It Takes Two: Mind Bending Maths

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.

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente

It’s
a party, sweetheart, and everyone’s invited.  On every planet in the sky humanity teems—watching silent
films, drinking drinks with fancy names, and living off the fruits of nine
planets plus all their moons in the art-deco alternate world Valente has
created, where humanity shot itself to the stars before even the 20th
century came splashing onto the calendar. 
And through it all, all the people on all the worlds are united by
film.  In the world of Percival
Unck, you can be famous not just on one planet, but on all of them.

Radiance is a story of stories.  Percival Unck’s daughter, Severin,
disappeared in the 1950’s on a shoot on Venus, only no one knows what happened
or how.  Through found footage, old
classified reports, and diaries, the novel attempts to recreate Severin’s life,
parallel to Percival’s attempt to give his only daughter a good ending.  If he could just tell the right story,
she might be able to rest—somewhere—knowing how much he loved her.  And Percival might be able to rest,
too.

Valente’s
novel is both a beautiful homage to a medium that has shaped the stories we
tell ourselves as a culture and people, and a nod to the classic science fiction
stories that first went to the moon and beyond.  Radiance proves
that not all stories have to be real, true, or even believable to have
meaning.  Switching seamlessly
between character points of view and storytelling style, Valente immerses the
reader in the tumultuous and trendy world of inter-planetary colonies, strange
creatures native to the furthest planets in the solar system, and the stories
that unite them all—from the stars of the silver screen to the serialized radio
broadcasts that eventually catch up even to all planets, even if they go behind
the sun for 70-odd years.

Readers
nostalgic for the open-ended feeling of early space travel science fiction will
find themselves enthralled by the way Radiance
dances in the light of all the imaginative stories that have come before
it.  Those looking for a novel that
is less run-of-the-mill than your average science fiction will love Valente’s
talent for telling a complicated and multi-faceted story.  Anyone who has ever dreamed of going to
the stars, or becoming a star, should check out Radiance.