Very good, but more of a hard-hitting psychological suspense novel than a sci-fi adventure. So it'll help if you set your expectations accordingly. :)Very good, but more of a hard-hitting psychological suspense novel than a sci-fi adventure. So it'll help if you set your expectations accordingly. :) Final review, just posted on FantasyLiterature.com:
I loved The Hunger Games, thought Catching Fire was quite good if not as great as the first one, and was only so-so on Mockingjay. Also, it’s an uphill battle to write a good, enjoyable prequel if the reader already knows what’s going to happen to the main character in the later books and (spoiler) it’s highly unpleasant. So I hesitated for over a year to read Collin’s latest HUNGER GAMES book, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, but when I saw it on my local library’s shelf a few weeks ago I decided to give it a shot. It was surprisingly good!
It’s some sixty-four years before Katniss will enter the Hunger Games. The Capitol recently won a brutal civil war against the rebellious districts, and as part of their punishment of the districts, instituted the Hunger Games ten years ago. The Games aren’t the spectacle that they will later become; they’re more a brief, brutal battle to the death between twenty-four hapless youths, a boy and a girl from each district, who are kept in filthy cages before the Games start and fight in a dilapidated sports arena. Little attention is paid to the Games by most people, so, to try to increase the Hunger Games’ popularity with viewers, this year those in charge of the Games have assigned a high school-aged mentor to each contestant.
Teenager Coriolanus Snow is from a distinguished Capitol family that has fallen into the depths of poverty but is desperately hiding it from everyone. When he’s chosen as a mentor and is assigned the District 12 tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, he’s initially fearful that she’s one of the weakest contestants and will hurt his chances for a needed college scholarship. So while he brainstorms ways to increase the mass appeal of the Games, Coriolanus finagles his way into meeting with Lucy Gray several times before the Games start, to try to increase her (and his) popularity with viewers. More importantly, Lucy Gray turns out to be far more intelligent, talented and attractive than Coriolanus or anyone else guessed, and his attraction to her grows along with his assessment of her chances for winning the Games.
As in the main HUNGER GAMES trilogy, the action in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is melded with social commentary. Here, though, the overall story is much more deliberately paced, as it focuses on the internal thoughts and psychology of Coriolanus Snow and the people and society around him. Collins does a great job of creating a conflicted, complex character in teenage Coriolanus Snow, who’s from a distinguished Capitol family that has fallen into the depths of poverty but is desperately hiding it from everyone. This desperation informs Coriolanus’ character and choices: social, educational and financial security and the good opinion of others are so important to him, and it easily slides into self-centeredness and pride. He’s charming, intelligent and well-spoken, but ruthlessly ambitious (“Snow always lands on top!” is the family motto) and often deceptive. Still, at this point in his life there’s still good in Coriolanus, and being around Lucy Gray brings out the better part of him.
As a counterpart to the goodness and morality of Lucy Gray and Coriolanus’ classmate Sejanus, there’s Dr. Gaul, a coldblooded teacher who conducts cruel genetic experiments and creates both human and animal mutations, including neon-colored, deadly snakes, and seems to view herself as a kind of mentor to Coriolanus. The snakes and songbirds motif surfaces repeatedly, as both birds and serpents play roles in the story in both physical and symbolic ways: Lucy Gray Baird (Bird?) is a singer with a musical group called the Covey (a small group of birds); Coriolanus makes use of the recording abilities of jabberjays but is disturbed by the crossbred, unruly mockingjays; and snakes become a key element in the plot … more than once, in fact.
It’s interesting to see the differences between where the Hunger Games are at this point in time and what they become a generation later, when Katniss plays. You can see the seeds of a lot of those later changes beginning here. Many of the facets of the games in Katniss’ day, like betting on contestants and sending them food and valuable goods by drones, have their genesis here.
Extra points to the author for the depth added to this novel through her inclusion of various philosophies about human nature and warfare, which play out in the various characters’ roles and the choices Coriolanus makes. Tip: take just a few minutes to familiarize yourself a little with the competing philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, if you’re not already knowledgeable about them. Collins also explains her thinking and these philosophies in an intriguing afterword.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a book that has deeper layers to dig out and think over. It’s not always pleasant to be in the head of a future dictator, but it’s a fascinating view into the development of both his personality and the Hunger Games themselves....more
2.5 stars. Rabbits is a real-world, highly secretive game, with a massive prize at stake. It's been going since about 1959 (maybe much longer? no one 2.5 stars. Rabbits is a real-world, highly secretive game, with a massive prize at stake. It's been going since about 1959 (maybe much longer? no one is quite sure) and there have been ten iterations of it so far. The ability to observe and follow up on patterns in everything around you is critical, as is a knowledge of 70's and 80's tech and videogames. (Sounding a little familiar?)
Rabbits has always been an edgy and dangerous game, but now as the 11th game is starting, people are disappearing and dying right and left. Our main character, K, has been a fan of Rabbits for years. A famous player in the game finds K and tells him he needs to fix the game or the whole world will pay a terrible price ... then promptly disappears. And now it looks like the nature of reality itself may be being affected by the game. K and his gaming friend/love interest Chloe keep getting told to stop playing the game or they'll die ... but it's really hard to let it go.
If you loved Ready Player One you might really enjoy this. I was only so-so on Ready Player One, and I think this book has other issues that one didn't - it's disjointed (seriously, it jumps around in really bizarre ways, part of the whole "what is real?" element to the plot), characterization is slim, and the answers in the end left me dissatisfied. But if you like the idea of following up on obscure game clues and doing it in a real world setting, with lots of geeky details, you may really enjoy it.
Full review to come. Thanks to the publisher for the ARC!
It’s alarming to wake up from a coma in completely unfamiliar surroundings, teth4.5 stars! On sale now. Review first posted on FantasyLiterature.com:
It’s alarming to wake up from a coma in completely unfamiliar surroundings, tethered to a bed by tubes and electrodes, with a computer voice quizzing you and robotic arms controlling your movements. It’s even more disturbing when you realize that you have no recollection of your name or your past life, and that there are two long-dead bodies in the room with you.
But gradually, through a series of flashback memories, Ryland Grace remembers that Earth is facing an extinction event: a Russian scientist discovered that a strange line has developed between the sun and Venus, and it’s causing the sun to lose energy at a rate that’s high enough to cause a worldwide ice age in the next few decades. Grace, a disgraced molecular biologist who abandoned academia to teach middle school science, was one of the scientists investigating the unique microorganisms, christened Astrophage, causing the sun’s disastrous decline in energy.
Now his explorations of his current surroundings lead him to the realization that he’s in a spaceship headed to the Tau Ceti star system, on a one-way trip in search of a way to save the Earth, and the other two members of his crew didn’t survive the medically-induced comas during the long voyage of the Hail Mary. But a major surprise awaits Grace at his destination: humanity isn’t the only race looking to the Tau Ceti system for a possible answer to the problem of Astrophage.
Andy Weir’s latest science fiction adventure, Project Hail Mary, marks a welcome return to form for fans of The Martian, after his lackluster second novel, Artemis. There’s the same hyper-focus on fine details of technology and science, one of Weir’s hallmarks, along with a series of critical events that our intrepid main character needs to overcome through a combination of scientific knowledge and inventiveness. Ryland Grace, who narrates the novel, also bears a distinct resemblance to Mark Watney: he’s an enthusiastically geeky and inventive scientist with an engaging voice and sense of humor, faced with a life-and-death situation.
“How did you do it? What killed it?” “I penetrated the outer membrane with a nanosyringe.” “You poked it with a stick?” “No!” I said. “Well. Yes. But it was a scientific poke with a very scientific stick.”
But the stakes are higher here, the adventure more far-reaching, and there’s a subtle complexity to Grace’s character that is fully revealed toward the end, along with a (related) twist in the narrative that is logical but still managed to surprise me. Weir displays some subtleties in his writing in Project Hail Mary that go beyond his previous works of fiction. Weir also handles the dual timeline in this novel well, with the flashbacks flowing naturally as a result of Grace’s slowly-dispersing amnesia. These memories gradually fill in the background and reveal the full scope of the Astrophage problem and the reasons and hopes for Grace’s current mission, while the current timeline follows his adventures and mishaps once he reaches the ship’s destination … and beyond.
Much of Project Hail Mary is about Grace’s unanticipated friendship with another character who is tremendously pleasing in both his sheer alienness and his open-heartedness toward Ryland. While my practical mind debated the wisdom of Grace and the alien oversharing information about the location of their home worlds (I was deeply influenced by Murray Leinster’s classic novelette “First Contact” at an impressionable age), their developing trust and friendship is undeniably heartwarming.
Great books and movies are often marked by their attention to themes of love and redemption, and Project Hail Mary has both in spades. (I’m still trying to decide whether the title and the main character’s name are a deliberate call-out by Weir to “Hail Mary, full of Grace.” I’m inclined to think it is.) In any case, these compelling themes, plus a suspenseful, page-turning adventure and the inspiring scientific creativity of the characters (assuming you’re a reader who enjoys Weir’s attention to technical details in his plots), make Project Hail Mary a sure-fire hit for fans of The Martian … and may very well win him new fans.
Initial post: Just when I'd given up, my NetGalley request for this book got approved! This time Andy Weir came much closer to the magic that was The Martian. :)...more
A Beginning at the End is set in a near-future world where, in 2019, a deadly worldwide pandemic kFinal review, first posted on FantasyLiterature.com:
A Beginning at the End is set in a near-future world where, in 2019, a deadly worldwide pandemic kills some five billion people, including seventy percent of the U.S. population. Johanna Moira Hatfield, a teenage pop music star known as Mojo, tired of being browbeaten by her stage father, Evan, uses the sudden panic at her Madison Square Garden concert to disappear into the crowd in search of a new life.
Six years later, in San Francisco in 2025, MoJo has a new name, Moira Gorman, a job, and a fiancé who she’s not really in love with, but he represents stability in a society that’s still fragile and unstable, as well as safety from her father, who’s still looking for his MoJo. Moira’s wedding planner, Krista Deal, has a somewhat similar backstory: Krista faked her own death years ago to escape her drug-addicted, dysfunctional mother. Wedding planning isn’t paying the bills, though, so when Krista hears that Evan Hatfield believes MoJo is in the San Francisco area and is offering a huge reward to anyone who can help him find her, she’s naturally interested … not realizing that her client Moira is MoJo.
Moira’s co-worker Rob Deal has his own set of tragic family issues: he lost his beloved wife to an accident during the pandemic years ago, but has never been able to bring himself to tell his seven-year-old daughter Sunny the truth about her mother’s death. Rob tells Sunny that her mother has been in medical treatment all these years, and while Sunny believes him, she’s beginning to act out. Her misbehavior at school threatens to lead to her being taken away from him by the powerful Family Stability Board. Rob’s a loner with no real friends, but perhaps his new acquaintance Krista Deal can testify to the Board as to his adequacy as a father (especially if he pays her a little money under the table)?
A Beginning at the End was published in early 2020, so it anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic (like another duology I recently read, Tosca Lee’s The Line Between and A Single Light). Here’s it’s not the actual disaster that Mike Chen is primarily focused on, but the aftermath and particularly the lives of this group of characters. What remains of society is being put back together in new ways: some cities are back to some semblance of normality, while others live in the lawless outskirts of society. People in general are still traumatized by the deaths of so many, including their friends and family, and the flu-like MGS virus remains a threat, with outbreaks of new variants.
Moira, Krista and Rob are emblematic of this sense of loss and distress. All three, not to mention Rob’s daughter Sunny, have serious issues to work through — though interestingly enough, their personal problems are only indirectly tied to the actual MGS pandemic. These characters are flawed but likeable, and the novel’s ultimately uplifting plot gives a timely nod to the benefits of found family (often over a problematic bio family).
A Beginning at the End is a quieter type of post-apocalyptic tale, more about interpersonal relationships and individual healing than about the larger changes caused by the worldwide pandemic. Like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, this novel takes a more introspective approach to the aftereffects of a worldwide epidemic, but I found Mandel’s book more skillfully and lyrically told and much more compelling than A Beginning at the End, which felt rather plodding at times. The pacing and excitement picks up toward the end, but I didn’t find Chen’s characters quite interesting enough to justify all the time spent on their personal struggles, as opposed to exploring more deeply the broader, more intriguing changes in this post-apocalyptic society.
It’s unnerving reading a book about a devastating pandemic at this point during the COVID-19 crisisFinal review first posted on FantasyLiterature.com:
It’s unnerving reading a book about a devastating pandemic at this point during the COVID-19 crisis, but in fairness, this near-future SF duology by Tosca Lee was published in 2019, so Lee gets credit for anticipating a timely topic. The first book, The Line Between, tells how Wynter Roth, a young woman in her early twenties, escapes from a doomsday cult and (obligatory spoiler warning for the first book here) is entrusted with some tissue samples that may help with the development of a vaccine against the growing pandemic. It’s a rapid onset dementia virus that is — unsurprisingly, since this is a science fiction novel — almost invariably deadly to those who catch it.
At the end of The Line Between, Wynter, her niece Truly, her new boyfriend Chase (with whom she fortuitously met up during her desperate travels), and a couple of family friends are lucky enough to befriend a doomsday prepper, Noah. Noah (with even more foresight than the author) shrewdly built a large, completely decked-out underground silo where sixty-three people, including Wynter’s group, are completely sealed in for six months, in the hope that when the automated door unlocks the pandemic will have passed.
A Single Light begins right where The Line Between left off. Wynter and the others tucked away in the hidden silo are adjusting to their restricted but safe life underground. At least everyone there is healthy, and there’s ample food, as well as a nightly broadcast from Noah, who remained aboveground to help guard their safety, among other reasons. But too soon, Noah’s video communications abruptly cease for an unknown reason. The close quarters and lack of any news from the outside world combine with fear and stress to cause serious problems for the hidden group, not least Wynter herself, especially when murder accusations against her — she was a busy girl in the first book — become public knowledge.
So it’s a relief when the silo’s electronic door opens after six months, though more than a little disturbing because it happens a few days before it was scheduled to open, and there’s no sign of Noah … or any other living person, for that matter. Wynter and Chase set off on an expedition to find out what’s become of Noah and our society, and to try to find some badly-needed antibiotics for a dying member of their group.
Through Wynter’s eyes, who tells this story in first person present tense, A Single Light shows the bleakness of a nation where society has crumbled. Most people are desperately seeking food and medication, while a few take advantage of the disintegration of the rule of law. There’s a hint of both Mad Max and The Walking Dead in Wynter’s and Chase’s travels. Their exploits were engaging and suspenseful, especially when they come to a large town that seems to have the medicine they need, but the town is ruled by a viciously cruel kingpin and his henchmen. The ending of A Single Light felt rushed, as Lee quickly wraps up various plot threads and pulls in a few new ones, in a somewhat scattershot approach.
Wynter is a character defined by her alarming impetuousness and dramatic tendencies, but also her undeniable courage and loyalty to her friends … at least those she can trust. At one point early on Chase is forced to divulge a surprising secret to the silo group. While I loved the new light this shed on his role in the story, I found Wynter’s reaction over the top. It’s not quite as bad as Bella’s shutdown in New Moon in the TWILIGHT SAGA, but close enough. She’s not my favorite type of character, but her reactions are understandable given her traumatic upbringing. The other inhabitants of the underground silo group are roughly sketched-in characters at best, but Wynter does meet a few more memorable people in the course of her travels, particularly Otto, a kindhearted mute man.
As in The Line Between, there’s a discernable spiritual element to this tale. For the most part it’s very subtle, surfacing only occasionally (it’s notable that there’s no indication Wynter ever has premarital sex) and becoming clearer toward the end. Also like the first book, A Single Light has an allusive title, suggesting the need for spiritual light in an increasingly dark world. A Single Light is an intriguing apocalyptic-type adventure, and a quick, gripping read.
Thanks to the author, Tosca Lee, for the ARC (and sorry it took me so long to get to it!)....more
What’s a grumpy, misanthropic time traveling warrior to do? Governments and factions have misused time travel machines, each using their time machines to remake the past in the way they want it to be, over and over again. Time travel machines really are the ultimate weapon: if you go back far enough you can change history enough that your enemy never has a chance. Except that your enemy’s time traveling agents are cut off from those changes, so they’re still around to try to change history in a different way that favors them. And then there are Causality Bombs, “[f]or when regular time travel just can’t mess up continuity enough.” Now the past is irretrievably broken into shards and splinters.
So our surly main character, the last survivor of the time soldiers, has set himself up as a gatekeeper in a distant future to make sure it never happens again past his point in time. His tech allows him to pull all time travelers heading to the far future to stop in his particular place and time, where he can make sure they never go any further. And when that involves murdering said time travelers — he keeps guns, poisons and a feathery Allosaurus named Miffly just for this purpose (“she is ridiculously adorable when she’s not actually eating people”) — well, that’s just the way it goes. Until one day, when he gets an unpleasant surprise … from his future. Maybe, though, with the help of Miffly, he can solve this latest problem too.
One Day All This Will Be Yours, a new SF novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is wildly intelligent and imaginative, narrated by the main character with lots of irreverent and extremely black humor. You have to be able to enjoy a protagonist who, with no discernable regret, offs any number of innocent people in pursuit of what he views as the greater cause. One of the highlights is when he and a time-traveling antagonist engage in a battle in which each of them has pulled together an army of the worst villains they can find throughout human history: Stalin, multiple versions of Jack the Ripper, Elizabeth Báthory, Vlad the Impaler, Ching Shih, and many, many more.
In the end there is only one of them left, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s Hitler. Basically because he’s been hiding in a bunker all this time. He pokes his head up, and I set Miffly on him. … It’s very therapeutic. And the thing about allosaurs is they can run really quite fast, and the thing about Hitlers is that they can’t, not really, or not for very long.
Tchaikovsky’s concept of time and causality being broken is uniquely executed here in One Day All This Will Be Yours. Our main character makes the most of his access to the past, both for pleasure and to enforce his idea of keeping the far future pristine. Of course, time travel fiction is replete with paradoxes, and everything here isn’t entirely logical — at least, my brain couldn’t quite wrap itself fully around this novella’s concept of time — but Tchaikovsky commits to it completely and pulls you along with him, immersing you in this fascinating and slightly loopy world until you really don’t care any more if it doesn’t altogether make sense.
My only qualm with One Day All This Will Be Yours is that its ending is remarkably abrupt, with reams of hanging threads and no real attempt at a wrap-up. I don’t think I fully get what Tchaikovsky was going for with that ending, other than (view spoiler)[that it certainly gives a “well, here we go again” type of impression (hide spoiler)], but even after a couple of rereads I’m still not a fan of it. As a whole, though, this novella is so very funny, creative and intelligent that I have to give it my strongest recommendation … at least if you’re a fan of dark, flippant humor.
Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the ARC!...more
$1.99 Kindle sale, Oct. 9, 2020. I'm tempted - the basic concept of no one ever remembering you at all once you're out of sight is the same as in The $1.99 Kindle sale, Oct. 9, 2020. I'm tempted - the basic concept of no one ever remembering you at all once you're out of sight is the same as in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (though this one is SF and that one is fantasy), and I really enjoyed Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. But my local library has a copy of this book, so I'll probably go grab it there instead. :)...more
3.5ish stars. This is a collection of fantasy and SF short stories by the very talented Ken Liu, many of them set in a future where humans choose to b3.5ish stars. This is a collection of fantasy and SF short stories by the very talented Ken Liu, many of them set in a future where humans choose to be “uploaded” into a virtual world, like a voluntary Matrix. Liu is great at focusing on relationships while also exploring ideas.
RTC. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley. Thanks!...more
Using her 2015 Hugo award-winning short story “Cat Pictures Please” as a jumping-off point, Naomi Kritzer wrote Catfishing on CatNet, an engaging near-future YA science fiction novel about a benevolent, sentient AI and teens and young adults who are having life troubles and have found their primary emotional support in an online chat group — which happens to be moderated by the AI.
Steph is a sixteen-year-old girl who’s had an almost nomadic lifestyle for years: her mother moves them from town to town at the drop of a hat, rarely spending more than a few months in one place, and she doesn’t allow Steph to stay in contact with any friends once they’ve moved on. The reason, per her mom, is that they’re on the run from Steph’s father, who she says is violent and dangerous to them. Besides her mother, the only consistent relationships in Steph’s life are her group of online friends on “CatNet,” who are by and large all queer, nerdy and quirky. Steph’s mother, it need hardly be said, is unaware of Steph’s secret group of online friends, but they’re the one constant in her life that Steph refuses to give up.
Upon moving to their latest town in Wisconsin, though, Steph finds a new meatspace friend, Rachel, the first serious real-life friend she’s had in some time. With a great deal of help from a skilled hacker in the CatNet “clowder,” Steph and Rachel manage to reprogram a classroom sex ed robot to give “real answers” rather than the cautious “discuss that with your parents” messages that it has been giving to any touchy questions, like those about homosexuality or birth control. The results are both frank and hilarious, at least to most of the class and readers, but it sets off a domino effect, drawing attention from the media and potentially giving Steph’s location away to her long-absent father. Is he truly evil or has he been maligned? And what’s the deal with that one person who always seems to be awake and posting on CatNet, and knows more about Steph than she thinks they should?
The AI and Steph alternate in narrating the chapters of Catfishing on CatNet, with occasional chapters consisting of transcripts of online discussions of the CatNet clowder. Those interludes with the clowder were some of my favorite chapters. Their chats are realistic and frequently very funny, and you begin to recognize and become familiar with most of the key players in the clowder through their online voices.
The AI character (who I’ll refrain from naming since it isn’t disclosed for several chapters which clowder member they are) never quite felt like a true artificial intelligence to me; it’s just so very informally chatty, personable and human-sounding in its thought processes. It combines sophisticated cyber-surveillance, skilled hacking and using smart devices to intervene in others’ lives with a desire for true friendship and a naïve eagerness to help … along with an abiding fondness for cat pictures and videos. However, that’s clearly part of Kritzer’s point here: a self-aware artificial intelligence is as much a person as any human, and people of all types and genders are equally worthy of acceptance and respect.
Catfishing on CatNet is filled with charm and humor, which help to lighten the heaviness of the serious social issues and life problems that it addresses. Those problems include the difficulties of a transient life, troubles fitting in with society, abuse, and cyberstalking. There’s also a lot of fairly heavy messaging about candid sex education, queerness and sexual and gender identities, which may be either a bug or a feature depending on the reader’s own personal views.
Catfishing on CatNet won the 2020 Lodestar and Edgar Awards for Best Young Adult Book, and was nominated for other awards. It ends on an open note, setting up the sequel, Chaos on CatNet, which is due to be published in April 2021. I’m planning on reading it....more
3.5ish stars for this Nebula-nominated SF/fantasy novelette. Persephone Aim is sorting through her dead grandmother's memorabilia and possessions, whi3.5ish stars for this Nebula-nominated SF/fantasy novelette. Persephone Aim is sorting through her dead grandmother's memorabilia and possessions, which is worse than it sounds because Grandmother was a hoarder. There are a few valuables left behind from Grandmother's illustrious career as a stage magician, but most of it is junk or worse. But things get interesting when Persephone finds an odd metal hand, marked with swastikas and lightning bolts, and then a mechanical leg.
Meanwhile some government agents are asking if they can "help" sort all of Grandmother's things, and Persephone's own mother has come into town and is starting to act all aggressive about Grandmother's possessions ...
I started "Carpe Glitter" with high hopes but ended feeling a little let down. The beginning and even the middle were great, but it ended with an underwhelming rush. I think it was supposed to be scarier than it was. It felt like the last part needed more details, more events, just ... MORE.
If you're interested in scary + hoarding relatives, I'd suggest The Twisted Ones over this one.
The mindbending adventures of the necromancers continue! Full review, first posted on www.FantasyLiterature.com (along with 3 others from my co-reviewThe mindbending adventures of the necromancers continue! Full review, first posted on www.FantasyLiterature.com (along with 3 others from my co-reviewers there!):
Harrow the Ninth, the sequel to the Nebula and Hugo Award-nominated fantasy Gideon the Ninth, is incredibly ambitious, decidedly wordy, and highly confusing for about three-quarters of the book, at which point Tamsyn Muir (finally!) begins to gradually pull back the curtains.
Harrowhark, the heir of the declining Ninth House, a talented necromancer, and Gideon’s frenemy, has left the planet of Canaan House in the company of the Emperor (aka “God”) and his few remaining elite necromancer warriors called Lyctors, including Ianthe from Gideon the Ninth. As they travel toward an impossible-to-win war with a Resurrection Beast and its hordes of giant insectoid soldiers called Heralds, Harrow navigates a complex web of conspiracies and not knowing for certain who is on her side and who wants her dead.
On top of that, Harrow is struggling with a slower-than-usual process of attaining her full powers as a Lyctor, along with a mental illness that seems to be warping her view of reality. The first clue that all is not as it seems: As Harrow recalls the events at Canaan House, she remembers her cavalier as being not Gideon, but her original Ninth House cavalier Ortus … who reportedly had died in a spaceship bombing many months ago. In what may not be entirely a coincidence, one of the Lyctors who makes a regular play at assassinating Harrow — though it’s possible he’s just trying to put her out of her misery — is also named Ortus.
Most of Harrow the Ninth alternates chapters between Harrow’s travels and interactions with the God-Emperor and other Lyctors, which are told in second person POV (for what is actually a very good reason, made clear much later in the book), and a peculiar retelling, told in third person, of Harrow’s experiences at Canaan House, … peculiar because these past events play out so differently in this retelling. What is reality? (And, just to make matters more interesting, there are several chapters told in first person POV at the end.)
It’s been about five months since I read Gideon the Ninth, and if I had known when I started Harrow what I know now, I would’ve stolen Gideon back from one of my kids and at least reread the last 50 or so pages and refamiliarized myself with the characters, including the ones I thought were dead and gone (see above re: altered retelling of events at Canaan House).
Harrow the Ninth is both fascinating and frustrating, and it often made my brain hurt. Most of it was a difficult and opaque read because Muir is deliberately hiding the ball on so much from the reader for so long, and I’m a reader who thrives on understanding the overall context and scheme of a novel. Some mystery is good, but I felt that the confusing section (which is about the first 350 pages) should have been trimmed down by about a hundred pages.
On the positive side, Muir is unquestionably a talented author with a gift for words, and her prose was often a joy to read even when it wasn’t at all clear what was going on.
Then everything changed, forever. Harrowhark fell in love.
“Falling” was not the right term, precisely. It was a long process. She more correctly climbed down into love, picked its locks, opened its gates, and breached its inner chamber.
I also still love the interplay between fantasy and SF in these books, where necromantic magic takes places in a rather decrepit science fictional setting. The last 150 pages were excellent and truly enjoyable: they’re action-packed and, more importantly, some of the key questions raised in this series are finally answered (though, fair warning, Muir replaces those with several new questions). And clearly both of these first two LOCKED TOMB books would benefit from a reread. Time permitting, I’ll do that before I tackle the upcoming third book, Alecto the Ninth.
If you loved Gideon the Ninth I’d definitely recommend Harrow the Ninth, despite its challenges; if you weren’t a big fan of the first book, I’d probably give this one a pass.
On sale this week! 4+ stars, maybe even 4.5. Final review, first posted on FantasyLiterature.com (along with my co-reviewers' Jana and Kelly's additioOn sale this week! 4+ stars, maybe even 4.5. Final review, first posted on FantasyLiterature.com (along with my co-reviewers' Jana and Kelly's additional reviews, which are well worth reading!):
Dr. Evelyn Caldwell is a geneticist specializing in cloning, at the pinnacle of her career: The Echo Wife begins with a banquet at which she is given a prestigious award. At the same time, Evelyn is at a low point in her personal life. She’s a prickly loner and a workaholic, and her husband Nathan has recently left her for another woman. What makes matters far worse is that Nathan, a far less brilliant scientist than Evelyn, has stolen Evelyn’s research to clone Evelyn herself to grow himself a new wife, Martine, using programming methods to make Martine a softer, more submissive version of Evelyn. Nathan even finds a way around the sterility built into the foundation of the cloning process. Martine is pregnant, while Evelyn had adamantly refused to have a child in the earlier days of her marriage to Nathan.
So Evelyn lashes out at Martine, using her cruelest words, and it raises enough questions in Martine’s mind that later that evening she asks Nathan whether he cares what she wants for herself. In the resulting violent fight between Nathan and Martine, Nathan ends up dead. Martine has no one to turn to but Evelyn, and Evelyn reluctantly helps because her entire career could be torpedoed if the truth about Martine comes out. So between them they clean up the mess and bury Nathan’s body, but now there’s a new problem: how are they going to explain Nathan’s disappearance? Well, Evelyn is the world’s foremost expert in cloning …
On one level, Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife is a science fiction thriller, a compelling read that kept me glued to my chair until far into the night. There are some shocking but logical plot twists, and unnerving disclosures about all of the main characters. Flashbacks to Evelyn’s childhood, especially her interactions with her intellectually gifted but abusive father, help to show why she’s developed into a cold, career-obsessed person with a venomous tongue. It also becomes apparent to Evelyn that, though she was fully aware of Nathan’s tendency to cut corners, she never really knew who he was. Meanwhile, Martine is struggling with many of the limitations that Nathan has programmed into her, and Evelyn isn’t sure whether to be pleased or alarmed when Martine is able to bypass her conditioning.
The soft science fictional aspects of The Echo Wife are the weakest part of the plot. Conveniently, Evelyn’s cloning technology allows her to create a fully adult clone in a hundred days, one that is physically indistinguishable from the person who was cloned … at least, after some physical “conditioning” is done on the clone’s body to give it the scars, broken bones, etc. to match the original person. (Evelyn takes an unholy amount of pleasure in conditioning the Nathan clone’s body and having Martine participate in that process.)
Previous recordings taken of the original person’s brain — again, it’s suspiciously opportune that Evelyn has an older recording of Nathan’s brain — are sufficient to implant a full set of memories into the clone’s brain, including physical abilities that one might think would take a clone much longer to master, but somehow at the same time the scientist is able to modify those recordings to emphasize certain personality traits and memories and remove others. Gailey tosses around a few scientific phrases like “telomere financing” and “cognitive mapping,” but still, there’s an awful lot of handwaving surrounding the science and methodologies of cloning.
What does strike me as brilliant, however, are the psychological aspects of The Echo Wife. The main characters, as mentioned above, are all deeply flawed, but their shortcomings as well as their positive personality traits make them fascinating and multilayered personalities. There are also larger themes and issues woven into the story. The humanity and human rights of clones are one key element: Clones are viewed by Evelyn and the world generally as mere “specimens,” disposable for any or no reason (and in fact they are almost always disposed of after a few months), despite the fact that they are living, intelligent beings. But the more Evelyn gets to know Martine, the less she is able to rationalize this worldview … and yet so much of her career depends on it.
Another message, perhaps more subtle, concerns patriarchy and its evils, displayed by both Nathan, who blithely disposes of women who don’t meet his needs, and by Evelyn’s father, who physically abuses females who don’t obey him ... and even(view spoiler)[, in the end, by Evelyn herself. "I am not a monster" she insists ... but, isn't she, at least a little? As one of my co-reviewers on FanLit so astutely pointed out: "The way [Evelyn] fought so hard against becoming her browbeaten mother, only to find herself exhibiting characteristics of her abusive father instead, was believable and chilling. So, too, was the ease with which she slipped into taking Martine’s programmed domestic tendencies for granted, because, of course, life is so much easier when you have someone taking care of the home for you." Brilliant insight - and of course that calls back to the book's title, and also explains why the ending is disturbing. (hide spoiler)]
When I first read The Echo Wife, I was caught up in the suspense aspect of the novel and the twists of the plot. On my second read, I found it equally gripping, but for completely different reasons, more connected to the themes and the internal struggles and psyches of Evelyn and Martine. It’s an unusual, thoughtful and unsettling thriller, well worth the read.
Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the free review copy!
Update #1: Rereading because I should’ve written my review back when I first read this about six months ago, and I didn’t... it’s more twisty than I remembered, and the characters are really interesting!
3.75 stars. Another Retro Hugo nominee published in 1944, this novelette eventually became part of Isaac Asimov's famous SF novel Foundation. The stor3.75 stars. Another Retro Hugo nominee published in 1944, this novelette eventually became part of Isaac Asimov's famous SF novel Foundation. The story is free online at Internet Archive, but I'd recommend just finding a copy of Foundation and reading all of the stories in order, even though they're semi-stand-alone. Review first posted on Fantasy Literature:
The Big and the Little (renamed "The Merchant Princes") is the last section of Foundation, and introduces Hober Mallow, a trader who sells the Foundation’s unique atomic-powered goods to other planets in their remote part of the Galaxy. The Foundation is concerned about the disappearance of three trade ships, blaming the Korellian Republic, and the Foundation mayor’s secretary asks Mallow to quietly investigate. Mallow finds evidence that the far-distant but still massively powerful Galactic Empire, which also still has atomic power, may be not quite as distant as the Foundation’s leaders hoped.
The FOUNDATION trilogy is a lifelong favorite of mine, but rereading the first book again now, after many years, I have to reluctantly admit there are more significant flaws in it than I was aware of when I was in my teens. I made a comment to my family the other night about the near-complete failure of Golden Age SF authors to envision the advancement in opportunities for women. The striking scene where Hober Mallow puts the marvelous atomic-powered cloak and necklace on a servant girl, wasn’t nearly as wonderful to me now as it was to Teenage Me. That, and Asimov’s penchant for letting his characters retell some of the most impactful events in his stories rather than showing the events directly, do weaken this story (and some of the other Foundation stories) significantly.
Perhaps, then, it’s partially my lingering fondness for this series, but I still thoroughly enjoyed rereading The Big and the Little. There’s some complicated plotting that goes into it, a few truly memorable scenes, and a twisty but highly fitting ending that I’ve never forgotten....more
4.5 stars - my favorite of the 1944 stories nominated for Retro Hugo awards! You can read "Arena" free online here or here. Review first posted on Fan4.5 stars - my favorite of the 1944 stories nominated for Retro Hugo awards! You can read "Arena" free online here or here. Review first posted on Fantasy Literature, together with reviews for ALL of the current Retro Hugo novelette and short story nominees. Seriously, this FanLit column took me HOURS to put together, even though I didn't write all of the reviews in it, so please scoot over there and take a quick look and let me know if my efforts paid off. Feel free to add a comment to the thread there. :)
Two huge space fleets near Pluto are about to engage in a battle to the death: Humans and the aliens they call the Outsiders. Bob Carson, a young human in an individual scout ship, is about to engage with his Outsider counterpart in another scouter when he suddenly blacks out, only to awaken under a dome on a planet in another dimension. Across from him is a large red ball with retractable tentacles that turns out to be the Outsider scout, and the two are separated by an invisible barrier.
A disembodied voice informs Carson that if the space battle ensues, one side will be wholly exterminated, but that “winner” will be so damaged that it will “retrogress and never fulfill its destiny, but decay and return to mindless dust.” So this powerful entity has plucked Carson and the Outsider out of the two fleets to fight a one-on-one duel to the death. This being will destroy the entire spacefleet of the loser, allowing the winning species to continue to progress. But given the invisible barrier between the two, it will be a battle of brains as much as physical strength.
I first came across "Arena" at about age 13 in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929-1964, a book that was instrumental in shaping my love and tastes for SF. "Arena" was one of the most compelling and memorable stories in the collection, and rereading it now, a few decades later, I’m impressed with how well this novelette has withstood the test of time. Compared to some of the other Retro Hugo nominees from this year, it’s an outstanding piece of storytelling, and there’s a nice note of irony to the ending.
"Arena" was used at least partially as inspiration for a famous Star Trek episode in 1967 (also called Arena), which has a quite different ending. Many prefer the Star Trek ending, and I can't really argue with that, but considering that this was written during WWII, when the mood for righteous war was at its peak, it’s impressive that Brown actually took the time to show that Carson does attempt to make peace with the Outsider, which responds with a wave of hatred so strong that it physically weakens him.
"Arena" may be somewhat lacking in depth and nuance, but as a suspenseful, well-told SF action tale from this era, it’s hard to beat....more
One more Retro Hugo nominee! The Changeling is a 1944 novella by A.E. van Vogt, a well-regarded Golden Age SF author, which is currently a nominee forOne more Retro Hugo nominee! The Changeling is a 1944 novella by A.E. van Vogt, a well-regarded Golden Age SF author, which is currently a nominee for the 2020 Retro Hugo award. Review first posted on Fantasy Literature (along with a link to Internet Archive, if you're interested in checking this out):
The Changeling begins in a fairly promising way: The comfortable life of Lesley Craig, a well-to-do business executive, is upended when his boss comments on how well the firm has done since Craig joined it four years ago. Craig is confused: he knows he’s been with the Nesbitt Co. for (pause while he counts) thirty-four years. Which makes Craig fifty years old and — now he’s getting concerned — he looks and feels like he’s in his mid-thirties, and his memory of most of these years is pretty hazy.
When Craig sets off to confront his wife, he’s taken prisoner by (cue wincing here) a group of tough women who have taken an “equalizing” drug that makes them physically … and presumably mentally and emotionally … as strong and capable as men. Equality of the sexes, 1940’s-style! These “equalized” women haul Craig before the president of the U.S., Jefferson Dayles. President Dayles favors Craig with some “As you know, Bob” info-dumping about their troubled times in 1973, threatens him, takes a sample of Craig’s blood, and then sends him on his way.
Everyone around Craig — his wife Anrella, his boss, the president and others — seems to have competing ideas about what Craig should do, but none of their ideas involve informing Craig about what is really going on with his entire life. Craig is a confused man, and as he stumbles from one crisis and plot complication to the next, the reader is equally confused. Far-fetched explanations are eventually forthcoming, but the plot is a severely disjointed one, with a few odd jumps in time, and a murky ending that did nothing to redeem the story. Add to that the really cringe-worthy treatment of gender issues; even for the 40s, this seems like awful stuff. The Changeling is pretty much a hot mess, with a lot of wasted potential....more
This review is only for Intruders from the Stars, a 1944 novella that's currently a Retro Hugo nominee. Review first posted on Fantasy Literature, aloThis review is only for Intruders from the Stars, a 1944 novella that's currently a Retro Hugo nominee. Review first posted on Fantasy Literature, along with a link to Internet Archive if you really want to read it. But I can't recommend it!
I have never seen a published work with so many exclamation points. There are dozens of them — on Every! Single! Page! This is one seriously overwrought novella, with tons of purple prose. It stars Bess-Istra, a gorgeous (of course) and megalomaniacal Queen of All She Surveys, who loses a battle against rebels on her home planet and takes off in a spaceship with her remaining (more or less) loyal soldiers to take over another planet 13 light years away.
Their scientist uses a sleeping gas to put everyone on the ship into suspended animation for the trip. Because of Reasons, they miss the planet they were aiming for and, many millennia later, land on Earth during WWII. Bess-Istra promptly moves to take over the Earth.
This novella features another those tough, highly competent guys so popular in Golden Age SF, a war correspondent in this case, who falls in love with Bess-Istra even though he knows she’s bad news (not to mention being, you know, an actual space alien, though she conveniently speaks English). When I hit the phrases “her breast heaving” on the third page and “her glorious, scarlet lips” on the page after that, used in a completely unironical way, I knew we were in trouble. It never really gets any better from there.
The only part that engaged me was the brief explanation of how and why they missed the other planet they were aiming for. :)...more
Trog is a 1944 novella that's currently a nominee for the 2020 Retro Hugo award, in the novella category. Review first posted on Fantasy Literature (aTrog is a 1944 novella that's currently a nominee for the 2020 Retro Hugo award, in the novella category. Review first posted on Fantasy Literature (along with a link to Internet Archive, if you're really interested in checking this out):
It's the 1950s in this story, and civilization is severely breaking down all over the world. People called Troglodytes or "Trogs" have been mysteriously destroying key equipment and industries. The prevailing theory is that humans have a mass consciousness that is fed up with technology and wants to send humanity back to more of a Middle Ages type of existence, so this group-mind thing temporarily possesses individuals, turning them into Trogs. To add to the problem, Trogs can also cause everyone around them to temporarily black out, so no one ever sees them committing the sabotage. People walk around, worrying that they themselves are Trogs who committed destructive acts during their black-outs.
Trog is very much a tale of its era, with tough-minded, competent men who whip out world-changing technical gadgets, mostly useless and decorative women (when women even appear in the story at all), and — this is a 1944 story, after all — Nazis nefariously scheming to take over the world. Despite these drawbacks, and the minimal characterization, I did think this was a reasonably entertaining story, plot-wise.
The “collective unconscious of humanity” theory admittedly doesn’t make much sense, but then, large groups of people often do in fact adopt ideas that in retrospect seem utterly nonsensical, and of course here it turns out that something entirely different is going on. Good thing we have the heroes to save the day … before the plot really had a chance to get exciting, unfortunately. Still, giving due consideration to when it was written, Trog wasn’t so awful that I think it deserves only a single star. That dubious honor I’ll reserve for Intruders from the Stars....more
Ten-year-old Nyma is chosen for a singular role in her country: to be the child whose life stands between the president’s decision to deploy devastating seres bombs in the war against their enemy. The only copy of the access codes to the seres missiles are in a capsule implanted next to Nyma’s heart. The law requires that the president personally kill the carrier child with a ceremonial dagger, to retrieve the codes to launch the bombs. Once the new president, Otto Han, is elected, Nyma is always to be near him. And despite President Han’s reluctance to grow closer to Nyma (he initially resists even knowing her name), it inevitably happens, while the war news grows more and more grim.
The theme and issue are clearly stated in this story, multiple times and in varying ways:
Do you truly wish to use such weapons so badly, that you would be willing to do as the law requires and murder a child of your own land with your own hands in order to gain access to them?
It’s pretty good message fiction: what if the government made it really (REALLY!!) hard for the president to pull the plug on deploying nuclear weapons? Is the loss of so many other lives, a belief in the rightness of your cause, the fear that your own country will be devastated if you don’t take action, sufficient? These are difficult questions that both President Han and the reader struggle with, and Huang doesn’t offer an easy answer. What makes it even more difficult is Nyma’s own belief in the necessity of her role, despite her wish to live.
But I can’t quite wrap my brain around the idea of enough people agreeing to create a law that deliberately uses an innocent child as the sacrifice that the president personally needs to take, with his own hands, in order to bomb the enemy. On the other hand, Ursula K. Le Guin‘s famous short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a thematically similar parable about the ethics of the greater good, also uses an innocent child as an even more inexplicable sacrifice, and I think that story is great. Maybe Huang’s writing style, which is far less subtle, just didn’t engage me as much as Le Guin’s did.
In any case it’s great food for thought, and is a Hugo nominee....more
4.5 stars. This clever SF novella is just my brand of literary crack. Climate change, time travel paradoxes, shifting reality, the past affecting the 4.5 stars. This clever SF novella is just my brand of literary crack. Climate change, time travel paradoxes, shifting reality, the past affecting the future and vice versa — it’s all here. A 71 year old Russian widow is the main character, and she’s GREAT. And the plot is intricate but actually makes logical sense through all of it, and I am HERE for that.
Martha Wells continues her popular and highly-acclaimed MURDERBOT DIARIES series with another novella, Fugitive Telemetry, which actually takes place before the only novel in the series so far, Network Effect. (So you could read this one before that novel, but you do need to read books 1-4 first.) At this point in time Murderbot, the introverted and snarky cyborg who is the narrator and the heart of this series, is a fairly new resident on Preservation, a planet outside of the callously capitalistic Corporate Rim. Murderbot is a companion to and protector of Dr. Mensah, one of the few humans Murderbot has gradually learned to trust. Although Preservation society isn’t entirely accepting of security bots (especially rogue ones like Murderbot that aren’t subject to human controls), it’s generally a very peaceful and progressive place.
So it’s a shock to everyone when the body of an unknown person is found in an isolated passageway of Preservation Station, the space station above the planet, clearly murdered. Station Security is charged with the investigation, with Senior Officer Indah in charge, but Mensah prevails on them to let Murderbot help, since it knows a lot more about murder than the local security force, and they want to make sure that GrayCris isn’t involved. Indah is annoyed (“but then she always looked like that when I was around”) and distrustful of working with a SecUnit. But when things get complicated, Murderbot is undeniably useful to have around.
Fugitive Telemetry is an engaging and enjoyable entry in the MURDERBOT DIARIES series, with a plot that stirs a murder mystery in with the regular science fiction adventure plot. As always, Murderbot’s snarky narration (liberally scattered with parenthetical remarks, which I love because I’m—obviously—partial to them myself) is one of the highlights. Sometimes there are even parentheses inside of parentheses:
(When we had first discussed the idea of me getting jobs as a way to encourage the Preservation Council to grant me permanent refugee status, I didn’t know very much about the kind of contract in which I was actually an active participant. (My previous contracts were rental contracts with the company, where I was just a piece of equipment.) Pin-Lee had promised, “Don’t worry, I’ll preserve your right to wander off like an asshole anytime you like.”)
(I said, “It takes one to know one.”)
I won’t say more about the mystery that drives the story, to avoid spoilers, but it’s a solid one, with a resolution that was both logical and a complete surprise, at least to me.
Fugitive Telemetry doesn’t really move the overall story arc forward in the way that most of the other books have, partly because it’s a prequel to the preceding novel and partly because Murderbot’s interactions with the initially hostile Indah have a been-there-done-that kind of feel. These are relatively minor complaints, though. Murderbot, though still a media-watching introvert, has come a long way from the SecUnit that had near-crippling social anxiety in All Systems Red. It interacts much better with humans now and even finds itself (somewhat begrudgingly) appreciative of its relationships with them, though its eye-rolling at humans’ logical inadequacies will probably never disappear … and that’s a good thing. We all could use a Murderbot in our lives to remind us of our shortcomings and protect us against corporate evils and other threats. Any new MURDERBOT DIARIES book shoots immediately to the top of my reading list — and it should yours as well!
Update #3: So my brother, another Murderbot fan, was coming into town about a week ago and let me know that he was VERY anxious to read Murderbot's next adventure. I thought, well, I can reread my ARC of Fugitive Telemetry and write my review for it and then loan him the book. Excellent plan! I'm on it!
The rereading part went great. The actual writing of the review ... not so much. So my brother left town, sadly, without the book, which is still sitting here on my coffee table.
Update #2: I just finished! Another fun Murderbot adventure! Review to come!
Update #1: AAAHHH, the ARC of this book just landed on my doorstep! I am SO EXCITED for a new Murderbot adventure!!
Initial post: More Murderbot coming! How awesome is that? Can we make 2021 come any sooner? I think we're all over and done with 2020 anyway......more
“War is hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman famously said in the aftermath of the American Civil War, anFinal review, first posted on Fantasy Literature:
“War is hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman famously said in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, a Hugo and Locus award nominated novel, drives that point home. The brutality of a soldier’s life combines with dystopia and hellish corporate behavior, but it’s lightened by the gritty determination of the main character, Dietz, and a handful of others to find the right path out of the nightmarish war, and by a hopefulness that refuses to be beaten down.
In a near-future day, six huge corporations, called the Big Six, control most of Earth’s society, doling out vital services only to people who are citizens. Dietz, a non-citizen of São Paulo, has suffered the loss of family and friends in “The Blink,” a mysterious event that instantly destroyed São Paulo and killed over two million people. Martian colonists, considered “aliens” by Earth, are blamed for the Blink, and Dietz promptly joins the Tene-Silvia Corporate Corps to avenge the deaths and to try to be a hero, a personage of light. Which Dietz becomes, but not in the way envisioned.
Earth has one major advantage over Mars in this war: scientists have figured out how to break down the soldiers into atoms and transporting them, like a beam of light, to various battle locations, even across space. This teleporting technology doesn’t always work out well for the soldiers, but nobody asks the privates for their opinions. The corporation considers that it owns the soldiers, body and soul, and has the ability to order them to do anything and everything. But the war isn’t what the brass in power have made it out to be, and Dietz begins experiencing the war in a non-linear fashion. Each teleporting jump lands Dietz in a different time and place, though generally with the same platoon.
The Light Brigade is a military science fiction novel that follows the time-honored path, first popularized in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, of following an eager but naïve recruit into the military machine, through basic training and into battle, gaining experience, seniority and skepticism along the way. Dietz’s Brazilian origins and yearning for the benefits of citizenship, among other things, make it clear that The Light Brigade is in conversation with Starship Troopers (there are a number of these deliberate homages and references to various MilSF novels). But Hurley’s novel is far more spiritually akin to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, which speaks to the dehumanizing effect of war and the alienation experienced by soldiers.
The Light Brigade takes the discussion in a somewhat different and more modern direction. It’s more viscerally and overtly brutal and bloody and profane, punching home the point that war, in addition to being hell on earth, is more often than not unjustified by the circumstances. Dietz narrates almost the entire book, other than some occasionally transcripts of interviews with a prisoner of war, the purpose and import of which become clear much later in the novel. It’s interesting that we don’t find out Dietz’s sex for a long time, or first name for even longer. Soldiering and war are equal-opportunity, and equally brutal for both sexes. Dietz is truly just a cog in the warfare machinery … until Dietz isn’t.
There’s a lot of jumping around in time and place and the plot can get a little hard to follow as a result. In the acknowledgements at the end, Hurley mentions her debt to the person who helped create a mathematical graph to track all of the events in the book and ensure that they line up correctly, so I’m certain that the events and timeline(s) would make far more sense on a second read. The Light Brigade is a bit simplistic with its villains, contrasting the profoundly uncaring and frequently even evil corporations and their leadership with the hopeful and hope-bringing socialists. The world-building is also a little sparse, as are the characterizations of the soldiers other than Dietz. With just a couple of exceptions, I tended to lose track of who was who.
But Hurley’s handling of the events and themes is powerful. There’s optimism and hope in the face of despair, corrupt corporations and governments, abuse of authority and a blasted world. The teleporting and time travel aspects add to the intrigue of the plot.
The Light Brigade is based on Hurley’s 2015 short story of the same name, published in Lightspeed magazine. I read it after reading the novel, and it’s rather like reading the CliffNotes for the novel (so, spoilers ahoy). I don’t always prefer novelizations of shorter works; for example, I think the original short versions of Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall and Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain were all more potent than the subsequent novels. But in the case of The Light Brigade, I’d definitely recommend the novel, as long as the reader has the stomach for unpleasant wartime events.
Content notes: Pretty hard R rating for gory and brutal battle scenes and lots of F-bombs. Dietz has sex (all non-explicit) with multiple people of both sexes (at least one of whom was married)....more
Time travel to ... the late 1970s? It's actually pretty good. This is a review for "A Time to Reap," nominated for a Locus award. My review was first Time travel to ... the late 1970s? It's actually pretty good. This is a review for "A Time to Reap," nominated for a Locus award. My review was first posted on Fantasy Literature. This novella is free online here at Uncanny magazine.
In this time-travel novella, Kitty Whelan, a petite 16-year-old actress in the year 2028, is playing the part of 12-year-old Sissy in the play Time to Reap, based on a real-life series of unsolved murders that took place in 1978 at the Abbott family reunion. The cast, along with a few reporters, takes an excursion to the Massachusetts farm where the reunion and murders occurred fifty years earlier. When Kitty sneaks off to the barn, she’s yanked back in time to 1978, before the murders have occurred. She meets Margaret Abbott, inadvertent inventor of a time machine … who Kitty knows will be the first victim of the murderer.
Kitty quickly convinces Margaret that she’s from the future (she doesn’t mention the pending murders) and Margaret introduces Kitty to the clan as her great-niece. As Kitty meets Sissy, who will also be one of the murder victims, and gets to know various members of the Abbott clan, she dithers about time paradoxes, changing the past and whether to say anything to the people she’s befriending. She also becomes aware of some of the undercurrents and tensions among the Abbotts … and she may herself be in danger from the murderer.
Kitty has her own issues to deal with, mostly arising out of her stage mother’s controlling behavior and diet demands on Kitty, that add some nuance to this story. It’s fun to see the past through Kitty’s eyes, especially where the play she’s been rehearsing diverges from reality, and her surprise at some of the things (like children traveling alone) that people took for granted in the 1970s.
Meeting one Abbott after another … I realized what made them such a weird-looking family. What had been bothering me on the way up the stairs.
Every last one of them was white. The whole family.
The past really is a different country.
The story loses some steam toward the end as the plot — and the treatment of time travel and multiple timelines — get a little muddled. The ending raises some interesting ideas, though, and I overall I enjoyed A Time to Reap....more
Curiosity about Elon Musk led me down an internet rabbit hole: his “rococo’s basilisk” joke meet-cute with Grimes to Roko’s Basilisk to this SF short Curiosity about Elon Musk led me down an internet rabbit hole: his “rococo’s basilisk” joke meet-cute with Grimes to Roko’s Basilisk to this SF short story about an image that messes with your brain and kills you if you get a good look at it, and what happens when it gets into the hands of domestic British terrorists. Free online here: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories...
Full review to come.
Content notes: a few F-bombs, and hateful thoughts about religious groups and gays by the terrorist....more
This humorous SF story is currently nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and I hope it wins! Final review, first posted on FantasyLiterature.This humorous SF story is currently nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and I hope it wins! Final review, first posted on FantasyLiterature.com:
This is an absolutely delightful story! A grumpy robot, Constant Killer, who makes a living by engaging in robot deathmatch and assassination games, is obliged to mentor a chirpy, innocent new robot who is having problems with its life, ranging from “how do I remove illusionary dogs from my optical feed” to dealing with adverse working conditions at a cheap automated café. What begins as a meeting between opposite personalities gradually evolves into an unlikely friendship.
“A Guide for Working Breeds” is told in a creative, offbeat way, using the robots’ electronic messages, online searches and product orders to tell the story. On the surface it’s so funny and charming, but it deals with some underlying serious issues about the exploitation of workers.
3.66 stars. In this SF/fantasy "Wild Cards" story, you gradually are introduced to a benevolent but weirdly innocent (you find out why, later) charact3.66 stars. In this SF/fantasy "Wild Cards" story, you gradually are introduced to a benevolent but weirdly innocent (you find out why, later) character initially called the Visitor, who can (usually for a brief time) take over other people's bodies. She tries to do that only by invitation, and she can only take over your body if she or someone she's inhabiting has touched you. And often people really do invite her in: she also has a certain superpower that travels with her and is temporarily assumed by whosever body she's in.
Gradually the story focuses in on an evil pharmaceutical corporation that's trying to prevent the release of a new medicine that would hugely benefit humanity but trash their profits. They'll stop at nothing ... and they have other superpowered people like Ruby, the "Dragon," whose power is about what you might expect with a moniker like that.
It's a pretty straightforward plot, other than the initial confusing part where you're trying to figure out what this story is all about and the author keeps changing to different characters' points of view. It has some stock villains and a few more interesting and complex characters, including the assassin Ruby.
"Wild Cards" is a shared author universe set in an alternative future where an alien virus kills 90% of the people who get it, disfigures and/or gives useless superpowers to 9% (the Jokers), and useful superpowers to the last 1% (the Aces). It's helpful to be familiar with some of the other stories, but knowing that concept will see you through. ...more
4.5 stars for the Nebula Award-nominated short story in this issue: “The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” by Karen Osborne. It's free to read onli4.5 stars for the Nebula Award-nominated short story in this issue: “The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” by Karen Osborne. It's free to read online here at Uncanny Magazine: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/t... (At least for now this review is just for this one story.)
On a generation ship journeying through space toward a distant planet they call Paradise, a bomb explodes at the previous captain’s funeral, killing everyone in the room except a young girl, Mey. Mey is the only daughter of the captain’s “sin-eater,” who was also killed in the explosion. She’s forced to take on her father’s role as sin-eater, drinking from the sin-cup containing the nanobots that will circulate in her bloodstream for the rest of her life, filling her mind with the consciousnesses of all of the hundred-odd ship captains who have previously died during the ship’s journey.
It’s a terrible burden for Mey, since the captains’ memories that now fill her brain contain all of their worst deeds and thoughts. They can control her body to some extent and prevent her from telling others what she knows. At the same time, the new captain Bethen, the young daughter of the captain who recently died, drinks from the virtue-cup, which fills her with the all of the previous captains’ most virtuous and self-assured memories, so that she can “lead our generation ship with confidence, with a mind tuned to moral truth.” When Mey dredges up an old, deeply-held secret, she also needs to find a way to communicate it and convince others to take action.
The narrative of “The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” is non-linear (for no particularly good reason as far as I could tell, other than making the plot more challenging to grasp) and somewhat opaque, so it may take some time to fully comprehend what’s going on. I certainly appreciated this story more on my second read. Osborne found an intriguing way to weave the ancient ritual of the sin-eater into a science fictional setting, along with themes of abuse of power and the divide between the privileged and those in steerage class on this generation ship....more
I had hazy memories of reading the title story of this collection, “Story of Your Life,” when it won Final review, first posted on Fantasy Literature:
I had hazy memories of reading the title story of this collection, “Story of Your Life,” when it won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo in 1999, and have been wanting to reread it for ages. I finally got my hands on it again as part of this collection, and reread “Story of Your Life” first. It didn’t disappoint… in fact, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Chiang combines linguistics, psychology, and sociology with alien first contact and loving vignettes about a mother’s relationship with her daughter. It blew my mind how well he did it. That novella was a clear five-star read for me (and now I really want to see the film Arrival).
So I dove into the rest of this collection, which was, for the most part, a slight letdown. Chiang is still brilliant — his ideas sometimes fly a little over my head — but the actual storytelling frequently falters, with a few of the stories striking me more as focused on exploring a particular idea (in a thin fictional setting) than on telling a compelling story.
Here’s the list of stories in this collection, along with my ratings and comments:
5 stars for “Tower of Babylon”: This novelette, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, retells the events of building the Biblical tower of Babel. A group of miners takes the months-long climb to the top of the tower so that they can cut through the “vault of Heaven,” which is a ceiling over the earth that the builders of the tower have reached. The twist is that, in this world, all of the beliefs about our cosmos that held sway thousands of years ago are actually real, including a flat earth. The normal rules of physics and what we know about our universe don’t apply. It’s not as mind-blowing as “Story of Your Life,” but came pretty close. I enjoyed it immensely.
4 stars for “Understand”: An introspective novelette and another Hugo Award winner, about a self-absorbed artistic man who is given a spinal injection of “hormone K” when he’s left brain-dead in the aftermath of an accident. It not only revives his brain but rebuilds his neurons in a far better way, giving him superhuman levels of intelligence. It felt rather remote and slow-paced until the rousing ending. Though that ending was fascinating, I couldn’t quite buy into the justification for the final conflict.
3 stars for “Division by Zero”: This story is an exploration of suicidal tendencies that can strike when a person’s worldview is completely upended. It’s told from a mathematician’s point of view, who discovers a proof that mathematics is inconsistent and illogical. The math elements whooshed over my head and, perhaps partly because of that lack of understanding, the rest of the story wasn’t compelling.
5 stars for “Story of Your Life,” as discussed above. It’s interesting that I loved this so much more the second time I read it. Maybe the ideas needed some time to seep into my brain.
5 stars for “Seventy-Two Letters”: In this Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning novella, Victorian steampunk is crossed with Jewish “golem” mythology, which is treated as serious science here. Chiang’s approach here is similar to that in “Tower of Babylon,” in that the way science (here, biology) works in this world is far different than in the real world. It can a while to really wrap your brain around that, and I’m not sure my brain ever entirely got there. “Seventy-Two Letters” contains several interesting ideas — especially when eugenics pops up its nasty head — but I got a little lost in the weeds.
3 stars for “The Evolution of Human Science”: This is a 3-page short-short in the form of a science journal article, discussing and analyzing what has happened to normal human scientific research now that there are “metahumans” (another subset of super-intelligent humans among us) whose scientific research and knowledge are unimaginable leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of humanity’s. The tone is highly analytical, as befits a scientific article; the subtext seems to be that normal humans are in a pathetic place now but trying to make the best of it.
5 stars for “Hell is the Absence of God”: Yet another “what if the world really worked in a different way that some people believe in” type of literary exploration (Chiang seems taken with this approach). In this disturbing novelette, yet another Hugo and Nebula winner, Chiang assumes the reality of old-style Judeo-Christian beliefs. Heaven and hell, as traditionally envisioned, are indisputably real. Powerful angels periodically appear, wreaking havoc and physical destruction whenever they do. Hell also puts in regular appearances: the ground becomes temporarily transparent every so often, and you can “see Hell as if you were looking through a hole in the ground.” But there’s very little spiritual comfort to be found in this world, along with physical blindness that’s a clear symbol of spiritual blindness. In the end we are faced with a God who is inconsistent, unfair and indifferent. It’s a well-crafted story, but personally I found the hostility to religion distasteful.
5 stars for “Liking What You See: A Documentary”: What happens when scientists figure out a way to sidestep “lookism,” turning off people’s ability in our brains to evaluate the physical attractiveness of others? It’s another piece of fiction that struck me as more of a thought experiment, built around a particular idea. Chiang goes down some less-expected paths, but here again I found the style of his story-telling to be overly analytical and remote....more
Ilona Andrews is having a “Plague Sale”: this collection of the first three books in the Innkeeper Chronicles series is on sale for 99 cents for all tIlona Andrews is having a “Plague Sale”: this collection of the first three books in the Innkeeper Chronicles series is on sale for 99 cents for all three! Great fun for urban fantasy fans. Proceeds will be donated to CDP Covid-19 Response Fund....more
Nebula Award novelette nominee "The Archronology of Love" by Caroline M. Yoachim is in this issue of Lightspeed magazine, free online here: http://wwwNebula Award novelette nominee "The Archronology of Love" by Caroline M. Yoachim is in this issue of Lightspeed magazine, free online here: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fic... (At least for now this review is only for this novelette.) Review first posted on Fantasy Literature:
Saki Jones is in space, above a colony planet called New Mars, where the ruins of an alien civilization were being researched by the colonists. Her “lifelove” partner M.J. had gone ahead of Saki and their grown son Kenzou to help establish the colony. Saki emerged from stasis when their ship arrived at New Mars to find that M.J. and all of the other colonists are dead, apparently of some alien plague. Saki and her crewmates are driven to find out more about what killed the colonists.
To do that they turn to “archronology,” the study of the past through a type of time record, called the Chronicle. It’s a limited type of time travel, enabling you to visit places in the past to view what happened there at a particular time. But the inherent limits of archronology are significant: wherever a person moves in their view of a particular scene from the past, trails of cloudy white permanently blur the original scene.
Layer upon layer of time, a stratified record of the universe. When you visit the Chronicle, you alter it. Your presence muddles the temporal record as surely as an archaeological dig muddles the dirt at an excavation site.
“The Archronology of Love” raises questions of perception and biases in conducting scientific research, how love and personal connections can drive our decision-making. Intellectually Saki realizes that she should step aside from entering the Chronicle because of her strong emotional attachment to M.J., but she comes up with multiple reasons for not doing so. This story also explores the difficulty of understanding an alien culture (from both sides). Yoachim envisions the Chronicle in a way that is believable, creating an interesting twist on standard time travel stories. Saki’s character is also well-developed (if not so much the secondary characters), pulling the reader into Saki’s personal pain and professional dilemmas....more