a not-too-taxing book. I was a bit trepidatious because I haven’t loved all the other Baxter books I’ve read – which isn’t all of them, because his really far out ones don’t appeal – but there’s sometimes been a lack of character development that annoys even me (not something I always notice), and just something that has felt… not ideal in terms of narrative.

The first thing to note is that I still loved this book, and I’ll probably go back and read the other ones now, too, although not immediately. I remembered very little aside from Reid and Nemoto existing; events felt familiar but it wasn’t like I knew what was going to happen on every page. I still enjoyed the outrageous science and the gleefully complex way of confronting Fermi’s paradox. The pacing did still feel fine – although the last chapter or so are a bit off, for my tastes.

The characters are, though, not the highlight. I remembered thinking that Reid Malenfant (terrible child!) was terribly arrogant, and that is definitely the case – and the book plays to that, too. To my surprise he does not play quite as enormous a role as I recalled – perhaps he’s more involved in one of the other two books, or maybe I’m utterly misremembering. But the other characters aren’t much developed, and some of them (hello Nemoto) very poorly served. In the latter case I think this is deliberate, because no one gets to know her and that’s part of her deal. With the others, though – Madeleine in particular – it was a bit frustrating, and her narrative ultimately unfulfilling.

For me, though, the characters are not a breaking point. I won’t read characters who make no sense or have zero development, but written as Baxter does in a narrative like this one, I’m happy enough to read along and I definitely enjoyed the ride.

This is an outrageous exploration of humanity’s potential movement out into the solar system, when confronted by an alien presence already here. It’s fun and a little silly in its ultimate ideas and occasionally confronting. Very enjoyable.

Red Moon

Unknown.jpegAs a rule, I am excited about new Kim Stanley Robinson. I mostly enjoyed Aurora, and utterly adored New York 2140 and 2312. I know that not everyone loved those last two as much as I did… and I think a lot of people enjoyed Aurora more than me. Which tells you that Robinson meets different readers in different places, and that’s ok.

For me, Red Moon is closer to being like Aurora. I mostly enjoyed it, and it’s certainly exploring some interesting ideas, but I did not get giddy with joy in reading it. I have no hesitation in recommending it to other people who enjoy near-future SF, and for those who got bored by 2312 etc then this is likely to be more up their alley. Which is great! Cater to a range of preferences!

It’s also a bit hilarious to me that I read this so soon after finishing Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy, given a few similarities but mostly differences.

Red Moon is set three decades into the future. Our moon has a lot of people living on it, mostly Chinese. Which, given the current state of the Chinese space programme and their lunar intentions, is not ridiculous. Other nations are represented there, too, but the bulk of the mining and such are being undertaken at a Chinese installation at the southern pole. The book is largely focused on Chinese characters, too, so it’s important to point out right now that I’m Anglo-Australian, and have no sense of whether Robinson has made any cultural missteps. It doesn’t feel like he has, to me, but it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed some offensive things. There are a couple of points where one of the main characters rails against some Chinese stereotypes, which gives me hope that Robinson is really aware of what he’s doing; but there’s also a point at which he says black swans are more rare than rhinos, and… images.jpeg(from here, of all places)

Yeh, we have a lot of black swans in Australia.

Anyway. Fred goes to the moon to deliver a quantum phone, and the person he is to meet dies when they meet. It’s clear to the reader that Fred isn’t responsible, but not to everyone around him. Fred then basically ends up being shuttled around the place, and sometimes used a political football. He ends up, through odd circumstances, traveling with Chan Qi: a young woman, daughter of a very senior politician in the Chinese Communist Party, vocal in a social change movement, and herself being sought by a variety of groups for their own political purposes. While Fred often seems to have little volition, and is tossed by the vagaries of those around him, and isn’t sure what to do in those circumstances, Qi rails against the structures around her – even when she too is able to do little about the problems that beset her. Qi definitely seems to be be the more active, in all ways, of the two; their companionship is an interesting comparison. Also interesting therefore is that while Fred is frequently a narrator throughout the novel, we rarely get any insight into Qi’s mindset.

Along with the novel being about Fred’s attempts to not get done for a murder he didn’t commit, Robinson is exploring a bunch of other ideas. China seems to be in a place ready for political turmoil, which Qi is contributing to; Robinson explores some of the reasons that might create this situation – most of which exist today – and some possible solutions. So it’s political, and social, and economic commentary; I’d be fascinated to know what Americans think, since it doesn’t paint the US in the best of capitalist lights; China also isn’t a utopia, but it’s also not a nightmarish dystopia.

And then there’s an AI, learning to learn and utilising surveillance systems, and the analyst enabling that; and Ta Shu, celebrity traveller and documentary maker, who gets dragged into the Fred/Qi mess, who is much older than them and has greater historical context and spends a lot of time reflecting on his own and China’s history. Also, an American Secret Service agent (female) on the moon, with a very annoying superior.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and as a way of thinking about how people might live on the moon and struggle with the social changes of the coming decades, and what China might achieve as an increasingly dominant superpower, and how individuals act when constrained – it’s a very good way of exploring issues. As with Aurora, my main issue is actually with the ending. It was unexpected, and while I think I understand the reason for it, I found it unsatisfying. However, your mileage may vary! I still have no hesitation in recommending it.

Luna: Moon Rising

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

This is the third and final book in Ian McDonald’s Luna series, and it really doesn’t stand alone. New Moon and Wolf Moon (which apparently I didn’t review? must have been when I was stressed out) are both outstanding and terrifying and if you are interested in near-future, near-Earth speculation, with intensely human characters and scheming dynasties, you really want to read the whole series, so off you go.

There are spoilers for those first books, kinda be default, in what follows…

One of the awesome (and, ahem, anti-Ian McEwan) things about this series (and it’s not unique to it, of course) is the way that McDonald uses this alien, will-kill-you-in-a-moment place to work through human issues of greed, family, ambition, hope, friendship, pride… all of those things that storytellers have been mining for millennia. You’ve got battles happening with rovers and spacesuits in vacuum, and parkour in 0.6g (ETA: which is actually 1/6th gravity, not 0.6, ARGH thank you Scott), and as wide a range of marital and familial ties as can be imagined… and brutal corporate takeovers and arguments over inheritances and burgeoning romance. It’s so full.

Perhaps the most intriguing speculation of a near-future type is the way that McDonald imagines the Moon being regarded by Earth. The Moon is not a political entity; it’s a technological colony, for want of a better word, dominated by families who happen to come from different nations on Earth but who have little in the way of political or emotional ties to those places. But the Earth needs the resources of the Moon… but the families don’t want Earth interference… So Lucas Corta’s deal, to use Earth mercenaries and involve Earth politicians in the dealings of the Moon… that’s really quite problematic. I LOVE IT.

A few characters I really enjoyed:

Wagner Corta, the wolf, and his sort-of-bipolar playing out differently on the moon from how it might on earth. I like that McDonald refuses to ‘diagnose’ him fully, although I would be very interested to hear what those with a better understanding of mental health descriptions and experiences think of this. I also greatly appreciated the enormous dilemmas and sacrifices he goes through in the series, in terms of conflicting priorities.

Luna Corta: I kept forgetting just how young she was because of how much she had gone through, escaping with Lucasinho and so on, and she continues to be buffeted by issues beyond her control in this book… although she begins to show that she can take some control.

Ariel Corta: continues to be one of the weirder and least predictable of all of the main characters. Ignoring family on the one hand and working hard for them on the other, never an easy person to get on with, driven by astonishing determination and stubbornness… I’m not saying I’d like to be friends with her, because I think she’d terrify me in person because she’d see all my weaknesses. But she’s definitely someone to admire.

That makes it look like I’m all Team Corta, and I’m not really, it’s just that they feel like they dominate the book, and indeed the trilogy, more than I expected from the events of the first book.

If you’ve read the first two books you know the issues that need to be resolved in the book. If you’re anything like me, you won’t anticipate how it will play out. I was surprised by most of what happened. I will admit that the very ending was… really not what I expected. I’ve had to think about it a bit, but I think I see what McDonald was doing. And I’ve decided I like it.

This is a magnificent series and I’m so glad it exists. Now I can’t wait to see what else McDonald does.

Permafrost

40048442.jpgAlastair Reynolds.

Time travel.

It’s just such a winning combination.

And the thing is, this is the author who as far as I can remember refuses to use FTL in his stories. So for him to write a time travel story means that there won’t be any Delorean zipping around. Instead, there’s a short but relatively serious discussion about WHAT, exactly, can be ‘sent back’ through time, and a very clever example of what it might mean to change things in the past – what impact that might have on the future.

The story, naturally enough, dips in and out of the time stream. It starts in the past and goes to the future and moves between them beautifully, gradually building up a picture of what has happened for the future to be as it is, and the choices that people make that have an impact ‘upstream’. The slow unfolding is horrific and brilliant.

I liked the characters, I was horrified by the world, and I was intrigued by the method of time travel. This is a fabulous novella.

Shadow Captain

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me at no cost by the publisher, Hachette. The trade paperback (which is lovely) is out now; smaller paperback in September.

I mean. HELLO. New Alastair Reynolds! I was so happy to get this to review. So hi, if you don’t know me I’m a massive fangirl, keep that in mind as you read I guess?

This is the sequel to Revengerfrom about three years ago. You probably want to read that before reading this because it sets up the sister relationship that’s at the heart of the story, between Adrana and Arafura (now Fura), as well as the horror in which Bosa Sennen is held throughout the… well, world is the wrong word, but you know what I mean. The area in which the book is set. And that’s the other thing that the first book sets up: that these books are set many, many thousands of years in our future, and they live in the Congregation – which is our solar system having been dismantled and the stuff of the planets used to construct an uncounted number of smaller worlds. Also, civilisation has not been continuous throughout that time; humanity has swelled and fallen over that time, inhabiting more or fewer world, having more or less connections between the worlds, and with technology progressing or lapsing. Which is what allows for the many ships who travel between the worlds to visit the now-uninhabited ones and find ‘treasures’ which may or may not work for them, dating back to previous civilisations.

I guess it’s like modern Britons or Libyans trying to make the Roman aqueducts work.

Anyway, if you haven’t read Revenger I highly recommend it – clearly – as a space opera with deep roots in nautical adventures (including in the language, it’s all coves and sails and broadsides), starring a defiant young woman having mad adventures.

Spoilers for Revenger below this…

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