Saturday, May 28, 2016

Review: A Door Into Ocean

A Door Into Ocean A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review is adapted from a post I made in a discussion thread about the book.

I had my doubts after the first section of the story; it was a slow start, and I just didn't like the way the Valan society was structured. But about halfway through the book, I realized I was completely sucked into the story and found myself constantly thinking about it as I went about my day.

I want to gush about the beautiful world-building on Shora. The ecology is believable and complex, and everything about the physical and social construction of the rafts is my #aesthetic. I want to live there, or at least read more books set there. It's also amazing for a book written 30 years ago; I feel like we're already worlds closer to the kind of technology she describes the Sharers as having. Given today's climate and environmental concerns, the book seems markedly prescient.

One of the things I loved about the story (and it's something I've noticed I'm fond of in SF in general) is how well Sloanczewski created a culture that's so fundamentally different, not only in behavior but in thought, and committed to it. It reminds me of Leckie's Radch trilogy in that the perspective of the character is preserved even perhaps at the expense of making things easy for the reader. Merwen (like Breq) sometimes thinks things that the reader doesn't understand, or maybe misunderstands, unless they are fully buying into this world and this perspective and trying to understand Merwen as a Sharer would. (Also like when reading Ancillary Mercy, I feel like I 'got' the perspective about halfway into the story and went from feeling meh/pretty good to loving it.)

I'm not sure exactly how we're supposed to understand the ending. There was a moment when Realgar was trying to convince Talion not to attack Shora, and Realgar walked away from that conversation thinking that he hadn't changed Talion's mind at all and that Talion was definitely going to kill everyone as soon as Realgar left anyway. But I also felt that Spinel's last few scenes (and I guess all of the Sharers' scenes at the end) felt optimistic, like they had won their victory. Did I miss something? I couldn't put it down and ended up finishing it at like 2 a.m. so it's very possible my sleepy brain skipped something important. Are we supposed to feel like the Sharers won at the end, or that their efforts weren't enough to beat the Valans' fear of death?

I think the villains (Nisi exlucded) of the story are all drawn with a surprising lack of empathy, given how thoroughly and complexly the Sharers are drawn; they remind me a bit of villains in an Ayn Rand story, where the people are primarily stand-ins for ideas or types of people (and bad ideas/people, at that). NISI THOUGH. Great character arc. I like that she deceives even the reader, in some ways; we think that because she's a viewpoint character introduced early on she'll be the most important bridge between the Sharers and the Valans, but she ends up as the biggest obstacle to peace.

View all my reviews

Review: The Sparrow

The Sparrow The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed "The Sparrow" quite a bit. It's not a perfect book, but it's certainly a page-turner, and I appreciate the incorporation of a religious journey into an SF setting. It's not something I see very often - generally, religion pops up in SF and fantasy that focus on diplomacy, but usually as constructed religions and not real ones - and Russell treated it with respect and insight.

The premise is first contact, but the story is the story of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who becomes part of a Jesuit-led mission to visit an alien planet and contact its inhabitants. The aliens are discovered through a broadcast of a strange song, picked up at an observatory near Sandoz's hometown. Jimmy Quinn, the tech who first recognized the signal for what it was, calls his friend Sandoz and their friends - George, an engineer; Anne, a doctor and George's wife; and Sofia, an expert in AI tech - to listen to it before he tells anyone else. And the group of them realize that together, they have most of the expertise needed to lead an expedition to this planet. Sandoz's Jesuit superiors immediately back the idea (after all, Jesuits were quick to send priests to the New World after its discovery), add a few more priests, and send them off without alerting anyone else on the planet.

Russell takes her time developing the relationships between the characters; it's many chapters in before we even reach the alien broadcast. But we know right off the bat that Emilio is the only survivor of this mission, because the story of the origin of the mission alternates with chapters about Emilio's recovery post-mission. He is under the care of the Vatican and the Pope himself, and it's clear some sort of scandalous tragedy has occurred. Emilio is blamed for causing the near eradication of the Jesuits because of something he did 17 years prior (Earth time; for Emilio, not a year has passed since he began his journey back to Earth) on Rakhat, the alien planet. Emilio is a tortured man, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. One of the strengths of the novel is its ability to pack an emotional wallop and nowhere is it more powerful than in Emilio's haunted dreams, his anger toward his superiors, his brooding melancholy. And interspersing Emilio's return with the story of his life before the mission is heartbreaking; what could have made this spirited, witty, charming, devoted priest the miserably broken wreck he has become?

I'm a little ambivalent about Russell's ability to write characters. One one hand, Emilio and his makeshift family are warm and hilarious and likeable, and Emilio's misery is believable and evocative. On the other hand, there are many moments of unbelievable wittiness, dialogue too prescient and on-the-nose for any real human to have spoken it, and characters with phenomenal skill sets and personalities but no apparent flaws. Everyone is too good at everything and gets along too well, but damn, is it a pleasure to read. (Joss Whedon comes to mind when I think about the dialogue/characters - everything's too smart for its own good.)

I have generally similar but better feelings about the Big Questions that the novel tries to tackle. Russell goes after one of the biggest ones: How does one deal with God in a universe where horrible things happen? In answering that, she also takes on questions on what it means to be a priest, on the value of family, on colonialism. While the characters can feel over-the-top, Russell deals with these Big Questions wisely: by making them small. Nowhere does anyone claim to know the answers for anyone else. Instead, they lend an ear and offer their own contributions. Sandoz tells Anne, who is a firm atheist, that God is "in the why" of things, but his own faith is shaken (to put it mildly) when the "why" is horrific. There are definitely some moments where answers are provided a little too neatly, but again, those answers tend to hold for one character (and are often overturned later in the story). I've read some reviews that indicate the story is too much an argument for belief in God, but I see almost the opposite. If anything, it's an argument for the theraputic benefits of confession.

Most of my problems with the book, from characterization to lack of subtlety, are related to the prose, which isn't always elegant but is generally crafted to make the biggest emotional impact. One person described the book as "emotionally manipulative," which I would say is pretty accurate - but isn't that the point of books? To manipulate the reader's emotions? It's not the deepest book I've read, but it has substance and it was engaging, so overall I consider its obviousness an asset, not a hindrance.

There were two small aspects of the book that bothered me unrelated to the above. First off, the aliens and the alien world. There are some beautiful descriptions of the alien planet and the time they spent acclimating to the world is absolutely my favorite part of the book. It's pure joy. But. It's not a particularly alien alien world. I wrote that off as "well, in this novel, God probably exists, and the similarities are a pretty good indicator that God created all life," so it wasn't a huge problem for me. The other issue is the construction of many of the interpersonal/group interactions. There are so many times where characters react to something and then we see what they react to. Paraphrased example:

"Something that is a complete non-sequitur," Anne said in response to the look on the other characters' faces that had not been described prior to just now.

It made it some scenes difficult to follow, and it wasn't necessary except to show how quick-witted and insightful the characters are, which we already know through many other means.

One thing I did love above everything else - Russell's insight into the life of a priest and the psychology of priesthood. She handles doubt and conflict respectfully and creates a portrait of Emilio Sandoz, sinner and possible saint, that represents religion well.

Overall: engaging, tear-jerking, emotional, fun read, even if you don't like SF or priests. I'm usually one to encourage "killing your darlings" and this book is largely Russell's darlings (she admits to basing Anne and George on herself and her husband) but it works. Not a masterpiece of prose, but maybe one of heart.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Friday, May 13, 2016

Satellite Falling #01 Review for Bounding Into Comics

Check out my review of Satellite Falling #01 from IDW, written by Steve Horton, drawn by Stephen Thompson, and colored by Lisa Jackson.

Review: Too Like the Lightning

Too Like the Lightning Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I received a free e-galley of this book via NetGalley.

How many books do you get in your life that make you sit in a stunned daze then cry softly because they are such a beautiful, moving piece of art that's now over, and to which you will constantly compare every book you read until you come across another book that moves you so strongly?

Well, add one more to my pile.

This is a book I've been waiting for since the cover reveal months ago. I put its release date in my calendar, I was so intrigued by the gorgeous cover art and the wonderfully strange synopsis. I was lucky enough to get an ARC from NetGalley but I'm probably going to go out and buy it anyway, because this is something I want to own and lend and proselytize, I need to spread the word of this Good Book.

So what makes this so good? So many things. The worldbuilding is phenomenal. This is Earth 400 years from now, recognizable but foreign in the same way that Earth 400 years ago is to us. Our history - both the history we are familiar with now and the history we're writing for people 400 years from now - is woven into the fabric of the world. Some threads are predictable, and some aren't. We finally get flying cars and it changes the world in a surprising, sensible, fundamental way: no two locations on Earth are more than a few hours from each other. It's a change that seems obvious - yes, that's exactly how that would happen! - now that it's pointed out (a feeling I got about so many things in this story). The effects of these changes are much more subtle, and it was a joy discovering the fascinating ripple effects that turn up in unexpected places (the flying cars change the shape of the family unit and government) and interact so cleverly with each other.

The voice of the story, Mycroft Canner, is like a song stuck in my head. He is a criminal, but also a genius and a charmer, and his frequent eloquent, rambling asides are as confusing as they are illuminating. He is the culmination of the unreliable narrator. He is writing or maybe telling this story for posterity and he tries to explain to the reader the way things are in his time, but he is a poor example of a creature of his time. He introduces us to a fantastically large, diverse cast of power players in the economic, political, and artistic spheres.

The plot. Oh man, the plot. I don't want to get into what happens (I know I'll regret this in December when I'm prepping to read book two) because, well, a lot happens. Let me just say that every action of this story has impact, every moment has meaning, and while it starts out fairly slow (thank god, because the layers of culture and character and world needed to understand the plot can nearly drown you), it picks up quickly. It's as if I was in a giant house and just when I had explored the main building, new doors opened up. But not even like that - more like new rooms slammed from the sky, fully formed and fully compatible with what I knew but completely new and different.

Even with all of those great elements, I think what made me love this book was that it wasn't perfect. About a third of the way through I almost gave up. The world is chaotic - just familiar enough to lure you into assumptions but different enough to overturn them all, leaving you knowing less than you knew before. The international power dynamics of the world didn't add up. Gender was supposed to be fairly unmarked but so many characters supposedly luxuriated in extravagant gender performance. Many small things (for example, a tree that grows dozens of kinds of fruit in a home kitchen) feel too wonderful to ever exist, and I felt somehow wronged by their inclusion, even though I loved them. But this is an optimistic world, so those marvels can be marvelous. I pushed through, and I'm glad I did. I underestimated how deep the planning of the story runs, and everything paid off in the end.

This is magical, powerful, strange, and smart. Read it if you like well-written, well-plotted, engrossing SF.

View all my reviews

Monday, May 2, 2016

Review: Lagoon

Lagoon Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to "Lagoon" in audiobook format and not only was it a greatly entertaining experience, I suspect it might also be the best way for Western, white audiences to experience this book. Because, and this shouldn't have been a surprise to me since the book is set in Nigeria, all of the actors are either Nigerian or are very comfortable using Nigerian accents. It's something I wouldn't have thought much about if I were reading it visually, but fundamentally shaped the story for me when listening.

Adaora, Anthony, and Agu all happen to be on a beach in Lagos, Nigeria when a massive sonic boom occurs, followed by a wave that pulls them all into the ocean. Aliens have landed in the water, and they are particularly interested in these three. Adoara is worried that it may be because she is what her husband accuses her of being: a marine witch. She got into a fight with her husband and accidentally held him to the floor, seemingly by magic. Similarly, Agu almost killed a man with one punch. And Anthony knows that his songs draw on the power of the Earth.

The aliens can take on whatever form they like. They're mostly impervious to harm. And they come in peace, but Nigeria doesn't quite believe that. And this story is as much about Nigeria as it is about the aliens; Okorafor shows us Nigeria are by showing us their varied reactions to First Contact. A Christian priest decries Adaora and the alien she shelters; an LGBT group parades in the street next to the priest's followers; a group of young men scheme to kidnap the alien; a prostitute desperately resents the aliens and violently acts out. Even the city (and its gods) gets in on the action. The main highway is the home of the Bone Eater and feeds off the accidents and chaos caused by the aliens. Under Nigeria, the spider sits and spins the story of her people. Okorafor's incorporation of mythology, of every class from prostitutes to President, of native-born Nigerians to Black Americans, is chaotic, yes, but exciting and surprising in its activity.

Parts of the story didn't click for me, at the time, because the sheer number of voices was chaotic and I wasn't sure which characters I should invest in, which people I could expect to be important. But in retrospect I consider that a strength, because every voice is important, and that chaos is the human response to change. I do think it weakened the sense of plot, and it didn't give the story the opportunity to explore the aliens as a species, or the transforming things they said to Anthony, or the long-term impact on the lives of Adaora, Agu, and Anthony. I know that none of those things are the point, but they're still questions I wanted to see addressed (or would like to read about in the future!).

View all my reviews

Review: Super Extra Grande

Super Extra Grande Super Extra Grande by Yoss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received an e-galley copy of this book from Edelweiss and Restless Books.

I was super extra excited to read this because Restless Books' last Yoss translation, "A Planet for Rent," was one of the best books I read last year. "Super Extra Grande" isn't quite up there, but it has different strengths. It doesn't have the emotional teeth as "Planet," instead showing off Yoss's comedy chops by dialing up the absurdity and dispensing with the colonialism allegory. Yoss knows how to build a functional, coherent SF world without going on at length. His universes are brightly colored with unusual (but logically consistent) working parts - think a world of Lego or K'nex.

Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo (whose last name is a play on words that essentially means 'big') is a veterinarian - in space! He specializes in "super extra grande" creatures, giants from all planets. When we meet him, he's literally wading through shit as he walks through the bowels of a giant space whale. He's huge himself, for a human, and his previous two assistants (both beautiful women, for their species, who he had to fire because they were in love with him) were also incredibly tall. Sangan Dongo can't do anything small.

The book gets off to a slow start. Sangan Dongo wades through shit for a good third of the book, with many asides and reveries that give the reader background on this world. We learn that Spanglish is the universal human language. We learn that there are seven spacefaring species who all happened to discover interstellar travel at the same time. We learn that Sangan Dongo has always had an affinity for larger creatures - because in veterinary school, his size was a hindrance when working with the smaller animals - and the only giant species he has never worked with are laketons (so named because the single-celled organisms look like large lakes, and weigh tons). Once he gets out of the belly of the beast, he's sent into the belly of the beast again - to rescue his assistants, who have crash-landed (together!) on the home planet of the laketons. The plot wraps up as quickly as the beginning was slow, but altogether, it's a good ride. As I said before, the book is a riot, and it's a quick read, so if you have the chance to pick it up, do!

Personally, as a linguist who's currently in a lab focusing on bilingualism and code-switching, I'm fascinated by Yoss's (and the translator's) idea of what Spanglish will be in the future. I'd be really interested in seeing the changes Frye made in translation - what words did he switch from Spanish to English, and vice versa? Did he change the syntax? Because honestly, I don't know if I would've understood huge patches of the story if I didn't know Spanish, but it's also not in line with general patterns of Spanish-English codeswitching. One easy example: If you switch from Spanish to English in the middle of a determiner-noun pair, the determiner will almost always be masculine - you'll say "el fork" or "el spoon," never "la fork" or "la spoon," even though fork is masculine and spoon is feminine in Spanish. But "la (English noun)" occurs a lot here. So what does this sound like in the original Spanish to native Spanish speakers - like a natural extension of Spanish/English contact, or like some strange futuristic evolution of the two languages?

View all my reviews