Tag Archives: sf

Rocannon’s World

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

Narrative conventions: questioning “the hero”

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

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

Story and reality

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

The City Inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosebud, by Paul Cornell

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

Well that was… a ride.

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

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

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

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

Kundo Wakes Up

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

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

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

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

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

Kaiju Preservation Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terminator: Dark Fate

I MEAN.

Just.

I mean. What a film.

I love T2, and I really enjoyed Genisys, but this… this is another league.

Mostly, I love Sarah. I really, really love Sarah, and what she represents:

  • I love that she’s so competent.
  • I love her determination.
  • I am saddened by her bitterness, but everything about her subsequent actions makes sense.
  • I love that SHE gets some of the great lines to call back to the first movies.

And I really, really love that basically Sarah is living out the unreconstructed second-wave feminism attitude at its worst – the assumption that it’s about Dani’s child, the grumpiness about being Mother Mary and wombs, etc. And then Dani and Grace are there as third-wave feminism: this is the first time a protagonist hasn’t been white! And a modern-day Terminator not set in middle class white American burbs! It’s race and class and women being both tough and vulnerable, which Sarah has never been allowed to be simultaneously – she’s one or the other. I love how Sarah comes to realise the truth, and the fact that she accepts it and keeps going (looking at you, TERFs).

And I also love Karl. Like, seriously.

  • Karl, the draper.
  • The ‘give a little girl butterflies on her curtains’ terminator.
  • (And the fact that apparently this aspect arose out of Arnie’s actual interest in home decor.) His whole deadpan explanation about why his relationship with his wife works – HELLO HEALTHY MASCULINITY.
  • And of course, this is the logical conclusion of the exploration of terminator / humanity boundaries. The machine who knows what he is and consciously – even logically – becomes more human.
  • Plus, he has a great sense of humour.

None of this is to detract from Grace and Dani, either.

  • Grace: another logical conclusion for the franchise – an augmented human – and her augmentation comes, of course, with frailty, because human bodies aren’t built for the sort of output of a terminator. I am always amused by her less than gracious arrival into the past. I love her.
  • Dani: somewhat bewildered and hapless, like an early Sarah, but definitely catches on faster – which makes sense given that she’s clearly had a tougher life than pre-terminator Sarah, and she’s been managing her family. She also gets a ruder awakening, arguably, since her “father” (she doesn’t know it’s a terminator) is killed in front of her and then her brother dies too. She seems to know her limits and yet still push against them. She’s determined and angry and she’s really, really great.

I love this film.

Terminator 1-3

I don’t remember how but we got started talking about the Terminator movies. One thing led to another, and suddenly we own all of them on DVD (trust me, it didn’t cost much), and we’re watching them all.

Ah, but in what order? Like our Marvel watch last year, I really wanted to do it in internal chronological order… but HAHAHA no. That’s all a bit too hard. So production order it is.

Some reflections on the first three films, therefore…

  • I’m not sure, but I think T2 might have been my first Arnie movie. Looking at the dates of his films, I don’t think I would have seen any of the others in the cinema. I didn’t see T2 in the cinema either; I distinctly remember the sleepover birthday party where I saw it (on VHS, children). And when he gets into those black clothes, and puts on the sunglasses… that really is my image of him; my expectation of what he looks like. Apparently that imprinted on me more deeply than I had realised.
  • And so, the opening moments: those energy bubbles. The progression of technology in terms of what the bubbles look like is fascinating! I really like the fact that each of these movies keeps that as the opening, recreates the crouched figure, and so on. My reaction to Arnie in T1 was that he looked truly inhuman, with the ludicrously defined muscles. He’s still impossibly buff in the next two movies, but looks slightly less… sculpted?
  • Which brings me to technology – within the film, imagined for the future, and used in the making. Within the film, of course, each is a microcosm of its day. Landlines and eventually mobiles (although Kate Brewster’s phone still looks super old fashioned). The cars! The TVs! By T3, the internet and how it could be connected and infected.
    • The terminators themselves are a spectacular example of how future tech is imagined. Model 101 is a robot with human skin, and while he has no pain and copes with infinitely more damage than a human, that’s about it. A bit faster, perhaps. But then the T1000 suddenly has the ability to shapeshift, and can resume shape after being a liquid, and is just generally more impressive. And then TX… a shift up again. Far more resistant to damage, able to create complex machines as part of her anatomy rather than just blades – and able to talk to modems – she’s magnificent. I love this idea that in order to defeat humans, the machines must evolve. There’s something to explore in that.
    • And what the terminators are like also reflects what SFX were able to do. I hadn’t realised before but when the 101 is just the robot, at the end of T1, it’s actually stop-motion – and it’s really obvious to me now. The T1000’s beautifully liquid reassembly is still a joy to watch. And while it’s utterly cheesy and made me roll my eyes, the TX being able to morph so that she is basically able to use her body like rope is another change in the technology available for such effects.
  • I love Sarah Connor. I quite like her in T1, although she’s not all that much more than a damsel in distress. But then what Cameron does with her in T2 is spectacular; I do wonder how much that was inspired by Ellen Ripley. Making her a Cassandra is a great narrative choice, for all it’s hideous to watch her in the asylum, and seeing the evolution of her attitude towards the Model 101 is fascinating. Also, filling her coffin with weapons for later? Most badass request ever put in a will.
  • Not gonna lie: had posters of Edward Furlong on my wall as a teen. I think he still stacks up as a teen actor. Nick Stahl, unfortunately, is just not that great in T3. He’s probably the most disappointing part of the film.
  • The films as objects are also interesting. T1 is definitely of its time – it feels so slow, and some of the chase scenes get pretty boring. Also Kyle Reese is a boor in much of his interaction with Sarah (I do really like Michael Biehn in the role), and I find it quite hard to watch these days. T2 is by far the best of the trilogy, although that might also reflect my childhood viewing of it. The pace, Sarah, the explosions, getting Dyson on side… it’s just a well-constructed narrative overall. T3 isn’t a disaster but it’s also not a masterpiece. What I do love about it, though, is that there’s so little hope, in comparison with the other two. And I guess that’s the point. For all that they’ve done, for all their attempts at circumventing Armageddon, the suggestion is that humans just will create their own destruction. Can’t say I necessarily disagree.

Do not regret re-watching these films at all. May regret either Salvation or Genesis… stay tuned.

Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021)

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

As someone more au fait with anthologies than me pointed out, this anthology doesn’t have a introduction. So there’s no discussion of what speculative fiction is, let alone what African speculative fiction is. Which means that the answer to both of those questions is: These stories. All of them. These authors write that.

A few of these names – Sheree Renee Thomas, Tobias S Buckell – were familiar to me, but most were not. Part of this is that I don’t read a whole heap of short fiction these days, especially not the online magazines – it’s too hard – but it’s also partly about the speculative fiction scene that gets a lot of notice still being really white (I am not very wired into the whole scene these days anyway). Which makes an anthology like this excellent… because we’re a long way away from not needing such a thing, so don’t bring me the “but everyone’s work should be judged on merit” nonsense.

Anyway: the stories! This is a truly diverse set of fiction. There’s magic and there’s robots and there’s myths and there’s so-close-to-reality, and there’s horror (sometimes akin to the close-to-reality); there’s stories set in recognisable places and future places and past places and nowhere-places. Women and men and ungendered and who cares, families and not, hope and not,

I didn’t love every story, but I never do, with an anthology. And some of those were horror, which I pretty much always don’t enjoy. There was only one story that I got impatient with and skimmed over, which is a pretty good hit-rate in 360 pages.

This is great. I hope it’s the first in a long line of such volumes, as the cover page suggests.

Redshirts

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

I am very late to this Scalzi party, clearly.

I remember when Redshirts first came out and a lot of the discussion about it. But although I’d seen all the Star Trek movies to that point, I’d never watched any of the tv, and I didn’t feel that much affinity for the show – and given all the talk was of this book being a riff on that, I didn’t feel compelled to read it.

Now, though, I have watched all of Voyager; and all of Discovery and Picard to date; and even, perhaps most relevantly, most of Lower Decks. So really, for me, this is the right time to read this book.

I also, at the original publication, had read zero Scalzi. I know, this is kind of amazing for someone so into the genre. But he just never really came across my radar. And then I finally came across the Interdependency trilogy, and gave it ago, and fell very heavily in love with those books. So, now I can say that I like what I’ve read of his work. Again, this timing was good for me.

So, what of Redshirts? Having read Mary Robinette Kowal’s introduction, I was expecting this to be hilarious. And… it wasn’t. At least, not for me. That is, there were some funny bits, mostly in dealing with expectations and stereotypes, sometimes in the language, and such things. But I didn’t laugh out loud. So in that way I was a bit disappointed. As a narrative, though, it really is very clever and very well done; as Kowal also said, it takes an idea at the start – the lowly types of Star Trek etc who never get much screen time – and develops them into characters, and THEN completely turns what you’re expecting not only on its head, but sideways and inside out and into configurations I couldn’t imagine. So all of that was surprising, intriguing, and enjoyable. I will admit that the very end I found … not disappointing, exactly, but perhaps bewildering? That is, I didn’t feel like it added much, if anything, so I was left feeling blinking and a bit confused – there was a lack of resolution, because too much had been added on (perhaps this is the complaint about the “too many endings” of Return of the King…).

Is this a fun book to read? yes. Did I actually have to watch a lot of Star Trek to enjoy it? No; but I think a bit of knowledge does deepen the appreciation of what Scalzi is doing. Does my slight disappointment mean I’ll never read another Scalzi? Oh heck no. I don’t think he’ll ever be a “must buy now” author for me, but I will always be keeping an eye out for his work.

Inhibitor Phase

*high pitched keening noise*

New Alastair Reynolds. Set in the Revelation Space universe.

*high pitched keening noise*

I received this book from the publisher at no cost. Trade paperback available August 31, $32.99.

In case the above reaction wasn’t enough to give it away, I am a verrrry big fan of Alastair Reynolds. Which isn’t to say I love everything he’s written; I haven’t. However, Revelation Space continues to be one of my very favourite sequences of books, ever, so the idea of another in that universe… well. /fans self.

The preface suggests you could read this cold, and I guess you could – certainly enough other books ask you to work pretty hard, with random names like Conjoiner thrown at you with little explanation. There’s a joy in discovering what it’s all about! For me, though, a huge part of the joy came from remembering all the details of the Revelation Space universe, so I really have no idea what it would be like to go in with no knowledge.

This story is set later than almost all of the other Revelation Space stories. Humanity is on the brink thanks to an external threat – and there’s an interesting connection here to the Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past stories, with the idea of profligate species spewing out radio and other signals and just letting everyone who might be out there hear you… and that maybe that’s not a good idea.

Miguel de Ruyter is sheltering with a small band of humans on a very inhospitable rock. As always happens, a stranger comes to town… and things go very wrong very quickly.

People aren’t who you expect, mistakes are made, epic crises are experienced and occasionally averted, light years are travelled, planets are visited. Discoveries, chases, explosions; courage is found and choices are made.

I loved it. I loved it a lot. I love the way it talks about humanity (very broadly interpreted) in all its messy, confusing, loving, courageous, selfish and impossible character. I love the grand scope and the narrow detail and the insistence that there must be room for both. I love the writing and the characters and I’m so excited that it exists.