Tag Archives: sf

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday

I have a question. And that question is, what the heck was I doing this time last year that I didn’t rush out to get myself a copy of this novella? Because it really can’t have been that important. I didn’t even know what it was about! I just can’t quite get my head around that; what a failing on my part. Still, thanks to WorldCon and whoever mentioned it on a panel, I finally got my act together and I inhaled it pretty damn quickly.

At some unspecified point in the future – definitely a ways into the future, but not so far that humans are off colonising the far reaches of the galaxy – Melek Ahmar, the Lord of Mars, the Red King, the Lord of Tuesday, Most August Rajah of Djinn, wakes up. Turns out he has been asleep for a rather long time, and things have changed. Wandering through the Himalayas trying to figure out what’s going on, he comes across Bhan Gurung, a Gurkha living fairly contentedly, it seems, by himself in a cave. Melek Ahmar is disconcerted by Gurung’s lack of servility but makes use of his knowledge about the modern world – like the existence of nanobots, and that there is a city nearby, Kathmandu, which might be ripe for him to take over; after all, a great king like him needs subjects. Melek Ahmar and Gurung go to Kathmandu and… things progress from there. Poorly, for some people; certainly sideways for a number of them. It turns out Gurung has ulterior motives; and things aren’t quite what they seem in Kathmandu – although the fact that it is run by an AI, allocating karma rather than money as currency, isn’t a secret.

There’s a lot going on here. Melek Ahmar, the Lord of Tuesday, himself has a lot going on; all sorts of references to Greek and Egyptian and I think Hindu? mythology/ ancient history that make me long for a prequel story about the dastardly deeds of Ahmar’s youth. The slow unravelling of the story behind Kathmandu, and why the world runs with nanobots, is superbly paced and very exactly revealed, until it all finally slots into place. The same with Gurung and the revelation of his character, his story. And the story overall is a joy to read; a variety of characters and their interactions, a setting that’s sketched more than detailed but nonetheless brought to life, and a pace that keeps it all rolling along.

This is one heck of a story. I’ll be getting hold of the two other novels Hossain has out, and looking out for more.

The Space between Worlds

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette Australia, at no cost. It’s due out on August 11; RRP $32.99 (trade paperback).

This is a debut novel – which doesn’t mean Johnson has never written a novel before, of course, just that this is the first one to be published. And it’s pretty great.

It is unclear to me exactly when this is set; some time in the future, but not unimaginably so. It’s also unclear where this is set – I just assume it’s meant to be America because as an Australian, I assume most novels are set in America unless they’re evidently in the UK somewhere. (Realising the setting is Australia, or somewhere other than the US or UK, is often a very surprising moment, unless I’ve gone in knowing the story is deliberately set in, say, Nigeria.)

Anyway. Both the when and the where are basically irrelevant to the story, because the most important where is that most of the action is on Earth Zero. This is a world where not only have parallel universes been discovered to be real, but someone has discovered how a person can travel between them.

These sorts of stories have happened before (says the fan of Fringe) but the particularly clever thing that Johnson does is the caveat that you can only survive traveling to a world where your dop (doppelgänger) is dead.

Barring unfortunate accidents, you know who makes the most valuable traversers, therefore? who are the people able to access the most worlds? It’s the people whose survival to adulthood is unlikely. For wealth, ethnic, gender, location, and other systemic reasons. Those who grow up in areas with a lot of violence. Those from families or suburbs or countries with widespread violence. Those who, in the general course of a capitalist world, are seen to have little real value.

This is a brilliant twist, and I love it. And I also love that Johnson doesn’t present this as meaning that those people suddenly get great lives. Instead, the protagonist – Cara – is always aware of the fact that she could be replaced by robots when that tech works; that the people who were born in the nice town, as opposed to where she grew up (very much not-the-nice town), look down on her or fear her. Her existence is precarious despite her value to the company.

So partly the narrative is about Cara and her navigation of the two worlds – the rich and the poor, in brutal essence – that she straddles. It’s also, of course, about literally moving between worlds, and seeing how different choices have led to different outcomes – on a societal level or an individual one. Unsurprisingly Cara ends up being more involved in one of these other worlds than is appropriate by company standards, and that has knock-on effects for that world as well as her own, which is the bulk of the story.

The novel has little interest in explaining how moving between the worlds works; the science and technology are irrelevant to the story. Instead, Johnson is interested in the people: what secrets are kept and why; how relationships work; why certain decisions are made, and how they change human interactions. I enjoyed this focus a lot.

One aspect didn’t quite work for me; there’s an undercurrent of science v religion, especially in the way that Cara talks about the experience of moving between worlds – as a goddess allowing her to do so. I didn’t feel like this really fit the rest of the story. However, this does not detract from the rest of the story; it just felt undeveloped, like there could have been a bit more discussion of the possible mysticism of moving between worlds; it’s just not there as much as I think I expected.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book, and I hope that Johnson is able to write many more in a similar vein.

Murderbot #5

… whose proper name is Network Effect, but everyone just calls all these stories Murderbot, don’t they?

In case you’re late to this party: in 2017, a novella called All Systems Red came out and a lot of people went a bit nuts about a Security Unit robot who had hacked its governor module and was therefore under no one’s control, who kept doing its job because it didn’t know what alternatives there were – it just knew that sitting in one spot and watching media all day was going to land it in trouble. And thus, Murderbot. All Systems Red introduced Murderbot and its problems with humans (including that they keep trying to get themselves killed; Murderbot’s job is preventing that); its love of an epic drama called Sanctuary Moon; and a particular job that goes sideways because the galaxy it inhabitants is largely run by corporations, and the corps like to try and get away with everything. Security Units are used by other companies to try and prevent the other other companies from destroying or killing their stuff.

Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy all followed, wth Murderbot trying to learn more of its own history, the possibilities for its future, and where it can access more media please and thank you except probably without the pleasantries.

If you haven’t read the four novellas yet, you want to stop reading here – partly because of spoilers and partly because seriously your life will be better for having read Murderbot why are you even still here? Ann Leckie says she loves Murderbot; NPR claimed “We are all a little bit Murderbot” and I have to say, right now: so true.

So that brings us to the novel, Network Effect. This picks up fairly soon after Exit Protocol; Murderbot is on Preservation, working for/with Dr Mensah and her family, and trying to figure out what it’s doing and what should come next. Well, it’s not actually on Preservation at the start of the novel; it’s with a survey team and we all know how well that tends to go. And that’s pretty much how it goes… and then things manage to get worse, right about when it shouldn’t. What a surprise. No wonder Murderbot despairs of humans.

Basically if you like the Murderbot novellas I don’t see any reason for you not to love the novel. It’s just… more. More snark from Murderbot, more hating on having emotions, more existential confusion about what it should be doing. Many, many more explosions and much drastic action and epic failures of plans (sometimes because of unforeseen events; sometimes because humans), opportunities for hating on the corporations, and conflicted feelings about the humans in its care responsibility.

I can only hope that Wells is interested in continuing to explore Murderbot’s developing sense of self, and their conflicted relationship with their risk assessment module. Murderbot isn’t human, has no desire to be human, and hates passing itself off as human even when that’s a security necessity. And there is no better way to explore the concept of humanity than through its interactions, its changes in response to stimuli, and its refusal to accept what’s right in front of its visual inputs.

The City We Became

UnknownI loved the short story that turned into the prologue of this book. And I love this book.

It should be noted that I do not know New York. At all. I understand people who love NYC have a very particular reaction to this book, but that’s not me. You tell me it has five boroughs? OK. You tell me Staten Island doesn’t like being one of those boroughs? Happy to believe you. You could tell me that New York streets are all slightly curved either north or west and I would have to actually do research to see if you were right.

So anything I say about this book in relation to New York City should keep that in mind. My love for this book does not stem from my love for the city that is, in more visceral ways than is usually meant by this phrase, truly a character within the book.

Six characters, in fact…

Look, to some extent my reviewing this book is a bit redundant. There have been lots of other reviews by people who are far more eloquent than me; who know New York better than me, who can speak to the WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT twist that I seriously didn’t see coming (possibly because I don’t have a certain background, which I am completely fine with), who can speak to the way this book reflects Americana with much more knowledge than me. So what do I have to add?

I can say that even as someone who doesn’t know the USA or NYC, this book is visceral and captures a city brilliantly. And USES a city and the way people think about it to magnificent effect

I can say that it’s fantastically paced – meeting new characters and ‘getting the band together’ can sometimes be tiresome, but not here. Here, it’s all so intricately part of the evolving plot and understanding what the heck is happening that I barely noticed half the characters hadn’t met each other for a substantial part of the novel.

I assume that those who know NYC will agree with the choices made for who represents each borough, or at least see where Jemisin in coming from; the explanation for why you get a particular person in a particular area made sense to me in a fictional way, at least. So I can say I loved the variety of characters and the amount of backstory that is woven expertly into the current story and why those things are necessary and how each character could really just have a mundane story written about them and it would still be fascinating.

I can say that I have precisely zero regrets about pre-ordering this six months ago and have every intention of doing the same as soon as the sequel is announced.

And… SPOILERS BELOW:

Continue reading →

Slow River

UnknownI don’t often go to the library, privileged as I am to be able to afford books, as a rule – and I like owning books. But sometimes I think I might like to read a book and probably not own it.

This book is one that I picked up at the library because I was there getting something else; the yellow of the SF Masterworks stood out to me, along with Griffith’s name – I didn’t know she had a piece in that set. So, serendipity at play.

This is a fascinating novel and one that I can’t really do justice to in a review – I’d give too much away and I hate doing that.

At the centre is Lore, who either doesn’t know much about herself or doesn’t want to know much about herself when she wakes up naked on the street. She’s taken in by Spanner, who might have acted like a saviour but really isn’t one, not in how she acts and not in how she thinks, and she doesn’t want to be one either. The relationship between Spanner and Lore is… difficult, and sometimes unpleasant; necessary, too, at least for a while. Griffith does a good job at revealing details quietly, and slowly, and almost without you noticing, so that a complex picture gradually comes to light.

This is also the case with Lore’s own family and personal history. A glimpse here and an idea there, gradual filling in of gaps, and suddenly things make so much more sense.

The world Griffith created as futuristic in 1995 is really quite recognisable today. There are some things that are still futuristic – the bioremediation of waterways is probably still a long way off – but her descriptions of the city and the way things work is full of familiar detail. And that’s where Griffith’s genius is, I think; it’s in the detail. This isn’t a Neuromancer adventure; it’s not a Mellissa Scott adventure. This is a story about life and the difficulties – and joys – of relationships, set in a web of competing economics and politics. Above all it’s about identity, and whether identity is mutable or not; whether revelations can change who we are, and whether we want them to; whether other people can change who we are, and whether we want them to.

Just great.

Made to Order

UnknownFor the centenary of the coining of the word ‘robot’, Jonathan Strahan has compiled an anthology of new work about those… beings? objects? creations? The word ‘robot’ is derived from the Czech word for slave, so perhaps it’s appropriate that a description of what they are is hard to come by. Strahan begins by putting robots into an even greater lineage and ancestry than a hundred years, though, pointing out that the Greek god Hephaestus has golden assistants, and the many stories of golems, and coming up to Frankenstein’s creation too. He goes on to touch lightly on the myriad ways robot-like beings have influenced fiction more recently (tripods to chat bots). I don’t always read introductions (sorry J), but this one is well worth the time and really sets the scene for the entire anthology.

I won’t go over every story, because that would be a bit tedious. Basically every story was great, which pleased me immensely!

Vina Jie-Min Prasad starts off the anthology with “A Guide for Working Breeds,” written as a series of chats between two bots. One is required to be the mentor for the other, who is pretty new to the whole work-scene; the slight boredom and irritation of the first is set off against the enthusiasm of the newb and feels all too real. The entire narrative is in chat; Prasad works in enough detail that by the end of it I felt like I had read far more narrative than was actually on the page. Very nice.

On the other hand, Peter Watts’ “Test 4 Echo” is not nice. It’s a great story, but it’s not nice. It’s got solar exploration and an intriguing design for a robot on Enceladus, but the way that the robot is treated is not nice. It’s got discussion of developing robot sentience, but the way it works out is not nice. I really enjoyed it… but it’s not nice. 

“The Hurt Pattern,” from Tochi Onyebuchi, is a terrifying look at a very near, very plausible future that is more about the humans than the robots, because it’s about how humans teach robots and what we can unconsciously impart, and how that can be manipulated and used for profit, or nefarious purpose. I found this story distressing, actually, because it’s so very believable: how algorithms can be used to affect society. Including law enforcement.

In-built obsolesce crops up a few times, and perhaps nowhere as poignantly as in John Chu’s “Dancing with Death” which features a robot that should be on its way out and a mechanic who is more than he seems and also a really, really good mechanic. This one really is beautiful.

Sofia Samatar contributes probably my favourite story, in “Fairy Tales for Robots.” Onyebuchi presented a nightmare scenario for what might happen with the way humans teach algorithms; Samatar presents someone trying to teach a ‘robot'(ish) to think for itself, to consider how stories might guide decisions and attitudes. The way Samatar takes fairytales and myths – some familiar to my Anglo-Australian upbringing, others not so – and demonstrates how they can be seen as relevant to an artificial life is just breathtaking, it’s so imaginative. I really, really loved this piece.

We Wuz Pushed

978-1-61976-005-9.jpg

Basically if you’re interested in Joanna Russ’ work, or you’re interested in the way fiction, in particular, can be involved in radical truth-telling, you need to get this book. It’s from Aqueduct Press.

I am a big Joanna Russ fan, so I’m intrigued by everything that does any work deconstructing her work. Mandelo takes as her project the idea that Russ’ entire oeuvre is concerned with radical truth-telling – that art should bring not only pleasure but truth, and not only deconstruct myth but also present new realities. She goes through all of Russ’ science fiction novels, pointing out the truths that are present there and how Russ uses that fiction to suggest new ways of being. I especially liked how Mandelo presented her own journey to understand And Chaos Died – which I haven’t read – and how context can radically change how we understand an author’s intent. I also really, really appreciated how Mandelo addressed the very tricky subject of Russ’ transphobia in The Female Man, and stresses that being able to adjust our understanding of truth should be part of the truth-telling process. And the fact that Russ did, indeed, change her perspective (on trans women and other issues) makes me respect her the more, and gives me something to aim for.

Mandelo also addresses some of Russ’ non-fiction, particularly How to Suppress Women’s Writing and To Write Like a Woman, where the truth-telling is perhaps more obvious in some ways. Overall Mandelo presents Russ’ body of work as a series of writings deeply concerned with the multiple ways in which truth can be told or distorted and what we as a society must do about that. It kinda makes me a bit uncomfortable when I know that I do often go for escapist literature… and I’m not sure how much Russ would approve of that… but perhaps if I can do it with my eyes open she wouldn’t despair too much?

Elysium

Unknown.jpeg

I bought this book ages ago, I think because it was on the Tiptree Award (now Otherwise Award) honours list. And then I didn’t read it for ages because I thought it was horror – which makes no sense because why would I have bought it in the first place if I thought it was horror? At any rate, I finally decided it was time to read it, and Wow. What an astonishing, wonderful, weird, and very clever book.

It starts relatively easily, with Adrianne and Antoine, a couple whose lives are drifting apart. Nothing particularly odd – except Adrianne sees an elk, in the city; and there’s a brief interlude of computer code that makes no sense. But then the story continues… And then all of a sudden it’s Adrian and Antoine, and Antoine is ill, and Adrian is caring for him but life is so hard.

And then it’s Antoinette and Adrianne. And you can see why the Tiptree committee thought this was a worthy book to include on their list, as the characters slip in and out of genders and relationships and sexualities and the story evolves around them.

Sometimes the pair are lovers; sometimes they are biological family. Sometimes they have a strong relationship, sometimes things are fracturing. And as the narrative develops, the world in which they live gets stranger – not as time goes on but as their story takes place in different worlds; sometimes subtly different, sometimes spectacularly so (sometimes there’s a variation on a plague, so at the moment some readers may wish to avoid). And always the relationship between the two is significant: sometimes it actively influences events in the wider world, sometimes the focus is intensely personal. And always there are the computer-code breaks that hint at restoring or losing data, or resetting systems, and it’s really not clear what’s going on but clearly all is not as it should be (in case you didn’t guess that when there was an elk in the middle of a busy city).

This novel is lyrical and intense and passionately human. I’m so glad I finally got to read it. And then I read the afterword and I was floored all over again because of course that’s where it was coming from.

A Memory Called Empire

39863625._SY475_.jpgI had a pretty great January of reading because I realised I had time – and it was the time – to do some reading I’d been meaning to do, in order to nominate for the Hugo Awards. And I’d heard this hyped by a few people so I figured it needed to feature.

It was probably my favourite book published in 2019.

And it’s really hard to decide what to say about it.

It’s fitting that the cover quote is from Ann Leckie, because I was immediately put in mind of her colonial/ imperial themes from the Ancillary books when reading this – although Leckie and Martine explore quite different aspects of that troubling human experience. Here, Teixcalaan is definitely imperial, but I would argue they’re just slightly more subtle than the Raadch about it. Slightly. Both are quite convinced that their way of doing things is right, and it’s reflected in their language. What’s different though is the way the protagonist deals with this. Ambassador Mahit, whose home orbital station may be in line for being imperially expanded over, has been chosen as ambassador at least partly because of her fascination with Teixcalaan culture and society. So has she already been culturally colonised or does she know the enemy well or is it a case of appreciating beauty where one finds it? I adore the complexity of this idea.

… before you get the notion that this is an entirely cerebral book, though, don’t be fooled: there are devious plots and explosions and deceitful manoeuvrings, friends who might not be friends and behind the scenes machinations, secrets that must be kept hidden until they’re not, bonkers social manipulation, a great line in snark and discovery-of-unexpected friends.

Basically, I adored every single word.

Martine has enormous ideas and, I’m convinced, a much larger vision of the universe than readers have any notion of yet. There’s even broader problems for Texicalaan and everyone else than are directly dealt with here, and I can’t wait to see where Martine goes with it all.

And I haven’t even mentioned the secret technology that Mahit must protect, and that her predecessor possibly died doing so.

… And then I discovered that the sequel isn’t due out until early 2021, and I had to sit quietly for a while to allow myself to recover from the devastation.

 

Gideon the Ninth

OMG this book aaaahhhhhh how did I liiiiiive before I read it.

42036589._SY475_.jpgSo this book, right. It’s ok.

Where to even start. How about this: Gideon hates where she lives, everyone she lives with, and her life in general. But she has plans for getting away, and it’s aaaallll going to work out… except of course it doesn’t and she ends up compelled to work with one of the people she hates the most for a chance at actually making her life better. She lives on a nothing rock a long way away from the bright centre of the universe (or solar system), which she hates.

Gideon is a fighter, and she’s cranky, and she has a great stock of lesbian porn, and a magnificent line in snark, and a heart that she tries to bluff her way out of showing anyone. I love her to pieces.

Someone mentioned the Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee in connection with Gideon, and it made me realise all sorts of correspondences. Both have space-faring civilisations that seem to be powered by arcane things: Lee’s universe by calendar mechanics (which is still a seriously ??? moment); Muir’s is driven, in the upper echelons at least, by necromancy. Yeh, if the bones didn’t give it away: this book has, at its core, death magic. Some people die. I do not like horror and I did not find this to be horror: for me, I tend to characterise horror as when I actively feel afraid while reading, and while I was afraid for characters in this novel, I did not get that ‘oh God is there something under my couch reaching for my legs’ feeling that, say, the Doctor Who ep ‘Blink’ encouraged.

Then there’s the characters and their interactions. Frankly, they’re screwed up, in both Machineries and here. Neither main character is exactly someone you’d say was emotionally on an even keel; and neither of them have open, trusting, and healthy relationships with their closest companions. There are aspects of the key relationship here that could perhaps be seen as abuse; I have been fortunate not to experience it so certainly I’m coming from a privileged position, but somehow it didn’t read like abuse. Harrow, Gideon’s opponent/companion, definitely does some actively horrible things… perhaps part of the difference for me was in her motivation. Or maybe I’m just making excuses. The relationship really is quite destructive; and Muir never tries to paint it as anything but.

Finally, I seem to remember being a good halfway through the first Machineries book before having any real notion of what the heck was going on – and the subsequent books revealed more and more until it made that first book like one square on a chess board (maybe a 2×2 square at best). When I got to the end of Gideon, I still wasn’t entirely sure why things were happening or where the story might go next. But in both cases, I was so utterly enthralled by the writing, and so captivated by the characters and the world building, that I actually didn’t care and just threw myself along for the ride. That’s a fairly uncommon experience for me – I tend to be impatient – and it’s a giddy and joyful one when you trust an author that much.

And then I discovered that the sequel isn’t due out until June this year, and I wept.