Tag Archives: sf

Terra Nullius

UnknownThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now, RRP $29.99.

Terra nullius has a specific resonance for Australians who know anything about their history. It’s the legal fiction under which Britain decided they could colonise the land that’s now Australia, because it was ‘nobody’s land’ – that is, no one that the British recognised owned it. Because the British didn’t recognise the traditional owners as ‘owning’ the land, for a whole bunch of reasons. So for Claire G Coleman to use that as the name and premise of her book is brilliant, and pointed, and tells you a lot about what the book is on about before you even open it.

Coleman, who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, won the black&write! writing fellowship in 2016 with this manuscript. The main reason why I think that’s awesome – aside from the obvious one that it’s a great book – is a bit spoiler-y, and that’s a bit of a problem with discussing this book at all…

The blurb talks about Natives, the Colony, and Settlers. It says “This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history. This TERRA NULLIUS is something new, but all too familiar.” Along with the fact that this is a didactic book (in no way a criticism) that does its message-work with clear prose, understandable characters, compassion and a lot of toughness… I can’t really say much more about the book without revealing what makes it something other than a book about Australian history. There’s runaways and enforced schooling and hiding from Settlers and Settlers complaining about the environment… and… other things.

I want to throw this book at all white Australians. And I would be fascinated to hear what non-Australians think, especially people living in other colonised lands. I don’t know enough about how that’s spoken of elsewhere to know whether the resonance would work in a non-Australian context… but I think there’s enough commonality for it not to be a completely foreign experience.

And now, for those of you who don’t mind spoilers:

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Provenance

UnknownI received this book from the publisher at no cost.

I really really liked this book. It’s very different from the Ancillary books, despite being set in the same universe; the concerns are different and the setting is different. What’s not different is the awesomeness of the writing itself, and the sheer excellence of the story and that the characters are delightfully well-rounded and gripping.

I told you I liked it.

Some of the things I really liked are minorly spoilery, so they’re below, but at heart it’s a ripping good story with characters I genuinely cared about in a society that’s just different enough to be alien and similar enough to be familiar, with the differences being intriguing. There’s political shenanigans and surprising coincidences and sibling rivalry and questionable identities…. Also, if you have read the Ancillary books (in no way necessary, although there is a tangential spoiler for the books), it’s fun to see how other societies view the Radch (unsurprisingly, with suspicion).

It appears to be a stand-alone, in case unfinished trilogies put you off. I didn’t quite read it in a day, but close. I adore Imray, the main character, a lot.

These spoilers don’t spoil the story, but just in case you want to discover them yourself:

SPOILERS:
1. The gender stuff! Choosing your own gender and your own name! With THREE options, and no suggestion that there’s any link to any physical bits! Such a neat way of doing it. And it’s just… there… and doesn’t play a role in the plot itself, because really why should gender play a part in what someone can do? As I write this I realise that that’s actually really significant: Imray has chosen to be female but there’s no suggestion that she is impaired by that, and none of the non-binary folk are hampered by their choice either… they’re all just people.

2. The vestiges! I see this as a nod to the Roman lares, the household gods, and the fact that leading families would have remnants from their famous ancestors to boost their own standing. But of course heaps of people do this sort of thing – investing objects with numinous power – just look at celebrity objects that get sold for stupid amounts of money. I loved that even when the authenticity (provenance!) of objects was questioned, Imray realised that in one sense at least it doesn’t matter if an object is genuine, because of the way it accumulates power and authority thanks to how people think about it. I really, really enjoyed this aspect.

3. Imray herself. Her appearance is largely irrelevant to the plot, which I really only noticed the one of two times that it <i>was</i> mentioned, in passing. And those mentions were about things like a particular space suit not being designed with someone of her roundness in mind. This is a person who’s not tiny but… no one cares. Also, she cries several times – and is never criticised for it, never made to feel like that’s a weak, womanly thing to do. She tries not to cry, a few times, so as not to betray her emotions – but it’s not gendered.

Murderbot

Murderbot1250I mean, it’s called All Systems Red, but everyone’s just calling it Murderbot.

In short:
Want. More.

Cleverly written, intriguing plot, and a narrator that I really, REALLY want to hear more from.

In length:
I had heard a lot about Murderbot before I read this. Remarkably, it actually lived up to the hype. Written almost like a diary, it allows the reader into the mind of a robot who has been tasked to look after some explorers – who don’t realise that their robotic servant has no control chip, and is therefore choosing to look after them rather than simply and blindly following instructions.

It’s a reflection on autonomy, and choice; on how we treat those in subservient positions, the uncanny valley,and identity. It is also a mighty fine story that kept me engrossed and makes me leap for joy when I know there’s at least another three in the series to come.

Binti: The Night Masquerade

This novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be on sale in January 2018.

This story follows on from Binti and Binti: Home. You really need to have read them first, and you will really want to because they’re great.

Binti has changed: she changed by leaving home, she changed through her dreadful encounter with the Meduse, through her time at university, through her discovery about the truth of the Desert People. One of the major issues that she continues to deal with in this, the third and final story, is the ongoing consequence of those changes. Personally, and in her relationships with family and her wider community, and indeed the world. While there are broader things of concern going on, this is really the heart of Okorafor’s story and I really love it. She ends up feeling so many connections to so many people and groups; the question of how you please yourself, or everyone, is of ongoing concern.

Aside from her own personal tussles, this book is also focused on the ancient feud between the Khoush and the Meduse, which Binti discovers herself in the middle of. It’s been in the narrative since the start, since it instigated the events that made Binti who she is. Okorafor looks at how two large political entities might confront one another, as well as how that impacts on the non-involved around them.

All three Binti stories are wonderfully well written. Okorafor writes dialogue beautifully and she evokes the desert, here, powerfully. I do feel that this is the least satisfying of the stories overall, mostly because the conclusion felt slightly rushed and there were a couple of connections that didn’t flow as well as I expected. Nonetheless, it was a hugely enjoyable read and I definitely recommend reading all three.

Octavia Butler cover reveal

Haven’t really talked about this much in these parts, but I’ve been working on a second book this year! This one is in honour of Octavia Butler, a groundbreaking science fiction writer: amazing stories, provocative ideas, and (it appears) the first African-American woman to make a living from science fiction. And this is the cover!!Luminescent threads Cover LR RGBl.jpg

The book comprises almost 50 original pieces – letters and essays – to and about Butler, encompassing a bunch of different issues and themes and responses. You can see the list of contributors at the Twelfth Planet Press site. It will also include some reprinted material.

I’m really pleased with how the book has developed, and I am in love with the cover.

Mother of Invention

Mother of inventionTansy, Rivqa: I hear you have an exciting new project coming up. Care to share what it is?

Hi, Alex! We’re about to launch a crowdfunding campaign for a new speculative fiction anthology of artificial intelligence stories: Mother of Invention.

So tell me about this title. Who came up with it, what’s the point, and so on?

Artificial intelligence stories, from the very beginning, have always been dominated by the idea of a male creator ‘giving birth’ to robots or intelligent computers. This in turn means that we end up with a lot of artificial intelligence narratives with a sexy female robot, or a disembodied voice played by Scarlett Johanssen. Starting with Frankenstein (though even going back to the Ancient Greek Pygmalion/Galatea myth) the stories so often centre around the idea of what happens (or what goes terribly wrong) when men create life. Is Susan Calvin the only iconic female creator of artificial life in our whole genre? We’re happy to be ‘well, actually’d on this one, but she’s definitely outnumbered by her male counterparts.

To be honest, the ‘isolated dude builds/interacts with sexy robot girlfriend/daughter and/or angry robot/computer son who wants to kill him’ tropes have become the SF equivalent of ‘middle-aged college professor has affair with younger female student’.  And just because (some) women can have babies biologically doesn’t mean they can’t build robots or super-smart imaginary friends as well as, or instead of, creating life the squishy old fashioned way.

We wanted to challenge the gender dynamic of artificial intelligence stories, and rather than focus on the ‘why are all robot women sexy and adorable’ trope, we thought we’d let some fantastic writers explore the idea of what kind of artificial lifeforms women, and other under-represented genders, might create.

As for the title… it took us ages to find something that captured what we want, but ultimately the quote ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ gave us the answer. When it comes to artificial intelligence stories, the motivation is often just as interesting as the ‘how it all went terribly wrong’ part, and we’re interested to see how the gender of the creator in these stories will affect what they build, and who they make.

The anthology will be published by Twelfth Planet Press… why go with them?

Twelfth Planet Press have a reputation for smart, thought-provoking projects and for challenging the gender dynamic of SF publishing, so they were absolutely our first choice. We’ve both worked with them before, though mostly at the fiction writing end of things, so it’s exciting to be getting our teeth into an editing project this time around.
We want to follow in the footsteps of Kaleidoscope and Defying Doomsday, which were both fantastic, diverse anthologies with strong political concepts behind them.

Do you have a stash of money up your collective sleeves to pay the authors for the project, or do you have some other plan?

Crowdfunding is our plan! With a project like this, a crowdfunding campaign has a lot of benefits to it, particularly that you can create advanced buzz for the book, and also gauge the interest of the readers. If we can’t make our target, then we don’t have enough interest to make the book viable, and it’s better to know that up front. The best thing about crowdfunding is that we are able to comfortably pay the authors (and editors and designers and artists and everyone) professional rates, which is often a hard ask for an Aussie small press budget.

Twelfth Planet Press has run a couple of very successful crowdfunding campaigns for anthologies like this one, and each time that has helped to bring international awareness to the book which is hugely important. We may be working out of the Australian suburbs, but we want to get this book into the hands of readers all around the world.

This will actually be the first time Twelfth Planet Press has worked with Kickstarter rather than the locally-based Pozible, so that’s an exciting adventure. It will be interesting to see whether it makes a difference to international reach.

Are there any authors associated with the project yet?

Yes, there are! We’ll also be opening for general submissions after crowdfunding closes, from July-August 2017.

Our core team of Mother of Invention authors are Seanan McGuire, John Chu, Kameron Hurley, Nisi Shawl, Sandra McDonald, E.C. Myers, Justina Robson, Bogi Takács, Rosaleen Love, Cat Sparks and Joanne Anderton. We also have an essay coming from Ambelin Kwaymullina, which we are very excited about.

Do you have dream plots or ideas you’d like to see reflected in your slush pile?
Version 2

Tansy: I’m not gonna lie, I kind of want at least one super smart sexbot story and/or a gender-reversed Stepford Wives story. So many robot-as-person stories are about beauty and perfection and the unrealistic expectations on human/artificial female bodies, so I’d love something that turns that around to look at the potential sexuality/sensuality of artificial male bodies. I’d also love to see stories that look at how women socialise and connect to each other, and how intelligences that are created by women might reflect that. I’d definitely like a range of ages of the creators — a 96-year-old woman and a 15-year-old girl are going to create a different intelligent software, presumably. What would you get if they worked together?

I also really want stories that challenge our premise, challenge the gender binary, and allow for a wide, inclusive definition of what gender means anyway. Artificial intelligence is a theme that invites a complex exploration of gender (or an absence of gender) beyond just the creator themselves, so it would be fantastic to get stories that do this.

rivqa.jpgRivqa: While I’m sure we’ll be including some ‘AI turns evil’ stories, I’m personally more excited to see stories that explore our creators’ creations in more subtle ways. In particular, autonomy interests me as a writer and a parent. At what point do we let go of our children, whatever their nature? What does it mean to make an autonomous AI, whether purposefully or accidentally?

Like Tansy, I’m excited to see how our authors use the theme to explore gender identity and expression. Would a female, genderqueer or agender creator necessarily invent something different to a cis male creator? Or is that just playing into the kyriarchy’s hands in a different way? I can’t wait to see how our submissions subvert the tired old trope of the cis male inventor, because I have no doubt that they’ll do so in a multitude of ways.
At a simpler level, I’m just looking forward to reading stories from people who love robots as much as I do, because I think they’re awesome.

What’s the timeline for all of this?
It all starts in June 2017, just a few weeks from now! We’ll be crowdfunding for the whole month. We’ll then have our open submission period and be reading, selecting and editing for the rest of this year. We’ll be delivering crowdfunding rewards from early 2018, with the book itself delivering to supporters in June 2018.

We also have a stretch goal planned for a companion series of gender and artificial intelligence essays which would, if we reach the target, extend beyond the original timeline.

Tansy Rayner Roberts is a writer, Hugo Award-winning podcaster and pop culture critic based in Tasmania. Her award-winning fiction includes the Creature Court trilogy and the Love & Romanpunk short story collection. Tansy has edited various magazines and books, most recently the Cranky Ladies of History anthology which was crowdfunded in 2014. She also regularly assesses manuscripts for the Tasmanian Writer’s Centre.

Rivqa Rafael is a writer and editor based in Sydney. Her speculative fiction has been published in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications), Defying Doomsday, and elsewhere. In 2016, she won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. As an editor, she specialises in medical and science writing, both short and long form; she has also edited memoir, fiction and popular magazines.

The Silent Invasion

UnknownI think this is the first James Bradley book I’ve read, which is… a thing. If this is an indication of his calibre, I shall rectify that.

This is a near-future Australia. The entire world has been affected by alien spores that Change animals, plants and people – not everyone, but many of those who come into contact. And the spores  seem to particularly like it hot and humid, so there’s been an exodus of people from the tropical parts of the world. Of course, this hasn’t been particularly well received by the temperate parts of the world. There are walls. And camps. And suspicion of foreigners.

All sounding a bit familiar, isn’t it.

The heart of the book is Callie, an adolescent whose father Changed some years ago and whose young sister is now exhibiting symptoms – because even in temperate Adelaide, you’re not safe from the spores. Rather than allow Gracie to be taken to Quarantine, Callie decides to run away with her to the Zone: the part of Australia that’s been sectioned off by a mighty Wall, to the north of which the Change runs riot. Cue adventure and desperation and bravery and hardship.

What is perhaps most intriguing about this book is the prologue. I mean, I really enjoyed the book, and Callie is a gutsy character, and I liked the depiction of Australia. But the prologue? It makes it clear that this desperate adventure across southern Australia is only the beginning of what will confront Callie across the trilogy. Because in the opening paragraph, she mentions “this alien beach,” and being “under a sky so full of stars that even the night shines”. There is something much weirder going on than just another version of the Triffids, or a slow invasion story. And while I enjoyed the look-after-the-sister story, I am really intrigued by what’s going to happen to Callie to lead her to this alien planet.

Bring on the next book.

The Dark Forest

Unknown.jpegBook 2 of Cixin Liu’s trilogy that started with The Three-Body Problem.

You could probably read this without having read the first book – it’s been ages since I read Three-Body Problem and I didn’t remember a whole heap – but honestly, why would you? It’s such an amazing book that if you’re considering reading these at all (perhaps because the third one has just been nominated for a Hugo Award, which the first book won), seriously just go and read both of them.

So the world is going to be attacked by an alien space-navy… in four centuries. Meanwhile emissaries from those aliens are already here, because somewhat hand-wavy-science, and they’re both halting humanity’s exploration of science and potentially listening in to every single conversation we’re having. So what can be done to try and deal with the aliens, and not have them sabotage humanity’s plans? (The aliens have their human tools, of course, too.) You nominate four people to be Wallfacers: people who have authority to do anything as long as they justify it as “part of the plan”… and they don’t have to explain anything, because if they explain it then the aliens might find out.

Because nothing could go wrong with that plan.

And that’s only part of what this novel is about. There’s also love and loss and trauma and sheer human effrontery. It takes place in the near-isa future and then a few centuries after that. It mostly takes place in China with a few bits elsewhere. Lots of it is from the perspective of Luo Ji, who would really rather it wasn’t, thanks all the same.

Some of the things I really enjoyed and/or was intrigued by:

  1. The acknowledgement, and exploration, of the idea that when confronted with an alien enemy, one of the likely responses is defeatism. Even in the armed forces. This is actually quite refreshing, given how often Hollywood blockbusters like to present (usually American) soldier-heroes.
  2. The general lack of draaaamah. When things go bad, people react, but there’s not pages upon pages of people feeling sorry for themselves. Nonetheless, these are still generally real and believable, if restrained, characters who I enjoyed reading about and did feel that I got to know (somewhat, anyway). (And I’m not only referring to the Chinese characters when I say that; the USan and other characters also don’t go in for massive theatrics.)
  3. Shi Qiang. About the only main character to transition from Three-Body to this, and I love him. He’s so quirky and shrewd and insightful and human. (I can imagine Miller, from the Expanse, and Da Shi getting together and drinking way too much and sharing police stories for hours.)
  4. Zhang Beihai. What even was going on with that narrative arc? Fascinating and unexpected; every time he appeared on the page I didn’t even bother trying to figure out what was going to happen. Because I knew I would be wrong.

This is a great science fiction novel and I’m completely stoked for the third, although I can’t really fathom where it’s going to go. Do not read this unless you prepared for some pretty hard-core science discussion, and if you’d rather that your fiction has in-dpeth discussion of character motivation and lavish character reflection. Do read if you enjoy a brilliant SF story with breathtaking ideas.

Gemina

Unknown.jpegThis is the sequel to the brilliant Illuminae. Intriguingly, though, it could definitely be read as a stand-alone book. There’s an entirely new set of main characters, and while the events do flow on from the initial ones they’re taking place in a completely different part of space. What little background knowledge might be useful is provided as part of the briefing documents.

Note: if you didn’t enjoy Illuminae (and I understand the style isn’t for everyone), don’t come to this one.

Like Illuminae, the novel is composed of ‘found’ documents, here presented as part of trial. Those documents are things like IM-chat transcripts; descriptions of video surveillance, complete with occasional snarky comments from the tech doing the description; logs of emails, and other communications; and a few other bits and pieces. It means that the narrative isn’t entirely linear, and this works really nicely – the story of what has happened, and what the characters are like, comes out slowly and… I guess organically. There’s a few bits where people are described in reports or get talked about, but in general we learn about them through their words and actions.

The setting for the main narrative is a space station, guarding a worm hole that has gates to several different systems. Something terrible happens, and things must be done by unlikely heroes. Exactly the depth of the Terrible Things and how they might be resolved are the focus of the story. There’s crawling through air vents and unlikely alliances, hacking both computer and physical, general death and destruction and mayhem, betrayals and banter. And it all happens over a really short space of time so that it feels quite desperate and breathless; when I had to put it down 50 pages from the end to go out for dinner (I’d read the rest of it that day), I was horrified at leaving everyone hanging.

This is an immensely fun book. I can imagine it working on reluctant readers – or those who think they only like graphic novels – once they got over the thickness of it, that is, since it’s a very graphic piece of work: each page is designed to look like what it’s meant to be, whether that’s a chat transcript or legal documents. Or excerpts from an adolescent girl’s diary. Each ‘chapter’ feels short and punchy because none of the documents are very long. It’s a clever pacing trick.

A very entertaining and enjoyable book. I am excited for the next instalment.

Babylon’s Ashes

Unknown
In theory it took me months to read this, because I read the prologue… and then I put it down. Then I read the first two chapters… and then I put it down. And I read like 30 other books and then I finally picked it up and read it. This is no reflection on the book or the series; I’ve been waiting for this book since I finished book 5. I think partly this was a concern that the book would be too much; that after the events of book 5, how could things POSSIBLY go well for my beloved characters? And there’s an intensity to Corey’s writing, too, that I just didn’t feel ready for at the start of this year.

But I finally got over all of that and I read it and of course it’s fantastic and by golly I want book 7 yesterday. I had wondered how on earth the series could be continued… but now it’s clear. Well, as clear as the combined minds that make James Corey can ever be to someone out here.

(Spoilers for the first five books, I guess)

Things I continue to love about this series:

  • the focus on little, domestic things in the midst of solar-system wide disaster. The image of Avasarala applying a ‘homeopathic’ level of rouge is priceless. Also the details of life on the Roci and the various stations and asteroids. Plus…
  • the focus on characters and relationships. Holden’s vague concerns about having Clarissa on board: make so much sense, and he tries so hard to deal with it and it’s so sweet amidst all the political wrangling. Bobbie, and where she might ever fit in. Every single thing damned about Avasarala. Also Amos.
  • the widening perspective. There are more character perspectives in this book than previous ones, as has been the trend. So we get a much wider view of what’s going on; motivations and consequences, reactions and individual concerns. They matter, even when the solar system is threatened.
  • just… the writing. It is so very easy to read. This is the sort of thing I would like to read all the time please.

This book is, of course, not an entirely easy or pleasant book. Terrible, terrible things happen. I was constantly worried, at the back of my mind, that THIS would be the book where Corey decided to screw up the crew of the Roci. Of course that nearly happened in the last book, and I had a lot of trouble dealing with my darlings all being in different places; maybe that was a softening up to deal with one of them… leaving? Dying? And then of course there’s the worries about the solar system, and Earth as a whole being devastated, and the Belt being in huge difficulties too… so while it’s not quite apocalypse level (well, aside from Earth, but there’s not so much focus on that in this volume), this is still not a book to read if you’re feeling particularly fragile. That said, it is still a great story, and of course the point of the whole series is human endurance and dealing with enormous difficulties.

I love this series.