Monday, August 31, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Engines of God

Amazon link - Audible link

Published in 1994
Awards: 1997 Arthur C Clarke award nominated
Challenges: Pick and Mix Challenge

In The Engines of God a team of archaeologists are forced off a planet just as they are on the verge of making the discovery of a lifetime. Listening in audiobook, I honestly can't remember the names of any characters except Hutch the pilot. I'm not going to look them up, not out of laziness, but because they don't matter. This is not a book about characters Each character has a name, a profession, and a quirk. Hutch is a pilot who is friendly. There's a xenophilologist who is stuck up.

Heck, I can't even remember all of their quirks and I just finished listening to this hours ago:

Which guy was it that Hutch was having a relationship with?
 Rule out the guy who died and there are still two guys it could be.
Doesn't matter.

Who's Angela?
 Did she just show up or was she on the last mission?
  What is her profession?
   What is her quirk?
Doesn't. matter.

What does matter, and why you might read this book, is the xenoarchaeology. It starts with the excavation of an underwater complex on an alien planet and an inscription on a rock tower in an artificially created pseudo-city on that planet's moon.

Imagine your best drill-seargent-meets-academic on the phone and here is my inner monologue for the first third of the book:

Why create this pseudo-city?

Ok, but who created the pseudo-city?

If the inhabitants of the planet didn't do it, why is the inscription in their language?

We need to decode this inscription now!

What do you mean we don't have enough examples of the language to decipher the inscription?

I don't care, get more then!


Well, you'll just have to stop it.

I won't spoil how that turns out, but you're hooked, right?

Follow the clues, do some action archaeology, maybe some action xenophilology, right to the heart of the puzzle. Love or hate the solution, it was an entertaining ride.

And lastly a hat tip to Tom Weiner for narrating the audiobook. It was perfectly good narration, can't find any fault.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz

I finished Flex almost the day it came out and since then, it has been my go-to recommendation for new fantasy. Want something like Ready Player One (but maybe without being only about the pop-culture references)? Flex. Like RPGs/videogames/high-action cinematic fiction? Flex. Tired of cliched characters and unimaginative magic systems? Flex.

Now, the sequel The Flux is coming out and I can't wait to get my hands on it. But first I need to get out one last internet squeal of delight at how much I enjoyed Flex. I can't say it any better than my original review:

Holy crap, guys! This hit so many sweet spots for me. Maybe it's that I play tabletop roleplaying games for the stories and I run them so I get to make the stories, but even when I'm doing neither I find it so nice to just sit there and think of stories in those worlds. Maybe it's that I like well-put-together Excel spreadsheets and neat handwriting, and having my books alphabetized. If you're wondering what I'm rambling about, it's that Steinmetz manages to mash these things together into an amazing, fast paced, urban fantasy (no romance!) that has so many elements that I loved that I can't pick out any that I didn't.  
Paul is a burocromancer, he makes rules work in his favor. He loves them and they love him back. The only problem is that 'mancy is super-dangerous, illegal, and seems to have gained him a nemesis. Along with Valentine, a chubby, kinky videogamemancer, Paul sets out to get enough money to afford the facial reconstruction surgery for his recently burned daughter that the tight-fisted insurance company that employs him denied. It's the one bureaucratic hell where he dares not break any rules lest he lose his job, his health insurance, and any hope of his daughter making it back to health without financially ruining him for the rest of his life. 
Highly recommended as a book I couldn't put down. I've already pre-ordered the sequel coming out this fall.

And speaking of breaking cliches that glorious goddess on the cover is Valentine.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review: If Then by Matthew De Abaitua

I received an advanced copy of If Then from the publisher in exchange for honest feedback.

Amazon link
Available: September 1, 2015
Awards: none yet
Challenges: New in 2015
"'Can I stop this?' he whispered. 
'Your decisions are made six seconds before you are aware of them. What you think of as free will is post-rationalization. You live in the past, James.' 
'No second thoughts?' 
'Your decision has already been made. Don't waste my time with excuses." -Location 1696
Here's the official blurb:
In the near future, after the collapse of society as we know it, one English town survives under the protection of the computer algorithms of the Process, which governs every aspect of their lives. The Process gives and it takes. It allocates jobs and resources, giving each person exactly what it has calculated they will need. But it also decides who stays under its protection, and who must be banished to the wilderness beyond. Human life has become totally algorithm-driven, and James, the town bailiff, is charged with making sure the Process’s suggestions are implemented.  
But now the Process is making soldiers. It is readying for war — the First World War. Mysteriously, the Process is slowly recreating events that took place over a hundred years ago, and is recruiting the town’s men to fight in an artificial reconstruction of the Dardanelles campaign. James, too, must go fight. And he will discover that the Process has become vastly more sophisticated and terrifying than anyone had believed possible.
I loved the characters of James and Ruth. They used to be average people, they had white collar jobs, got married, wanted to start a family, and felt helpless when their security disappeared. When a possible solution appeared they did what they thought was necessary to survive. They put themselves in the hands of The Process trusting that it would look after them. Their sense of betrayal when The Process started behaving incomprehensibly is an amplification of the kind of betrayal we all feel when our governments and politicians let us down.

I found myself fascinated by how the author used tense shifts to signal who is in control and to keep me off-balance. When the characters are in control of themselves narration is in past tense, when The Process is in control narration is in present tense, which makes sense because The Process is in an eternal "now", constantly manipulating the eponymous "then". If A happened, B is what The Process is doing. Over and over, blindingly fast, astronomical numbers of Ifs and even more Thens, until even the story must bend into the present tense to follow James under The Process's control.

The tense also keeps the book feeling surreal. The past tense is used when describing the characters' "present", which is also a regressive future to the reader. The present tense is used when describing the present-as-controlled-by-The-Process, which is a mimicry of events in our past.
"Since the procedure, his forgeries have taken a new quality. He forged an eggshell that when cracked releases albumen and yolk which react to hot oil to form a perfect round fried egg. It is only when you eat the egg that you realize it is made of paint." -location 2177
Besides a surreal atmosphere, there is some perfectly executed and beautifully described weirdness in If Then. Every once in a while, just when things are starting to feel, if not normal, consistent, De Abaitua drops in reminders that the people of Lewes live in a manufactured reality, carefully controlled by something that can quantify, but not understand, humanity. I was drawn into James' perceptions over and over just for us to be reminded that people and their actions were not genuine.

I can't recommend this book more highly. It's slipstream fiction for polymaths. If Then flips off expectations of genre and leaves me feeling like I'm riding its shockwave into the future of literature.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Cat Quest: Bomber and the Bismark by Clare Bell

This review is part of Cat Quest, my challenge to read science fiction and fantasy books that feature cats.

Bomber and the Bismark is the first short story in the collection Catfantastic II (edited by Andre Norton & Martin H. Greenberg).

Feathers, or Lieutenant "Feathers" Geoffrey-Faucett, is a pilot for England on H.M.S. Ark Royal during World War 2. After he rescues a cat that was swimming in the middle of ocean, they learn that the H.M.S. Hood, the flagship of the British fleet has been destroyed by the German battleship Bismark. There are only three survivors...maybe four since the cat, quickly named Bomber because of his unusual coloring, has a collar reading H.M.S. Hood even though Ark Royal is three thousand miles away from where Hood sank. Bomber seems to be an ordinary cat in every way except that he creates a portal through Feathers' cabin wall that goes to the Bismark. Feathers misses his chance to take advantage of that portal, but when Ark Royal is ordered to pursue and take down Bismark they'll both get another chance.

I'm not much of an artist, but here's my shot at drawing Bomber.
I loved this story. Bomber was very cat-like, he even sprayed Feathers' bunk to mark his territory. Like most cats he sometimes seems like he's responding to human requests and at other times distinctly ignores humans. Bell keeps it ambiguous as to whether he's responding to Feathers' needs or just using his powers to satisfy his own desire to get revenge against the Nazis who destroyed his home.

I didn't go into this collection with expectations and I'm very pleased with the first story. Clare Bell isn't a newcomer to writing fantasy about cats and it shows. I will definitely be checking out her series, The Named.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Audiobook Review: When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

Audible link
Originally published in 1987
Awards: 1987 Nebula nominated, 1988 Hugo nominated, 1988 Locus SF nominated
Challenges: Pick and Mix challenge

When Gravity Fails is at its heart a satisfying who-done-it. I never guessed who the killer was though, in hindsight, there was sufficient evidence for them to be a suspect. I tend to let the story flow rather than spend time trying to beat the protagonist to the correct conclusion, but I think even seasoned mystery readers will be satisfied with the solution.

I was disappointed in one aspect of the mystery investigation. The killer's tricks, while enhanced by "moddies" (more on that in a bit), could have been accomplished with practice and costuming, so I didn't understand why Marid didn't spend more time looking (with his eyeballs) for the killer. After all, he saw the killer early in the book when the killer had on the persona of James Bond. As a private investigator I would expect him to be able to spot someone or at least to try to spot someone when they change disguises. The killer being able to completely change their mannerisms and vocal patterns makes it difficult, but not impossible. Yet Marid never spends any time at this. He acts as if he never saw the killer's face to start with. It bothered me through the whole story and, while I worry that maybe I missed some explanation of why this tactic might not be practical, ultimately I can't dwell on the point, I have to just accept the book for what it is.

I appreciated the setting of the book. The Budayeen is a walled-in red-light-district in the middle east. It is never specifically placed in reference to current national borders, but in a future world where formerly stable Western countries like the US and Russia (this was published before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991) have broken up, even fictional predictions of borders in the middle east would have been meaningless to the reader. Instead, I get the sense that in this world Islam has spread as a religion and the middle east is rising as one of the stable powers in the world. It's hard to know what the rest of the world is really like because the book is tightly focused on the culture and events in the Budayeen, where Islam is the de facto religion but also where many things that would be forbidden elsewhere are tolerated.

I suspect that Islam in the Budayeen is much closer to the realistic practice of any religion than it is to the terrorist-Islam that makes the news in the US, but it's hard to know. Even knowing that I'm better informed about it than many, I have a hard time peeling away the layers of fear, propoganda, and misinformation that surround a core comprised of the facts of Islam. Without many pop-culture examples with which to take that core and build a knowledge of the reality of the practice of Islam, acknowledging the regional variation and factionalism of that reality, I can only relate it to my own religious experience. I know that the core facts of Christianity, the cultural Christian-centrism in the US, the practical realities of Christianity in a modern society, and the politicized Christianity on the news are all different. Even having been inside the Christian community as a youth and being well aware of the realities of most Christianity practice in the US I still find myself having to untangle from fear as I place myself, a bisexual divorced atheist woman, in context.

I know this may seem like overthinking it, but in the absence of pervasive cultural exchange and acceptance every example counts when it comes to combating irrational fear (and defining the borders of rational fear). Consensus on the internet is that Effinger was "reskinning" New Orleans into the Arabian Budayeen, but even if he wasn't saying something about Islam as he knew it, he is saying something about Islam as he perceived it. Every book, comic, movie, news item, essay, memoir, etc. adds to the perception of and conversation about Islam. If all we hear is about radical Islam/terrorist Islam/strawman Islam, if no effort is made to differentiate the realities from each other and from the fiction, cultural exchange and acceptance will never happen.

I don't know where When Gravity Fails falls on the spectrum. I know that, to me, Effinger pulled off the right amount of detail to allow me to fill in this Arab setting with my imagination, but not so much that I felt like I was reading a guidebook. The religion in the book is more of a cultural profusion than universal devotion. Characters, like Marid, who are not practising Muslims still know and use the customs that come with common assumption that everyone is or should be Muslim. I would love to read reviews from the perspective of people more familiar with the middle east and with Islamic culture. Here is the single review I found along those lines.

Within the Budayeen, people are mostly accepted as long as they don't become more trouble than they're worth. In that way, it is like any semi-lawless neighborhood in any noir story, scifi or not, that you've ever read about or seen on TV. There are a couple of big players around who have networks of lesser thugs, stringers, and fetchers; A person's safety is their own responsibility; The rules, especially the hypocritical ones, are impenetrable to foreigners and strictly enforced.

Another rarity found in When Gravity Fails is transgender characters. Marid's girlfriend Yasmin, as well as many of the other prostitutes in the Budayeen (and nearly every woman we meet there is a prostitute in varying shades of noir cliche), are transgender women. Technology has allowed the modifcation and augmentation of bodies such that transgender women can reshape themselves as desired. Marid also has a friend who is a transgender man, a character even rarer than transgender women in fiction (which is not to say that there is an abundance of the latter). I felt the conviction of the author's acceptance of transgender people even when characters showed their prejudices. Effinger didn't make his transgender characters into a circus sideshow. The density of transgender characters in light of the setting (implied religious government, walled-off undesirable neighborhood) does acknowledge their continued marginalization. Here is a great review with insights into the gender and sexuality aspects included in the book.

When it comes to technology in When Gravity Fails, neither the "cyber" (technology) nor the "punk" (societal breakdown) elements of the book were essential to the plot, but they do make the story interesting. Like he did with the setting, Effinger avoids the technological advancements getting dated too quickly by giving it only broad strokes rather than specifics. We know that people have surgery to install some sort of port that lets them "chip in" modules called "moddies" and "daddies".

Moddies are personality modules. With a moddie in, the user's mannerisms, vocal patterns, vices, and desires become those of the recorded personality. Some individuals find having a moddie in disconcerting, others keep one in nearly full-time. The user's control of their body is more akin to steering a vehicle than inhabiting a body. Their high-level goals are conserved but they will no longer go about accomplishing those goals in the same way.

The lure of being someone else temporarily is strong and one class of everyday moddie user is prostitutes who chip in pornographic personalities to suit the preferences of their clients. In light of the single first-hand description we have of a (non-pornographic) moddie, I feel like pornographic moddies are popular because they absolve the user of responsibility for their actions and force a loss of inhibition. I might even go as far as to say that they offer an ease of dissociation from the act should they want or need to. For the user's sexual partner, they get a homogenized sexual experience and a ready excuse to dehumanize their partner. The dehumanized way that someone using a moddie is easily perceived are driven home by a particularly horrific revelation about the non-consensual use of a custom moddie.

Daddies are smaller modules which contain narrow functions. A daddie might allow the user to speak fluent Arabic (though not necessarily every dialect) or might suppress the user's ability to perceive exhaustion. These are less scary than moddies, but still carry the weight of connecting something directly to the user's brain. Suppressing an emotional reaction to an experience in the short term does not mean that the user won't react to the experience once the daddie is removed. In the book the sum of the suppressed emotion is experienced upon the daddie's removal, though I don't think that's how it would actually happen. It makes for good drama anyway.

In all, it was a pretty good book, competently narrated by Jonathan Davis. I'm not into noir detective stories enough to pick up the sequel, but nothing about When Gravity Fails itself is at fault there. It definitely deserves the award nods it received.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Review: Synners by Pat Cadigan

Published in 1991
Awards: Nebula award nominated, Arthur C Clarke award winner
Challenges: 12 in 12, Women of Genre Fiction

I have often joked at work that I can't wait for the day when I can just plug in and let my company use my brain-power while I entertain myself with a book. It's a fun thought, but Synners explores what that might really be like. What if we could get information out of our heads as easily as thinking? What if we could experience things virtually by inputting sensory information directly into our brains? For Gina, Gabe, and Visual Mark the invention of "sockets" in conjunction with brain mapping lets that happen. At first they use it to create immersive "movies" and music videos, but soon it becomes clear how much they have to "change for the machines", a phrase used by several characters to describe their feelings about technological advances.

The three main characters, each a creator of virtual reality entertainment, have different reactions to sockets. Gina is the least accepting of the technology. She is already used to chasing Visual Mark around in real life, pulling him out of drugged stupors and trying to steer him in productive directions. She long ago gave up the idea of them as a couple, but still sees their lives as permanently and intimately twined. She receives sockets to try to maintain her connection to Mark when the large corporation they work for decides they are giving Mark sockets whether she comes along or not. Her relationship to the sockets is adversarial. Though she creates music videos when needed, she makes no effort to soften the impact of her thoughts. If they want a fall in the video, she makes sure it is a terrifying fall.

Mark is on the far other end of the spectrum. He has always been extremely creative and used drugs as a way to temper his own thoughts. Now that he has sockets he abandons his body and learns to use the technology around him as his senses and limbs. He can finally get his visualizations out of him in all of their glory.

Gabe is somewhere in between. Before the sockets he spent most of his time with virtual companions in a virtual world he'd cludged together and which mutated in unexpected, but desirable, ways. He was used to his companions and the technology he had to interact with them. He turned out just enough work to stay employed. When sockets made the technology he was used to obsolete, he had a hard time adjusting. They promised him that it would be easier to create virtual scenarios, after all, it only took a thought, but he found it hard to master his own thoughts. He used to fit so comfortably into the world he had created. The creation of the world, once catalyzed did not require his intervention, just his participation. After the sockets he stood in his own way when creating things that required his concentration. The sockets demanded that he be the ever-present master of his imaginings.

What is interesting about these characters as a set, especially to the reader who may live to see such technologies, is that they are all middle-aged. They have history and complications that younger characters do not. They remember when virtual reality and brain manipulation technologies were in their infancy and those of their generation that were going to wash out already have. They are survivors who don't spend their day blissed out on their own brain implants or slaves to their datafeeds. The stratification of society into mindless consumers, renegade innovators, ultrapowerful elites, and survivors, is a hallmark of cyberpunk. In a lot of cyberpunk books, the hero is one of the renegade innovators, i.e. hackers, but Cadigan chose the survivors instead and it makes the characters more relateable.

'Ah. I thought you looked like you needed, um, change for the machines.' Gabe shrugged self-consciously; he could feel the entire common room watching. 
The man's smile was unexpectedly broad and sunny. 'That's a good way to put it. How did you know? [...] My whole life has been, "Okay, change for the machines." Every time they bring in a new machine, more change.' 
-Synners (SF Masterworks edition) pg 105

Cadigan also has a way with words that twists the reader to see things in a new light. For example, the phrase "change for the machines" which is echoed throughout the book was first introduced in a scene shortly after Visual Mark's small music video production company was acquired by Diversification Inc, a huge conglomerate. He wanders into an employee meet-and-greet to use the coffee vending machine and after a while of patting himself down Gabe offers him "change for the machines". Mark immediately latches on to that phrase and has a private epiphany about the nature of humanity as it relates to immersive technology. The reader is privy to the slow unfolding of this epiphany.

This isn't the only example of the beauty of Cadigan's writing, but it is the most easily encapsulated. I originally picked up this book because I heard Cadigan speak on a panel at Lonestarcon 3 (that year's Worldcon). Now I can't wait to reread Synners and then tear through everything she's published hoping to absorb just a little of the magic into my own writing.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Cat Quest Review: Mort(e) by Robert Repino

This review is part of Cat Quest, my challenge to read science fiction and fantasy books that feature cats.
Mort(e) is about the war between the ants and the humans. The ants are angry about the humans' lack of respect for life and they're going to do something about it thanks to a pheromone that turns domesticated animals into human-sized bipedal intelligent animals. These liberated housepets and worker-animals join cause with the now-giant ants to cleanse the earth of humans.

Morte is a housecat turned war hero who decides that it's high time he find his doggy friend Sheba. She was particularly ill-used by humans and he's not even sure she's alive. He'll risk anything to find her.

The farther I get from finishing Mort(e), the more I like it. While I was listening to it (and Bronson Pinchot was a fabulous narrator by the way) I had a hard time caring about Morte, his quest to find his doggy friend Sheba, or the plight of the humans. I still don't care about any of those things. What has sat well with me over the months since I finished it is the general premise and setup. Don't get me wrong, it's still absurd and borders on nonsensical, but I'm glad the book exists.

I suspect that many readers had the same problem getting into the story that I did. It's hard. You have to just accept the premise. There is no reconciling it with reality. This is not science fiction, this is fantasy. More specifically, this is bizarro fiction.

If you're not familiar with the genre, here's a wikipedia blurb on it:

Bizarro fiction is a contemporary literary genre, which often uses elements of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque, along with pop-surrealism and genre fiction staples, in order to create subversive, weird, and entertaining works.

I am a big believer that giving a book the right labels can greatly enhance the reader's experience. Knowing that this is bizarro helps the reader go into the book already halfway to accepting every strange element.

As far as the Cat Quest goes, this isn't it for me. Besides not really liking the story, Morte is too human for this to be the ultimate cat book even if he has the experience of being a cat.

Anthropomorphization level:

by FOX-POP under CC license
3 Paws in the human world

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Cat Quest: The Ontological Argument for the existence of the purrfect book

[Even a] fool, when he hears of … a [book] than which nothing greater can be conceived … understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.… Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very [book], than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a [book], than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality. 
 - St. Anselm, Archbishop of Cantebury (1033-1109) in Proslogium, updated by me for relevance to bibliophiles on a quest

St Anselem was talking about God, but I've decided he could have been talking about a book. Not just any book, the ultimate book. Per the ontological argument, if the perfect book in my head is a science-fiction book about cats and it can be made more perfect by existing, it must exist. Otherwise the book in my head is not perfect. I feel in my heart that I am truly imagining the perfect book, ergo it exists.

I don't want to give the impression that I've found this book. I compulsively pick up science fiction and fantasy novels featuring cat titles at the used bookstore, but I seldom get around to reading them. Having them in my library, waiting for the day that I choose to pursue the quest for the perfect book, was enough. The day has also come (yesterday, in fact) when I have decided that I wanted to post something on Tuesdays and Thursdays but don't have a new book finished to put up a review. Therefore the day has come where I need to face my collection and read those cat books. And like so many voids in the internet, I'm filling up space with cats.

Call to action: What's your favorite cat book/cat-in-a-book?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

Published in 1966
Awards: 1966 Nebula Nominated, 1967 Hugo Winner
Challenges: Pick and Mix
Rating: 7/10

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an excellent book. I can see why it stands out among Heinlein's novels as well as why it has endured as a popular science fiction novel more than 50 years after its initial publication. The story of the revolution of the Lunar penal colony against its Terran oppressors is compelling on both an intellectual and emotional level. The character of Mike, the sentient computer, is fascinating and still feels original even after it has been copied many times over by other authors.

Lloyd James does amazing narration for the book. I love his voices for Mannie and Mike and his female voices match the pitch and tone that I imagine for those characters (i.e. a bit of a caricature of real people).

I have complex feelings about the book, as I do many books of this era, because of their casual treatment of violence against women. If it were a theme of the book, rather than a scene or two that most people could ignore, I don't believe it would continue to be the classic that it is. And yet, the power of women is a theme. In Heinlein's Lunar colony, the relative rarity of women gives them a different status in society. It's presented as a feminist utopia. Women can choose as many mates as they like and have sex with anyone they want. If someone is bothering them they have the protection of every man. For example, when a tourist dares to hit on a young woman (rather than the other way around) the men around her rage with possessiveness. They very nearly throw the tourist out an air lock, but cooler heads prevail (thanks to the protagonist) and everyone settles for the punishment of the beating they had already administered and a fine. Heinlein seems to think that because anyone who doesn't treat a lady well is put to death, that it is the women in control instead of the men. I can't help but get the feeling that at any time the men could change their mind about how things work and the women would find that they had no power all along. A woman has no choice in being protected and I suspect she has no choice but to be available to men either as a "slot machine type" (Heinlein's phrase) or as a wife. If the men stopped getting the hope of access to a woman they would stop giving the women a choice about the matter.

The other scene where it becomes excruciatingly clear how Heinlein feels about women and their power is when Wyoming, the female protagonist, first meets Professor Bernardo de la Paz. She is in a hotel room with Mannie, the narrating protagonist, and he does something to irritate her. When the professor enters the hotel room, Wyoming jokes that Mannie raped her. Throughout the conversation she reiterates her minor irritation with Mannie by calling him "rapist". Heinlein has written a world where a woman would lie about rape in order to punish a man for a slight against her. In this world the punishment for him is summary death and the punishment for her lie is negligible. This is such common knowledge in the world, that it is a joke to everyone when a woman pretends to exercise this power knowing that it won't be taken seriously this time. It's a threat joke. It's Wyoming telling Mannie that if he ever did get out of line she would have him killed. But it's also a threat joke from Heinlein. He's telling male readers that women in our society fake rapes to get men punished and even in a situation where women already have all the power, they will be petty with it. Though some will argue that he wasn't "meaning to say that", this is how systematic sexism works. Regardless of intent, the harm is still done. It's all so disconnected from the reality of rape and societal power, especially in the 1960s but even true today, that it made me feel sick listening to that scene.

In all, I liked The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, but even reading the book "in context", even with this book being "not as bad" as other Heinlein books when it comes to misogyny, I am reminded of what my place in this imaginary world would be and it taints the fun of escaping into the story.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Review: Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

Published in 1997
Awards: Locus Fantasy Nominated
Challenges: Pick and Mix
Rating 9/10

This review has spoilers for all three books.

I just finished Assassin's Quest (the 3rd book in the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb) and the overwhelming feeling I have is happiness. I can nitpick things about all three of the books (one of which I will expound upon in a moment), but in all, the story of FitzChivalry Farseer was deeply satisfying.

As often happens when the protagonist is a Chosen One, the stories of his companions were even more fulfilling. I think this happens because the Chosen One is bound by destiny to do certain things. They can fight against it, they can attempt to forge their own path, but if the author decides that fate exists, the Chosen One must bend to it. Their companions may have fates of their own, but these are looser and for some reason they complain about them less.

For example, Ketricken, the Queen, is from the Mountain Kingdom where the royal family are not called King, Queen, Princess, etc, but are all Sacrifice. They exist to give everything of themselves to their people. She sacrifices her home, her child, and her pride to a man that she didn't love at first, but grew to love fiercely. I don't know how I feel about how Hobb handled the stillbirth of the baby. Babies are close to my heart right now (I have a 3 month-old daughter) and her being stillborn was a fear that I lived with every day. Everyone blames the stillbirth on the stress that was put on Ketricken during her pregnancy (ultimately attributable to the villain who caused the stress) and Ketricken takes it as a personal failure. These aren't unreasonable feelings on the part of anyone, especially Ketricken, but I missed there being someone in there to say it was no one's fault. It's easy to blame the villain, but having read a lot about stillbirth it probably wasn't his fault. Looking past that, the moment where Ketricken revealed the fact of his son's death to Verity and when they were able to grieve together over it were two of the most heartrending moments of the book. I actually cried when she told Verity their child's name. I'm tearing up now a little writing about it.

One more nitpicky thing while I'm at it. One of the first things that struck me when starting Assassin's Apprentice was that character's names felt lazy. The Farseers name their children after virtues, hoping that the child will one day embody that virtue. In the real world hoping is useless and people aren't bound by their names. This isn't the real world though, it's fantasy; Characters turn out like their names and whether they had a choice about it or not is up for debate. Like cutie-marks in My Little Pony*, Regal will end up being pretty and vain, Verity will end up truthful but sometimes lack diplomatic finesse, and Chivalry will be all diplomatic finesse to the detriment of practicality. I can't think of a time that Hobb subverts this pattern by making someone not fit their name. It's clear from the rest of the books where fate is a heavy theme (after all, Fitz is a Chosen One) that naming a Farseer infant gives them a destiny that strongly shapes their personality. Whether this is lazy or not, it certainly acts as a shorthand for characterization that allows the reader to be lazy about remembering which character is which.

Enough nitpicking, let's talk about dragons. I knew they were coming; Hobb is not a subtle with foreshadowing. But the moment they showed up, even deep in sleep and scattered through a forest, was the moment I stopped being about to put the book down. Here they were, the thing that Verity had been seeking all along. I can see why people felt like the ending, from the point we discover Verity carving his own dragon onward, made the rest of Fitz's journey feel unimportant, but to me it just felt right. Fitz needed to do it this way because he needed Nighteyes, the Fool, Starling, Ketricken, and Kettle. Fitz also needed to have a child to fight for. Without any one of those Verity would have failed and Fitz would have failed. The stories of how those elements came together are not less interesting because they build slowly.

I'm giving this one a rating of 9 out of 10. I can point out its failings, and those may impact other readers more than they impacted me, but I came out of the trilogy feeling so satisfied and happy that I can't help but say that for me this trilogy is almost perfect. I am excited to read more of this author's work, though it may be a while before I get there.

*Cutie-marks are the pictures that appear on a pony's flank when they have discovered "their true talent". They always match the character's name (given at birth) bringing up disturbing questions of free will. It also doesn't explain the number of ponies names things like "Granny Smith". She's an old pony, a grandmother actually, but also a master baker. Did her parents name her after the apple variety? Did they know that her significance to the plot wouldn't happen until after she was a grandmother? Do pony parents have some sort of psychic tap into destiny? Did little Granny Smith worry about what her cutie mark would be and what that meant for her destiny?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Review: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Published in 1989
Awards: 1989 BSFA winner
Challenges: Pick and Mix
Rating: 8/10

My daughter is only three months old and she's already read her first Discworld novel...or at least listened to it. We decided last month that we wanted to create a family tradition of reading out loud before bedtime and, not wanting to have this hanging out there as something we wanted to do but might never start, we decided to start early. This way she won't ever remember a time when there wasn't bedtime reading. She loves it as far as we can tell. She spends time smiling at whichever parent isn't reading and then falls asleep toward the end. So this book has been read 10 pages at a time, night after night, which required patience when we wanted to keep reading but needed badly to go to bed.

Pyramids is the 7th book in Terry Pratchett's fantastically popular Discworld series, though the numbering is mostly arbitrary since this book is a standalone that requires no prior knowledge of Discworld or its stories. It follows the adventures of Teppic or, as the high priest Dios repeatedly recites, "His Greatness the King Pteppicymon XXVIII, Lord of the Heavens, Charioteer of the Wagon of the Sun, Steersman of the Barque of the Sun, Guardian of the Secret Knowledge, Lord of the Horizon, Keeper of the Way, the Flail of Mercy, the High Born One, the Never Dying King" who is called back from his training as an assassin in Ankh-Morpork to rule Djelibeybi. Along the way we meet the many contradictory gods of Djelibeybi, all of Teppic's ancestors, and the greatest mathematician on the disc, You Bastard, a camel.

Pratchett has a flair for puns both immediate and extended. He jokes about philosophy, modern society's fascination with ancient Egypt, religion, and sexism, all with such levity that it's hard to disagree that all of these things are to some degree absurd.

The entire book was hilarious. I can't wait to read the next Discworld novel. General consensus is that they only get better from here and, I'm sure, when she's old enough, I'll get to read this one again when my daughter can actually understand it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Audiobook Review: Half Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older

Published 2015 by Roc
Challenges: New in 2015
Rating: 7/10

I don't read a ton of urban fantasy, but it's a subgenre that I'm probing. I have several books from the genre in my to-be-read queue. My experience so far has been limited to single novels (like the excellent Brown Girl in the Ring) and couple of ongoing series (Dresden Files and The Petticoat Protectorate), but, adding Half Resurrection Blues to that list I am beginning to see a pattern: When a book is anticipated to be the first book in a series, that book is spent getting over the protagonist's back-story. Once they have accomplished this, the character can really spread out in their world and the books get better and better.

In Half Resurrection Blues, Carlos de la Cruz, a half-dead soul-catcher for The Council of the Dead must face a threat intimately connected to his own past. By learning how he died, he can begin to understand how to defeat a villain who wants to tear down the walls between life and death.

The Brooklyn of the book, peopled with all the variety of ethnicities, backgrounds, and personalities that many books ignore, is vivid and lively. Even the many ghosts who inhabit the city add to a feeling of life.

This book was not perfect, but in perspective of a series and as a follow up to Salsa Nocturna (which I thoroughly enjoyed) it was good. Daniel José Older does his own narration, which turned out to be an excellent choice. He brings Carlos to life and gives the narration a rhythm that another narrator might not have captured. Not only will I be moving on to the next book in this series, but if Older is the narrator, I will make sure it's the audiobook version.

The Spreadsheet: End of July

Allow me to introduce The Spreadsheet. I love keeping track of my reading on Goodreads and Worlds Without End, but sometimes I just want to see a year's worth of planning all in one place and in rainbow color. Each book I plan to read this year (adding in ones I hadn't planned but have read anyway) is here, in alphabetical order, with a colored square for each challenge that that book fulfills.

I can't wait until the end of the year when this is completely filled in. It's what keeps me going when I feel like I've overscheduled myself (which, to be honest, I have). Next year I've vowed to go easier and let the books come to me, but this year I have The Spreadsheet.

Now is as good a time as any to add my notes on a few of the challenges:

  • Pick and Mix - this is an "anything goes" challenge that I'm going to use to mop up those books which don't fit anywhere else. For example: Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb is the 3rd book in a trilogy and since I'm already using Royal Assassin for the Sequel challenge, this one had no where to go.
  • The Definitive 1950s SF Reading Challenge - these must be read in order. Next up: I Am Legend
  • Women of Genre Fiction - I greatly increased the number of books I committed to this challenge last month after reviewing the books I've purchased on my Kindle. I was surprised and am delighted that I'm going to be able to read 24 new female authors this year.
  • New Books of 2014 - This challenge originally went through December of last year, then it moved (by the challenge creator) to mid year 2015, then it moved to the end of 2015. I had completed the original 10 books in the challenge, but when the goalpost moved (and challenge levels were added) I had the option of going down to 8 books or up to 12. During the same review that increased my Women of Genre challenge I decided to go all the way up to 20.
  • Subgenre focus - Steampunk. I don't know how much steampunk I'll read after I've finished these 10, but I'm glad that I decided to do this one. It has broadened my horizons and made me read books I otherwise would not have.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reading Finished in July 2015

I returned to work July 6th after 10 weeks of maternity leave and surprisingly little reading, so I was glad to see that the time had been an anomaly. I finished 6 books during July, though I remain about halfway through two books that I had started early in the month.

I also outlined a novel of my own during July. Hopefully, with only a little more planning, I'll be ready to start a first draft. As a writer friend of mine reminded me when I lamented that my novel will probably be terrible, it isn't anything until it is written, so hopefully next update I'll be able to report progress in that area.


Top book in July: Brown Girl in the Ring

My favorite part of this book was that the protagonist was a mother with complicated feelings about her baby. I often find that the characters I most identify with are those that have feelings beyond the stereotypical. Ti-Jeanne also has a complex relationship with the baby's father, much like real relationships. Not all non-custodial fathers are deadbeats, not all single-mothers are saints. People fall together and apart for all sorts of reasons, some rational, some not.

Bottom book in July: The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath

I have gone around and around in my head unable to decide if I will read the sequel to this book. There was so much potential that I still desperately want to see fulfilled. I suppose I'll wait for the reviews and hope that someone that disliked this one for the same reasons I did takes a chance on the next.


Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb
Medium: eBook
Challenges: Read the Sequel

The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath by Ishbelle Bee
Medium: eBook
Challenges: New Books of 2015, Women of Genre Fiction

Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke
Medium: Massmarket paperback and eBook
Challenges: Listomania, The Definitive 1950s SF Reading Challenge

Dust by Elizabeth Bear
Medium: Audiobook
Challenges: The Unloved, Women of Genre Fiction

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Medium: Audiobook
Challenges: Women of Genre Fiction

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Medium: Audiobook
Challenges: New Books of 2014, Women of Genre Fiction

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Reader's Choice Award - Completed

Last year I challenged myself to pick one year and one science fiction award and read all of the nominees. I wanted to decide for myself who should have won that year. My year was 2008 and my award was the Hugo Award. 2008 may not hold a special place in my heart, but the Hugo Award does. Despite recent controversies, winners are mostly good books picked from a list of five popular science fiction novels for any given year. That's not to say they're all classics, but there are a lot of classics represented. On top of that, I was lucky enough to WorldCon in 2013. This was the last Sad Puppy free year and it was an amazing experience. The people, the panels, everything was amazing. I can't wait to make it to another WorldCon someday. The people there, the people who vote for the Hugo Award, were genuinely enthused by and proud of science fiction literature.

The nominees were, in aphabetical order:

Brasyl by Ian McDonald
Halting State by Charles Stross
The Last Colony by John Scalzi
Rollback by Robert J Sawyer
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (winner)

I didn't think too much about my choice of 2008, but there were points where I regretted it. My least favorite was Rollback by Robert J Sawyer. I was not surprised by this. I am not a Sawyer fan. It started with Flashforward, which I liked. I'm afraid to go back and read it to find out if I still like it because it was one of my first scifi books as an adult and I don't know that I had the chops to evaluate its merit yet. I'm not saying that anyone has to be well read to judge a book, any book; I'm saying that as the breadth and depth of my genre reading has increased I find myself more easily annoyed by books with interesting premises but which fail to follow through on being interesting.

Rollback follows the story of an old man whose wife decoded the first alien communication to Earth. By the time the response is received, this time not just cryptic but encrypted. Of course, with the alien 18.8 light years away, time is ticking for our old woman. A kabillionaire offers to give her a life-extending treatment called a "rollback". She insists that her husband get the treatment too, but it works on him and not her. Instant drama and interesting premise.

The problem comes in when you realize that once again a Sawyer book is about something and not in a subtle way. This one is about abortion. Other Sawyer books are about god (Calculating God) and souls (The Terminal Experiment) and free will (Flashforward). I sense that he's working through his religious issues here. If he wasn't doing it in a way that gave the impression that he is trying to balance what he senses are the Opinions of other scifi writers I might care what he had to say about these things. If I never have to read (or listen to) another book by Robert J Sawyer it will be too soon. Alas, many completionist challenges I could set include his novels. For example, if I wanted to read all of the Hugo winners, he has one novel that's a winner that I haven't read yet.

Since I started with my least favorite, we might as well count down to my personal Reader's Choice winner. Number 4, disliked on its own merits and without my Sawyer baggage: The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon.

This won in 2008 and I can see why someone might like it, but I'm at the same time baffled that it beat so many other books that I enjoyed (well...the three other Hugo nominees at least). First, it's barely science fiction. Since this is my award (the "Reader's Choice Award" not the Hugo), I've decided that only books that capture my imagination are scifi enough to win. The premise, a detective story set in a Jewish state carved out of Alaska, is ok, but the writing bleeds purple prose and vomits noir.

I got so slogged down that I felt like Artax in the Swamps of Sadness. I came so close to giving up but my challenge kept tugging me along. Unlike Artax, I survived.

Now we're into the books I liked, starting with Halting State by Charles Stross. This was my first book by Stross though I've heard that his books can be a difficult read for someone unfamiliar with technical jargon. While I found that true, I was able to hobble along and enjoy this one.

Halting State is about what happens when infrastructure doesn't keep up with technology. It's a scary story if you're scared of things like hackers gaining access to your car via your car's cellphone connection. Particularly, when virtual worlds (like MMORPGs) have unexpected consequences in the real world. Neal Stephenson's Reamde has a similar theme though with a plot different enough from this one to not make reading both repetitive.

...and, yes, it's written in the 2nd person. Throughout the entire book "you" do everything. It takes some getting used to, but it was done very much with a purpose. Stross wants the reader to experience the book like augmented reality. He has crafted a story for you to play through. I am good at achieving immersion in books, so this trick worked perfectly on me. Your mileage may vary.

My biggest problem with the book was that a plot element would be set spinning and the reader was expected to keep that element spinning while the book went off and set other things spinning. I couldn't keep it all in my head at once. It's not enough to stop me from reading more Stross some day, but enough for me to place this one in the middle of my rankings.

The Last Colony by John Scalzi was a very close 2nd when I sat down to decide which book gets my gold star. This is the 3rd installment of Scalzi's Old Man's War series and continues the tradition of being enjoyable and book that is easy to melt into. Scalzi'a writing is uncomplicated in the best way; It's approachable. You don't need the patience of a saint to wade through dense prose or the knowledge of a software coder to understand what is going on.

Old characters John Perry and Jane Sagan have settled down to colonize, the promised reward to anyone willing to join the military, but trouble follows them and they are soon drawn into war again.

And the winner is...

...Brasyl by Ian McDonald. This book is beautiful and complex. If each theme and character were a dancer, Ian McDonald has choreographed a ballet. The three stories told are: the story of Marcelina, a reality television producer who chases a show idea until she's over head; the story of Edson, living in our future where everything is tagged with RFIDs and quantum computing is a reality; and the story of Father Luis Quinn, sent to bring a rogue priest back into line.

Each story not only explores the primary theme of multiple dimensions, but also, more subtly,  the themes of the adaptability of language and the mutation of religion. All of these themes, combined with complicated characters and vivid descriptions, captured my imagination. I will be reading more Ian McDonald and choose this book as my winner.


When I think back over this challenge and the year so far, I'm not sure that I would do the challenge again. I like the idea of it, of looking back on a year and an award, even knowing the limitations of that award, and choosing for myself. If I had gone to WorldCon that year would my vote for Brasyl have swayed anything? Problably not. after all, in 2013 I voted for 2312 for the best novel but Red Shirts won. But I read every book for 2013 and made an educated vote. And now I have the same satisfaction for the group of books nominated in 2008. It's an experience that I recommend.