Tag Archives: sf

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…

Continue reading →

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water

image.pngThis novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be available from 21 May.

Vylar Kaftan’s novella opens with Bee scrambling through darkness, which is pretty much all she can remember doing.  The official blurb reads:

All Bee has ever known is darkness.

She doesn’t remember the crime she committed that landed her in the cold, twisting caverns of the prison planet Colel-Cab with only fellow prisoner Chela for company. Chela says that they’re telepaths and mass-murderers; that they belong here, too dangerous to ever be free. Bee has no reason to doubt her—until she hears the voice of another telepath, one who has answers, and can open her eyes to an entirely different truth.

You can guess from the blurb that things are not as they seem, but you can’t guess the twists and turns of the plot – well, I couldn’t anyway.

The attitudes towards telepaths are a very interesting part of the story; as someone who grew up reading McCaffrey’s Tower& the Hive series (every. single. one), I’m always fascinated by whether ESP stuff ends up being celebrated, abused, shunned, or whatever. So that was something I enjoyed here.

Overall, though, I did not love this story, and I can’t put my finger on why not – which is a deeply unsatisfying thing to say in this review, I know, and I’m sorry. I think it’s partly around the pacing. For all that I am a big fan of fast-paced stories, I think this was a bit too fast; I didn’t feel like I got to know Bee before things changed, and then they changed again, and I was left feeling a bit cold towards her fate. There was also a lack of world-building that meant I didn’t quite get some of the actions of the characters other than Bee.

For all that, though, Kaftan has written a story with heart that confronts the issue of how humans react to difference. I did like Bee, and felt that her reactions – especially when feeling lost in the world – were beautifully realistic.

Altered Carbon

images.jpegI first read Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon not long after it was published. I’ve read a few of his other books, too, and I really like his style. For reasons of “I have too many other books on my pile”, I haven’t got around to reading the rest in the series… although having been reminded of the book by the Netflix series, I’m going to remedy that this year. I’ve just re-read Altered Carbon itself.

Because my memory was fuzzy, I went into the show with only a vague memory of characters and plot. Which was good, actually, because it meant that I got to be surprised by plot twists and be immersed in the world-building.

I loved both the book and the show. This post contains spoilers for both, because I want to compare them.

I had heard some people complaining that the tv show was more simplistic than the books – which didn’t surprise me, although I couldn’t recall if I agreed. Having now re-read the book (and watched the show, um, twice), I disagree. Yes, the show has reduced some of the complexities, but in other ways it introduces more, and different, complexity. The two are actually quite different. It made me think of a film or tv show and its reboot: there are characters in common, and similar or identical plot beats, but with definite differences – perhaps to account for when it’s made, or directors’ stylistic differences, or whatever.

So the show is, I think, more racially diverse. (See this article for some good points on that topic and also some good points about the violence against women, which would be a whole other post for me and is covered here pretty well. DON’T READ THE COMMENTS.) It changes Kristin Ortega to be of Mexican(ish?) descent – in the book she’s described as having cheekbones courtesy of a Native American ancestor, which is weird and maybe racist? I’m Australian, I’m not sure of the nuance there – but otherwise doesn’t mention her appearance. (More on Ortega later.) The show makes Elliot and his family black – which is interesting but also changes the plot somewhat, since the whole point of why Bancroft wanted to have sex with Elizabeth Elliot is a physical similarity to his wife (who is white and blonde in both). Quellcrist’s physical appearance isn’t mentioned in the book, as far as I noticed, nor the race of other Envoys, so having at least some of them be not-white was positive.

What I think is the most stark difference between the two is the emphasis on family. In the book, we learn that Takashi had a difficult home life, but very little detail. We see that Laurens and Miriam Bancroft have a fairly distant relationship, and that Elliot loves his family, but they get little interaction on the page. In the show, though – what a difference. I adore the fact that Ortega’s family gets so much time (although I am a bit cranky about her being made so much shorter than Riker/ Tak, since in the book they’re almost of a height; I did enjoy the actor in the role, though). The familial argument about whether it’s a good idea to re-sleeve Grandma for a family celebration puts the whole issue of Catholics’ opposition to stacks etc into great relief. I also just love how MUCH Ortega we get in the show, even though she is clearly obsessed with getting her boyfriend back and clearing his name (which I do understand). In the book, she really is just there as suspicious support for Tak. Even her mum gets a bit of character development! That’s so cool!

Tak’s family also gets a great deal more depth – and maybe that’s coming from the other books, I’ll find out soon. But seeing his relationship with his sister, and then making Reileen be that sister grown up, is deeply intriguing. I wasn’t entirely convinced by her motivations in the show, although towards the end it started making a bit more sense… but it’s still a really interesting difference. It’s not like the Reileen in the book has much more character depth, so it’s a change not a loss.

The Elliots are far more present in the show than in the book – Vernon Elliot has zero to do with Tak and his mission in the book, unlike the show where he becomes an unwilling and not very helpful assistant. And we never meet Lizzie in the book; she’s just mentioned as waiting to be re-sleeved. So I love that she gets to have a hand in her own vengeance (much as I disapprove of violent vengeance in the real world…). The book has Ava Elliot be re-sleeved in a white body, but still female, while in the show she’s given a white man’s body. Part of the point of Tak’s training is that re-sleeving happens so often it’s meant to be straightforward, but that’s not the case for most humans – especially when they haven’t chosen it. What I was impressed by in the show is that although Vernon Elliot is initially bewildered and maybe horrified by the body his wife has been shoved into, he does come to grips with it and they do share intimate moments. And to my eyes, it’s not shown to be homophobia or transphobia, but more about that very specific experience of an unexpected body for his wife. (Trans folk etc should feel free to point out where I’ve missed stereotypes and so on, because I wouldn’t be surprised if I have.)

Even the Bancrofts, dirty Meths that they are, get more family exploration in the show. We don’t ever meet a Bancroft child in the novel, but two of them feature in the show and the son is a significant bit-part.

Perhaps the most intriguing change with Tak is his relationship with Quellcrist Falconer – and again, maybe this is coming from the later books, but it’s definitely not in this first one. It humanises him in a way that I think is really fascinating, since he commits such dreadfully violent acts and is himself subjected to terrible violence. Visually, to have a contrast with his time with Quell I found quite affecting. I think I have more sympathy for TV-Tak than I do with book-Tak, because there’s more emotional depth to hook into.

A curious change that I’m still trying to think through is the change from having the hotel be the Hendrix to one themed around Edgar Allan Poe. The Hedrix’s avatar is rarely a Jimi Hendrix lookalike (not until near the end, in fact), so I don’t think this is a case of erasing a black character. Perhaps the creators of the show thought that the AI of a Poe-hotel would be more likely to get into the spirit of an investigation? I have no idea. Also, the show creates the AI poker scenes and arguments from whole cloth, which I think is deeply interesting… and perhaps fits into the notion of family being a connecting theme across the episodes…

Finally, the book doesn’t have the Hello Unicorn! backpack, which is clearly a problem. (I found this article while looking for a picture.)In-The-Time-of-Battle-Unicorn-Backpack-Is-There-v3.png

Spots the Space Marine

Unknown.jpegWith apologies to the author and editor and publisher, but this title was incredibly off-putting. I think I got this as part of a bundle of women writing SF; there is no way I would ever have bought it, thanks purely to the title – I figured it was going to be something about a dog?

Anyway. The title is accurate to the story when you get reading, but I don’t think that’s a defence. So let me assure you: this is not a story about a dog trying to be a soldier. In fact, the spots refer to a cat (which I found very odd, but whatever).

The other thing you should know going on is that this is not written like a regular novel. It’s more like a play script: it’s almost entirely dialogue, with a note for who’s speaking but rarely any information about how they’re speaking. There are italicised comments about the actions happening around some of the dialogue, but it’s very sparse compared to most narratives. There’s even some bits that are described as montages, hammering the film-like nature home. If this is not going to be your thing, definitely don’t go here.

This is a military SF novel: you also don’t want to read it if you don’t like Stormship Troopers-level killing rate of the alien enemy. There is a LOT of killing. Mostly the deaths are robot-esque, mindless bug-ish aliens, but still – it got pretty overwhelming. So again, may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

The titular Spots has just been transferred to a new outfit to help out with an ongoing war against these alien bugs. She’s not really physically ready for it, and only just ready mentally. The outfit she’s joined is desperately low on numbers, and is facing increasing problems from the alien threat that no one had really expected in this area. So there’s friction with her joining them; there’s friction from lack of sleep and overwhelming stress; there’s friction because there’s an alien ally on base that not everyone trusts. There’s a lot of angry people going around.

One thing I found interesting was that I often lost track of who was male or female, with the exception of Spots, who is a mother. The characters go by call-signs that have nothing to do with their own names, so every now and then there’s some comment about she or he and I was surprised by who it referred to. Also, from passing comments, it’s clear that the soldiers are from a mixture of races, although I’m not sure there was a mixture of nationalities – exactly who was sponsoring this military was unclear.

I enjoyed this more than I had expected; I started reading it because I wanted to either read it or just clear it off my to-be-read ebook pile. While I didn’t love the high body-count, I was intrigued by the dynamics between many of the characters, and amused by the **** for the profanity.

The Fated Sky

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

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

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

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

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

I really feel like these books are perfect for 2018.

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

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