• "I'm Alive, I Love You, I'll See You In Reno" (Vylar Kaftan) • "The Cassandra Project" (Jack McDevitt) • "Cats in Victory" (David Barr Kirtley) • "A• "I'm Alive, I Love You, I'll See You In Reno" (Vylar Kaftan) ★★★★☆ • "The Cassandra Project" (Jack McDevitt) ★★★½☆ • "Cats in Victory" (David Barr Kirtley) ★★★½☆ • "Amaryllis" (Carrie Vaughn) ★★★★★ • "No Time Like the Present" (Carol Emshwiller) ★★★☆☆ • "Manumission" (Tobias Bucknell) ★★½☆☆ • "The Zeppelin Conductor's Society Annual Gentlemen's Ball" (Genevieve Valentine) ★★★½☆ • "…for a Single Yesterday" (George R.R. Martin) ★★★☆☆ • "How to Become a Mars Overlord" (Catherynne M. Valente) ★★½☆☆ • "Patient Zero" (Tananarive Due) ★★★☆☆ • "Arvies" (Adam-Troy Castro) ★★★★☆ • "More Than the Sum of His Parts" (Joe Haldeman) ★★★☆☆ • "Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain" (Yoon Ha Lee) ★★★★½ • "The Long Chase" (Geoffrey A. Landis) ★★★☆☆ • "Amid the Words of War" (Cat Rambo) ★★★★☆ • "Travelers" (Robert Silverberg) ★★★☆☆ • "Hindsight" (Sarah Langan) ★★★☆☆ • "Tight Little Stitches in a Dean Man's Back" (Joe R. Lansdale) ★★★½☆ • "The Taste of Starlight" (John R. Fultz) ...more
Fantastic. Not as edgy (perhaps?) as Dhalgren, but experimental at enough points, while still retaining a more/less linear superstructure to keep itFantastic. Not as edgy (perhaps?) as Dhalgren, but experimental at enough points, while still retaining a more/less linear superstructure to keep it accessible. Gets a bit G.E.B.-ish at the end there, but it's a satisfying space romp (even if Rydra comes off as a bit Mary-Sue-ish in the depth and breadth of her abilities, though not at all Mary-Sue-ish w/r/t/ her being an authorial wish-fulfillment and/or personal insertion (though I'd stand by assessments that Dhalgren's "The Kid" is such a character))...more
I'd like to write a review at some point but for now, just some notes: (potential spoilers?)
1. Ending was pretty right-on. With that epilogue it was aI'd like to write a review at some point but for now, just some notes: (potential spoilers?)
1. Ending was pretty right-on. With that epilogue it was almost like trying to say "and everything went back to normal and they lived happily ever after" except that like two pages before that we know that that's simply not true.
2. Overall: chilling, esp. in light of Haldeman's own war experience. How much of it is extrapolated? vs. echoes of that experience?
3. Easy to see how much this informs a lot of the other sci-fi (Mil. or otherwise) that's out there, even if it's at arm's length, indirect, or incidental....more
Was on the fence between a 3 and a 4... There was a time-honored hook at the beginning there, but it took a long time for the book to really grab holdWas on the fence between a 3 and a 4... There was a time-honored hook at the beginning there, but it took a long time for the book to really grab hold of me. I was about halfway before I was really into the story; and even then I wasn't sure that I thought it was great. (Quite good yes, but not great.) What pushed it from a 3 to a 4 for me were two things: (1) the ubiquitous gender-mashing that Leckie uses by having the narrator use "her" to refer to every character; and (2) the not-so-latent dig into social and economic injustices.
Now that I've finished it, I'll likely seek out a few reviews of the book to see why others celebrated it so much throughout 2014. I'm sure her awards are well-earned, but to my eye this is a good-not-great space opera with interesting narrative conceits and thoughtful themes.
Not nearly as cheeseball as I expected. Not nearly as sexist as I expected. John Carter is actually a (mostly) decent guy. And this novel holds up welNot nearly as cheeseball as I expected. Not nearly as sexist as I expected. John Carter is actually a (mostly) decent guy. And this novel holds up well;I can see why it's a classic of the genre....more
There's a "real" review of this book buried deep down somewhere in me. But for now:
(1) When they made that I, Robot movie with Will Smith, I think tThere's a "real" review of this book buried deep down somewhere in me. But for now:
(1) When they made that I, Robot movie with Will Smith, I think they were trying to make this; only then they changed it into a completely different story that left out pretty much all of the things that made this book good.
(3) I would so very much recommend this book over I, Robot. It isn't that the latter is bad--it serves as a good introduction to the milieu, and/but it reads like a series of short stories (which, let's be honest, they are) which themselves are more like thought experiments. There isn't much of an over-arching narrative to really carry you through it. Meanwhile, here in Caves of Steel we have what is basically a police procedural/pulp noir-style detective story wrapped up inside of a science fiction setting, with just the tiniest dash of PKD-ish "weird" thrown in to keep you on your toes.
(3) There were a couple spots in this book where I thought: "Well, this is almost a PKD book..." But with all those "weird" twists shoved right out in front of you from the beginning, instead of snuck in there as surprises. (The equivalent of crossing PKD's street at the crosswalk? instead of jay-walking like he taunts you to?) And: BUT Asimov goes "this way" with the weird (i.e., making them prosaic as the narrative goes on) whereas PKD would have gone "that way" (i.e., with all the escalating and eldritch horrors of each reveal). I'm speaking (of course) of having a robot that looks like a human being; I'm speaking (of course) of having the whole human population of New York crammed into a giant steel dome; I'm speaking (of course) of having a conspiracy of Luddites that swarm around our narrator.
(4) The Mediaevalists: there's this theme throughout that they're basically Luddites. But I seem to recall a section where they're OK with certain other technologies, as long as those technologies allow population growth on Earth to continue unabated. It's just robots that they don't like. But they'll decry other technologies too--when it's convenient. (Am I messing this up? Please call me out on it if I am... It's totally possible I missed some small distinction in the text somewhere.)
(5) I am reminded by Manny's review of all that business with "Jezebel", and Asimov's defense of her via Baley. Manny calls this evidence of Asimov being a feminist ("somehow without ever acquiring that label"). While I don't (strongly) disagree, I still think that the language he uses to talk about women (here, and in I, Robot) still seem like a product of the time--and isn't necessarily the most positive. (I got annoyed with the scene with Jessie putting on here make-up. Feminine mystique, my ass.)
It's OK. It's got Crichton's usual thriller pacing -- so it moves along quick, and it's eaApprox. page 1 - 200: ★★☆☆☆
Approx. page 201 - 325: ★★★★☆
And the rest? ★★★☆☆
It's OK. It's got Crichton's usual thriller pacing -- so it moves along quick, and it's easy to get wrapped up in the story. Characters are a bit thin though, and a lot of the first half is just... boring. ("He just wanted to milk this franchise with a sequel, didn't he?") If you can stick it out through page 200 though, that's where the ideas come together and all the interesting stuff happening with both the characters and the plot and the science-fiction-y ideas that he's cooking. But... "After that it's just a chase scene."...more
There were moments I did not believe that I would give it much more than a four star rating, and that that would be generous. But it comes together. TThere were moments I did not believe that I would give it much more than a four star rating, and that that would be generous. But it comes together. There's a twist that I felt I should have seen, and didn't. There's some HoL-esque typographic trickery (though substantially less of it). There are tricks of language. I'm told that there are parallels aplenty to make this a science fictional re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo, but I'll admit that I don't that book well enough to say one way or the other. What I do know is that I found a surprisingly difficult, and surprisingly sophisticated story crystallized in what is otherwise a bit of high adventure. I believe I'll need to read it again, but I believe this one is well worth it.
Marty Halpern presents us with an anthology of science fiction short stories predicated on (what else?) alien first contact. I was looking for an anthMarty Halpern presents us with an anthology of science fiction short stories predicated on (what else?) alien first contact. I was looking for an anthology like this. In my desperation for such a thing, I decided to start a rumor that John Joseph Adams (currently my favorite anthologist) was going to create such an anthology. And to this, JJA replied that Halpern had already done this. So I immediately rushed out and bought it.
Overall? I liked it very much; many stories I loved, and a few I could do without. That said, composite rating of all short stories: an even 3.5.
Individual story reviews:
"The Thought War" by Paul McAuley : Doesn't align well with my idea of what a "first contact" story is, but it fits with a modified view of that trope within the genre. It has a few moments, and the style works pretty well. ★★★½☆
"How to Talk to Girls at Parties" by Neil Gaiman : Another one that doesn't align with my idea of a "first contact" story, but is a great story just the same. Though Gaiman gives us what is more like an extended metaphor for our relationships with the opposite sex  than with an alternate species. Quaint and sentimental and not overly cloying. ★★★★☆
"Face Value" by Karen Joy Fowler : This is more like what I was looking for in a first contact story, albeit another one that uses inter-sex and/or romantic friction as the anvil for the theme's hammer blows. That said: this is a wonderfully crafted tale. ★★★★★
"The Road Not Taken" by Harry Turtledove : A quirky take on the first contact theme; I enjoyed some of the inversions, not to mention the way he explored the non-linear nature of technological development (as alluded to in the title).  Turtledove's style isn't my favorite though, even if I otherwise enjoyed the story. ★★★☆☆
"The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything" by George Alec Effinger : Feels like another inversion of what I think of as a first contact story--like the preceding short story, only more from the human point of view, and without an alien race that's into conquering.  Good sense of humor in there, but always with the "one generation to interstellarism"... ★★★☆☆
"I Am the Doorway" by Stephen King : No surprise -- this one is more of a horror story in scifi clothing. There are some elements to work with here but mostly you've got the entertaining fright factor. Typical King. ★★★½☆
"Recycling Strategies for the Inner City" by Pat Murphy : Really enjoyed this, all the way through. Neat take on the subject, especially the bit about comparing cars to horses. ★★★★☆
"The 43 Antarean Dynasties" by Mike Resnick : Equal parts humorous and sad. Though not (strictly speaking) a first contact story, it does have some elements that fulfill (or at least stand in for) that role. Quaint little allegory about conquest and racial tension. ★★★★☆
"The Gold Bug" by Orson Scott Card : Effectively an "Ender" story. (Of course?) Not one that I particularly enjoyed; tedious and too wrapped up in its own mythology. By the time any introspection happens around being but one of multiple species in the universe... well: that gets lost in the noise. ★☆☆☆☆
"Kin" by Bruce McAllister : First read this in Dozois' 24th. I find this one so difficult to relate to; it feels forces. It also doesn't really seem internally consistent with respect to the ethics in its own little morality play. It has some interesting ideas, but doesn't hold up beyond some surface-level speculation. ★★☆☆☆
"Guerrilla Mural of a Siren's Song" by Ernest Hogan : Quirky and a bit enigmatic, but that's what you need when you're talking about art--and esp. when you're talking about art as the only viable lens through which to view an alien mind. Hogan strikes the right notes here for what is (and isn't) said, for how it's said, and for giving us such a frustratingly perfect narrator. ★★★★★
"Angel" by Pat Cadigan : I first encountered this story... oh, about ten years ago, and it was over ten years old at the time. It doesn't focus on the "first contact" aspect, but the themes are there: the focus on the alienness of the alien, and the alienness of ourselves. When McAllister wrote "Kin", I imagined that he had something like this in mind as inspiration. But this one is pitch-perfect. ★★★★★
"The First Contact with the Gorgonids" by Ursula K. Le Guin : Le Guin is amazing, and there is something special (and comic) about the first contact story embedded here. You'll feel like it's the send-up for some baffling sci-fi slapstick comedy, but there's something more going on in there with the gender politics. ★★★★☆
"Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl's" by Adam-Troy Castro : In my mind, I went between a two- and a four-star rating several times. Where are the aliens? Where is the first contact bit? Why does it feel so rambling? But there's also this:
Occasionally I glanced at the big blue cradle of civilization hanging in the sky, remembered for the fiftieth or sixtieth or one hundredth time that none of this had any right to be happening, and reminded myself for the fiftieth or sixtieth or one hundredth time that the only sane response was to continue carrying the tune.
And that made it worth it, for sure. ★★★☆☆
"A Midwinter's Tale" by Michael Swanwick : Like the story that precedes it in the collection, there is an element of stylistic fancy here. Foreign, second-hand narration embedded in and interrupted by other, unreliable (and possibly fabricated) narration. Aspects of it remind me of China Míeville's Embassytown, but stronger notes of cannibalism. ★★★★☆
"Texture of Other Ways" by Mark W. Tiedemann : That there is a first contact situation, and that we have no basis for establishing communication with the alien species: this I understand. That we hastily engineer not-quite telepaths to bridge that communication gap: this I understand. That our species does this because (the story suggests) our species is impatient: this I understand. That those alien species also seem impatient enough to permit that to happen that way? I do not understand. (Also: parts of the story, especially the end, seem unnecessarily oblique?) ★★½☆☆
"To Go Boldly" by Cory Doctorow : Back and forth on this story, back and forth. That a species or civilization might be so advanced that it doesn't even recognize what you're doing as anything but a game? Clever; cute, even. And there was something endearing about the hammy lampooning style here. But also something sort of... smug?  ★★½☆☆
"If Nudity Offends You" by Elizabeth Moon : The approach was good, the narrator was just about pitch-perfect; but I couldn't help but wonder about their motivation, and given the colloquial narrative style, I couldn't help but wonder: if she forgot about it all together, why tell the story like she's telling it from her front-porch? ★★★☆☆
"Laws of Survival" by Nancy Kress : If this isn't one of Kress' best, please point me to better so that I might exalt. It's a little long, but the first contact element is played well, and in such a way that it informs her deeper themes (and not fitting those themes to the first contact element). ★★★★★
"What You Are About To See" by Jack Skillingstead : The alcoholism bit felt a bit heavy-handed; and the bit with the alien was played more for the "weird" factor (an excuse to do some time-slipping) than it was for the first contact element. I guess it came together in the end, but I found myself more frustrated than not. ★★☆☆☆
"Amanda and the Alien" by Robert Silverberg : Pruriently amusing at times and but so that makes you feel a little creepy?  In the same vein as "If Nudity Offends You"--sort of. In the same vein as "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"--sort of. ★★☆☆☆
"Exo-Skeleton Town" by Jeffrey Ford : A slight whiff of Naked Lunch? and/or a taste of Gun With Occasional Music? Surreal and twisted up and though the aliens are not all that alien, there is a great story in here. ★★★★☆
"Lambing Season" by Molly Gloss : Some lovely writing, but somewhere the story gets lost in the poetics. (And I couldn't even ding it for falling back hard on one of the obviously-inevitable slain-lamb metaphors which, though we had a slain lamb, never quite tied in with the story in a meaningful way.) ★★☆☆☆
"Swarm" by Bruce Sterling : Not strictly "first contact", but "first contact with them". Reminds me in many ways of Blindsight by Peter Watts,  particularly with respect to its twisty little ending. And this is my favorite kind of first contact story--where some seemingly innocuous species turns out to be unimaginably older and more mature than some arrogant human species, and one that has written off "intelligence" as a cancer. (Only some small-ish points off here for aspects of the style.) ★★★★☆
"MAXO Signals" by Charles Stross : Pitch perfect in every way. The right length, just the right twist, and just the right little joke to stab at you contra to "Swarm" (which you just finished reading). ★★★★★
"Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter : As the title suggests, almost an anti-first contact story. But's understated, and has the perfect tone on which to end the anthology. ★★★★★
 I'm being a little too heteronormative there. The story would go after the same point if Vic and Enn were gay. So in that way, it's more about entering the foreign country of sexual maturity than it is entering the foreign country of "girls". The key points remain the same though: let's confront what it means to grow into our sexuality, and let's use aliens on Earth as the backing trope.
 That said, at one point when reading this my thought was: "Did he just finish playing Civilization? or Alpha Centauri? or something?" (And then I noticed it was first published in 1985 so... probably not.)
 So... an inverted version of the previous inversion?
 I swear I don't say this about every Doctorow piece. I really don't. I really did like this story so much better than (say...) "When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth"; but...
 Who writes teenaged girls like this? Maybe I just don't understand the Bay Area?
 Though in all fairness, "Swarm" predates by Blindsight by 24 years.
• Fun science fiction "heist" story. My friend likened it to Neuromancer ("...but only because of theyUntil I get around to any kind of real review:
• Fun science fiction "heist" story. My friend likened it to Neuromancer ("...but only because of they're both science fiction heist stories") but I thought it was more like The Sting with lasers.
• It's Banks, but it's not a "Culture" novel. I haven't read enough of his Culture novels to know if this is a good thing or not. Golter (the main planet in the story) is said in the text to be more/less "orphaned" -- as though it's simply too far for interstellar travel to be possible. (Which is like: "...O...K...?")
• More fun than good. Which is not to say it is "bad", but in saying "good" we sometimes imply that something is not "great". Which is not what I mean. Not exactly. This book is fun.
• Is Sharrow one of those ultimate Mary-Sue characters or what? Born into wealth and nobility? And then rejecting that nobility out of rebellion? Being born into prophecy? Attractive? Smart? Sharp as a whip? Good with a gun (in more ways than one)? And/but: Sharrow is part of the reason that the story is so fun...
• What is it with Iain M. Banks and cousins? You know what I'm talking about? You know what I'm talking about. ...more
Think of it like a space operatic warm-up for Dhalgren? Love the circularity to it, the whole simplex-complex-multiplex lens that he uses to cast thThink of it like a space operatic warm-up for Dhalgren? Love the circularity to it, the whole simplex-complex-multiplex lens that he uses to cast the whole story....more
If you are acquainted with China Miéville's work, there will not be too many surprises for you when you read this novel. Which is not to imply that itIf you are acquainted with China Miéville's work, there will not be too many surprises for you when you read this novel. Which is not to imply that it is predictable or formulaic, but that it quintessentially one of his novels. It's all there: the weird landscapes that are intimately, almost erotically detailed; how the landscape collapses singularity-like onto one pivotal city that is populated by the most bizarre people and things that he can funnel from his imagination into yours; how those weird people from beyond the far reaches of you imagination are enmeshed in grand and bizarre plots that are these rude combinations of the political and/or the social and/or the epistemological and/or the aesthetic and/or... He takes all of these things and uses them to frame these peculiar philosophical tangents that he seems to be the only author brave enough (or weird enough) to embark upon.
And in that way, Embassytown is pitch-perfect Miéville. And also in that way, did I experience my "Murakami moment"  for Miéville. 
To delve specifically into Embassytown though, we have an interesting, if (slightly?) self-undermining novel. On the surface, we have a science fiction novel with some interstellar  political intrigue happening: Embassytown is a human city on the planet Arieka, on the frontier's edge of the Bremen empire  as it looks to expand its spheres of trade and influence. Human beings and other "exots" have lived in relative harmony with the indigenous Ariekei for generations, even if their relationships are largely opaque and mediated through genetically-engineered and highly-trained linguists called "Ambassadors". Then Bremen sends an Ambassador of its own which radically upsets the balance of power in Embassytown and causes an upheaval of inexpressible proportions. At the heart of this is our narrator, Avice Benner Cho, a living simile for the Ariekei--whose language lacks signification and is thus strictly literal by nature--who becomes a focal point for the events of the novel.
And though the novel works its narrative through Avice, it is not about her. The narrative is very clearly about the Ariekei--"the Hosts"--or, perhaps more accurately, about their Language and their pursuit of a kind of... anti-ontology.
First, about Language:
The Ariekei Language is a language but only inasmuch as it has a vocabulary and a grammar. Capital "L" Language has no literary tradition. It has structure, but no signification beyond that which is literal. This is not to say that the Language of the Ariekei has no symbols or "figures of speech", but those symbols--those similes and examples, etc.--must be "real" to have any meaning. We are introduced very early in the text to the (what we would see as) extremes required for this to be true: for the Ariekei to incorporate a simile into their Language, it must actually have happened--and they are not above staging the event in order for it to be "true".
Which brings me to my assertion that the Ariekei, throughout the course of the narrative, become obsessed with a kind of anti-ontology. If "ontology" is the study of the nature of being, the pursuit of truth through comprehension of that which is "real", then the whole foundation of "native" Ariekei thought is grounded by this, since they are only able to process the world around them in literal terms. They are biologically incapable of symbol substitution (e.g., symbolism, metaphorical comparison). Meanwhile, after they meet human beings (and especially after they encounter Ambassador EzRa), they become acquainted with the notion of lies and of lying, of using things which are not strictly or literally true to tell the truth. The Ariekei call it lying, where by "it" I mean any form of language/Language which does not immediately correspond to some absolute truth. The trivial figures of speech that you an I use every day are anomalous and baffling to them. We might not call a metaphor a "lie", but to the Ariekei it is something so unsettling that they cannot even hear such speech.
Even the most casual student of science fiction will recognize the trope that is embedded in "Language". You are probably jumping out of your chair right now to point to the obvious  example: "They're like Star Trek's Vulcans, right?" And you would not be strictly wrong, but the Vulcans don't lie because of a strict embedded morality; they can lie,  and that they do not is because that behavior is so deeply entrenched in their culture and their shared belief system that it is as though they cannot. Meanwhile, the Ariekei are biologically incapable of lying; they simply do not have the neural circuitry required to produce or even consume figurative sign systems. Lying is not just an extreme anathema, it is effectively an impossibility.
That a species might develop language that is completely devoid of lies may seem like a utopian vision, but even a cursory read would reveal otherwise. The Ariekei are largely alienated from the other "exot" species (not just the humans). Several times in the text, they discuss how the Language of the Ariekei is unique among the exot species of the Out; all other species seem capable of (with some effort) "hearing" and "speaking" each others' languages, of processing each others' figures of speech, of detecting each others' falsehoods. But the Ariekei cannot. They are largely alienated from other species. And (but?) it is questionable whether they perceive that alienation as such, or if they treat these other species with the kind of detached curiosity that we usually reserve for animals or climate patterns. 
Presumably this is where Miéville turns that utopian vision of a lie-less Language on its head: that the Ariekei have a "pure" and literal language, unclouded by confusing figures of speech, a cultural history that is unsullied by wars predicated on intrigue and double-dealing--this should be a Good Thing. But instead we have a species that is simultaneously advanced (see also: the biorigging) and primitive (see also: they are not an immer/space-faring race), a species that is "trapped" in the domain of the literal. But here is also where the text begin to undo its own success: the suggestion (and in some cases outright declaration) that the Ariekei are "trapped" in the realm of the literal, that they are caged in the prison of Language, makes the text begin to seem rather... Homo sapiens-centric? I thought of Peter Watts' Blindsight, of the Scramblers and of Rorschach and of his deep-dive into the notion that consciousness was not a pre-requisite for intelligence. And here: the Ariekei are clearly conscious, but they follow the kind of linguistic literalism that we popularly associate with Asperger's. How does that undo the text? It turns the alienness of the Ariekei on its head--it suggests that for them to "advance", that they must engage in symbolic thinking. 
The narrative has the Ariekei rather distinctly reacting to their own lack of symbolic thinking as a deficiency. The early attention given to how they must enforce a simile's "reality" before deploying it as a figure of speech seems a foreshadowing of this: that they are capable of having vague notions that can coalesce through guided stagecraft. This lapses into the text as a kind of foregone conclusion for many pages before we return to it via the Festival of Lies, and Surl tesh-escher, and the other Ariekei in the Liars Club. We discover that there are many Ariekei who have become obsessed with the notion that one might make revealing, even illuminating statements about something--and not by making flat and clearly literal statements about it, but by colorfully embossing it with similes, metaphors, synecdoches... The become obsessed with "truth" as it is manifested through untruth, through language which is not strictly true. Hence: Surl tesh-escher's assertion that the Ariekei "did not speak" before the humans arrived. More so than any other character in the novel, he creates and aligns himself with this anti-ontological metaphysics: that "speaking" is not merely reflecting upon what is, but by probing reality through what could be, by drawing disparate items together for unique insights, by reveling in the majesty of language for its own sake, for its own beauty, and not for what factual "truth" it might bestow upon the listener. 
All that business about EzRa (and later, EzCal) manipulating the Ariekei through the "god-drug" speech? That is all merely secondary to the notion that Ariekei seek to burst into some new phase of existence that includes symbolic thought, right down to the capacity to lie.
That is where I disjunct ever so slightly. Did Miéville give us a happy ending? It is (thankfully?) ambiguous: a whole lot of idle speculation about "what next", on Avice's part. Nothing in that final chapter seemed set in stone. But the Ariekei had changed, and they had changed fundamentally. Were they changed for the better? Perhaps our own sense of symbolism is being used against (?) us here: perhaps the story stands as its own allegory for colonialism? or perhaps the take-away is that we must concede absolutism for ambiguity in order to achieve cooperation? The covers close with some discomfort, and without easy answers.
 The phrase "Murakami moment" is one that has its roots in a conversation that I had with a friend of mine. To summarize: in discussing Haruki Murakami with this particular friend, he emoted: "I love Murakami's style, and don't get me wrong, he's a great author, but it just seems like... I don't know: like all his book are the same somehow." This spiraled into a good half-hour discussion that put William Gibson, Margaret Atwood, Ernest Hemingway, Dave Eggers, and Chuck Palahniuk (to name a few) all under the microscope; to varying degrees, we concluded, all authors suffer from this tendency to "write the same story", either by leaning on familiar plots, familiar themes, and/or familiar characters and settings. Murakami, unfortunately, is the one that has become synonymous with this "tendency". Thus do I deploy it here.
 Yes, I think this might be a little unfair.
 At least, I assume it's interstellar. The narration about travel "to the Out" "through the immer" could just as easily have our narrator catapulted through parallel universes. This is, however, largely irrelevant to the plot, and thus a question of strictly academic interest.
 The specific governmental and political configuration of Bremen is left, I believe, more/less purposefully oblique. That Embassytown is referred to in the text as a "colony" is sufficient enough for me to go ahead and call Bremen an "empire".
 Most famous?
 The fact that Spock is half-human has nothing to do with it.
 There is some evidence in the text to support both arguments. There are a few direct references to how the Ariekei are basically indifferent to the humans of Embassytown. But then there's the whole messy business with the Festival of Lies and the virtuoso liars, etc. that just has you nodding your head that yes indeed, at least some of the Hosts feel some kind of absence by not being able to communicate.
 Which I believe is what the whole sub-plot with Scile was about. (I know I haven't mentioned Scile but...) In a way, Scile's presence in the narrative serves first as an excuse to get back Avice back to Embassytown; then he winds up as a means of illustrating this question of "Do the Ariekei really need to change Language to 'advance' as a species? What was wrong with them before?" But that Scile is painted as a villain clearly orients the text in favor of "symbolic processing as advanced thinking". And of course, Scile et al.'s whole "what was wrong with them before Similes and Lies?" argument also pretty clearly harkens to the whole notion of "the noble savage".
 And in that way, perhaps what the Ariekei are after is the birth of their own aesthetics?
Original "short version" review:
Miéville's anti-ontological novel? Most of his work seems to involve inventing personages and things that are so alien (and then setting them in an intimately, almost erotically detailed locale) that they're almost unrecognizable, that they become symbols unto only themselves to examine concepts you had not really considered examining. And here it's taken to almost parodic extreme? If it's difficult to identify with the characters, it's because they're almost unidentifiable.
Almost four-stars, and if you're patient enough, maybe it could be for you.
I think maybe this is the kind of science fiction I might have enjoyed in high school; but I was also willing reading Ayn Rand novels in high school.I think maybe this is the kind of science fiction I might have enjoyed in high school; but I was also willing reading Ayn Rand novels in high school. I guess what I'm saying there is: there are some things that we grow out of.
I made it through about 75 pages before I pushed this aside—I just couldn't take it. Whatever story (or stories) were buried in there, they were not coming together; and even assuming that they inevitably would, I could find nothing compelling in the narrative, nor the style. The language was stilted. The bits that read like Randian apologism (and/or dogmatism) grated. And Anderson jumped around in time quite a bit, trying to quick-cut in a bunch of different concepts (those genetically spliced, intelligent seals, for example) but not really ever giving us a compelling character or plot thread to latch onto. And/or whatever you might have latched onto as interesting: well, it won't be back for 100 pages.
First book I've outright abandoned in probably 5+ years....more
What le Guin gives us with The Word for World is Forest is a pretty straightforward piece of (arguably) first-contact  sci-fi with strong ecological themes and some feminist undertones. The ecological themes are not subtle: a mono-climatic planet with "peaceful primitive" forest-dwelling natives? forced into slave labor by a colonizing human race that's just there for the lumber? But with fewer than 200 pages in this title, who has time for subtlety? Le Guin hits you with the point early and runs you over with it.
The feminist themes are a little more subtle.
Overall, an enjoyable book — and though it had some moments of outstanding prose, the not-so-subtle plot sometimes translated into some not-so-subtle wordsmithery. I've enjoyed le Guin's short stories in the past though, so I'll be back for ...Earthsea and others, I'm sure.
 : I say "arguably" first-contact because (1) the first contact aspect is not the central theme — that would be the ecological stuff — and (2) because if this is a "first contact" story, it is only implied. I say it is only implied because the text is peppered with these oblique references to how the Athsheans have had no concept of murder prior to encountering human-kind etc. — but never "knowing murder" is different than never knowing another species. And none of the Athshean characters ever comes out and says that the humans ("yumans") are the first ever to come. And all this world-time/dream-time stuff is another oblique hat-tip to cyclical history, which just further undermines any definitive claims to this being "first contact". And this is to say nothing of the directed panspermia theory referenced in the narrative....more
WARNING: Spoilers? maybe kinda/sorta; but the review might not mean much to you if you haven't read it anyway. Thus:
There's a scene--about halfwayWARNING: Spoilers? maybe kinda/sorta; but the review might not mean much to you if you haven't read it anyway. Thus:
There's a scene--about halfway through the novel--when Paul says to Maya: "I want you to prove to me that you're not human yet still an artist." Right there? That's basically your thematic thesis.
It has been my observation that a lot of folks get introduced to Bruce Sterling by way of the Mirrorshades anthology (one of my top 5 favorite collections of all time) and so follow-up quickly with his other most-well-known werk, Schismatrix; and while both are great, if you pay much attention to Bruce Sterling (i.e., read his running commentary over on Beyond the Beyond), you know that this was the book he was born to write. Virtualities and posthumanism and art and quirky social stratification and European leftism and art and revolutionary politics and atavism-in-a-technological-world and art and the economics of celebrity and sex and art...
Sterling presents us with a central conflict that's a classic one: the old vs. the new; the entrenched vs. the (would-be?) ascendant; preservation vs. creation. He toys with one of those fun little paradoxical science fiction utopias where everything is cheap and easy to make, where machinery is almost absurdly efficient, where science gives us nearly limitless lifespans, and where everyone is almost uniformly unhappy. They're unhappy because they're old and are essentially apathetic; or because they're young and politically powerless; or because they're decrepit and their frailties have caught up with them; or because they're young and fearful that their creative wells could (or already have) run dry.
Which is where the title comes into play. Sterling works the phrase "holy fire" in there quite a few times, each time changing the meaning just a little bit, but each time linking it rather distinctly with some character's intense feeling of creativity and expressiveness--that her actions are meaningful and lasting, that she is very much present in her existence and very much a part of the world's continuity. Characters feel "the holy fire" when they make something--doesn't matter if it's a mural or a party dress or a child.
Enter Paul's remark to Maya.
The scifi utopia that Sterling uses as his backdrop has also given us Mia/Maya--a nonagenarian (centenarian?) woman who undergoes a radical experimental medical life-extension treatment that effectively re-makes her at the molecular level into a lithe, apparent-twentysomething. Mia (pre-treatment) is steady and regimented and predictable and safe and it would seem completely disconnected from everything--aloof, if you will. She reluctantly visits an old lover on his deathbed; she is divorced from her husband; she is estranged from her daughter; she has no lovers, and hasn't had one in 30 (40?) years; even her running narrative seems to comment on places she never visited in her lifetime--sojourns she never took, business trips conducted via telepresence instead of physically. Mia has retreated into a world that she can control because she is "good" and because this will help keep her on a path to... what? Immortality in the Woody Allen sense? Certainly she must believe so; and thus her vehicle to conquer mortality is this treatment. But after the treatment: we have Maya--who subsumes Mia, and is in some ways still Mia (some memories, some skills...)--but Maya is very much connected, or else wants very much to be connected. Maya flees her medical custodians to immerse herself in continental Europe (Stuttgart! Praha! Milano!); she seeks out sexual partners; she seeks out mental and spiritual and apparent-physical conspecifics; she seeks out new ways to express herself (clothing! modeling! photography!). Perhaps because she is 90-now-20, perhaps because she is "reborn" into some new and fearlessly mortal ingénue--but Maya seems unconcerned with corporeal mortality. Instead, she seeks--immortality from? celebrity through? catharsis by?--art. She is after that "holy fire", but (somewhat orthogonally to Emil's artistic pursuits) she does not yet feel it, just the yearning for it.
"I want you to prove to me that you're not human yet still an artist."
Is Paul's conundrum a legitimate, phenomenological challenge to Maya? Or is it some tongue-in-cheek taunt predicated on a metaphysical paradox? Would Paul have posed the same question to Plato or Aquinas? What would either of those dogs have said? And would Maya have chosen differently if she had been around for that conversation?
POST SCRIPTS AND OTHER NOTES:
(1) Holy Fire was published in 1996, about the same time as William Gibson's Idoru (another favorite of mine) and not terribly long after Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992). Though the three are ultimately wrestling with some different themes and questions, there are also quite a few elements that draw them together: conflicts between the old and new generations (but what great literature doesn't have that?); ubiquitous virtualities that almost feel like invasive species; celebrity-as-currency. It would be interesting to take these three novels together, perhaps teach a class on them, or bang together a nice long dissertation on what I can only think to call "brinksmanship by futureshock".
(2) As with any science fiction, it is both blessed and cursed by its time. If Holy Fire was written in 2006 instead of 1996, all that "telomeric extension" stuff would have been (or at least included) something about stem cells as well. But the text seems pretty damn aware of this sort of damning specificity and deals reasonably well with it.
(3) I wish Sterling had not played it so safely. Killing off billions of people with plagues in your back-story takes some of the extravagant self-indulgent flair out of "posthumanism" and life extension; where's the ethical damnation there? And there's an unfired Chekov's gun with the Mia/Maya schizoidia; I expected more from that than the way it was invoked there for the climax. Also: there was a real lost opportunity with that translation necklace; 20 more pages and that thing could have gotten treacherous....more
Some beautifully written parts, and I did enjoy it but (and maybe this is unfair) it's just not as ambitious as Dhalgren. Which isn't to say that it iSome beautifully written parts, and I did enjoy it but (and maybe this is unfair) it's just not as ambitious as Dhalgren. Which isn't to say that it isn't ambitious in its own way, but for as challenging as it can be, it's a pretty basic quest story with some revenge thrown in.
The Year of the Flood is a gripping book about forgiveness and humanity, and about renewal. But that last bit ought to be obvious from the title, righThe Year of the Flood is a gripping book about forgiveness and humanity, and about renewal. But that last bit ought to be obvious from the title, right? Aren't all "flood" myths basically about destroying what was old to give rise to something new? And aren't all flood myths  more/less predicated on the world arriving in some terminally corrupt state?
As such: the post-apocalyptic elements reminded me a little bit  of The Road.
As such: it was an interesting book to read just after finishing Darwin's Radio, wherein the sudden/single-generation changes in human-kind was brought about by environmental factors triggering a virus which triggered rapid speciation; versus here in Atwood's book where "the new humans"  are of our own design, and of our own creation. It's funny to watch those two ideas play off of each other in recent memory. And though Greg Bear has a whole appendix to back up his science, and though Bear's depiction of rapid-speciation smack in the middle of "the height" of human civilization is probably more realistic... there is something about Atwood's slash-and-burn house-cleaning viral apocalypse that feels more honest, more genuine in a symbolic and literary sense than any attempt at realism could ever be.
Which brought me to another realization--and this not about The Year of the Flood in particular, but about science fiction in a general sense. Isn't all science fiction ultimately "post-apocalyptic"? Even your scintillating far-future utopias? Don't science fiction futures (in large part) require the total annihilation of the world as we know it in order for their settings and premises to work?
 Well... Western flood myths, at any rate.
 Mostly just the husk-of-the-modern-world, let's-march-to-the-sea bit.
 Which seem relegated to (non-DFW's) literature's equivalent of a minor footnote, just before the end. ("The blue people" even got ever-so-slightly more face-time in Oryx & Crake but that seems... unimportant.)...more
This is the seed from which Ridley Scott's masterpiece Blade Runner was born. What Scott understood about Dick's Rick Deckard was that he was an archeThis is the seed from which Ridley Scott's masterpiece Blade Runner was born. What Scott understood about Dick's Rick Deckard was that he was an archetypal noir detective; a married man he could not be (though that does lurid-up the bit with Rachael a bit more). The edge that the novel has over the film? Dick's novel explores some themes about fertility/sterility and extinction that are fascinating; Scott missed the mark by effectively abandoning those. That being said, I find it interesting that Scott flipped the setting from San Francisco to Los Angeles—striking me as a bit Chandler to Dick's Hammett....more
"What took you so long to pick it up?" I did not believe the hype.
Before The Windup Girl, my exposure to Bacigalupi's work was through two short stori"What took you so long to pick it up?" I did not believe the hype.
Before The Windup Girl, my exposure to Bacigalupi's work was through two short stories:
(1) "The People of Sand and Slag"—which seemed to pop-upeverywhere for a while; and then (2) "Yellow Card Man"—which was in the same milieu as this novel and which I liked but which I didn't really "get" because I was expecting something more along the lines of "The People of Sand and Slag".
This is not to say that I did not enjoy Bacigalupi's work at least on some level—they were both good stories but neither of them was enough to send me out on a mission looking to read more of his work. Nevertheless, I recognized the name and had this strong flicker of recognition every time yet another review appeared in my RSS reader. The Windup Girl is amazing and a shoe-in for at least one of 2009's big awards and so forth. But I kept thinking about "The People of Sand and Slag".
Turns out that Bacigalupi has the same problem that I ("...would like to think I...") have.
His ideas are big. Too big for some crummy 5000 word short story or some 8500 word novelette. Those ideas are big and they are important and they need room to breathe. Those ideas need a 350+ page apparatus to fully get themselves across. But these big ideas all seem so small and slow at first, and for the first 50-100 pages you find yourself thinking So what? So this is an interesting and immersive milieu but where's the action? Why is everyone ready to have this book's babies? But then it hits you hard and drags you through 250 more stunning pages. But now I'm just gushing?
I loved this book the way that I loved Ian McDonald's River of Gods. There is something very special about the rich tapestry that these guys have created by putting these futuristic settings against the lush and visceral backdrops of these oriental locales with all their poverty and banalia. But whereas McDonald did it with AIs in India, Bacigalupi is doing it with genetically modified human not-quite-clones in Thailand.
But what makes this one so special is that everyone is under indictment and nothing is sacrosanct. None of the stories end the way you would want them to, but you cannot think of any other way that they could end. This is one that will haunt you, and makes a great companion read for Oryx and Crake....more
Baby's first heady sci-fi? Brian Greene does a science fiction/deep physics double-take on the classic Icarus myth. Beautiful images (though as my manBaby's first heady sci-fi? Brian Greene does a science fiction/deep physics double-take on the classic Icarus myth. Beautiful images (though as my man Adam points out: frustratingly covered with a giant black hole on each page) and quite a story embedded therein.
But the story can be a bit much for a one-year-old. H. has managed to sit through it... once so far....more
The "dust jacket description" of this anthology pretty much sums it up... It collects a few different modern takes on the classic science fiction trope: What does it take; what does it mean for a civilization to be interstellar and/or pan-galactic?
My take of Federations, it gets a composite rating of 3.9130 (individual stories below)
• "Mazer in Prison" (Orson Scott Card): ★★★ » About what you'd expect from Card. So it doesn't disappoint but it doesn't exactly thrill, either. • "Carthago Delenda Est" (Genevieve Valentine): ★★★★ • "Life Suspension" (L. E. Modesitt, Jr.): ★★½ • "Terra-Exulta" (S.L. Gilbow): ★★★ » Reminds me a bit of that Stephen King piece that opens Wastelands. The letter-writing format is a tough one to write in and I appreciate the effort here. And I don't dislike this piece but it seems... too short? or just that its hand is tipped too early and that kind of blows the ending a bit? • "Aftermaths" (Lois McMaster Bujold): ★★★★ • "Someone is Stealing the Great Throne Rooms of the Galaxy" (Harry Turtledove): ★★ » Not terribly intriguing, and a little puerile/juvenile. To me... I can see why it was included (for the variety and for the perspective it brings) but it just doesn't do it. Not for me. • "Prisons" (Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason): ★★½ » So much potential, and almost good; but why did I wind up feeling like it needed to be more subversive? (E.g., so many heteronormative relationships!—if the prison revolt leader had been lovers with another man, well now maybe that might have been a little more intriguing.) • "Different Day" (K. Tempest Bradford): ★★★★★ • "Twilight of the Gods" (John C. Wright): ★★★★ » The Tolkien-esque language can be a little off-putting at first but it really starts to make sense after you get about a third of the way in. • "Warship" (George R. R. Martin and George Guthridge): ★★★★★ » I can't imagine why it took so long for Martin to shop this piece—unless Guthridge really brought that much to it. The execution is very spot-on. • "Swanwatch" (Yoon Ha Lee): ★★★★ » I want to like this more. It's beautiful but a bit oblique—and that's fine but somehow it doesn't jump to where it needs to be. • "Spirey and the Queen" (Alastair Reynolds): ★★★★★ » Awesome. Did you like Watts' Blindsight? Did you like Sterling's "Swarm"? A little bit like that. (Only robots.) • "Pardon Our Conquest" (Alan Dean Foster): ★★★½ • "Symbiont" (Robert Silverberg): ★★★★½ » Highly disurbing; more so than I thought it would be. (Just read this one; skip the introduction.) • "The Ship Who Returned" (Anne McCaffrey): ★★★★ • "My She" (Mary Rosenblum): ★★★★½ » Brilliant. Nicely subversive and almost perfect. • "The Shoulders of Giants" (Robert J. Sawyer): ★★½ • "The Culture Archivist" (Jeremiah Tolbert): ★★★★★ » This one is funny in the way that "Someone is Stealing..." (vida supra) could/should have been. • "The Other Side of Jordan" (Allen Steele): ★★★★½ » Serves a little bit as a reminder that one of the things you're going for (when you're going for sci-fi) is the "deep milieu". This has got it. And I love it for it. • "Like They Always Been Free" (Georgina Li): ★★★★ » Very dense; worthwhile. • "Eskhara" (Trent Hergenrader): ★★★★★ » The allegory bits are obvious but rather than detract, they make it all very worth while. • "The One with the Interstellar Group Consciousnesses" (James Alan Gardner): ★★★★ » Cute, and a bit novel, but kind of like an artisan soda: not really bad for you but not really necessary but damn tasty but kind of a cloying aftertaste? * "Golubash, or Wine-War-Blood-Elegy" (Catherynne M. Valente): ★★★★½ » A little on the oblique side but the framing for the story is absolutely killer....more