Meanderings and Maunderings on the Edge of Science Fiction and Fantasy
I love sff, but I don’t always read or write about it. In this world, pretty much everything’s science fiction, somehow or other.
I love sff, but I don’t always read or write about it. In this world, pretty much everything’s science fiction, somehow or other.
The coming of the new year is a time of new beginnings for a lot of people, as those of us who believe in them make resolutions and hope for positive change in the year to come. Plenty of novels begin with a new beginning, but they’re not always as positive or pleasant as we might imagine for ourselves. Here’s a brief list of novels featuring new beginnings in some way or another.
Amnesia is its own beginning, especially when it happens over and over. For Zan, finding the source of her lost memories may be just the start of a new world for herself and everyone in her small corner of the universe. Along the way the reader is served up a hero’s journey of planetary proportions and plenty of gore an intrigue, as one would expect in a KH novel.
2. The Reader, by Traci Chee
Stories are an integral part of Sefia’s world, reading itself is a skill long lost to time and empire. But somehow a book has survived, and Sefia, on the run from the same people who pursued her parents and killed her father, is learning to read the book one slow letter at a time. Will finally understanding the past set her free, and allow her to move forward into a future of her own making?
3. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Apocalypse is a special kind of beginning, and Station Eleven is one of the best executed post apocalyptic novels I’ve encountered. It’s not just about learning to live without electricity or government, but the ways in which everything old can become new again, including art.
4. The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison
Sometimes a new beginning is an empire getting a new face, like when a kingdom of elves finds itself with a half-goblin emperor on its throne, after nearly the entire royal family was killed in a dirigible accident. Being an outsider can sometimes be an asset, but it can also be a liability, and Maya has very little room to make mistakes.
5. Earthrise (Her Instruments #1), by MCA Hogarth
The advent of interstellar travel didn’t do a Star Trek and get rid of capitalism, and for Reese Eddings, raised on the all-woman Mars colony, the getting beat down by fate and a series of bad trades can’t blunt her obstinate desire to explore and see everything the universe has to offer. But eventually the money runs out, and she has to consider going home to ask her mother for help. Until a mysterious benefactor comes through with an offer that seems to good to be true, and Reese just might get a break, after all.
Woo! With new year’s came a new job for me, so in honor of yesterday being my first day as a research librarian at a major law firm in my area, here’s a list of books/series in which law/lawyers play a strong role.
I admit, I found Parker (and his books) a lot more interesting before I found out it was in fact just some dude who already was relatively successful in publishing. Nevertheless, this is one of the few series that has merited multiple reads, and even knowing the twist at the end it’s fascinating to watch the ways that anarchy and order war with each other, and within the characters, to create this perfect storm of a war between two otherwise indifferent opponents.
2. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
Before it was a strangely cult classic film, this novel was a somewhat understated meditation on what it meant to be alive, and how civilization would go about legally defining life when artificially created humanoid beings not only existed, but were created as slaves to humans.
3. Reamde, by Neal Stephenson
This tome of a speculative fiction novel deals with the ramifications of legal borders and boundaries in the digital age. Two story worlds exist side by side: the video game world in which mules play according to a set of rules in order to earn and smuggle money out of a pay to play MMORPG along the lines of World of Warcraft, and the world of kidnapped young woman, ostensibly at the wrong place at the wrong time, who ends up flown around the world and back again, never knowing if she’ll get out alive, or even find out why it all happened to begin with.
4. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker
This is another story which happens because one man transgresses the religious laws of his people for his own gain, and creates a being who should never have become real. It’s a story of emigration and coming of age, as well as one of found friendship despite cultural borders.
5. The Just City (Thessaly #1), by Jo Walton
Plato’s Republic was a legal treatise modeled on the constitution of a human body, with the well-being of the well-run city-state being its allegorical goal. So what happens when the actual Greek gods go back in time, pulling philosophers and cultural influencers out of their worlds just before their times of death, and try to actual create Plato’s imagined city? Part time travel novel, part philosophical exercise, part celebrity fiction, The Just City plots a rough course through history and the motivations of humanity from all points.
As my Scottish Hogmanay vacation comes to an end, it seems like a good time to make another list of my favorite reads of 2017. This time it’s science fiction novels. Remember, these are books I actually read in 2017, not necessarily published in that year, but I’ll try to include publication information for each.
Though this came out in late 2015, it took me till December of 2016 to pick it up, and was one of my first reads of 2017. It took my by surprise, really, as I knew little about it except the title and that I’d been hearing about it for a while. The level of Newman’s writing is equaled by few in this milieu; the suspense wasn’t contrived and the science fictional elements really evoked a lot of classic science fiction while not feeling outdated. It was, in fact, a very sensitively written book, and the motivations of the main character in particular were a visceral gut-punch as they unfolded throughout the story. It’s a very forward-looking novel with both hope and despair, and that’s the kind of science fiction I like.
2. The Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee (June 2017)
I love science fiction that challenges me, and Lee’s work always does. This is the second in The machineries of Empire and it had just as many twists and turns, just as many hints and secrets as the first. I’ve always felt that much of good world building is in deciding what not to explain, and this series really satisfies in that way. I want to wonder, I want to use my imagination–as in horror, sometimes what gets left unsaid is the best catalyst for creativity–and The Raven Strategem really pushed me to engage with the world and the story it was telling.
3. The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey (March 2017)
This novel sort of came out of nowhere for me. It requested it through NetGalley, probably forgot about it for a while, then picked it up one day when I was looking for something to read. It really reads as more of a thought experiment, or series of short story sketches all woven together into a big I Wonder. As much as it is interested in the science of space travel, it really probes the psychology of space travel and how we engage with something so completely alien to us–namely the vacuum itself.
4. An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon (October 2017)
I’m always fascinated by fiction that explores what it’s like to live on a ship traveling through space, rather than just telling an adventure story that happens to happen in space, so this novel really grabbed me right from the first page. It took me two or three tries before I checked it out of the library, but I’m glad I did. It’s in many ways an own-voices story of the people often forgotten in mainstream science fiction–those who are not white, hetero, cis, male–and proof, if it were ever needed, that all stories can be compelling, complete, and contain multitudes with which to identify. Again, in addition to being beautifully written it challenges with all that’s left untold.
5. Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie (October 2014)
A person that’s a ship, a ship that’s a person. A person who’s a mind graft of a thousand-times cloned person hundreds of years old. An old menace, a new threat, connections made and broken. Sometimes it seems that Ann Leckie’s fiction was made just for me. I’ll never tire of a universe in which male isn’t the default, in which the definition of human is more than just meat and emotion. This time it’s not a story of revenge, but one of putting things back together, looking for a way to move on, and it’s just as compelling as Ancillary Justice.
This list is about regime change in sff. Not rebels running around torching things, or dreaming of a better day, but fiction that actually deals with what happens when the ruling order forcibly changes. It was a hard list to compile, because most people want aspirational stories, not hard truths, even authors, it seems.
Elliott is one of the best world builders in fantasy, and Crossroads does not disappoint. These novels deal with not only the clash of worlds, but what it means when a foreign army marches into another nation and forcibly changes the way things are done, with only the brutal efficiency that can be managed by religious zeal and desperate fear. And also there are giant eagles.
2. Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson
In this case, the humans start out on top, until some computers achieve ascendancy and decide the humans are too dangerous to keep around. This is the story of the survivors of the original blow out, and how they adapt to a world where every machine is a potential murderer.
3. Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2), by Ann Leckie
In the fallout of Breq’s mission to kill Anaander Mianaai for her role in the destruction of Breq’s ship Justice of Toren, Breq must travel to a distant system where possible rebellion brews. A sort of peace may now exist, but ripples of Mianaai’s duplicity are sparking all sorts of problems across Radch space and Breq must find the problems and quell them–in her own, not necessarily imperial, ways–before the empire falls apart.
4. The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard
Selene is doing her best to hold House Silverspires together after the mysterious disappearance of Morningstar, the most powerful of all the angels who fell from Heaven, but despite her best efforts, things are falling apart. A series of mysterious deaths and magical failures make Silverspires ripe for plucking by the likes of House Hawthorn or even houses not controlled by Fallen. This is the aftermath of regime change in one house, but the loss of Morningstar may mean the loss of ascendancy for all Fallen in Paris if the mystery is not solved.
5. Cloudbound(Bone Universe #2), by Fran Wilde
In this second of a trilogy, Kirit and Nat must contend with the consequences of their actions from Updraft, in which they revealed how the Spire and its Singers have been hiding the truth of the city from its inhabitants. Although these secrets may have provided some safety and kept order–important for a populace who lives in the sky and for whom any large-scale disruption to trade could prove disastrous–it may also have led to the imminent collapse of the city structure and understanding of the city’s history. Kirit and Nat are not welcomed as heroes, but looked upon with suspicion, forced out of the society they’d hoped to save, existing on the edges of the city and down in the damp cloudbound layers from which citizens usually never returned.
Well, this blog post was a draft I created, and never did anything with, back in November 2017, but now that I’ve watched Twice Upon a Time, Moffat’s last (hopefully forever) stint at writing Doctor Who, I have more to say on the topic so here goes.
I attended my first Doctor Who convention back in November–Long Island Doctor Who–and had a couple conversations with various other fans and attended some panels and appearances and what really kept slapping me in the face was the ways in which gender is so constantly and consistently essentialized, brought down to particular traits or behaviors that people can’t help but associate with one or the other binary genders. And beyond what we like to consider others’ ignorance around gender, such as equating genitals with gender, is the issue of so-called allies and their responsibility to call out the gender bullshit when se wee it. We need to be able not only to recognize it, but be prepared and practiced enough to speak out. Not doing so just makes us feel good that we didn’t do it, but doesn’t do anything to actually make positive changes so that the next generation doesn’t have to go through the same bullshit.
But anyway, back to Doctor Who. We all know that the next Doctor will be presenting female, rather than the male half of the binary of the last 55 years. And as happy as I am, it really worries me because our society on the whole lacks the basic ability to talk about women and gender with any real sensitivity, so to watch the fandom world talking about a woman in the role for however many years we get to see a woman as the Doctor, to watch a group of people who have already shown themselves to have sexist and misogynistic tendencies talk about a woman in a major media role, gives me a lot of trepidation.
To give this context, even men who purport to be feminist and supportive of a woman as the Doctor, have a hard time talking about women as if they aren’t a separate, unfathomable species. Sylvester McCoy himself, in his stand-up appearance panel at Long Island Who, referred to Whitaker’s taking on the roles as “I’ve had a sex change,” and when talking about the con experience in the 80’s reference a con he attended in Florida in which the women were all dressed as Leela, but many of them “shouldn’t have been.” Because they were fat, you see. And fat women shouldn’t inflict their appearance on anyone. Luckily (she muttered sarcastically) the next Doctor is a thin, blonde, white woman.
Which brings us to Twice Upon a Time, which I’ve come to think of as an Emperor’s New Clothes moment for both Doctor Who and Moffat. It, for me, was the point at which Moffat showed that he really has no understanding of the core of feminism and wrote a bunch of tone deaf jokes at which he was the only one laughing. I suppose some have lauded how “evolved” the Doctor has become in Peter Capaldi, as he cringes through the horrible takes the First Doctor is given to express about women and their role, but I’m pretty sure Capaldi was cringing at all the ironic sexism Moffat was flinging at the script in a bid to prove that he really is a feminist. Hopefully, should Chibnall choose to take a more anti-sexist stance he’ll actually find women to write his scripts so it doesn’t come off as just another bro mocking the feminist movement that has led to his beloved show turning girly.
And to get down to the story, where was it? The entire special seemed like just another chance for Moffat to bring out his one trick pony and revise some Doctor Who history by pulling the First Doctor out of time to have an adventure with the Twelfth before regeneration. Gatiss’ storyline, as a WWI captain about to die, was completely unnecessary to the story, as was Bill’s, really. I’m pretty sure Moffat just wanted an excuse to bring Clara back and flog that dead horse a bit before putting his era of the show to bed. Now the Doctor has his memories of Clara back, so everything in the Moffat-verse is right, and he can leave knowing he has made the show perfect (in his own opinion).
When we all know that the best parts of the show have to do with its not being perfect, with continuity not being the most important thing, and with not knowing some things about the universe. With absolute power, it seems, has come Moffat’s loss of wonder. Very little about Twice Upon a Time was wonderful, or really very cohesive. An adventure in which the Doctor is reunited with Bill and has to, with his 1st iteration, figure out whether she’s real, whether she died, why she’s part of the testimony database if she really is alive, and then figuring out, at the end, that it’s ok to be afraid of dying, would have been a perfectly rational story, and would have given more weight to Bill’s arc on the whole, and what happened to her with the Cybermen in the final two episodes.
Instead, Moffat has to wheel in a man, and a turn of the century symbol of masculinity–the WWI soldier who “does his bit”–no less, in order to give the story the weight he thinks it lacks. All of this leading up to the Doctor–our Doctor–regenerating into Jodie Whittaker’s iteration. All we needed to complete the picture was Missy popping in to put on some lipstick and spout a bit more nonsense about upgrading to girlbot and we’d have had Moffat Who bingo.
I’d have loved if Moffat cut out all the sexist stuff and stuck to jokes between Hartnell-Bradley and Capaldi, with the good final regenerations scenes at the end. But let’s be honest, I could have watched Capaldi soliloquy about dying for the entire episode. Those were the best parts, and lot of it had to do with direction and the actor’s own ability to deliver the lines. The parts about whether Bill was real or not were just unnecessarily creeping and didn’t really lead to anything, which can pretty much be interpreted as Moffat just seeing every woman as somehow suspicious and dangerous, even when you already know them.
So hopefully the new year will bring better writing for Doctor Who, with plenty of laughs and adventures for the Thirteenth Doctor, and no more Moffat. Ever. Looking at you, Chibnall.
Today is the day! We leave for our trip to Glasgow and Inverness, a trip we’ve been planning for over a year. So in honor of our big trip, I’m making a list of stories featuring tiny steps with big effects. This could be transformations, or parallels steps, or anything that seems small but has big consequences. So here goes!
1. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson
This little novella published by Tor is a Lovecraftian retelling, in which the main character must figure out how to follow a young student at her school from their own world–with monsters of all sorts and a fixed number of star– into the real world of cars and cell phones and baristas. And all she has to do is step through the right doorway.
2. The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey
The true space age is upon us, but before we can blast off for Mars, we have to do the test run. In a seventeen month long experiment Helen and her two crew partners will simulate every possible aspect of leaving the surface of the earth, making the journey, landing, staying for a few weeks, and then leaving to come back to earth. In this fascinating thought experiment, Howrey creates real conditions for what three people who barely know each other would go through on the longest space journey humans have taken so far. And all without leaving the dust of Idaho.
3. Hammers on Bone, by Cassandra Khaw
This novella isn’t about stepping through a doorway, or simulating a long journey, but about stepping into another being. John Persons is a tentacled alien god-being who has assumed the body of an actual human, and is a private eye in seedy London, tasked with taking down the sinister step-father of a latchkey kid with a little too much savvy for a boy his age. Chaos, of course, ensues.
4. The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig
Nix is a scholar, a historian, a sailor… and a time traveler. All she needs is a map, and she can go anywhere in the time it was created. Swept up by her father’s quest to get back to her mother, when Nix was just a baby, she steps from one world into another, sometimes even into fantasies, with a change of wind and sail.
5. Kabu Kabu, by Nnedi Okorafor
This book of short stories has the best prologue I’ve ever encountered for a collection. A young woman, running late for the airport, takes the most unexpected cab to the airport, but instead of dropping her off at the terminal, it takes her directly to her destination–her family’s home in Nigeria where she’s expected for a wedding. And then the reader is treated to a series of short stroies that represent some of the best of Okorafor’s writing, even among her novels. These stories have presence, the characters stick with you, and they are both speculative and nostalgic in a way only someone who has really been there can manage.
Winter is here! Sort of. Mostly. Snow has hit the ground and stuck in the Northeast U.S., so I’m calling it. Here, then, are a few books that are set in winter, or remind me of winter in some way.
And don’t worry, there’s no GRRMartin in sight.
Though the Six Duchies get seasons just like (I suppose) mid-to-northern Europe does, it always seems to be winter when Fitz is running around, killing raiders and whatnot, so this series always makes me think of winter. It’s a good read, too, for people who like pseudo-medieval-Europe and epic fantasy.
2. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
This novel begins on a snowy night at the beginning of winter in Toronto, when one man gasps his last on stage during a production of King Lear, and then civilization slowly collapses. I remember well the vivid imagery of a young man pushing a shopping cart full of groceries through the slushy streets, hoping against hope to make it to his disabled brother’s high-rise apartment and somehow wait out the apocalypse.
3. All the Windwracked Stars (Edda of Burdens book 1), by Elizabeth Bear
This is the series I think of when I think of Norse mythology adaptations. Ragnarok, snow and ice wrapped all around, and the Valkyries fighting for the light and their world. Only one Valkyrie survives, along with a two-headed deer, the valraven, steed of the Valkyrie. Millenia later, the fight takes new form in a world changed to almost unrecognizabilityfor Muire, the last Valkyrie. But have others survived? Where are the Gods of the north? And what is she to do now?
4. Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalestier
This novel doesn’t take place during winter (as far as I can remember), or maybe it’s bright spring when the sun is shining but there’s still a coldness to the air. Or maybe it’s the bleakness of the characters, the chilling fact that Kelpie can see ghosts and can’t help it, can’t get away from them, even as they beg her to avenge their deaths. Or it might be the feeling of chill dampness that comes from Kelpie’s brief and mournful memories of growing up in Frog Hollow, before she found work and places to stay away from the horrible gully. Despite the chills this novels brings, or perhaps because of them, it’s a stellar read and a great story of two girls sticking together to fight the gangs that have turned their neighborhood into a war zone.
5. Cold Magic (Spiritwalker trilogy book 1), by Kate Elliott
Like many quality fantasy novels, Cold Magic begins in the winter with Cat, bound to marry a cold mage, one who can not only harness the power of ice, but who strips the heat from rooms kills fires with his very presence. He is coldly arrogant, Cat hates him on sight, but must stay with him to protect her family. What seems like the start of a cliched romance turns into anything but.
Alright, I’m going to do a “best of” kind of post, though nearly everything I read could be included on a best of, as I tend to be pretty picky about what I read. So I’ll break it down into a few categories, instead of just one big amalgam of reading.
Today it’s fantasy novels. Here are some of my faves from 2017. Remember, if you’re looking for awards recs, these are books I read in 2017, but I’ll include pub dates for stuff that’s from earlier.
2. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (Aug 2015)
3. The Black Tides of Heaven, by J.Y. Yang (Sept 2017)
4. The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden (Jan 2017)
5. Horizon, by Fran Wilde (Sept 2017)
Although the Season has progressed as most Seasons do–with the subtle variations wrought by how and where it began–everyone in the Stillness is slowly realizing, after the events of The Fifth Season, that, somehow, this Season is different. This Season may be the last Season. But how it will end, no one can say.
For Essun, it means finding a way to end all the Seasons, to let no one else die as she has watched so many in her life pass away from her. The tiny coincidences that bring old acquaintances back together continue in this follow-up novel, with just enough little discoveries to hint at what is really happening, but plenty of mystery still to be solved. Essun’s wanderings have ceased, in Castrima, but there is a new threat on the horizon–another Comm has decided to expand its territory and Castrima is in its path.
Essun has to learn how to work with people who know she is an orogene but don’t see the Fulcrum as the solution to orogenes, and she must find a way to solve the problem that Alabaster has brought back into her life–the question of the obelisks and what they can really do. Meanwhile, far to the south, Nassun and her father have miraculously escaped the worst of the quake and are making their way to a place Essun’s Jija thinks will somehow save Nassun.
Some of the most satisfying revelations in this novel surround the Stone Eaters and their history, as well as who is really telling this story, and why. Essun pushes closer and closer to the mystery until, finally, she reaches the solution. But of course Jemisin saves the biggest twist until the very end. Again, Jemisin’s prose stands out, blending storytelling and stark objectivity in a way that only she can. The space she allows for her characters to feel emotion–anger, sorrow, despair, and occasional joy–pull the reader in and make the story real, while her ability to twist, plot, and plan continue to impress. This is the kind of writing we should all aspire to.
Being the middle novel in a trilogy, The Obelisk Gate is where the magic happens–literally and figuratively. Though not as much happens, fewer personal histories are revealed, it is the pivot point for the story, refocusing the reader exquisitely from the ground, the bodies inhabiting and surviving and dying on it, to the sky in parallel with the people of the Stillness. Why is such a big question in this series, often asked in anger or frustration, and is, in its way, the greatest metaphor for the series. Why look at the sky when the danger is here, in the ground? Why care about that issue when there is this issue right here in front of us? We ask these questions all the time, and the novel, perhaps, is working through that with us.
I apologize, but I’m afraid this is going to be a male-heavy list this week. But then again, maybe there’s a reason for that. Anyway, I present you with some books I read, that were part of series, but which I never felt compelled to read, or didn’t finish, the next book.
This book was something about investigating an alien species, and there was a pseudo-vampire on board, brought for his super-human physical abilities. The aliens were more than they bargained for. Maybe some of the crew got home safe? Anyway, it wasn’t bad, just not compelling beyond the one reading.
2. Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson
You know, the premise and actual plot of this novel were pretty good, but I tried starting the next book in the series (both on audiobook, btw), Robogenesis, and I just couldn’t get into it. I guess it was just decent as a standalone. I would like to seek him out in future though, as he’s of Native American descent and has some interesting ideas.
3. The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen
There are slow burns, and then there are novels with a hodge-podge of things happening, but really no idea what they want to actually be. This was one of the second. Some brutality, a princess who’s “not like all the other girls,” and brief mention of a not so pseudo-medieval past in which ebooks and sundry other technology were in use. Boring.
4. A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas
Alright, I admit I read a SJM book. But in my defense, I didn’t know who she was, and there was an ARC just sitting on a shelf at my local indie, so I gave it a try. Writing was pretty bland, and the faery story felt more like author insertion that actual plotting. But now I know what I’m missing so, uh, I feel good about that, right?
5. The Summoner, by Gail Z. Martin
Also picked this up as an ARC a long, long time ago. It, and stories like it, actually inspired a novel I started working on for NaNo this year, the first time I tried it, in response to stories that feature the noble protagonist, wrongfully accused/deposed, who must venture into the wilderness, overcome superficial challenges, and for whom the plot basically builds a step-by-step to his goal. Boring.