Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review: The Stars Are Legion

The Stars Are Legion The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

They say don't judge a book by its cover and that's especially true in this case. Never has a book deserved a pulpy, lurid, colorful cover more, and what did it get instead? Some generic photoshopped planets in gold and black. I read the premise for this a while back and thought it was interesting, but was put off by the cover; it looked like your standard-issue hard-or-military SF cover. Thankfully I picked it up because 1) I heard it had lots of ladies and 2) it was one of the few books on my to-read list available in audio from my library. This book is not your standard-issue anything. I love this book. It's easily in my top 5 so far this year, and might be in my top 20 of all time.

What this cover doesn't convey, but could and should, is the primal, goopy, biological nature of the book. Hurley has written a true successor to Russ and Tiptree, interbreeding Russ's adventurous heroines with Tiptree's weird bioforms and the staunch feminism of both to create a fleshy beauty of a tale.

The plot:

The story follows a woman named Zan who has just awoken on a ship with severe injuries and has no memory of her former life. The people that surround her claim they are her family, but she feels this is deeply wrong - and she also feels some strong, non-family-like feelings for Jayd, a woman who is constantly by her side.

Then Zan finds out this has happened before - many times. She is sent out to fight, she loses, and she comes back with no memories. But this time might be different. She is sent to the bowels of the ship and has to force her way back to the surface, while Jayd's mother marries her off to secure an alliance that might have consequences her mother doesn't realize.

But none of that plot description makes any sense unless you know the key thing about this world: in the Legion, ships are biological and circle (apparently, according to other reviews) an artificial sun. And all the ships are dying, save one that has been able to detatch itself from the 'thing' at the center of their solar system and move of its own accord. This ship is the one Zan is sent out to fight over and over.

Oh, and every creature on the ship and every ship component is birthed. This is a book about wombs and bodies and birth.

The good:

I loved this book. I loved the atmosphere, the visceral body horror, the slimey-stickiness. I loved how different it is from anything I've ever read. I love that all the characters are women and that makes *sense* for the world and that the world revolves around life-giving.

Full disclosure, I listened to the audiobook, and while I wasn't the biggest fan of the narration (I think there were two narrators, one for Jayd's chapters and one for Zan's, but I honestly couldn't tell them apart), it wasn't a hindrance. I liked that truly strange accents from the center of the ship were not quite recongizable or mappable to any Earth language - like the narrator had come up with a unique combination of phonemes. And they doubled down for characters who were supposed to have similar accents, which was cool.

Zan meets a lot of people along her journey, which is a Quest in the most traditional sense. She starts out in the deep center of the ship with the trash and refuse and has to fight her way through many levels, encountering races and cultures that people on the surface don't event know exist. Hurley does an excellent job creating a cast that is varied and vivid where even months later they feel as real to me as when I was reading. The idea of pushing your way out of the center of a core of flesh layer by layer is fascinating and Horrifying with a capial H.

The story pushes forward through some completely unexpected and inventive detours though it resolves fairly quickly and predictably come the final act. There was so much *un*predictable, weird, engrossing stuff in the plot and the world and the characters that I can forgive the ending - but I absolutely want more Legion.

The less-than-good:

I don't really buy that a civilization can be completely unaware of several other civilizations that live within the same lump of flesh - the world just seemed physically too small for that to be realistic. But it's supposedly a decaying world and no one knows how to fix anything, or how any of them got in this mess to begin with. If there were a sense of history of the Legion, maybe it would be easier to accept, but this is a story very tightly focused on the personal (and narrated by someone with amnesia) so history is absent.

And about the amnesia. Stories that start out with amnesia are risky, and I think my biggest complaints with the story are related to the amnesia, but Hurley successfully avoids most of the tropey problems. Zan is capable, despite her memory loss. She thinks about it occasionally but it doesn't overwhelm her personality. It does loom too large in the story, though. Zan is sent out to attack a ship that kills everyone but her *many times*, strangers often treat her with far too much deference, and she knows that she's not from the ship she's currently on. What ship could she *possibly* be from, and who could she *possibly* have been before? It's obvious to the reader from the very beginning but it doesn't occur to Zan until she's basically told.

The slightly unrelated:

I'm currently reading the Dominion of the Fallen books by Aliette de Bodard - a very different series about an alternate-reality Paris where fallen angels reminiscent of vampires have just come off a devastating battle that has sapped most of the city of its strength and beauty, with occasional appearances from Asiatic immortals and minor deities. They're similar in many ways, though. The sense of decay and lost power and desperation pervades both. There's a long history that is critically unexplored and leaves gaping holes in both stories (a much more grievous offense in the Dominion books, IMHO). People are petty and conniving and weak, House/ship alignment rules everything, clever powerful sadists manipulate women who are fearful of *and* drawn to them simultaneously, an underclass functions as its own separate world, and both have excellent queer/female/POC representation. The Stars are Legion is a stronger work in pretty much every way, but I might meditate more on these parallels for my reviews of de Bodard.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body - Audiobook – Unabridged

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body - Audiobook – Unabridged Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body - Audiobook – Unabridged by Roxane Gay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s always a treat to listen to a memoir narrated well by its author. It makes the book feel intimate. Until recently I had only listened to happier memoirs – the kind written by TV comedians about their careers and artistic lives. Roxane Gay’s Hunger is certainly a change of pace, then, but it was a welcome one for me. To hear a woman talk about the difficult moments in her life, big and small, was poignant and powerful. As she remarks, it’s easy to forget to think about the different ways in which people move through this world. She talks specifically about bodies and their shapes and abilities, but it’s true more generally. Her voice is gentle and cozy. It sounds like she is reaching back through time to tell her younger self that it’s okay to hurt and that eventually, even if she has not fully accepted herself, things will be a semblance of okay. It was both challenging and comforting to listen to (especially as I listened to it on a flight, and I’m an anxious flyer). She does not shy away from discussing the traumatic gang rape that led her to re-shape her body into a “fortress” that would be safe from men or the psychological fallout of that event that still affects her today, but she is also unafraid to set firm limits on how much she will tell and how much is hers to keep. Some of the most moving passages for me were about more mundane things - hiding her secrets from her parents, moving to various academic positions in the middle of nowhere. This is the epitome of memoir: her life has been shaped by forces that many will never understand, and yet there are moments that will resonate with every reader’s life.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am obsessed with The Fifth Season. It was all I could talk about for weeks after reading it and its sequel, The Obelisk Gate. It’s wholly original while still echoing the best of the genre - it has the scope and feel of Game of Thrones paired with completely reinvented genre trappings. The plot is the kind you can’t put down, the characters are achingly real, and the story is so neatly, tightly structured that it feels like a beautiful machine. Plus, it’s rare that an audiobook is so excellent that it elevates the source material when the source material is so good in itself. I was especially impressed because I was slightly underwhelmed by Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I’m so thankful I gave her another try!

But Jemisin’s work is powerful above and beyond her technical skill and a good story. This is a powerful narrative about racism and institutionalized slavery. The echoes of America’s history are clearly visible, here, but she did not simply lift the same dynamics and social structures from that history and place them in a new world. Instead, this is a story that feels very much like it organically grew out of its theme, which is the tension between the perception and the reality of black Americans’ role in American society. She took that tension, specifically, and used it as a seed of a new story planted in the soil of a fictional world and this is the story that grew. Just as the Confederate South insisted that black slaves were less than human and fully disposable yet went to war so they could keep those slaves because their way of life could not survive without them, the orogens are despised and reviled but literally necessary to keep the Stillness from falling apart. Even the oxymoronic name Stillness echoes back to early America - the United States were no such thing (and still are not today). And just as black Americans still could hold so much more power in the country if institutional blocks on their power were removed, the orogens must be carefully monitored by an institution that breaks the most powerful of them and forces them to be part of the system. The orogens who survive must keep deciding that the Stillness is worth saving so the institution has to teach them to believe that they are inhuman and worthless. The parallels are deeply woven into the story and fairly visible from my vantage point now, having finished the first two books, but I also didn’t feel at any point that Jemisin was preaching or writing some kind of morality play. I think that’s partly due to the complexity of the role of the orogens in their society and how the impact of the institutional oppression on the individual characters is unpacked steadily throughout the story, not all at once. Of course, the rest of the work is done by Jemisin’s masterful writing.

The icing on the cake, for me, is the recurring theme of Father Earth. In a world where the very ground threatens the survival of the species, the earth cannot be seen as something nurturing, and I think Jemisin is doing something deeply clever by re-gendering the Earth. I audibly gasped when the narrator pointed out ‘there is something absent from the story - notice that people do not look up at the sky.’ (A paraphrase, not a quote! The actual line is about a thousand times better.)

I keep saying that “oh but the BEST thing about this book is…’ because as each piece of the book pops back into my mind I’m continually surprised and pleased by how well they work. The magic system (which I suspect might actually end up being science) is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s power over kinetic energy, heat, the movement of molecules and earth. The smallest and the biggest power. I think it’s appropriate for an allegory for black Americans, too - it’s a power that is largely unseeable despite its massive force. It’s also linked intimately with re-shaping the very world.

Overall, this is one of the best pieces of fiction I have read in a long time and I am oh so eager to get my hands on the third volume. Read this! It earned both its Hugos!

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review: The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read The Mote in God's Eye basically because it was convenient. I accidentally let my free Audible trial continue and paid for an extra credit, and there was a buy-one-get-one sale on specific SF books. This was one of them. It wasn't a bad choice; it's a pretty long book, the authors are classic authors I've never read, and I enjoyed parts of it.

This is a classic - and maybe the defining? - first contact story. A bug-like creature in a spaceship shows up in the middle of an inter-solar human empire, and the humans mount an expedition to the home planet. It's also a very military-SF book as the expedition is primarily military. All in all, it's not exactly what I expected from a classic first contact story... and yet it somehow is exactly what I expected from a classic first contact story. There are so many interesting ways in which the story innovates, and there are just as many where it falls back on tired tropes and uninteresting moments. The aliens are both strange and alien, and also conveniently similar to humans.

The plot, in brief (spoilers follow): a military-led expedition travels to an alien solar system. They find evidence of civilization going back hundreds of thousands of years, and yet these creatures have no faster-than-light travel and even seem to have lost some of their technological development. The aliens have several castes - worker/engineers, negotiators, masters - that are highly specialized. Negotiators can mimic individual humans down to their thought patterns. Workers can take any piece of technology, even if they've never seen it, and remake it into something better and more efficient instantly.

The humans are simply trying to see if they are a threat to humanity - and based on those two castes alone I feel like the answer should very obviously be an emphatic YES, but the humans think solely in terms of whether or not there are weapons or technology that could be used as weapons. The humans initially host one worker on one of their ships, but that worker brings some smaller versions of itself that get loose and end up making the ship unsuitable for habitation, so they have to blow it up. They really should leave at this point because, again, it's clear how big a threat these creatures are (they rerouted the warnings and weapons systems of the whole ship!), but instead they go down to the planet's surface.

They see some fascinating things - artwork geared solely toward commemorating mediation, an indoor zoo that includes "city ruins" as one of its habitats, a better-than-real mock-up of a human castle. Just as they are heading back to their ship, there's a conflict in which several human ships are shot down. At this point the narrative takes a sharp turn and follows the humans on the alien planet for a bit as they discover the big thing the aliens are hiding: they can't control their population. They've essentially been in a boom-bust culture cycle for hundreds of thousands of years, which doesn't bode well if they ever get access to interstellar travel. The resolution of the conflict isn't as exciting as I would've liked but I won't go into that here.

These are some crazy interesting aliens! They are obsessed with their population control issue and it defines every aspect of their culture. They have museums full of artifacts from previous civilizations so that they can jump-start their culture once they get back to a certain point after falling back into ruin and dark ages. There are creatures evolved to live in city ruins. And the fact that this all centers around reproductive policy is fascinating. If they don't have children on some regular basis, they die. They can't figure out a way around this that prevents them from having children entirely (though... they do have a hormone treatment that allows sterilization prior to ever having children, which seems like it could at least partially solve their issues). In some ways, this doesn't seem plausible - couldn't you remove whatever their ovaries are and only provide a fertilized egg when it's wanted? Could inducing pregnancy and then aborting solve the issue? How does this species of entirely female (I think?) creatures even reproduce, since it's shown that in isolation they cannot? But I'm willing to look past that and think about what it means for the story and the themes. There is only one woman on the human expedition (womp). If there were more women, the humans probably could've figured out the aliens' secret much quicker. I like to think that maybe this is intentional. Maybe this should make us think about why diversity of perspective is important and not just incidental.

There are other interesting critical readings that are present, even if not explicit. For example, I'm not sure if the book means to critique military culture, but there are certainly elements that sound like critique. There's a lot of formality, ceremony, rigidity in the humans even as they are confronted with a species whose defining characteristics are their irreverence and flexibility. Only the non-military humans even come close insight into the alien psychology (though to be fair, they are not much better than the military men). The commanding officer follows standard protocols and *believes* in those protocols. On the other hand, the narrative doesn't ask us to question this belief even when it precludes obvious solutions and fails to stop threats, and even when there couldn't possibly be a protocol in place for the situation at hand.

As I mentioned, though, all of the humans are spectacularly and unbelievably bad at dealing with the aliens. Isn't rule number one of NASA that there can't even be a 1/10000 chance of contaminating an alien plant if you want to launch a mission? Would you want to completely avoid interacting with alien biology until you were very damn sure there are no microscopic beasts that could kill you? Why would you even accept the *chance* of letting tiny alien creatures loose aboard your ship, and why further would you not then evacuate when they couldn't be found? All of these things and more seem irresponsible to the point of incredulity. But again, maybe Niven and Pournelle want us to think about how our ideals and rules hold up when thrown into completely uncharted territory and when managed by perfectly adequate but unexceptional people. Would we really do much better if we made first contact today?

I can't complain about a book that made me think as much as this one did, even if a lot of what I thought about were the implausibilities.

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Review: Plague Ship

Plague Ship Plague Ship by Andre Norton
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Plague Ship is the first book I read for my Readathon of women in SF! It might also be the oldest novel I'll read for this project - it was published in 1956. Andre (Alice) Norton is an author I'd never read before, but I have heard of her, which makes her an exception to my general attempt to read books by women I'm not already aware of. But Andre Norton is exceptional in many ways. She was the first female Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy, Grandmaster of the SFWA, and inductee into the SF&F hall of fame. She wrote from the 1930s until her death in 2005. Her early SF&F in the 40s and 50s is pretty influential; I've heard a lot of people say that Norton was one of their favorites as a child. She was a librarian (at the Library of Congress, even!) as her day job and briefly owned a bookstore here in Maryland. Toward the end of her life, she collaborated with new SF&F authors to co-write YA books set in her established universes. She wrote under a pseudonym (actually several) of course, though she legally changed her name from "Alice" to "Andre Alice." And she was such a D&D nerd that she got to play with Gygax himself and *then* wrote a novel set in the world he created!

Plague Ship was recommended to me by several internet sources claiming it's Norton's best sci-fi work. Given that context, it was a bit of a disappointment. This is clearly an early genre work with lots of genre hallmarks and not much to recommend it beyond that. It's also the second book her Solar Queen series, which I didn't know until I'd finished. I actually thought it was perhaps the first in a series, given that it seemed like it really wanted to introduce a colorful cast of characters and then leave them in a situation where they will have to go on more adventures.

The novel follows the crew of the Solar Queen, a freelance trading ship, as they attempt to stake their claim on trade with a newly discovered planet full of cat people. The cat people love scents and perfumes. The human crew of the Solar Queen do not enjoy this and struggle to find something that the cat people will want to trade. They discover that some government-funded traders are trying to poach their trading opportunity. But after a while they figure out the cat people like catnip (WHO WOULD HAVE GUESSED) and trade like one catnip plant for a hold full of jewels and fancy wood. This part is very long, about the first half of the book plus a bit, and not very interesting, and often reminded me of the Star Wars fanfiction I wrote as a child about a (canonical!) species of cat people.

You may notice that we're more than halfway through a book called Plague Ship without any mention of plague and actually very few mentions of ship, either. I noticed. The Solar Queen takes off, though, and several crew members promptly fall into comas. The crew can't figure out why, but they're certain it's not a plague, because the pattern of illness doesn't fit. The government traders somehow know about the illness, though, because they put out a "plague ship" alert for the Solar Queen, which means they can't dock at any ports.

The Solar Queen arrives in Earth's solar system and things finally pick up. For the first time, the plot and the world grabbed me. Earth has been nuked to hell at some point (as it often was in SF from the 40s-90s) and there are still "hot zones" that are uninhabitable. There are space stations spread throughout the solar system and beyond. I wanted to know more about all of this - what is it like to a be stationed on one of those space stations? What's it like to be an Earthling (or a Terran) in this world full of radiation? Sadly, those questions aren't answered.

The Solar Queen decides to land in a hot zone since no one will expect them to do that and send a heavily-shielded shuttle to look for medical help. The best scene in the book is the trip through the hot zone, which is full of strangely evolved and heavily mutated flora and fauna. It reminded me very strongly of Forbidden Planet and other early SF movies. They find a doctor, some more shenanigans happen, they threaten a whole bunch of people, and their names get cleared and the crew is healed, but they're not allowed on Earth any time in the near future.

The second biggest problem with this book is the pacing. The first half of the book could have been 1/4 of what it is, with those extra pages devoted instead to exploring the way-too-quickly-resolved climax and finale. In fact the whole debacle on the cat planet could have been a separate book with a separate story and that would have been preferable.

The biggest problem with the book and the main reason I give this 1 star was the characterization. I say "the crew" instead of any particular character name because they're all just a bunch of white dudes and maybe a token minority stereotype with no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. The captain is very captain-y. The younger crew members are very young-y. The doctor is very responsible. That's about it. I don't think there's even a single female mentioned by name. Maybe one cat lady?

I can see why Norton is so well liked, though. It's a pretty quick read, and I was taken in by the history that her universe had. I wanted to know more. But I wanted her to tell a different kind of story than the one she wrote.

I can also see why she found success in YA later in life. That's a genre that didn't formally exist when this was published, but if these characters were maybe 15 years younger, this would be a great candidate for a YA success. There is daring-do, adventure, exotic planets, and dashing young men solving problems with courage and sensibility. They get justice in the end and there's a promise for more adventure. I wouldn't read more in this series, I don't think, but I'd go for one of her fantasy novels. It's hard to dislike a trope-y SF book that existed before the tropes were really tropes, but it's also hard for me to enjoy it. I'm much more tolerant of tropes in fantasy than in SF.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel

Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel by James Luceno
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading this, Rogue One, and Tarkin, I have one thing to say to the Star Wars creative group: stop trying to make Tarkin happen. It will never happen.

Neither Catalyst nor Rogue One feel like a fully complete story to me. What happens in this book is basically just backstory for Rogue One and nothing really happens. But without any of the context provided by this story, Rogue One feels like an empty adventure with no stakes or connection to reality.

Catalyst is the story of Jyn Erso's parents. One is a crystal scientist, the other is a surveyor. Both are manipulated by the wannabe-mastermind Orsin Krennic, though how they're susceptible to his clumsy plotting is a mystery to me. The story is really heavily invested in convincing the reader that Krennic and Tarkin are two distinct characters who are fighting for influence in the new Empire but honestly, emphasizing their rivalry makes it very obvious that they could've been collapsed into one character and everyone would've been better off.

The most positive thing I got out of this book was an eerie comparison between the nascent Empire and today's world/US politics. Lots of people burying their heads in the sand and denying the possibility of anything bad happening despite power-hungry men taking over the government.

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Review: The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49 The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an example of a good book read at the wrong time and in the wrong way. I started this over Thanksgiving and didn't finish until late January and this is absolutely a book that should be read in a single sitting, if possible. It's unquestionably a wonderful, bizarre book. It just didn't land right with me because of how I read it

Oedipa Maas becomes the executor of state for her ex, Pierce Inverarity, and gets caught up in a conspiracy involving the Postal Service and alternative mail carriers that spans centuries - but she's not quite sure she should believe anything she's experiencing. Her journeys up and down the coast of California, seeing strange plays and investigating stamps and sleeping with various men who inevitably go insane, feel like a dreamlike haze. She wanders aimlessly with an unrealized mission, each stop almost accidental but becoming meaningful in hindsight. The book ends just as a dream would, right before the moment when you'd receive any answers.

Much could and has been said of the constellation of symbols and signifiers that flood the book and what they mean, and I'm not up to that right now. It's enough to say that the onslaught of symbols adds to the dreamy nature of the story. Many things feel illogical or impossible or random and simultaneously perfectly arranged and promising meaning, if you only look at them the right way. It's an impressive work. I imagine it's difficult to create something with so many layers of near-opacity and obfuscation that also reveals the hints of meaning and a deep structure if you push further, and Pynchon does it well. I mostly read speculative fiction nowadays and "The Crying of Lot 49" gives me the same feeling: a wholly constructed, imagined world with its own rules and a tenuous grip on reality.

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Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Alexander Freed
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Wanna hear something shocking? I haven't seen Rogue One. Me, the chick who's read nearly every Star Wars book to date, who saw Revenge of the Sith in theaters three times (and cried through each one, mourning the End of Star Wars Movies), who has dressed as Darth Vader and/or Padme Amidala for numerous Halloweens and costume parties, has not seen the most recent Star Wars movie and has no plans to do so. The new canon books started weaning me off Star Wars and The Force Awakens made me go cold turkey. I lapsed a bit last fall and read the first two Thrawn books from the old canon, and I've considered reading the entirety of the old canon again from start to finish, but I just couldn't muster any interest in the new stuff.

But audiobook pickings are slim and typically Star Wars audiobooks are fun, at least, so I checked this one out. My feelings: a resounding "meh."

Freed tries to make you care about these characters. You have to care about them, right? Because we know they get the plans in the end, we need to have something to care about, and they wanted it to be the fate of these characters. But as with so, so many movie-to-book translations, generating internal thoughts and feelings that genuinely motivate the characters' on-screen actions fails in one of two ways. The internal lives of the characters are incoherent, largely because the on-screen action is driven by plot necessity and consistency of character is sacrificed. Or they are wildly grandiose and mercurial, because all the emotion that is typically expressed on screen by slight movements and glances must (for some reason) be explicitly stated, several times, and without any ambiguity or nuance.

Some illustrative, but not literal, examples: "He winced" is my least favorite set of words in this book because it's rarely used in any context where someone would actually wince, and it's never given any space to breathe or left on its own. 'He winced and tried to explain his actions' (nb: not an actual quote) just doesn't work. You don't do those things in the same breath. Or 'Jyn gave a genuine smile. It was the first time Cassian had ever seen her smile for real, and it was so honest and real it made him happy' (again, not a real quote). Also not necessary. There was (again, as typical of movie novelizations) way too much telling instead of showing.

I do appreciate the attempt to show that Jyn really does suffer due to her traumatic upbringing. I think it's a failed attempt (because the book, more than Jyn, seems to fixate on that cave imagery), and a melodramatic attempt, but I like that they tried.

And can we talk about the weirdly homogeneous cast of this story? I know Star Wars Brand is trying so desperately hard to get any points in the representation department - look, they cast pretty fair-skinned brunette white girls as leads for two new movies! - and this one does better than most. I love that Cassian gets to keep his actor's Mexican accent. I love that most of the rest of the main cast are people of color. So good on that front, Star Wars Brand! But it's weird, right, that outside of Mon Mothma, Jyn, and Jyn's mom, there are literally no other women in the story? Right? And that there are like, no non-human characters in this science fiction story set in a universe where there are lots of non-humans? And that Chirrut and Baze are definitely romantic partners but the story never explicitly says it?

Anyway, this didn't make me want to see the movie at all. The ending was a surprise but it didn't pack an emotional impact like it was trying to do.

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Review: And Chaos Died

And Chaos Died And Chaos Died by Joanna Russ
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is classic Joanna Russ. I've mentioned her complex, often overwhelmingly dense prose before, and "And Chaos Died" is the epitome of that style. The opening of the story finds a ship crash-landed on a planet where everyone has the powers of telekinesis, teleportation, and telepathy. The rest of the book is an attempt to convey the experience of telepathy and telekinesis as a normal human would comprehend it. It's an insane goal. And somehow she succeeds. The book is crazy hard to follow, one of the most challenging things I've ever read, but I enjoyed it, I think.

I usually try to do a brief summary of a book when I review it. The plot is... fairly unimportant here, but I'll give it a shot anyway. Jai and his ship crash land on a planet populated with telepathic, telekinetic people. He slowly develops these powers as well - it seems like those abilities are inherent in humans and just being around people with them will teach you how to use them. When he's rescued one woman comes with him as a representative of the world. When they get back to Earth, she disappears and Jai travels around using his powers, trying to stay out of the hands of people who would make him into a lab rat. He makes a friend, a young boy, and they go on terrifying adventures through the strange world that Earth has become. The finale is especially bizarre. Several other telepathic people from the other planet come to Earth and offer to meet with some major leaders. There's some kind of wiping of the global human consciousness. And then it ends!

The biggest 'pro' of the book is how well it does the overwhelming, disorienting nature of telepathy (or at least, what I assume telepathy would feel like, and what Russ thinks telepathy would feel like). It would involve states of consciousness completely foreign to our experience and combined with telekinesis, it would change our entire way of interacting with the world and the way we constitute self. As I said before, Russ did this well, which makes the book good and almost unreadable. It's slow. There are huge swathes of story in which nothing concrete happens or where none of the things that happen have any basis in normal human experience. It's great! And very challenging!

There are two very interesting things in this book aside from the feeling-of-telepathy aspect: the portrayal of Earth, and Jai Vedh's sexuality.

Earth in this story is in a state of extreme overpopulation and climatic disaster. Coastal areas have flooded, plains areas are desert wastelands. There's not enough space for humans to live and when they're gathered so close together there is often hedonism and destruction. There's a chapter-long description of a riot and another chapter that follows a couple living out hyperbolic examples of 20th-century gender roles. To see Russ's vision of the future is to see a very modern vision of apocalypse: gender roles are exaggeratedly performed not because they're how people want to live them but because it's traditional, global warming is destroying the world, and the American government (or at least the puppet organization that controls it) has a secret agency that hunts people.

Jai is gay. He says this in the first few pages. It was a little uncomfortable because it was immediately connected to his interest in fashion. It got very, very uncomfortable when Russ paired him off with a woman not just romantically but sexually (over and over again). I appreciate that Russ included a queer person as her main character, and I understand that the whole story focuses on the propagation of telepathic humans throughout the galaxy, and that he would be influenced by the thoughts and desires of those around him. But to then treat him as if he were straight throughout the entire rest of the story (because he definitely keeps having straight sex until almost the very end) is a little problematic.

Overall, parts of the story feel very much of their time, other parts feel incredibly modern, but the entire effect is strikingly original. This is a story that will drag you along and stick to you after you've read it.

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Review: Star Songs of An Old Primate

Star Songs of An Old Primate Star Songs of An Old Primate by James Tiptree Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There wasn't a moment of reading this book where I wasn't engaged, excited, or delighted. Ursula Le Guin's excellent introduction was especially fun, as this collection came out very soon after Tiptree was revealed to be Alice Sheldon. Le Guin insists that saying Tiptree "doesn't exist" is absurd (after all, she's exchanged many letters with him) and urges the reader to think about how identity is formed, and how an author shapes our expectations. She also points out a tidbit I didn't know but thought was neat: Tiptree withdrew "The Women Men Don't See" from award consideration prior to being 'outed', because many lauded the story for Tiptree's ability to understand women despite being a man.

Anyway, this anthology is classic Tiptree. You can see Alice Sheldon's long government and research careers at work in "The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats" and "Your Haploid Heart." Her interest in biology and gender come to the fore in "Haploid" as well as "A Momentary Taste of Being," "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" and "She Waits for All Men Born." "All Men Born" is a fantastically dark, optimistic end to the anthology, and feels very modern even today. As characteristic of Tiptree, many of the stories read like mysteries; something is hidden, just barely visible through the layers of the story, until a sudden reveal in the third act. And yet I didn't get tired of the format, even when re-reading "Houston" for the third time.

I have a major bone to pick with "A Momentary Taste of Being," though, because I wrote half that damn story and plotted out the rest of it. The central premise of the story and several of the big moments map on to a short story I drafted a year ago, though of course Tiptree's is eerier and she had a much better set-up and payoff. I had to put down the book halfway through that story and kick myself for not finishing my story earlier, because now I certainly couldn't write it without constant comparison to this one.

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Review: Fledgling

Fledgling Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love Octavia Butler. Her Xenogensis (also known as Lilith's Brood) series is my favorite series of all time. But I have to say that "Fledgling," her last book, is also her worst.

Every Butler story I've read has closely followed the same themes: a small group of people have the power to make other people love/want/need them, and those special people surround themselves with the people that need them, typically creating a commune/family. The normal people resist and often try to refuse, but are ultimately forced into the situation and eventually come to accept and sometimes appreciate the life they have now. The story centers around the mixed emotions of the oppressed, and often deals with the guilt that the oppressors feel. Xenogenesis does this brilliantly and, in my opinion, deals the best with the internal conflicts in both directions and deeply interrogates questions about power imbalance in relationships. "Fledgling" fails to do any of those things.

The opening is powerful. The story is told in first person, and we get the narrative of a person waking up with complete amnesia, blind and in pain and exhausted. As they gradually regain their sight, mobility, and semantic memory - remembering what a deer is, but not whether they'd ever seen a deer before - the reader realizes that this character is a vampire. A bit later, we discover she looks like a young girl. The opening sequence is unsettling, squeamish, and intriguing. The vampire, Shaurya (though she doesn't remember her name at this point), hitchhikes with a man and bites him. This sparks the typical Butler paradigm: he is now tied to her, and she to him. They proceed to have extremely creepy sex because she looks like a 10-year-old and neither of them know how old she actually is (the answer is much, much older than him, but that doesn't make it less uncomfortable in the moment).

Most of the story centers on Shaurya trying to rediscover who she was. She finds part of her family, only to lose them shortly after. She seeks refuge with other vampires and suspects that she's being targeted because she's different - she's genetically engineered to resist the sun and stay awake during daylight, she's part human, and she's black. Her human companions suspect all three of these are why she's being targeted and, spoiler alert, they're right. I don't have any qualms about spoiling this because there is never a moment where Shaurya or any of her human companions are wrong about anything in the whole story, which was frustrating. There weren't any unexpected or unforetold moments in the entire thing.

The main issue, though, was how emotionally unaffected it was. Shaurya is concerned for her human companions but only in the most abstract sense. She wants to make sure she can give them a house, feed them, etc. but doesn't ever think about whether this life is good for them. Her companions express varying mild levels of discomfort with the situation, but most move past it quickly, and Shaurya's concern is always about whether they will ever accept it, rather than how she can make it better for them or whether she should do this at all. The novel is rife with opportunities to reflect on whether these human companions are truly necessary, or whether the typical vampire lifestyle (forcing 7 to 12 humans to live with and adore you forever) is the only way for them to live. But it never touches those questions, instead painting Shaurya and those she associates with as 'better than' others because they don't treat their humans like garbage.

Even aside from questions about the morality of the human/vampire relationship, Butler fails to take advantage of the first-person narration. Shaurya has no memory, no history, and never regains anything more than semantic knowledge about her life. Her reactions to deaths of people she knows fall short of emotional, and dissipate quickly, even when they should continue to affect her.

If you are going to read this, I recommend the audiobook. The narrator does an astounding job with a large cast of characters with different accents. I very much prefer female narrators anyway, since their 'male' voices are more realistic than any male narrator's 'female' voices, and the narrator here does a particularly excellent job with the men.

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Review: At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories

At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories by Kij Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There were two things about this collection that I didn't realize when I picked it up: 1) Kij Johnson is well-known and has a long career both writing and editing (at one of my favorite publishers, Tor!) speculative fiction and 2) the anthology was loosely themed, with most stories featuring some animal or another as a major character.

The first was great discovery. I bought this because I'd read Johnson's story "Spar" in Clarkesworld a few years back and when I discovered Small Beer Press had published an anthology, I was sold. And it was an excellent buy! Thanks to one of my local indie stores (Kramerbooks ) for carrying it because otherwise I wouldn't have known!

The collection reminds me a lot of Lisa Tuttle. Very solid SF work with interesting ideas, with one or two stories that blew me away. I think Johnson's SF premises are more modern and well-rounded - complex alternate worlds, a tight focus on characters, and a literary prose style. I'm writing this review almost a year later and I still think about "Ponies" anytime I think about character-driven SF with a world I'd give an arm to explore. "Spar" remains one of my favorites (though it's not for the faint of heart - and having just reviewed "The Stars Are Legion" I'm realizing I have a bit of a thing for weird body horror fiction).

Anyway, Small Beer Press publishes some great books and this is one of them. This collection is very smart (which makes sense - Johnson has my alternate-reality dream job of teaching sci-fi at the college level) and engaging.

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Review: Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike

Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh man. Pretty Deadly and Monstress were easily my top comic reads this year. I was expecting that from Monstress but I hadn't heard about Pretty Deadly so it took me by surprise. I'm not a huge fan of Westerns - or, I thought I wasn't, but Pretty Deadly and Westworld may have convinced me otherwise this year - and the setting turned me off for a while. Oh, how glad I am that I read it anyway.

It's been too long for me to remember the details of the story so my review will be broad-strokes and brief. The plot manages feel mythological without sacrificing investment in the characters and their stories. It reminds me of Sandman, where Dream and his siblings are universal forces of nature that should be so generic they're meaningless, but are instead uniquely alive. The art - the art! Emma Rios is fantastic. Her color palettes are full of greens and pinks and oranges, colors that shouldn't look pretty but do. It matches well with the story, a dark story with bits of hope and love and fun.

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Review: The New and Improved Romie Futch

The New and Improved Romie Futch The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book totally wasn't my jam but I enjoyed the hell out of it anyway. I'm not big on Southern Gothic and I've never read Moby Dick and I'm not even a huge fan of most modern SF that deals with cybernetic brain implants (lookin at you, Nexus by Ramez Naam). But damn do I love a book that makes me like it despite my initial hesitations.

Some scattered thoughts:
I totally thought this was going to end horribly for Romie. I kept thinking his hallucinations and the voices and the blackouts might actually be due to drugs and alcohol even though Elliott kept proving me wrong. At the end of Part Two I thought he was going to die. All throughout Part Three I thought he was going to die or fuck up. I'm kinda glad it was a happy ending, but I'm not sure I'm totally satisfied by it. I've probably been watching too much Bojack Horseman.

I almost feel the science fiction parts of the book were unnecessary. The real story here was his quest for Hogzilla (and his attempts to repair the trajectory of his life) and the SF was not as important. It didn't bother me in the moment, but in retrospect it's like I read two different stories that got stitched together.

I loved the silliness and the verbosity of Romie and his buds post-op. Lots of humor plus some beautifully written sentences. Awesome.

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Review: The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories

The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories by Joan Aiken
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I received an e-galley copy of this book through Edelweiss.

This was one of several collections of 'strange stories' - magical, weird, unsettling collections that don't pack neatly into a genre label - that I read this year. Many of them, including this one, are almost like fairy tales, and I'd describe Aiken's as more like the original Grimm's fairy tales, pretty horror stories, than anything else.

Many of the stories focus on children experiencing the fantastic in their dire situations. Sometimes they read like miniature animatronic dollhouses featuring strange and magical scenes. Often nature encroaches on old, Victorian English homes. This is one of the most beautiful collections I read, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone, whether you like fantasy, horror, or typical literary writing.

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Review: We Who Are About To...

We Who Are About To... We Who Are About To... by Joanna Russ
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love bookstores and libraries of all kinds. Big ones with an endless buffet of options, curated collections with a peculiar slant to them, haphazard piles of books that the owners clearly didn't know what to do with. But I have a secret test for any book vendor that few pass and those special few have a permanent place in my heart: is there any Joanna Russ?

Russ is a classic SF writer who published during the New Wave and won or was nominated for most of the major SF awards. She also wrote kickass feminist nonfiction. She's a big enough name that most people who've read SF have heard of her, but I've only seen her books on the shelf in two bookstores ever, and through one academic library's interlibrary loan. I went into D.C. with a few friends to play Pokemon GO and we wandered our way to several bookstores until we finally settled in one that was next to a Pokemon gym. Just after taking over the gym, my phone ran out of battery, so I was able to devote proper attention to the books themselves. Their SF section was delightfully pulpy and meticulously shelved, and when I climbed up onto a step stool to check the top shelf, I found two Joanna Russ novels with green-edged pages and crazy pulp covers. I was ecstatic. (I also got an old collection of SF by female authors, which is also a rare find - things like that are much more common from the past 15-20 years).

Anyway, the book itself starts out like a pulp sci-fi novel. A group of travelers crash-lands on an uncharted planet where it's fairly certain they'll never be found. It's essentially Gulliver's Island in space. The first-person narrator is savvy and cynical and knows several things from the get-go: 1) there is no hope for long-term survival, 2) her fellow passengers will hold onto hope and try to perpetuate humanity (which means impregnating all fertile women ASAP whether they like it or not) and 3) she finds a respectable death far preferable to most of her other options.

The first half of the book explores the passengers' first week on the planet, the alliances and plans that quickly take shape, the growing distrust everyone has for the narrator. The book takes a sharp (but not unexpected, especially if you read the spoileriffic blurb on the first page of the book) turn about halfway through. The focus narrows to the narrator as she chronicles her slow death by starvation. Her hallucinations, her memories, her vacillation between panic and acceptance, her determination to die a deserved death. It's solid Russ work - even in the more lucid passages it can be difficult to follow a line of thought, and most passages are meaty enough to bear re-reading. It's a short book, though, so even though the second half is a slow march, it doesn't feel too long. And unlike 'The Female Man,' another of Russ's books I've read, it was just challenging enough to make me work without leaving me completely confused and in need of a syllabus to prep me for a re-read. Russ shows us glimpses of her characters' pasts and the world they come from that make me want to read other books set in the same universe, but she (and the narrator) refuse to elaborate on the history implied by the bits and pieces because they are irrelevant to the main event: the narrator's slow death.

It's a fascinating read with equal parts pulp and intellect. If you can get your hands on it, it's well worth reading.

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Review: Ninefox Gambit

Ninefox Gambit Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

Ninefox Gambit is certainly one of the most original and daring books I've read in a while. The premise of the story - a galactic empire that uses a kind of magic based on math and patterns - is fascinating. The core relationship between Kel and Jedao provides a solid emotional trajectory. Overall, though, I left the book feeling vaguely disappointed, both because the the premise didn't pull off as well as I'd hoped and because the character-driven story was a bit predictable.

The way the magic works is essentially confluence based on patterns of movement of either ships or soldiers that produce larger effects - like explosions, or camouflage. The scope extends beyond the military and throughout their society, as everyone in the Hexarchate follows the same calendrical patterns/schedules. It's a thoughtful metaphor for traditionalist societies where every person has their place and best serves the universe by performing their role dutifully. The main problems for me were that the patterns/formations that are used to create magical effects are abstract enough that they were usually weren't visualizable, and because the effects are magical and arbitrary, it was hard to build tension; the reader can't possible know that X formation will lead to Y effect, so when all the soldiers are getting into formation X, we don't know what that means for the next scene.

The story is driven by this magic. A rogue faction is enforcing a different calendar, and it's disrupting the very carefully woven fabric of magic that pervades the galaxy. Kel is chosen to fight this rogue faction for two reasons: first, she is a soldier who is unusually good at math; second, she suggests resurrecting the person of Jedao, a commander who went insane and killed his own troops many decades earlier. Resurrecting Jedao means incorporating him into her own mind and body, for reasons that are still unclear to me.

While the larger story of the Hexarchate is the 'pitch' story, the one that shapes the book, the core of the story is the relationship between Kel and Jedao. Kel starts remembering things that Jedao has done as if she had done them herself, and while she sees his many atrocities, she also starts to learn that the history she has been taught isn't quite right. As I mentioned above, this part of the story feels almost too familiar - an upstanding citizen must pair up with a supposedly evil traitor to defeat a common enemy, and along the way they begin to understand each other, and it's revealed that the bad guy had some good motivations all along.

It's been a while since I read the book now and I honestly can't quite remember the ending, but I would certainly read a sequel. It was a pretty enjoyable read and the most difficult part for me was that there are very few physical descriptions of anything, and it felt like I was blind while reading.

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SF Women Read-A-Thon

I'm back! It's been a while since I've posted and I have a new project. I'm still going to read and review pretty much everything I read (including my yearlong backlog of read books, and including ARCs/galleys). But now I have a goal: prove to the world women have been writing sci-fi for as long as it has been around.

I'm tackling that goal by proving it to myself, first, by reading as much and as widely as I can by women who have written sci-fi. Then, when someone asks for recommendations for "something like Piers Anthony" or "really hard SF" I can offer up some great SF by a woman. Specifically a woman who is not Ursula Le Guin, who is amazing, but is so so often the only woman I see on 'best sci-fi' lists.

My methods are a little suspect but they're not difficult. I went to my favorite used bookstore and found about 20 sci-fi books written by women that were written in the 1970s or earlier. I picked women I'd never heard of, with a few exceptions for classics I hadn't read. It cost me about $16. I might end up reading a lot of mediocre sci-fi this way, but people have been reading a lot of mediocre sci-fi by dudes for decades and keep recommending those books so other people read them et cetera ad nauseum until they become canon. I know I'll also find some gems, then I'll recommend them, then hopefully other people will read them because I reached outside both the canon and my comfort zone.

Why? Because I want to help good books get read, and because people seem to believe that women don't write SF or don't write SF as well or didn't used to write SF for some reason and I want to prove them wrong. And because many good books by women especially from 30+ years ago get left on the shelf at the used bookstore because no one recommended them.

Largely, because every single time I go into a "looking for recs" thread for SF on reddit there are literally zero recommendations for books by women. Except Le Guin, probably because a lot of people didn't know Ursula was a woman's name when they were kids. (They only read a woman because they didn't know better!) In threads specifically requesting books by women there are always the 'why are you only reading women, that's sexist' responses, but when someone points out in other threads that only men have been rec'd, that's also called sexist. I'm tired of that. It is not the case that women don't write good enough SF to be recommended. It's not the case that women don't write SF, don't write hard SF, don't write good SF. 

And because these all seem to me to be problems that regardless of cause, I can't do much about except to be loud and vocal about books that I love, and to find more books I love and share them! So I'm going to stock my arsenal to launch a silo of recs.

I'm going to call this my Sci-Fi Women Read-A-Thon and tag my Goodreads shelves, Instagram, and blog posts with #readathon_sfwomen, so follow along!

I started this project about a month ago so I'm excited to see that other people like Liz Bourke from feel the same way.