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.
I just finished this embrace of the ridiculous, Alice-through-the-looking-glass piece of short fiction called “The Turing Machines of Babel,” written by Eric Schwitzgebel, published by Apex Magazine.
As a thought experiment, yes, it was interesting, and had all the appropriate start from nothing, build up to everything stepping stones one expects in a story that is really more an exploration of a concept than an actual story. It is, I suppose, a philosophical exploration of the concept of existence, the kind of highly deep thinking every teenager engages in where one accepts the possibility that everything we take as real is just an illusion.
I read a short story last year by a Japanese writer that posited a cylindrical world in which one person decides they want to reach the top and find out who are the gods that every so often come through and destroy swathes of their supposed world. At least it had less navel-gazing than the guy taking credit for all the women in his life who worked hard to figure out what the rabbits in “The Turing Machines of Babel” were doing, and how to program them.
About half-way into this story I got a serious Name of the Wind vibe from it. A man who assigns himself to a quest, believes he knows better than everyone what is going on, collects accolades for basically doing nothing, and is shown to be much less useful than the women in his life, who for some reason shower their excellence on him instead of just going out and doing for themselves.
Maybe it was the author’s intention to explore the extreme self-centeredness of men, who believe entire made up worlds revolve around them.
Probably not, though.
In my quest to support indie sff authors, I discovered M.C.A Hogarth on Amazon and after reading a little about her work, decided to get the first in her “Her Instruments” series, called Earthrise. Named for the ship that Reese purchased with her share of the family’s compound on Mars, the novel traces the adventures of Reese and her doughty crew as they attempt to save one of a species of long-lived and reclusive humanoids from vengeful and violent slavers. What starts out as your run-of-the mill maguffin plots turns into quite something else, as Reese’s mental and physical health, combined with the interference of a mysterious benefactor, send the Earthrise off in directions Reese could never have anticipated.
The Earthrise itself is crewed by a feathery and fluffy cast of characters from all over known space, most of whom are genetically created species from when humans first began colonizing worlds other than Earth itself. Though Reese at times displays discomfort with the overly affectionate ways of felinoid siblings Irine and Sascha, or the mysterious habits of Bryer, the phoenix, she is still loyal to her crew, and they to her. This is a story of found family and what people will endure for each other. Reese’s crew also numbers a Gleaseahn, a sort of gryphoid centaur, and a sentient fuzz ball who communicates telepathically–a Fliztbe–whom Reese calls Allacazam.
Earthrise starts out as your typical mcguffin plot, but it’s well-paced with some extra side plots and character development thrown in, making it not only entirely readable, but even bingeable. Reese’s quest to make it as more than just another homemaker on Mars is compelling, and the tidbits thrown in about the matriarchal societies built through artificial insemination almost demand another series just for themselves. The timelines are somewhat confusing, though, which distracts from the main conflict that develops after Reese accomplishes the original, seemingly innocuous, mcguffin plot and finds she and her crew are embroiled in something much deeper than a simple rescue mission.
Although there is no open romance in Earthrise, it is signposted as a romance series. Probably, though the teambuilding story that pulls all the characters in Reese’s crew together is interesting and compelling enough to satisfy a reader for whom romance is not the biggest pull.
Being the first of the Finishing School series, Etiquette & Espionage is an irreverent take on the concept of the finishing school of the 19th century at which, it was believed, a young woman could learn everything she needed to know about getting a husband and then being a proper lady and wife. And then Carriger adds werewolves, vampires, steampunk, and assassination.
Told from the point of view of Sophronia Angelina Teminick, the tale begins with an unfortunate climb up a dumbwaiter, a characteristic antic of the young protagonist, who is a trial to her parents, a menace to the mechanics who serve in the household, and an annoyance to her siblings. In a last-ditch effort to make her acceptable in society, Sophoronia’s mother begs Madame Geraldine to accept her into Madame Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality and, miraculously, Madame Geraldine accepts. And it’s all downhill–or rather, up in the air–from there.
Other than the characters being younger than I expected–most about 14–I wouldn’t have classified this novel as anything other than fantasy–fantasy of manners, steampunk, etc–but after finishing it I found out that it was classified as YA. Carriger’s worldbuilding, which relies on aspects of the ridiculous to establish a world both vastly different than our own, and yet hardly different at all, interrogates particular tropes in fiction as well as the ways in which patriarchal society affected women in the Victorian period and beyond, in a way that is anything other than immature. I was particularly struck by the ways in which Carriger used fashionable dress itself as a weapon, and how feminine attire has devolved, even as it has become more superficially ‘useful’ to making women generally defenseless, not-dangerous, because there is nowhere to hide anything that might be used as a weapon.
On the whole I found Etiquette & Espionage to be a fine example of what Renay, over at Ladybusiness, describes as the main point of steampunk, which is to break up the cultural norms that rule society and allow for subversion of the assumptions upon which the real-world model is built. It makes excellent use of the fantasy of manners subgenre, showing the reverse side of what politeness and proper behavior is all about.
The only complaint I might make is the novel’s treatment of gender from within. It is all well and good to depict a society in which appearance is everything, but there were times when Sophronia as narrator expressed harmful stereotypes about gender presentation and body size, without those descriptions later being fully exposed as such. Sophronia is later seen getting to know those people who had earlier described as deviating from the desired norm, but those characters do not always get full agency, or Sophronia is not always forced to reckon with how her assumptions about them might have been harmful. Had Sophronia been shown to be a more fallible, less reliable narrator, her descriptions of people might be more easily subverted in a way that aligns with the otherwise feminist nature of the novel.
To William Shakespeare, death was another country, an undiscovered country, from which no traveler could return. For Velitt Boe, sleep is literally another country, her country, her world, to which dreamers occasionally come, dazzling the world with their brilliance, until they once again wake. I know this novella was based on a Lovecraft story called “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” though I will never read it and so can say little about how much was borrowed, how much Johnson’s original creation. I’d like to think the dark and ugly parts are all that is left of Lovecraft, because the storytelling, the character of Velitt, and feel of a hot summer afternoon buzzing with flies that I felt when Velitt woke up in the real, waking world, were all brilliant, and I attribute all of that to Johnson herself.
World building works best when the conceits of said world are built in, in which the characters speak of reality as though it just is, not in which things have to be explained, and “The Dream-Quest of Velitt Boe” is a startling piece of world building. Told through the eyes of Velitt herself, a middle aged woman who has earned her place as a math teacher at a women’s college through years of traveling, gathering wisdom, and formal education. Velitt takes little for granted, and so she is the perfect person to go on a quest to bring back one of her students, who has run off with a waking world man. The reader discovers just how different the dream world is from the waking world through Velitt’s experiences, her conversations with other characters, and through her rigorous mental preparations to go into a different world in a quest to save her own.
Though Johnson’s descriptions of Velitt’s tumultuous journey border on tales of a descent into madness, it is an effective lead up to her entrance into the mundanity of the waking world, a world of automobiles and jobs and coffee and threadbare rented apartments. And it makes one feel that they could go to that world, the dreaming world of finite stars and a moon that could be reached by a tall enough tower and childish gods who would burn entire cities at the hint of a slight, and that they could, too, be like those dazzling dreamers who set the world alight. In this novella in which time is relative, the pages flow by like the drip, drip, drip of water in caverns that will never see the light of day, and dreams go on to make new countries of their own.
The waking world, the normal world, is all the more eerie being the other side of the coin that is a dream world where Velitt is the rarity, the women’s college she teaches at under threat of being shut down at the merest hint of scandal, of women being simply outnumbered by men, not to mention having less autonomy. This metafictional element is all the more compelling when one is aware of the inspiration for this novella–a Lovecraftian creation sorely lacking in women, powerful or otherwise. “The Dream-Quest of Velitt Boe” is balm to the soul of any woman making her way in an imperfect world.
This is my first attempt at a group themed post, so here goes. Mostly I picked it because I had a particular series I’d been wanting to talk about for ages.
Top 5 Wednesday was created by Booktuber Gingerreadslainey, and the guidelines can be found on the Top 5 Wednesday GoodReads group.
This series is very important to me as a fantasy reader. Before I discovered it, I’d read the likes of Tolkien and Robert Jordan’s immense Wheel of Time series, and some other epic fantasy, but Crown of Stars was the first series I ever read where each book got better than the one before (and it’s seven books long), where the planning and research that went into these books showed with every plot twist, and where the series came to a satisfying and logical conclusion. It was, in short, the series that made me realize that long fantasy series can get better. They don’t have to start out with a cool idea and then just sort of peter out with more and more tenuous plot strings.
This series follows the stories of Liath, an orphan trying to discover her own history, Sanglant, mixed race son of the king trying to prove his worth, and a host of secondary characters representing the various kingdoms and races in conflict within this series. The main drivers of the world are a monarchy reminiscent of the medieval monarchies of Europe (with corresponding technology and trade), a religion reminiscent of early Christianity, and overtones of imperialism and superstition that make these somewhat primitive nation states aggressive and riddled with domestic issues.
The thing that makes this series so great (and pretty much any series Elliott has written) is that she doesn’t lay all the major conceits and awesome ideas on the table in the first book. She doles them out slowly for the reader to discover one at a time and add to their shiny collection of ideas and curiosities, to ponder over even while the drama of the story unfolds. Also, Elliott is great at writing characters and subverting well-known fantasy tropes.
Bear has written a lot of series, in a lot of subgenres of both fantasy and science fiction, so it’s no wonder, really, that her most recent trilogy should be her most successful. In this story of an alternate universe where the stars and sky change depending upon which empire rules–and therefore which belief system rules–Temur, grandson of the Khan, who ruled the nomadic tribes of what could be Central Asia, and Samarkar, once-princess and now wizard of the Rasan Empire, must work together to stop a powerful sorcerer and his cult of death who wish to bring about the return of a god long thought destroyed and change the sky forever. It’s a broadly sweeping story that gallops along like the horses so prized in Temur’s culture, that remixes the mythologies of various ages and cultures into something like them, but not.
I have to admit a lot of my enjoyment of this series comes from nostalgia over the year I spent in Central Asia, and how much reading these books reminded me of the endless steppes and towering mountain ranges, and of the feeling that the sky really could go on forever.
This series isn’t actually finished–book 2, Cloudbound, just came out last fall–but it is such an adventurous and unique series that I had to include it. The first book, Updraft, follows Kirit as she attempts to find her place in the sky-bound world of bone towers and rope bridges that make up the City. In doing so, though, she make shake the foundations of everything her people hold dear.
Cloudbound takes place in the aftermath of Kirit’s discoveries, with citizens attempting to rebuild and look higher, always higher, but it becomes more and more apparent to Kirit and her friend Naton that they must look down, backwards, into the history that made their civilization. This book took such a hard left turn at the end that I didn’t know quite what to think, but it reminded me of the Golden Age science fiction that so many people seem to be nostalgic about, the sense of wonder those authors had at the ability to create whole new worlds and universes, that I can’t help but include it in this list and look forward to the third and final installment of this trilogy.
This series follows a world, and a pantheon of gods, more closely than it does a particular group of characters, which I think is a large part of why I liked it so much and why it improves with each book. It’s a story that doesn’t stagnate, that doesn’t get bogged down in details or how characters continue to navigate in a world of fixed rules or magic or belief. The first book follows Yeine and the ways in which she comes to terms with the gods who have made the world what it is, and, perhaps, subvert a system that has been dying under its own weight for generations.
The next book, though, barely remembers Yeine, and is instead the story of Oree, and artist who has come to live in Shadow, beneath the great city of Sky, in the shadow of the world tree that grew as a result of Yeine’s actions in the previous book. Oree has her own encounters with the gods, must come to terms with the ways in which the world has changed since Yeine’s time, and what it means for her. And finally, book 3, The Kingdom of Gods, is told from the point of view of one of those gods, returning to the royal city of Sky and the family that held onto power there for so long. Again, this series is about moving forward by accepting the past, and Jemisin’s imagination and reinterpretation of creation mythology is top notch.
For m last series I’m going to a hard science fiction trilogy that’s also written by possibly my favorite male sf author. This series gets better, I think, because of Reynold’s ability to imagine such far futures, when huge ships traveling close to the speed of light almost create separate timelines and humans and aliens alike modify their bodies in order to cope with the rigors of deep freeze and changes in gravity that come with long duration space journeys. The story, again, is not told from one perspective through all three books, or in a completely chronological progression. Instead, it is just as much mystery as it is space opera, and the reader collects the pieces of how an ancient alien culture was annihilated almost instantly, and whether it could happen again. I like that Reynold’s doesn’t agonize over the question of whether aliens could exist and dither over first contact stories, but gets down to the business of crafting a story around people the reader can identify with, and setting up the possibility-laden concepts of aliens so completely different from everything we know that every discovery is not just a curiosity, but a revelation.
I’m also including this series because Reynolds is a writer I’ve followed for a number of years and I’ve enjoyed watching him consistently improve as a writer with each new novel, each new series. I don’t read a lot of men, but I’ll always check out whatever he comes up with.
What did I get at the library this week?
First, a sff Tor Novella called The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson. I’d seen her name here and there on book twitter, so when I spied this novella on my public library’s New shelves, I grabbed it. The description says it’s Lovecraftian, which I’m not really into, but I read a Lovecraftian novella by Cassandra Khaw last month and really enjoyed it, so figured I’d give another reinterpretation a shot.
Second, I was surprised and pleased to see An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole on my library’s New shelves. It’s a novel of the U.S. Civil War, with a black woman protagonist, written by a black woman! I’ve heard great things about this one in non-sff book circles, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s all about.
I also checked out Connie Willis’ All Clear, companion novel to Blackout, in my quest to read everything she’s ever written.
Thanks to Renay and Ana at Fangirl Happy Hour podcast for reminding me how awesome one of the books I’m going to talk about today is! I’ve been listening to back episodes of this podcast–you should check them out, you don’t have to start at the beginning like I did–and they were reviewing Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, the first book in what is going to be a trilogy of the kind of science fiction I love: specifically, the kind with science you don’t have to understand completely, you just have to believe in the story really hard and let the characters move you along.
The second book, which is also part of a series, is Zero Sum Game, by S.L. Huang, which is also the first book in a series, this one called Russell’s Attic, named for the main character in the series, Cass Russell. Both Lee and Huang are very smart people and the SF field is incredibly lucky to have them contributing to the canon right now.
These two books/series are not just about math and how it is used by them main characters to accomplish their goals. They are about memory and coming to terms with the past in unique ways. In Ninefox Gambit, Kel Cheris has a troubled history with her chosen faction, the militarized Kel who use a brainwashing technique called formation instinct to extract strict obedience from their members, and ends up with the revenant of a disgraced, and possibly insane, 400 year old general inhabiting her head in order to defeat a faction of heretics who are threatening her alt-universe civilization.
Cass Russell, by contrast, is a retrieval specialist working out of contemporary Los Angeles, who uses her brilliant ability with math and physics to perform what appear to be death-defying and all-bu-impossible feats in order to deliver on her assignments. The problem is, though, that Cass Russell has a blank spot in her memory as big as most of her life, and issues with morality that she can’t quite explain. She also has some questionable friends and finds it difficult to trust new people or maintain personal relationships.
Besides the deep mysteries of both series, their other strength lies in the diversity of characterization that both authors employ. Neither series falls into the trap of scarcity or homogeneity that often troubles big complex works in the science fiction genre. Cass’s world is full of people of color, diverse genders, and people with disabilities. The world of Kel Cheris’ hexarchate empire is necessarily diverse, being comprised of possibly thousands of worlds and having been around for countless generations. We meet people of diverse genders, orientations, and appearances, and women and men share equally in roles of power–perhaps the most important aspect, as power is the name of the game in the hexarchate.
What I love the most about these novels is how heartfelt and genuine they are. Both Lee an Huang are Asian American, writing the kinds of worlds they want to see (minus, one presumes, the murder and brainwashing), using their strengths as scientists to come up with characters and stories we haven’t seen before, and really just writing plots that consume the reader from beginning to end. These are the kinds of books I want to see in my science fiction canon.